Historians generally overlook the early public school systems established in the former Confederate states. Most studies of public schooling display a regional bias, focusing primarily on developments in New England. This is not to say that historians have been completely unaware of early efforts to establish free, tax-supported schools in the South. For instance, in Education in the South (Chapel Hill, 1924), Edgar W. Knight documented the existence of "free schools" in states like South Carolina and Georgia during the antebellum period. But like many other scholars since, he depicted antebellum southern public schools as suffering from neglect and concluded that not until the first decades of the twentieth century did the southern states seriously devote themselves to the task of educating their children. By and large, depictions of southern education have been tinged with contempt and condescension. Given this historiography, it is not surprising that few scholars have placed southern education at the forefront of their research agendas. [End Page 261]
In this book, Sarah L. Hyde makes an important contribution to a small but growing body of recent research on the extent and significance of southern pre-college education in the antebellum era. Drawing from manuscript collections, contemporary newspapers, government publications and other sources, Hyde demonstrates that starting in the 1820s and 1830s, state legislators in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama increased access to education by providing public funding to subsidize private schools willing to enroll poor students, and local urban governments encouraged education by establishing public schools. By 1860, all three states had established statewide public school systems.
The six chapters in the book are organized both thematically and chronologically. The first two chapters investigate various forms of private education, from home schooling to tutoring and instruction in private schools. Chapters Three and Four analyze early legislative efforts to increase access to education and describe the origins of the first urban public schools. Chapter Five documents the establishment of statewide public school systems, and Chapter Six depicts student life and learning in private and public institutions. The book also includes an introduction and conclusion, appendix, notes on sources, and a bibliography.
Hyde advances several arguments to demonstrate that southerners valued education. She cites the early legislation passed in the Gulf South states as evidence, noting that when antebellum legislators "became aware of their constituents' commitment to their children's education [they] responded by enacting statutes to help support local schools" (45). These statutes, which chartered hundreds of academies and subsidized schooling in private school for poor students, laid the groundwork for the later development of statewide systems of education. According to Hyde, state governors and legislators used the language of republicanism to support the expenditure of public funds for education. Although she does not make comparisons in this book between developments in the Northeast and in the South, the examples she provides of the arguments southerners advanced [End Page 262] in support of public schooling are similar to those of the northern reformers cited by Carl E. Kaestle in Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860 (New York, 1983)—in both regions, antebellum advocates for public schools argued that with the right to vote, white men required an education that would equip them to be intelligent and enlightened citizens.
Hyde also has an answer to scholars who have concluded that southerners did not adequately fund their educational institutions because they were unwilling to pay taxes to support public schooling. The Panic of 1837 devastated state funds devoted to education in the Gulf South, as happened in other regions of the country. Additionally, partisan political debates sometimes led southerners to refuse federal monies that could be used for schools. She notes that in 1844, as part of the compromise that had earlier brought an end to the Nullification Crisis, the federal government offered the states a distribution of the surplus it had amassed as a result of the protective tariff. Southern...