Skip to Content

Education in the Early Years: From Colony to Commonwealth

Before the American Revolution, education in the Virginia Colony was mainly the responsibility of individual families. Wealthy planters could hire well-qualified teachers to educate their children and send their sons to England or to the College of William and Mary for advanced learning. Less wealthy families, though, had to seek out educated individuals to teach their children. Some families joined together in order to employ a teacher, offering a small wage as well as room and board in exchange for rudimentary education for their children. For children of indigent families, apprenticeships were an option.

After 1776, however, providing public-funded education in the Commonwealth of Virginia was proposed by enlightened leaders, like Thomas Jefferson, to ensure that the masses were educated sufficiently to take on the responsibility of self-governance. Jefferson proposed legislation in 1779 to “diffuse knowledge more generally through the mass of the people” through a system of public primary schools for all children and advanced learning for the better male students. But it languished in the General Assembly.

In 1786, the General Assembly gave a nod to public schooling, by allowing counties to elect Aldermen who would determine if primary schools would be established and for the communities to tax themselves to provide for three years of schooling for all male and female free children. Few counties exercised this option to tax themselves.

A discouraged Jefferson commented in 1816, “The experience of twenty years has proved that no court will ever begin it. The reason is obvious. The members of the Court are the wealthy members of the counties; and as the expenses of the schools are to be defrayed by a contribution proportioned to the aggregate of other taxes which everyone pays, they consider it as a plan to educate the poor at the expense of the rich.”

Thirty years after Jefferson’s initial proposal failed, the General Assembly in 1810 took an important first step toward publicly supported education by creating the Literary Fund to provide tuition assistance to indigent children who would attend private schools. The Literary Fund received money from “certain escheats, penalties and forfeitures for encouragement of learning.”

By 1814, Jefferson proposed using the proceeds of the Literary Fund to create a system of instruction from primary schools through college. As he aged and became frustrated with the lack of progress for lower schools, Jefferson focused his efforts more on the creation of the university and less on providing the lower schools for the masses.

In 1816, the General Assembly increased the revenue and directed that the president and directors of the Literary Fund draft a system of education. They proposed creating a system of primary schools, academies and a university, but wanted most attention focused on primary schools.

Legislation was written in 1816 to create a board of public instruction, with a permanent secretary. It also would have created primary schools for all white children, whether free, wards or apprentices. In addition, it would have supported a system of academies, colleges, and a university. The House passed the bill, but the Senate did not.

A watered down version of the legislation passed in 1818 to establish a system of primary schools and a university. Courts were required to appoint school commissioners who were to determine how many poor children could be educated annually with $45,000 from the Literary Fund. Schooling for other than poor children, as well as secondary education, remained subject to community interest and willingness to raise taxes. As a result of the legislation, the University of Virginia was established January 25, 1819.

An ineffectual law was adopted in 1829 to allow citizens to vote to create district free schools for all white children. The local taxpayers would pay three-fifths of the expense of the building and one-half or more of teacher salaries, with the Literary Fund providing the balance of the costs. Among the few counties that created free schools as a result of the legislation were Franklin, Monroe (now West Virginia), and Washington.

Unfortunately for the mass of white children as well as those in bondage, little education was provided by the Commonwealth until after the Civil War.

As a result of legislative inaction to provide schools for all children, the period from 1820 to 1860 was dominated by the growth of private and locally supported academies. The only state involvement with the academies was to charter them. By 1860, the number of academies had grown from 20 in 1776 to 100, one-fifth of which were located in what was soon to become the state of West Virginia.

Although the Literary Fund would pay minimal tuition to these schools for indigent children, few parents would accept the government welfare. According to Cornelius J. Heatwole, a former VEA executive secretary and author of the 1919 A History of Education in Virginia, “The fund was used by the members of the Legislature as a political ‘plaything.’ Primarily, it was intended for the education of the poor, but when the ‘poor’ were reduced to a state of pauperism by taking advantage of it, they often refused to send their children to school, though one was provided within easy reach of them.”

One local Literary Fund commissioner reported in 1856, “The main defects of the system are: lack of qualified teachers and prejudices among the people as ‘poor schools.’”

Popular support for schools grows during the mid-century

Despite the lack of legislative success, support for a broader public school system grew in the years leading up to the Civil War. Conventions held in Clarksburg (now West Virginia), Lexington, and Richmond in the early 1840s drew support for a system that would include the following:

   • Schools for both boys and girls

   • Eight-month sessions for common schools

   • Pensions for teachers

   • A state board of education

   • A state superintendent of schools

   • School journals for the continued professional development of educators

   • Division superintendents

   • School libraries

   • Better school buildings

   • Normal schools to prepare teachers

   • Support for colleges

Two of the more outspoken advocates for this proposed system of public schools were Alexander Campbell from far western Virginia and Henry Ruffner, president of Washington College. Both were trained as Presbyterian ministers and both had served congregations in the western counties. Campbell was born in Scotland, Ruffner in the Shenandoah Valley. Ruffner suspended his religious career to become president of the college in Lexington in 1837, while Campbell started an academy near Wheeling and later founded Bethany College. Ruffner also is known for his support for the gradual ending of slavery.

A seismic event separated the growing movement for public schools and their eventual creation, with the epicenter located in Virginia—namely, the American Civil War.

Many of the academy teachers, virtually all of whom were men, left their charges to fight. For those who remained, educating the young grew even more challenging. As soldiers marched throughout the statewide battleground, schools were used as headquarters and hospitals. Materials and textbooks became scarce.

Writing in the Educational Journal of Virginia in 1875, William T. Davis described the situation faced by the teachers who remained in their schools during wartime:

“The supply of textbooks, secured before the blockade became so stringent, was well-nigh exhausted. It was difficult to secure similar books for each member of any large class. To meet the demands of any school, specially a large one, required of the teacher much forethought and labor.… Added to all this, the fees for tuition had been advanced but little, while the price of supplies was many times greater than in former years….”

During this turbulent time, a new organization was born to help teachers function during the war and afterward, and to begin the advancement of the teaching profession.

Davis continued, “None, save a person engaged in teaching at that time can form any adequate estimate of the cares then burdening a teacher's mind. Each felt that he needed the counsel, cooperation and sympathy of all his co-laborers; each desired and sought the relief which union seemed to promise.

“It was in the midst of such difficulties and necessities that the Educational Association of Virginia had its birth.”

Called together by teachers from Petersburg and Richmond, a small group of educators and education proponents founded what was to become the Virginia Education Association. With the support of Petersburg residents and the state’s railways, they gathered in the basement of the First Baptist Church on December 29, 1863. They concluded the meeting three days later having adopted a constitution that launched today’s VEA.

The circular distributed throughout the state calling for the convention cited two purposes—to determine how to provide textbooks to schools during the war and to create a system of communications among teachers and parents to improve the ability of teachers and to generate public support for schools.

The new VEA adjourned on December 31, 1863, with plans to meet again in December 1864 in Richmond. The war delayed the subsequent meeting until 1866, when the educators gathered in Charlottesville to begin building their organization.

The objective of the new VEA was expressed in the constitution adopted at the founding convention: “Its objects shall be, by all suitable means, to promote the educational welfare of Virginia and of the whole country.”

With the support of the Educational Association of Virginia, the post-war General Assembly, at long last, created public schools for all children in 1870.

Key events in Virginia’s education story

1776—Virginia becomes a Commonwealth

1779—Jefferson first proposes a system of public schools

—General Assembly allows schools to be created and funded

1810—Literary Fund is created

1814—Jefferson again proposes a public school system

1816—General Assembly increases resources for the Literary Fund

1818—General Assembly authorizes use of the Literary Fund to create the University of Virginia

1819—University of Virginia is created at Charlottesville

1829—General Assembly allows counties to vote to create public schools

—First education convention is held in Clarksburg to begin a push for a system of public schools

1840-1860—Lacking state support for public primary schools, private academies proliferate to fill the void

—Virginia secedes and war devastates schools

—Educators form the Educational Association of Virginia, forerunner to the Virginia Education Association

1870—Post-war Virginia creates public schools


Embed This Page (x)

Select and copy this code to your clipboard