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Mann, Horace

The Oxford Companion to United States History

Carl F. Kaestle

Mann, Horace 

(1796–1859), lawyer, Whig party politician, leader of the common-school reform movement.

Born in Franklin, Massachusetts, Horace Mann was the son of a struggling farmer. After chores, he and his sisters braided straw hats to supplement the family's income. “Industry,” wrote Mann, “became my second nature.” The family's religion was also austere. When Horace's brother drowned on a Sunday, their Congregational minister, Nathaniel Emmons, seized on the tragedy as an occasion to preach against Sabbath breaking. Reacting against both of these harsh realities, Mann eventually became an ambitious lawyer and a Unitarian. To his district school education, Mann added private lessons in Latin and mathematics, and, at age twenty, took his small inheritance and enrolled at Brown University.

Emerging from Brown in 1819 as a skilled debater and class valedictorian, Mann proceeded during the next decade from practicing law in Dedham, Massachusetts, to serving as president of the Massachusetts Senate. An enthusiastic Whig, he promoted railroads, helped establish the state insane asylum, and generally supported an active government role in the economic and social realm. Thus, he was open to a surprising career change when the Whig philanthropist and manufacturer Edmund Dwight persuaded him in 1837 to become secretary to the newly created Massachusetts Board of Education. With industrialization and immigration accelerating, the time was ripe for the creation of tax-supported, state school systems throughout the Northeast and the Midwest. Perfectly consistent with the Protestant, Whig ideology that informed Mann's career, the common-school reform movement made him a national figure. The state's Democrats, with some dissident Whigs, attempted to abolish the Board of Education in 1840, but Mann survived in a close vote. Subsequently, in a series of annual reports that circulated nationally, he laid out the rationale and desired policies for common public schools, with moral education and stability at the center, but promising economic growth, more equal opportunity, and lessened social-class tensions as well. Mann helped articulate and launch two enduring trends in American educational history: the centralization of public-school oversight, from the local to the state level; and the strategy of making public schools inclusive by attempting to make them politically uncontroversial and religiously neutral. After resigning from the Board of Education, Mann served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives (1848–1852) and seven years as president of Antioch College in Ohio.

See also Antebellum Era; Education: The Public School Movement; Protestantism; Unitarianism and Universalism.


Jonathan Messerli, Horace Mann, 1971.Find this resource:

    Carl F. Kaestle