That pervasive distrust, rather than any common sense of nationalism, led the founders to craft the federal union as a “peace pact” meant to avert wars between the states.
American leaders worried that their imperial neighbors—French, Spanish, and especially British—would exploit the new nation’s internal tensions to break up the tenuous union of the states.
“We have changed our forms of government,” Benjamin Rush declared, “but it remains yet to effect a revolution in our principles, opinions, and manners so as to accommodate them to the forms of government that we have adopted.” Having grown up in colonies ruled by an empire committed to monarchy, the founders wanted the next generation of Americans to master a new culture of republicanism.
Schools needed to produce well-informed protectors of republican government.
“If the common people are ignorant and vicious,” Rush concluded, “a republican nation can never be long free.” A physician and reformer from Philadelphia, he sought to use education “to convert men into republican machines” in order to “fit them more easily for uniform and peaceable government.” Putting revolutionary turmoil behind them, citizens had to become orderly supporters of the new state and federal governments.
They also needed enough education to distinguish worthy from treacherous candidates for office—lest the republics succumb to those reckless demagogues or would-be aristocrats.
He favored taxing the rich to educate the poor as essential for the common good.
Jefferson assured George Washington, “It is an axiom in my mind that our liberty can never be safe but in the hands of the people themselves, and that too of the people with a certain degree of instruction.
To override the selfishness assumed to be innately human, people had to be taught the value of virtue.
Thomas Jefferson noted, “I have looked on our present state of liberty as a short-lived possession, unless the mass of the people could be informed to a certain degree.” To sustain their republics, American leaders felt compelled to reform the morals and manners of the nation’s citizens.