The Englishwoman in America, by Isabella Bird

Chapter 19.

General remarks continued — The common schools — Their defect — Difficulties — Management of the schools — The free academy — Railways — Telegraphs — Poverty — Literature — Advantages for emigrants — Difficulties of emigrants — Peace or war — Concluding observations.

At a time when the deficiencies of our own educational system are so strongly felt, it may be well to give an outline of that pursued in the States. The following statistics, taken from the last census, show that our Transatlantic brethren have made great progress in moral and intellectual interests.

At the period when the enumeration was made there were 80,958 public schools, with 91,966 teachers, and 2,890,507 scholars; 119 colleges, with 11,903 students; 44 schools of theology; 36 schools of medicine; and 16 schools of law. Fifty millions of dollars were annually spent for education, and the proportion of scholars to the community was as 1 to 5.

But it is to the common-school system that the attention should be particularly directed. I may premise that it has one unavoidable defect, namely, the absence of religious instruction. It would be neither possible nor right to educate the children in any denominational creed, or to instruct them in any particular doctrinal system, but would it not, to take the lowest ground, be both prudent and politic to give them a knowledge of the Bible, as the only undeviating rule and standard of truth and right? May not the obliquity of moral vision, which is allowed to exist among a large class of Americans, be in some degree chargeable to those who have the care of their education — who do not place before them, as a part of their instruction, those principles of truth and morality, which, as revealed in Holy Scripture, lay the whole universe under obligations to obedience? History and observation alike show the little influence practically possessed by principles destitute of superior authority, how small the restraint exercised by conscience is, and how far those may wander into error who once desert “Life’s polar star, the fear of God.” In regretting the exclusion of religious instruction from the common-school system, the difficulties which beset the subject must not be forgotten, the multiplicity of the sects, and the very large number of Roman Catholics. In schools supported by a rate levied indiscriminately on all, to form a course of instruction which could bear the name of a religious one, and yet meet the views of all, and clash with the consciences and prejudices of none, was manifestly impossible. The religious public in the United States has felt that there was no tenable ground between thorough religious instruction and the broadest toleration. Driven by the circumstances of their country to accept the latter course, they have exerted themselves to meet this omission in the public schools by a most comprehensive Sabbath-school system. But only a portion of the children under secular instruction in the week attend these schools; and it must be admitted that to bestow intellectual culture upon the pupils, without giving them religious instruction, is to draw forth and add to the powers of the mind, without giving it any helm to guide it; in other words, it is to increase the capacity, without diminishing the propensity, to do evil.

Apart from this important consideration, the educational system pursued in the States is worthy of the highest praise, and of an enlightened people in the nineteenth century. The education is conducted at the public expense, and the pupils consequently pay no fees. Parents feel that a free education is as much a part of the birthright of their children as the protection which the law affords to their life and property.

The schools called common schools are supported by an education rate, and in each State are under the administration of a general board of education, with local boards, elected by all who pay the rate. In the State of Massachusetts alone the sum of 921,532 dollars was raised within the year, being at the rate of very nearly a dollar for every inhabitant. Under the supervision of the General Board of Education in the State, schools are erected in districts according to the educational necessities of the population, which are periodically ascertained by a census.

To give some idea of the system adopted, I will just give a sketch of the condition of education in the State of New York, as being the most populous and important.

There is a “state tax,” or “appropriation,” of 800,000 dollars, and this is supplemented by a rate levied on real and personal property. Taking as an authority the return made to the Legislature for the year ending in 1854, the total sum expended for school purposes within the State amounted to 2,469,248 dollars. The total number of children in the organised districts of the State was 1,150,532, of whom 862,935 were registered as being under instruction. The general management of education within the State is vested in a central board, with local boards in each of the organised districts, to which the immediate government and official supervision of the schools are intrusted.

The system comprises the common schools, with their primary and upper departments, a normal school for the preparation of teachers, and a free academy. In the city of New York there are 224 schools in the receipt of public money, of which 25 are for coloured children, and the number of pupils registered is given at 133,813. These common or ward schools are extremely handsome, and are fitted up at great expense, with every modern improvement in heating and ventilation. Children of every class, residing within the limits of the city, are admissible without payment, as the parents of all are supposed to be rated in proportion to their means.

There is a principal to each school, assisted by a numerous and efficient staff of teachers, who in their turn are expected to go through a course of studies at the Normal School. The number of teachers required for these schools is very great, as the daily attendance in two of them exceeds 2000. The education given is so very superior, and habits of order and propriety are so admirably inculcated, that it is not uncommon to see the children of wealthy storekeepers side by side with those of working mechanics. In each school there is one large assembly-room, capable of accommodating from 500 to 1000 children, and ten or twelve capacious class-rooms. Order is one important rule, and, that it may be acted upon, there is no overcrowding — the pupils being seated at substantial mahogany desks only holding two.

The instruction given comprises all the branches of a liberal education, with the exception of languages. There is no municipal community out of America in which the boon of a first-rate education is so freely offered to all as in the city of New York. There is no child of want who may not freely receive an education which will fit him for any office in his country. The common school is one of the glories of America, and every citizen may be justly proud of it. It brings together while in a pliant condition the children of people of different origins; and besides diffusing knowledge among them, it softens the prejudices of race and party, and carries on a continual process of assimilation.

The Board of Education of New York has lately thrown open several of these schools in the evening, and with very beneficial results. The number of pupils registered last year was 9313. Of these, 3400 were above the age of 16 and under 21, and 1100 were above the age of 21. These evening-schools entailed an additional expense of 17,563 dollars; the whole expenditure for school purposes in the city being 430,982 dollars. In the ward and evening schools of New York, 133,000 individuals received instruction. Each ward, or educational district, elects 2 commissioners, 2 inspectors, and 8 trustees. The duties of the inspectors are very arduous, as the examinations are frequent and severe.

The crowning educational advantage offered by this admirable system is the Free Academy. This academy receives its pupils solely from the common schools. Every person presenting himself as a candidate must be more than 13 years of age, and, having attended a common school for 12 months, he must produce a certificate from the principal that he has passed a good examination in spelling, reading, writing, English grammar, arithmetic, geography, elementary book-keeping, history of the United States, and algebra. This institution extends to the pupils in the common schools the advantage of a free education in those higher departments of learning which cannot be acquired without considerable expense in any other college. The yearly examination of candidates for admission takes place immediately after the common school examinations in July. There are at present nearly 600 students under the tuition of 14 professors, and as many tutors as may be required. The course of study extends over a period of 5 years, and is very complete and severe. Owing to the principle adopted in their selection, the pupils, representing every social and pecuniary grade in society, present a very high degree of scholarship and ability. In this academy the vestiges of antagonism between the higher and lower classes are swept away. Indeed, the poor man will feel that he has a greater interest in sustaining this educational system than the rich, because he can only obtain through it those advantages for his children which the money of the wealthy can procure from other sources. He will be content with his daily toil, happy in the thought that, by the wise provision of his government, the avenues to fame, preferment, and wealth, are opened as freely to his children as to those of the richest citizen in the land.

In order to secure a supply of properly qualified teachers, the Board of Education has established a normal school, which numbers about 400 pupils. Most of these are assistant-teachers in the common schools, and attend the normal school on Saturdays, to enable themselves to obtain further attainments, and higher qualifications for their profession.

Under this system of popular education, the average cost per scholar for 5 years, including books, stationery, fuel, and all other expenses, is 7 dollars 2 cents per annum. This system of education is followed in nearly all the States; and while it reflects the highest credit on America, it contrasts strangely with the niggard plan pursued in England, where so important a thing as the education of the people depends almost entirely on precarious subscriptions and private benevolence.

With a gratuitous and comprehensive educational system, it may excite some surprise that the citizens of New York and other of the populous cities are compelled to supplement the common schools with those for the shoeless, the ragged, and the vicious, very much on the plan of our Scotch and English ragged-schools. Already the large cities of the New World are approximating to the condition of those in the Old, in producing a subsidence or deposit of the drunken, the dissolute, the vicious, and the wretched. With parents of this class, education for their offspring is considered of no importance, and the benevolent founders of these schools are compelled to offer material inducements to the children to attend, in the shape of food and clothing. At these schools, in place of the cleanly, neat, and superior appearance of the children in the common schools, dirt, rags, shoeless feet, and pallid, vicious, precocious countenances are to be seen. Nothing destroys so effectually the external distinguishing peculiarities of race as the habit of evil. There is a uniformity of expression invariably produced, which is most painful. These children are early taught to look upon virtue only as a cloak to be worn by the rich. This dangerous and increasing class in New York is composed almost entirely of foreign immigrants. The instruction in these schools is given principally by ladies of high station and education. It is a noble feature in New York “high life,” and in process of time may diminish the gulf which is widening between the different classes, and may lessen the hideous contrasts which are presented between princely fortunes on the one hand, and vicious poverty on the other.

Taking the various schools throughout the Union, it is estimated that between 4,000,000 and 5,000,000 individuals are at this time receiving education.

To turn from the social to the material features of the United States: their system of internal communication deserves a brief notice, for by it their resources have been developed to a prodigious extent. The system of railways, telegraphs, and canal and river navigation presents an indication of the wealth and advancement of the United States, as wonderful as any other feature of her progress. She contains more miles of railway than all the rest of the world put together.

In a comparatively new country like America many of the items of expense which attend the construction of railways in England are avoided; the initiatory expenses are very small. In most of the States, all that is necessary is, for the company to prove that it is provided with means to carry out its scheme, when it obtains a charter from the Legislature at a very small cost. In several States, including the populous ones of New York and Ohio, no special charter is required, as a general railway law prescribes the rules to be observed by joint-stock companies. Materials, iron alone excepted, are cheap, and the right of way is usually freely granted. In the older States land would not cost more than 20l. an acre. Wood frequently costs nothing more than the labour of cutting it, and the very level surface of the country renders tunnels, cuttings, and embankments generally unnecessary. The average cost per mile is about 38,000 dollars, or 7600l.

In States where land has become exceedingly valuable, land damages form a heavy item in the construction of new lines, but in the South and West the case is reversed, and the proprietors are willing to give as much land as may be required, in return for having the resources of their localities opened up by railway communication. It is estimated that the cost of railways in the new States will not exceed 4000l. per mile. The termini are plain, and have been erected at a very small expense, and many of the wayside stations are only wooden sheds. Few of the lines have a double line of rails, and the bridges or viaducts are composed of logs of wood, with little ironwork and less paint, except in a few instances. Except where the lines intersect cultivated districts, fences are seldom seen, and the paucity of porters and other officials materially reduces the working expenses. The common rate of speed is from 22 to 30 miles an hour, but there are express trains which are warranted to perform 60 in a like period. The fuel is very cheap, being billets of wood. The passenger and goods traffic on nearly all the lines is enormous, and it is stated that most of them pay a dividend of from 8 to 15 per cent.

The primary design has been to connect the sea-coast with all parts of the interior, the ulterior is to unite the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. At the present time there are about 25,000 miles of railway in operation and course of construction, and the average rate of fare is seldom more than 1d. per mile. Already the chief cities of the Atlantic have been connected with the vast valley of the Mississippi, and before long the regions bordering on Lake Huron and Lake Superior will be united with Mobile and New Orleans. In addition to this enormous system of railway communication, the canal and river navigation extends over 10,000 miles, and rather more than 3000 steamboats float on American waters alone.

The facilities for telegraphic communication in the States are a further evidence of the enterprise of this remarkable people. They have now 22,000 miles of telegraph in operation, and the cost of transmitting messages is less than a halfpenny a word for any distance under 200 miles. The cost of construction, including every outlay, is about 30l. per mile. The wires are carried along the rail ways, through forests, and across cities, rivers, and prairies. Messages passing from one very distant point to another have usually to be re-written at an intermediate station; though by an improved plan they have been transmitted direct from New York to Mobile, a distance of 1800 miles. By the Cincinnati telegraphic route to New Orleans, a distance from New York of 2000 miles, the news brought by the British steamer to Sandy Hook at 8 in the morning has been telegraphed to New Orleans, and before 11 o’clock the effects produced by it upon speculations there have been returned to New York — the message accomplishing a distance of 4000 miles in three hours. The receipts are enormous, for, in consequence of the very small sum charged for transmitting messages, as many as 600 are occasionally sent along the principal lines in one day. The seven principal morning papers in New York paid in one year 50,000 dollars for despatches, and 14,000 for special messages. Messages connected with markets, public news, the weather, and the rise and fall of stocks, are incessantly passing between the great cities. Any change in the weather likely to affect the cotton-crop is known immediately in the northern cities. While in the Exchange at Boston, I witnessed the receipt of a telegraphic despatch announcing that a heavy shower was falling at New Orleans!

It must not be supposed that there is no poverty in the New World. During one year 134,972 paupers were in the receipt of relief, of whom 59,000 were in the State of New York; but to show the evil influence of the foreign, more especially the Irish, element in America, it is stated that 75 per cent. of the criminals and paupers are foreigners.

The larger portion of the crime committed is done under the influence of spirits; and to impose a check upon their sale, that celebrated enactment, known under the name of the “Maine Law” has been placed upon the statute-books of several of the States, including the important ones of New York, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Nebraska. This law prohibits, under heavy penalties, the manufacture or sale of alcoholic liquors. It has been passed in obedience to the will of the people, as declared at the elections; and though to us its provisions seem somewhat arbitrary, its working has produced very salutary effects.

When so much importance is attached to education, and such a liberal provision is made for it, it is to be expected that a taste for reading would be universally diffused. And such is the case: America teems with books. Every English work worth reading is reprinted in a cheap form in the States as soon as the first copy crosses the Atlantic. Our reviews and magazines appear regularly at half price, and Dickens’ ‘Household Words’ and ‘Chambers’ Journal’ enjoy an enormous circulation without any pecuniary benefit being obtained by the authors. Every one reads the newspapers and ‘Harper’s Magazine,’ and every one buys bad novels, on worse paper, in the cars and steamboats. The States, although amply supplied with English literature, have many popular authors of their own, among whom may be named Prescott, Bancroft, Washington Irving, Stowe, Stephens, Wetherall, Emerson, Longfellow, Lowell, and Bryant. Books are very cheap wherever the editions of English works are concerned, and a library is considered an essential part of the fitting up of a house. In many of the States there are public libraries supported by a rate. In the State of New York, in the year ending 1854, the Commissioners of Education received 90,579 dollars for libraries.

Perhaps the greatest advantage offered to emigrants is the opportunity everywhere afforded of investing small sums of money advantageously. In England, in most branches of trade, the low rate of wages renders it impossible for the operative to save any portion of his earnings; and even when he is able to do so, he can rarely obtain a higher rate of interest for his money than that which the savings-banks offer. Economise as he may, his hard-won savings seldom are sufficient to afford him a provision in old age. In America, on the contrary, the man who possesses 5l. or 10l. has every hope of securing a competence. He may buy land in newly-settled districts, which sometimes can be obtained at 7s. an acre, and hold it till it becomes valuable, or he may obtain a few shares in any thriving corporate concern. A hundred ways present themselves to the man of intelligence and industry by which he may improve and increase his little fortune. The necessaries of life are abundant and cheap, and, aided by a free education, he has the satisfaction of a well-grounded hope that his children will rise to positions of respectability and affluence, while his old age will be far removed from the pressure of want. The knowledge that each shilling saved may produce ten or twenty by judicious investment is a constant stimulus to his industry.

Yet, from all that I have seen and heard, I should think that Canada West offers a more advantageous field for emigrants. Equally free and unburdened by taxation, with the same social and educational advantages, with an increasing demand for labour of every kind, with a rich soil, extraordinary facilities of communication, and a healthy climate, pauperism is unknown; fluctuations in commercial affairs are comparatively small, and, above all, the emigrant is not exposed to the loss of everything which he possesses as soon as he lands.

An infamous class of swindlers, called “emigrant-runners,” meet the poor adventurer on his arrival at New York. They sell him second-class tickets at the price of first-class, forged passes, and tickets to take him 1000 miles, which are only available at the outside for 200 or 300. If he holds out against their extortions, he is beaten, abused, loses his luggage for a time, or is transferred to the tender mercies of the boarding-house keeper, who speedily deprives him of his hard-earned savings. These runners retard the westward progress of the emigrant in every way; they charge enormous rates for the removal of his luggage from the wharf; they plunder him in railway-cars, in steamboats, in lodging-houses; and if Providence saves him from sinking into drunkenness and despair, and he can be no longer detained, they sell him a lot in some non-existent locality, or send him off to the west in search of some pretended employment. Too frequently, after the emigrant has lost his money and property, sickened by disappointment and deserted by hope, he is content to remain at New York, where he contributes to increase that “dangerous class” already so much feared in the Empire City.

One point remains to be noticed, and that is, the feeling which exists in America towards England. Much has been done to inflame animosity on each side; national rivalries have been encouraged, and national jealousies fomented. In travelling through the United States I expected to find a very strong anti-English feeling. In this I was disappointed. It is true that I scarcely ever entered a car, steamboat, or hotel, without hearing England made a topic of discussion in connexion with the war; but, except on a few occasions in the West, I never heard any other than kindly feelings expressed towards our country. A few individuals would prognosticate failure and disaster, and glory in the anticipation of a “busting-up;” but these were generally “Kurnels” of militia, or newly-arrived Irish emigrants. These last certainly are very noisy enemies, and are quite ready to subscribe to the maxim, “That wherever England possesses an interest, there an American wrong exists.” Some of the papers likewise write against England in no very measured terms; but it must be borne in mind that declamatory speaking and writing are the safety-valves of a free community, and the papers from which our opinion of American feeling is generally taken do not represent even a respectable minority in the nation. American commercial interests are closely interwoven with-ours, and “Brother Jonathan” would not lightly go against his own interests by rushing into war on slight pretences.

While I was dining at an hotel in one of the great American cities a gentleman proposed to an English friend of his to drink “Success to Old England.” Nearly two hundred students of a well-known college were present, and one of them begged to join in drinking the toast on behalf of his fellow-students. “For,” he added, “we, in common with the educated youth of America, look upon England as upon a venerated mother.” I have frequently heard this sentiment expressed in public places, and have often heard it remarked that kindly feeling towards England is on the increase in society.

The news of the victory of the Alma was received with rejoicing; the heroic self-sacrifice of the cavalry at Balaklava excited enthusiastic admiration; and the glorious stand at Inkermann taught the Americans that their aged parent could still defend the cause of freedom with the vigour of youth. The disasters of the winter, and the gloomy months of inaction which succeeded it, had the effect of damping their sympathies; the prophets of defeat were for a time triumphant, and our fading prestige, and reputed incapacity, were made the subjects of ill-natured discussion by the press. But when the news of the fall of Sebastopol arrived, the tone of the papers changed, and, relying on the oblivious memories of their readers, they declared that they had always prophesied the demolition of Russia. The telegraphic report of the victory was received with rejoicing, and the ship which conveyed it to Boston was saluted with thirty-one guns by the States artillery.

The glory of the republic is based upon its advanced social principles and its successful prosecution of the arts of peace. As the old military despotisms cannot compete with it in wealth and enlightenment, so it attempts no competition with them in standing armies and the arts of war. National vanity is a failing of the Americans, and, if their military prowess had never been proved before, they might seek to display it on European soil; but their successful struggle with England in the War of Independence renders any such display unnecessary. The institutions of the States do not date from the military ages of the world, and the Federal Constitution has made no provision for offensive war. The feeling of the educated classes, and of an immense majority in the Free States, is believed to be essentially English. Despotism and freedom can never unite; and whatever may be the declamations of the democratic party, the opinion of those who are acquainted with the state of popular feeling is that, if the question were seriously mooted, a war with England or a Russian alliance would secure to the promoters of either the indignation and contempt which they would deserve. It is earnestly to be hoped, and I trust that it may be believed, that none of us will live to see the day when two nations, so closely allied by blood, religion, and the love of freedom, shall engage in a horrible and fratricidal war.

Such of the foregoing remarks as apply to the results of the vitiation of the pure form of republican government delivered to America by Washington, I have hazarded with very great diffidence. In England we know very little of the United States, and, however candid the intentions of a tourist may be, it is difficult in a short residence in the country so completely to throw off certain prejudices and misapprehensions as to proceed to the delineation of its social characteristics with any degree of fairness and accuracy. The similarity of language, and to a great extent of customs and manners, renders one prone rather to enter into continual comparisons of America with England than to look at her from the point from which she really ought to be viewed — namely, herself. There are, however, certain salient points which present themselves to the interested observer, and I have endeavoured to approach these in as candid a spirit as possible, not exaggerating obvious faults, where there is so much to commend and admire.

The following remarks were lately made to me by a liberal and enlightened American on the misapprehensions of British observers:— “The great fault of English travellers in this land very often is that they see all things through spectacles which have been graduated to the age and narrow local dimensions of things in England; and because things here are new, and all that is good, instead of being concentrated into a narrow space so as to be seen at one glance, is widely diffused so as not to be easily gauged — because, in other words, it is the spring here and not the autumn, and our advance has the step of youth instead of the measured walk of age; and because our refinements have not the precise customs to which they have been accustomed at home, they turn away in mighty dissatisfaction. There are excellences in varieties, and things which differ may both be good.”

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31