Extracted from HISTORY OF MACON COUNTY, IL 1880 - pp. 71-78
By John Trainer, County Superintendent


The present system of "free schools" may properly be said to have been inaugurated and entered upon in 1855. It is a truth that every person is a factor in the state or society in which he lives. Our state, early recognizing this fact, sought to provide liberal means and facilities for the proper education of those into whose hands the affairs of state would soon pass. The work of 1855 was not the beginning. The germ of free schools had been planted long anterior to this date, and by proper cultivation it had grown up to be a prolific system. Article third of the celebrated ordinance of 1787 declared that "knowledge is necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind," and enjoined that "schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged."

Paper manifestoes are not often dreaded; the edicts of potentates seldom survive the age in which they are decreed; and proclamations rarely have existence longer than that of the paper on which they are written. What does it mean? This ordinance seems to have been an exception.

It became the nucleus of the grand system of education, the benign influence of which is felt and recognized in every home and sphere of business in our state; and in 1887, the inhabitant of Illinois who will not be reaping benefits from the influences of its declarations and injunctions will be the exception--will be a blank in society, and but little above the menial serf.

Illinois was organized as a territory in 1809; but in the articles of organization no mention was made of the common school. The convention which framed the constitution under which the state was admitted, accepted in August of that year (1818) a proposition made by Congress, in the "Enabling Act" for this state, April 18th, appropriating section 16 in each township to the state for the use of the inhabitants of said township, for school purposes; also one-half of five per cent of the proceeds of public lands within the state sold by Congress after January 1st, 1819, should be appropriated by the legislature for the encouragement of learning. One-sixth of this amount was to be applied to a college or university, and thirty-six section, or one entire township, with one previously reserved for that purpose, should be allotted for the use of a seminary of learning.

These funds may thus be classified: the state school fund from the sales of public land, less one-sixth, which is the university fund, resulting from the sale of sixteenth section. It will thus be seen that the most valuable donation for school purposes was the sixteenth section of every township. This donation amounts to 998,449 acres; properly manage, the revenues derived from the sale of these lands would have released forever the people from local taxation for school purposes.

In 1835 a county fund was created by an act of the legislature, which provided that the teachers should not receive from the public fund more than half the amount due them, and that the surplus should constitute the principal of the "county fund," which amounted to $348,285.75.

In 1853 all fines and penalties imposed in courts of record, and criminal forfeiture on bails were added to school resources, and school property was exempted from taxation.


In 1824-5 Governor Coles, in his message to the legislature, advised that provision be made for the support of common schools. During the same session Senator Joseph Duncan, of Jackson county, introduced a bill to establish a system of schools.

The leading points in this system were:

    1. The schools were to be opened to every class of white citizens between the ages of five and twenty-one.

    2. Persons over twenty-one years of age might be admitted on consent of the trustees and upon the agreed terms.

    3. Districts of not less than five families were to be formed on petition of a majority of the legal voters.

    4. Officers were to be elected and sworn in.

    5. The legal voters at an annual meeting could levy a tax, in money or merchantable produce at cash value, not exceeding one-half of one per cent, subject to a maximum limitation of ten dollars for one person.

    6. The state appropriated annually two per cent out of all monies received in the treasury. Five sixths of this was added to the interest received from the school fund, and the sum was apportioned to the counties according to the number of white persons under twenty-one years of age.

The several counties distributed this among the districts, but any district which had failed to sustain a school for three months was not to receive any of this fund. This system of schools, which was designed to furnish a plan for the education of the citizens of the state, was truly in advance of the times. It met with violent opposition from its numerous enemies. Opposition to taxation was great, and the legality of the appropriation from the state treasury was questioned. This opposition was so violent that the system soon became practically inoperative, and was virtually annulled by an act approved February 17th, 1827, which repealed the five-family clause, made taxation for the full or half support of district schools optional with the voters of the district, and forbade the taxation of any one for the support of a free school without his consent in writing.

This is the only act which stigmatizes any legislation on the question of free schools in our state, and is in strong contrast to either the predecessors or successors. But neither personal opposition nor biased legislation could impede or smother the germ of the free school system, so deeply rooted by the sacred ordiances of 1785-7. It was deeply rooted in the fertile soil of the public mind, and was fostered by the true friends of education. Subsequent legislation had but little effect upon the schools for a decade, when an act providing for the incorporation of the townships became a law. It provided for a board of trustees, who should have the superintendence of "the business, and affairs of the township in relation to education and schools generally."

In this law appears the first requirement for a certificate of qualification from the township trustees, before any teacher could be paid out of the school funds. Stil this improvement on the acts of 1827, did not mend matters very materially, for many sections of the state neglected to avail themselves of this opportunity for perfecting a better organizaion. But a certain amount of energy and educational enterprise still remained with the people, and their first object after securing a comfortable home, was to provide educational facilities for their children. In 1844 a "Common School Convention" was held in Peoria. This representative assembly appointed John S. Wright, H. M. Weed and Thomas Kilpatrick, a committee to draft a memorial to the legislature on the subject of "Common Schools." The paper drawn up by the committee was an able and exhaustive one, and plead for a State Superintendent with a salary of nine hundred dollars, and recommended local taxation for the support of schools. This movement among the teachers served to bring the matter before the legislature. In February, 1845, an act was approved, making the Secretary of State ex-officio state superintendent of common schools, and the county school commissioners ex-officio county school superintendents, whose duty it should be to examine and license teachers.

It also provided for local taxation on a favorable majority vote of the citizens of the respective districts.

All the district tax for schools in 1846-7 did not reach one mill on the one hundred dollars. The auditor, by this bill, distributed the interest on the school fund in the counties in proportion to the tatla number of persons under twenty-one years of age. This in turn was distributed to the several townships in the same manner by the county superintendents. This same act made the qualifications of teachers embrace a knowledge of reading, writing, arithmetic, geography and history, but required a little more than an elementary knowledge of those branches. Owing to the apathy of the majority of the people to educational interests but little was done. Though living on the borders of civilization, they failed to recognize the fact that education is the distingusihing characteristic between civilized and savage society.

The relation between an intelligent ploughman and a schoolroom were unrecognized, and scholars were not wanted in frontier life. In 1847 the standard of qualifications had to be lowered in order to supply the schools with teachers. A certificate could be obtained for a knowledge of any one of the above named branches. Schools were by no means numerous even with this regulation. In 1849 the standard of qualification was again raised to the former grade. The directors could grant special privileges as to any branch desired to be studied. This was something like the "provisional certificate," of 1873-3, which authorized the directors to employ some favorite or relative who would "give good saitisfaction" and absorb the public school funds. Little did the avererage school officer then know of the necessary and judicious discrination as to the local needs in the choice of a competent teacher. When we see employed, first in our public-schools, the poorest teachers who are licensed by the county superintendent, we are able to feel that the same weakness prevails among, them to-day. In 1857 the rate of taxes for school purposes was raised to one dollar on the hundred by a majority vote. The taxable property of the state was at that time one hundred million, which should furnished a fund of one million of dollars for school purposes; but the amount actually raised did not exceed $51,900. This shows to what extent indifference to the best interests of the common-school cause prevailed among the masses, and that the law was a dead letter. The supervision of the schools was given to the district officers, who were often ignorant, narrow-minded, and unfit for superintending school methods and school work. It soon became apparent that something more than this was needed as the schools increased and the interest in them was growing. The spirit of progress had been aroused. The press took hold of the matter, and strong leaders urged the necessity of better schools. From the east and south came a better class of citizens, to make this state their home. They brought with them advanced ideas of education, and urged its importance to the people here. Convocations met and discussed the question. These influences stirred the people up in their own interests. In 1854 the legislature created the separate office of State Superintendent of Public Instruction, with a salary of $1,500 per annum. The first State Superintendent vas to be appointed by the Governor, and should hold his office till his successor could be elected and qualified. The Hon. Ninian W. Edwards, appointed superintendent by Gov. Joel A. Matteson has the honor of framing, a bill for our Free-school system. It met with a hearty acceptance by the legislature, and took the form of a law February 15th, 1855. It forbade the employment of a teacher for a public-sehool without a legal certificate of qualification. It prescribed a state tax of two mills on the dollar to be added annually to the six per cent revenue from the school funds, and required that schools should be kept in operation at least six months in the year with a penalty of forfeiture of the state fund for non-compliance. The system thus inaugurated--the first which really made schools free by providing for a sufficient state and local tax for their support-continues substantially the State system to this day, with alteration in some details. While the new law promised more vigorous action among the poople, the scarcity of competent teachers was a serious hindrance to that degree of advancement so fondly hoped for by the strongest supporters of the new system. Whence were they to be had? What methods could be adopted to secure them? To meet this want of efficient teachers and supply the increasing demand, the Northern Normal was established in 1857. This state institution for the special preparation of the teacher was located at Normal, a small village near Bloomington, McLean county. The number of students during the first year was ninety-eight, viz.: forty-one gentlemen and fifty-seven ladies. The first graduating class, 1860, consisted of ten, viz.: six young men and four young ladies.

The number of students in attendance for the year 1878, was 425, viz.: 185 males and 240 females. From the date of the opening of the Normal school, the demand for more and better teachers was so great that the Southern Normal was established in 1869, for the special training of teachers for the public-schools of this state. This school is located at Carbondale in Jackson countv, and is in a flourishing condition. In addition to these, the Illinois Industrial University, opened in 1868, is both state and national, having received a grant of lands from the national government, intended for the establishment of colleges of agriculture and the mechanical arts. This institution is at Urbana, Champaign county, where it has one of the finest buildings of the kind in the country. The college embraces a school of agriculture proper, and a school of horticulture, a school of engineering, schools of mechanical science, civil and mining engineering and architecture; a college of natural science, with schools of chemistry and natural history, and a college of literature and science, with a school of English and modern languages, and one of ancient languages and literature. There are also schools of commerce, military science and domestic science and arts. Entire freedom in the choice of studies is allowed each student; but the completion of one of these courses or the prescribed equivalents is necessary to graduation. Besides the normal schools and colleges named, Illinois has twenty-six colleges, thirty-two academies, two law schools. Six of the preceding are classed as universities. The vital principle of the present law is this: The property and wealth of the state, as well as the county, shall educate the youth. Many important changes in the school law were made by the thirty-first General Assembly. The amended law went into effect July first, 1879. It requires all school officials having care of funds to strictly account for the same. The county superintendent must annually examine the books and accounts of each township school treasurer. The school month corresponds to the calendar month. To make legal contracts, teachers must have valid certificates at the time of employment, and covering the time for which they are employed. Treasurers are appointed for two years. Graded schools in cities are placed under the control of boards of education, instead of city councils. Efficient means for refunding indebtedness are provided. The cornerstone of our educational structure has been well laid, and firmly established in the appreciation of an intelligent people; it is only a question of time, when Illinois will boast of one of the most perfect systems of education in our land. Older states, and European nations, view with admiration, and study with delight, our educational system, and now many of its branches are being engrafted into theirs.

Such is the rapid survey of the growth of the common school in Illinois. They have not arisen in a night, or in a day; they are the fruitage of a generation's constant and laborious effort, and to those early movers in this direction Macon county owes and attributes much of character and prosperity.

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Early Schools In Macon Co.


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