Between scandals, impeachments, power-grabs, and disastrous foreign wars, America’s most recent presidents don’t hold up very well when compared to the American Founders. While there are multiple reasons to explain our bad luck, education (or the lack thereof) particularly stands out. What are the ideas, values, and aspirations that formed our leaders when they were young? College students enjoy a brief but critical time when they are impressed by new ideas and begin to reflect on who they are and what their ambitions are to be. As Napoleon put it, “To understand the man you have to know what was happening in the world when he was twenty.”
Andrew H. Browning follows Napoleon’s advice in reconstructing the education of the fifty-five Framers of the Constitution in his Schools for Statesmen. For Browning, the critical agreements and disagreements at the Constitutional Convention cannot be understood without examining the very different education of the various Framers. The acquisition of lifelong values and assumptions during their youth formed their mature political outlooks. Browning quotes Gouverneur Morris in 1814 when he was looking back at the years of his college days, “In all probability, what I should now do would be what I then did, my sentiments and opinions having undergone no essential change in forty years.”
While many details of the Framers’ schooling are lost, their experience can be recovered from what remains of their memoirs, letters, and school archives. For the first half of the eighteenth century, schools taught Latin grammar through classical literature, such as Cicero, Virgil, and Livy. But over the decades, reforms that had started in the Scottish universities began to influence American schools with Scottish teachers arriving in the colonies. New schools opened that taught not just Latin and basic math but contemporary moral philosophy and English composition. Without such a dynamic educational environment, it would be hard to imagine someone like the self-taught Benjamin Franklin or Roger Sherman.
Of the fifty-five delegates, just over half attended college in America or Europe. The schooling of others was limited to reading, writing, and arithmetic at Latin grammar schools, private tutorials, or self-education. Most had been educated in Greek and Roman literature and history, as well as the basics of Christian theology, although there was a significant minority who were taught the Scottish Enlightenment in the newer colleges of Princeton, King’s College, and the College of Philadelphia.
Of the dozen delegates who took the lead at the Constitutional Convention, half were educated at these newer colleges: Madison, Hamilton, Morris, Oliver Ellsworth, Hugh Williamson, and William R. Davie. By contrast, the delegates who rejected the new Constitution had three (Elbridge Gerry, Edmund Randolph, and John Francis Mercer) who attended the two oldest American colleges (Harvard and William and Mary). The others went to primary and secondary schools (John Lansing and Robert Yates) or had a private tutor and were later self-taught (George Mason). Among those from the newer schools, only Luther Martin (Princeton) rejected the new Constitution.
It was Princeton’s James Madison and the Glasgow-trained James Wilson who took charge of the Constitutional Convention, while the rest, “whose political philosophy had been shaped by the Greeks and Romans, found themselves short of new ideas.” This is not to say that classical education made no contribution to the Constitutional Convention. Cicero’s On Duties and Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans taught the delegates that pure democracy was worse than tyranny. Most understood from Aristotle’s Politics that a good government divided power among the monarch, aristocracy, and people. Legal apprenticeship also contributed to the Framers’ understanding of constitutionalism, especially via Sir Edward Coke’s Institutes of the Laws of England which opposed absolute monarchy. And Christianity had taught the Framers that any republic that depended on the virtue of its citizen was bound to fail because of original sin.
When the Constitutional Convention was deadlocked, it was those who were shaped by the new education of the Scottish Enlightenment that led the Congress out of disagreements. Unlike their older contemporaries, these Framers were taught the “common sense” philosophy of Thomas Reid and the mixed or blended government of Montesquieu, Ferguson, Smith, Hume, and Hutcheson. Madison’s vision of divided government was contrary to what was taught at Harvard and Yale. These ideas were new and unfamiliar to most delegates except those who had studied them at the newer schools.
Except for the College of Philadelphia, every American college had been founded under the auspices of a religious denomination and all the presidents were clergymen. For undergraduates, the course of study was classical prose and poetry, natural and moral philosophy, mathematics, logic, rhetoric, and—in New England—divinity. College students generally came from privileged backgrounds and primarily were white, male, and Protestant (Catholics went overseas to college). The colleges were small, with William and Mary’s enrollment rarely exceeding 60; Harvard and Yale had between 100 and 150 students; Princeton between 70 and 80.
From his meticulous research, Browning reconstructs each Framer’s education and assigns them to broad categories of those who were self-taught, tutored, had legal apprenticeships, or went to Harvard, Yale, William and Mary, King’s College, the College of Philadelphia, Princeton, and overseas. Fifteen or sixteen Framers from elite backgrounds went to college, while another ten or twelve of “the better sort” did not but had private tutors. A dozen of the “middling” sort managed to attend college and another dozen had no college education but had risen enough to prominence to represent their states in Philadelphia.
What is striking is that the lack of a college education was no obstacle to political leadership in eighteenth-century America. As Browning points out, “Franklin, Washington, Dickinson, Robert Morris, and Mason were among the most influential men in America; all five have colleges named for them, but not one ever set foot in a college classroom.” From self-education to tutors and apprenticeships, these Framers read Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, and other ancients to learn about republican government.
Of American colleges, the two most conservative in their curriculum were Harvard and Yale which monopolized the education of New England’s political leadership. At these schools, students learned Greek and Latin, logic, mathematics, astronomy, natural philosophy, and, most important of all, classical history to prepare them as future political leaders. William and Mary also taught classics as did Oxford, Cambridge, and Trinity College for those Americans who were educated overseas (although they seldom earned degrees). Catholic Americans, who were barred from college in English-speaking countries, went to France or to St. Omer’s, the Jesuit school in Maryland that was “more than a grammar school but less than a university,” where classics also were taught.
The influence of the classical curriculum was deeply entrenched in Europe and America until the Scottish Enlightenment, when the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh supplemented Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Livy with Montesquieu, Smith, Hume, Reid, and Hutcheson. This new curriculum influenced the Presbyterian grammar schools in America and the College of Philadelphia, King’s College, and Princeton. At these colleges, the modern histories of Edinburgh’s Robertson and Ferguson were read as were the works of Harrington and Sidney. This new curriculum began with the classical republicanism of the ancients but also introduced the idea of natural rights in Pufendorf’s and Locke’s writings.
According to Browning, this difference in education between a classical and Scottish one affected six major controversies with which the Convention wrestled: 1) how republican government could succeed in a nation as large as the United States; 2) how power should be divided between the national government and the states; 3) whether the states should be represented equally or proportionally by population; 4) how should the executive be elected; 5) what powers should be assigned to executive; and 6) the distribution of power among the three branches of government.
In all these controversies, the different education of the Framers had a significant influence on their ideas and votes. Browning walks the reader through each of these debates, showing how those who were educated in the newer schools were the most strong-government nationalists while those who were products of the older schools remained suspicious of a powerful executive and Senate. It was this younger generation who combined “the skepticism of Smith and Hume” that citizens would be virtuous with “the optimism of Hutcheson and Witherspoon” that a republican government could be formed with competing interests and blended responsibilities that led the Convention to adopt a government of separation of powers and checks and balances. As Browning writes, “It was a part that the old-school Framers were slow to grasp; the idea that the right structure might matter more than individual virtue simply flew in the face of what they had learned in their youth.”
The diversity of the Framers’ educations is all the more striking when compared to our recent presidents. Bill Clinton went to Georgetown, Oxford, and Yale Law. George W. Bush is a product of Phillips, Yale, and Harvard Business School. Barrack Obama went to Columbia and Harvard Law. Donald Trump graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. Only Joe Biden went to a public college for his undergraduate—the University of Delaware—and a non-ivy law school (Syracuse University). Despite being better educated—at least in theory—than the Framers, it is difficult to say that our presidents for the past twenty-five years have performed any better.
But perhaps even more distributing is the homogeneity of the type of education taught at our elite institutions. For the past fifty years, ideas like woke ideology, critical race theory, diversity, and postmodern and therapeutic pedagogy have dominated the humanities, legal studies, and the social sciences. One can graduate from our best colleges without having to read the Greeks, Romans, and the Bible, much less anyone from the Scottish (or any) Enlightenment. Is it any wonder that our recent presidents pale in comparison to the likes of Roger Sherman (self-taught), George Washington (tutored and self-taught), James Madison (Princeton), and Alexander Hamilton (King’s College)?
It is both the type of education one receives and how one receives it that explains the disparity between our recent presidents and the American Founders. The Framers’ education was grounded in a deeper and broader tradition that stretches back to the Greeks, Romans, and Hebrews. They believed that practical political solutions could be found in the literature, history, and philosophy of the ancients, the common law of the English, and Christianity theology. Rather than adopt a position of woke presentism that is prevalent on today’s college campuses, the Framers approached education with a humility to glean wisdom from the past. They believed they could learn from those who came before them. They received a liberal education in the truest sense so they could be free, knowing that they were part of something larger than themselves as citizens of a new country that would outlive them.