Saint Before His Time: Samuel J. May and American Educational Reform


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A 1964 master’s thesis by Catherine L. Covert
B.A., State University of Iowa, 1945



Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in History in the Graduate School of Syracuse University, June, 1964

Thanks to MMUUS member Irene Blakeslee for her work in digitizing this thesis.


Hypothesis: That the life of the Reverend Samuel Joseph May, 1797-1871, and his career in educational reform provide a representative picture of the educational philosophies and movements of the antebellum period in the United States.

Method: The author examined May's writings in educational reform, his extensive correspondence with other prominent educators of the day, pertinent contemporary educational publications as well as general newspapers and magazines, pertinent diaries, memoirs, sermons, tracts and official documents of May's period, and appropriate secondary sources on the 19th Century reform.

Conclusions: May's life spanned the period commonly known as the American educational renaissance, beginning in the early 1820s and extending to the Civil War; his interests reflected the contemporary concerns of educators with improving teaching methods, building a corps of professional teachers, providing improved educational facilities, modifying the curriculum to meet the changing needs of the more heterogeneous group of children to be educated, and encouraging public interest in problems of educational reform. May pioneered in many of these areas. In addition he identified and took public stands on a number of controversial questions which were to remain provocative to educators and the general public: racial integration in the schools, the socialization of education, coeducation, the relationship between religion and the schools, and the extension of education to all age groups and to the mentally retarded, the physically handicapped, the delinquent, and to racial and religious minorities. Though May was an ardent advocate of antislavery, temperance, peace, the reform of prisons and asylums and of many other meliorist movements, he considered education as the most important of all the reforms and the one that would eventually render the others unnecessary.



On October 4, 1957, a new object flashed across the American skies, the Soviet satellite "Sputnik.” This tiny but terrifying object was to shake Americans out of their lethargy, tighten their defenses, and launch their nation on a time of tension and troubles dominated by the great two-power struggle for control of outer space. The political and military effects of Sputnik proved monumental, but the satellite had equal impact on another segment of the domestic scene, the American educational system. In response to the Russian threat to the continued existence of the American democracy, the whole unwieldy American educational organization rumbled and stirred and shook. Educators reevaluated their total programs, objectives and procedures. From these upheavals emerged a new emphasis on intellectual excellence, a search for the brilliant student, and an anxious acceleration of studies in all the scientific disciplines in the hope that new American talent might wrest control of the skies from the Soviet antagonists and preserve the American system from a frightening new menace.


In strikingly similar fashion has the American educational system once before shaken itself from torpor and re-evaluated its entire role in response to what seemed a threat to the democracy. In the 1830s, however, the threat came, not from without the country, but from within. Internal riots, revolts and violence threatened to rend the whole fabric of the infant republic. As Merle Curti points out, the Dorr war, the anti-rent struggles, and the anti-foreign, anti-Catholic, and anti-abolition riots caused great apprehension.(1) In the 1830s the American democracy was still a dubious experiment. The country was young, not much more than half a century removed from its blood-spattered birth amid riot and rebellion in 1776. These new upheavals of the Thirties and Forties persuaded many that the young republic might perish amid the same violence that heralded its beginnings.


As Sidney Jackson has observed, the elite comprised the social group most threatened by the rising Jacksonian democratic movement with its concomitant social upheaval. At the time, continues Jackson, optimistic reformers who believed in perfectibility were advocating educational reforms they believed might lead to a more utopian kind of society. (2) At this point of social unrest, these two disparate groups banded together in uneasy alliance. Educators saw an opportunity to prove to the alarmed men of wealth and power that reform of the schools might, as Merle Curti says, safeguard republican institutions against "monarchy, mobocracy, and revolution.”(3) A proper education, reformers promised the elite, could inculcate respect for authority, produce a stable and informed mass of citizenry, prevent revolution, and help to save the American experiment.(4)


Persuaded at least in part by these arguments, men of political and social power took action that would have great impact on American schools. In the first major move toward educational reform, the Massachusetts legislature authorized formation of the state's first board of education in 1837; a bright young legislator named Horace Mann was chosen secretary. Subsequently other states followed suit.


Just at this time the economic depression of the late Thirties threatened the lower classes. The same educational reformers who had used their persuasive powers on the gentry attempted simultaneously to prove to the common people that education offered them a path toward prosperity, happiness and the good life.


This two-pronged persuasive effort of the educational reformers directed simultaneously toward the aristocracy and the masses proved, at least in part, effective. Americans of wealth and stature as well as those of more modest rank began to support the revision and expansion of the American educational system. Begun in New England and spreading to all parts of the nation except at the South,(5) a complete reorganization and reevaluation of the educational system resulted.


The new movement was not the birth of the American public school system; it was a re-birth, a renaissance of interest in common education that had once flourished in the first days of the republic when new states set up magnificent school funds and conscientious hamlets organized their own school committees to spend the money. From these promising beginnings, the American common school system has languished: under-supported, under-developed, and under-patronized by the very common people for whom it had been designed. Only the social and economic unrest of the 1830s could resurrect an interest in the common schools as the first bastion of democracy and the basic hope of the republic.


Many of the problems faced by early nineteenth century educational reformers foreshadowed those of later eras. Take the problem, for example, of socializing the American educational system, of providing education for all children at the taxpayer's expense instead of billing each parent for his own child's schooling. By the 1830s the once-princely school funds provided only the most meager support for the greatly swollen number of scholars; most parents were assessed per day for the schooling their children received. The hot arguments of the Thirties and Forties over the pressing question of free schools were almost precisely those that were to rise in the next century from political caucus and legislative committee debating the question of socializing medical care for the aged.


"Are the free schools important enough to the national welfare to pay for them from the public purse?" questioned those thinking of providing free schools. "Will such payment undermine our citizen's individual initiative and enterprise? Will it be fair to tax everyone to pay for the education of some?" Eventually, the Jacksonians and their successors answered these questions in the affirmative; the American socialized educational system was eventually to be taken for granted by their most individualistic descendants as one of the great American institutions for the preservation of liberty.


The question of religious influence in the schools provided another great educational concern of the age. Educators were striving to produce what they called a "secular" school system, that is, one free of influence from specific religious denominations. But they clung to the idea that such a secular system could still provide what they called "moral education" without inculcating any specifically sectarian dogmas. By "moral education," nineteenth century educators meant the general ethical and religious concepts associated with a white, Protestant rural society, though few of them realized their value system was thus circumscribed. Horace Mann, Henry Barnard and most of the others devoutly believed they could teach "morals" without teaching "sectarianism.”


The era's great controversy over reading the Bible in the schools hinged on precisely this fine distinction. The dominant educators wished to teach "morals" and relied on reading the Bible in the schoolroom without comment to accomplish this purpose. They refused to admit the Catholic charge that the commonly used King James version was a sectarian book; such an admission would completely undermine their position and force Bible reading out of the schoolroom. Around this issue raged the battle. Was it fair to make young Catholics listen to the King James version? Was it right to impose the wishes of a religious majority on the minority? Would it be fair, on the other hand, to deprive the large Protestant majority of their major source of "moral education" to satisfy a handful of Catholics? Should the rights and preferences of the many be ignored because of the few?(6) This controversy has also descended to us, largely unaltered and certainly unsolved.


As the free Negroes flourished and multiplied, Americans of the antebellum north began for the first time to wrestle with the problem of racial integration in the schools. Only the bravest reformers urged their communities to seat little white girls next to little Black boys in the classroom. "Amalgamation!" cried the fearful. "The greatest white friend of emancipation that we have," asserted one leading editor, "would be unwilling that his daughter should marry a Black man."(7)


Separate schools for the free-Blacks were almost invariably maintained in those communities enlightened enough to provide any schooling at all for Negroes; a community that provides education in any form for Negroes, warned the pessimists, was sure to be inundated by similar "undesirables" from outside.


The problem of educating what the twentieth century would ungracefully call the "socially and culturally disadvantaged" had also begun to loom on the nineteenth century horizon. How much are we justified in diverting resources from the talented and qualified who promise to provide our national leadership in order to educate others from which leadership might possibly come? This was the query of a few far-seeing educators. What about the poor, what about juvenile delinquents,(8) Indians, idiots or women? The battle for higher education for females was barely underway. Education for members of these other subgroups was undertaken only by visionaries and that on a small scale; most of them were left to roam the streets of were relegated to reservations, asylums, jails, or attics.


Educators attempted to cope with these problems and many others in an intellectual climate not entirely alien to our own. By the time of Jackson's inauguration, the great anti-intellectual revolt was underway against the men of culture and refinement who had led the nation since its inception.

A striking example of the two opposing styles could be seen in the persons of that cultivated aristocrat, John Quincy Adams, and his successor, the great exemplar of the common people, Andrew Jackson. The contrast is not inconceivable to us in a day which has seen Pablo Casals replaced as after-dinner entertainment in the White House by the New Christy Minstrels.


To point out similarities between the Jacksonians' day and our own is not to attempt to make of the Nineteenth century a perfect template for the Twentieth. The similarities between educational objectives, problems and climate of opinion in the two ages are easily eclipsed by the dissimilarities. The Nineteenth century educator's concern was primarily for the soul of the child, not for his psyche or his peer group or his milieu. Educational arguments in that theologically-oriented age hinged more immediately and directly on the relationship of man to his creator; his relationship with society took second place. There and how he would spend his present life was subsidiary in importance to the question of where and how he would spend eternity.


Among the distinctive problems facing antebellum educators were 1) the conversation of a school system formerly dominated by sectarians into a secular system capable of serving children of every persuasion while maintaining an acceptable level of "moral culture", 2) the expansion of a common school system financed from inadequate government funds and the pocketbooks of its patrons into a tax-supported system open to children of all economic levels, and 3) the development of teaching methods to suit these new objectives and the enormously varied kinds of children who would be coming into the expanded system.


The educational history of this exciting era has not been adequately written. The "Dewey revolution" of the Twentieth century has been thoroughly chronicled, not the educational renaissance of the early Nineteenth. And yet in many ways Dewey's methods were prefigured by men of the renaissance—Bronson Alcott, Samuel J. May. Horace Mann and others—long before Dewey popularized them on the modern educational scene. We do have several striking general histories of education in relationships to social cultural and economic factors which include this period, and a few good biographies of the outstanding leaders of the day. Henry Barnard himself still awaits a definitive biography as do many of his colleagues in reform.


Through tracing the career of one of the more influential purveyors of educational reform, Samuel Joseph May, I hope to develop some of the highlights and illumine the rich background of the educational picture in the years before the Civil War. May's lifetime, from 1797 to 1871, spanned the years before, during and immediately after the educational reawakening. Born in Boston to a Brahmin family of distinguished bloodlines, May became a Unitarian clergyman and an ardent social reformer. From this peculiar position of influence and authority, he could denounce or commend the educational practices and philosophies of his age.


That fluid era, however, gave him an opportunity to serve as more than clergyman; at various he was also a teacher in the common schools, a dominant member of the local school committees, a principal of the country's first state normal school, and the chairman of the board of education in one of upstate New York's flourishing cities. Meanwhile, as philosopher, critic and advocate of educational reform he kept up a running commentary which, appearing in leading publications, greatly influenced his own time. Friend and co-worker of Horace Mann, Henry Barnard, Bronson Alcott, Edouard Seguin, Samuel Gridley Howe, Harvey Wilbur, Andrew D. White, and other educational pioneers of the age, May could obtain influence, financial support and a public hearing for these reformers through his contacts with the rich and influential of the day.


Beginning in 1837, May aided in Mann's great seminal reform of the Massachusetts school system. Further, he participated actively in the country's first experiment in training professional teachers at the state expense; he helped steer legislators and prepare the people of two states for the innovation of free schools. He pioneered in the battles for integration, coeducation, and the removal of sectarian influences from the schools.


A modest innovator himself in educational theory and practice, May provided his greatest service to American education by spreading the concepts of the great originals in the field. In communicating new and exciting ideas, May had few peers. His later life is a lively case history of the way Horace Mann's reforms were spread and defended in the relatively naive world of upstate New York and how germinal ideas of educational reform sprouted and flourished in new ground, specifically in the remarkable community of Syracuse.


The little city on the canal has long been famous for the vigor and ferment of its intellectual and social life in the Forties and Fifties. Here every new and exciting reform notion found a welcome and a home. Though the city's history in antislavery and women's rights agitation has been explored, relatively little has been written about the way in which Syracuse pioneered in education; it became the first in the state to establish an integrated school system and one of the first in the country to abolish from its schools the cruel whippings and beatings of children which in the name of discipline were a hallmark of education everywhere.


Both of these innovations can be attributed largely to the missionary work of that Yankee-turned-Yorker, Samuel Joseph May. Born in Boston in 1797, May was graduated from Harvard in 1817 and after finishing his course at Harvard Divinity School was approbated as a Unitarian minister in 1820. He then served as assistant to the Rev. William Ellery Channing at Boston's Federal Street Church, and from 1822 to 1835, as pastor of the Unitarian Society in Brooklyn, Connecticut.


From 1835 to 1836 he acted as general agent for the Massachusetts Antislavery Society; and from 1836 to 1842, as pastor of the Unitarian Society in South Scituate, Massachusetts. After two years spent as principal of the Lexington Normal School in Massachusetts, he assumed the pastorate of the Unitarian Society in Syracuse. He held this position from 1845 until his retirement in 1867, four years before his death in 1871.


Absorbed as he seemed to be in the educational revolution of his day, May acquired more fame in his own lifetime for his place in the other reform movements of the age. He served as a right hand man down through the years to William Lloyd Garrison in the advancement of the antislavery cause,(9) and emerged as one of the few men of respectability and standing to aid Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the burgeoning movement for women's rights. Almost every other serious reform of the day could claim him as an eager partisan: temperance, non-resistance, the reform of asylums and prisons, and the abolition of capital punishment for major crime.


As a clergyman, intellectual and reformer, May was caught up in the major social currents of the day. He was involved in its crises and its satisfactions, conversant both on the philosophical and practical planes with its major problems, a sort of renaissance man of the reform era.


A definitive biography of his many-faceted life has yet to be published. For purposes of this work, however, I have chosen to narrow the field to that of his interest in education. Even such a restricted field of exploration affords an introduction to a fascinating and significant character, and provides a vehicle for examining the educational scene of the first half of the last century.


* * *

Many people have been exceptionally helpful in making this study possible. I should like to acknowledge particularly the help of Dr. Robert Rayback, whose advice and assistance in the preparation of this thesis has gone far beyond the formal requirements imposed on a graduate adviser, and that of Dr. Nelson Blake, in whose classes my interest in May was first stimulated. Both men are professors of history at Syracuse University, as was the late Dr. Freeman Galpin who generously gave me access to his unpublished biography of May. The late Miss Katherine Wilkinson, May's granddaughter, very kindly loaned me surviving diaries and correspondence from the May family. She also shared with me the family traditions concerning her distinguished grandfather as did an outstanding member of a collateral branch of the family, Dr. Martha May Eliot of Washington and Boston.


Librarians and officials of historical societies and associations have been uniformly helpful. This work would not have been possible without the extensive assistance given by Mr. and Mrs. Richard W. Wright and Miss Violet Hosler of the Onondaga Historical Association. Every appropriate facility of the Syracuse Public Library was put at my disposal thanks to the kindness of Mr. Henry McCormick, Mr. Gerald Parsons, and Mrs. Ossie Golden. Providing invaluable assistance in securing materials at the Syracuse University Library were Miss Lillian Eckert, Miss Marian Mullen, and Mr. Lester Wells.

I owe much to librarians and curators at the American Antiquarian Society, the American Unitarian Association, Antioch College, Brown University, the Boston Public Library, the Concord Free Public Library, the Connecticut Historical Society, Cornell University, the Detroit Public Library, the Harvard Divinity School, Harvard University, the Library of Congress, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the New York Public Library, the New York State Historical Association, New York University, Trinity College, Yale University, and the Wisconsin State Historical Society.


For listening to my theories and helping to clarify my thinking I must extend my thanks to Miss Elizabeth Thompson and Miss Joan Shinew; for stimulating my interest in the nineteenth century educational scene, I must credit Mrs. Grace Douma Shaw.


My greatest debt for patience, forbearance and support during the nine years this study has been underway I owe to my husband, Frank N. Stepanek, Jr.



(1) Merle CurtiThe Social Ideas of American educators (New York: Scribners, 1835), p. 81.

(2) Sidney Jackson, America's Struggle for Free Schools (New York: American Council on Public Affairs, 1941), p 172-173. The immediate cause of the common revival, says Jackson, was the socio-political crisis of 1834-1837. Earlier radical protest movements had accomplished little.

(3) CurtiSocial Ideas of American Educators, pp. 194-200. Today, says Curti, we think of our schools as having been founded out of zeal for the welfare of common people. Actually, this zeal was tempered by zeal for the welfare of the employers of labor, for maintaining the political and social status quo. These economic motives were frankly recognized then. For further documentation see below, pp 53-58.

(4) Ibid., p.60.

(5) Because of strikingly different patterns and problems, education at the deep south has been excluded from this study. This work will deal primarily with educational problems in New England and the middle-Atlantic states where May spent his life.

(6) Few educators or citizens seemed concerned about the rights of non-believers and certainly no large protest movements were organized in their behalf. Samuel J. May was almost alone in his advocacy of the rights of "infidels.” See below, p. 151.

(7) Niles Weekly Register ( Baltimore), June 24, 1820.

(8) This term, "juvenile delinquents", which seems so modern, was in common use in the 1840s. The Victorians meant by "delinquents" just what we mean; they had no more idea how to handle them than we do.

(9) May, his cousin Samuel Sewall, and Bronson Alcott attended Garrison's first Boston lecture on abolitionism in 1830 and immediately afterward offered him their support. "May and Sewall were later to become loyal members of Garrison's inner circle; and May became one of Garrison's closest friends." Walter M Merrill, Against Wind and Tide: A Biography of Wm. Lloyd Garrison (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963), p. 41.

Page 2 of 12


Chapter 1: A Happy, Joyous Child


The sound of snapping fingers crackled through the schoolroom air. Master Cole of the Marblehead Academy was chastising a culprit; his big fingers flicked sharply at the boy's ears, once, twice, and still again. The master was a severe man and a devout believer in the rod, promptly and generously applied. Here in this Massachusetts whaling town with the nineteenth century just under way, he managed his school with a puritanical eye toward potential evil in the young.


He glared down at the current offender, a frail boy of six or seven surrounded by evidence of patent guilt; tiny paper fish the lad had fashioned and tried to catch with a bent pin on a piece of string.


For the boy, the fishing expedition had stemmed from sheer desperation—something, anything to do. Crammed into a hard bench with the other boys for the past three years, young Samuel Joseph May had been allowed down only once, and that for five minutes' recitation in reading and spelling.


The rest of the time he had sat immobile on the bench. Nothing to read. Nothing to do. Nothing to think about except how hard it all was. So he had scattered his fish and bent his pin.


"You naughty boy!" thundered the master, towering suddenly over him. "I'll teach you how to behave better in school time!"(1) The cruel fingers flashed toward Sam's head.


Passion expended, crushed, but he brooded over the injustice for days and years. Sixty years later he could still remember the dour look of Master Cole, the pain of the punishment, the hatefulness of it all. "He taught me what he little intended," May recalled, "to regard and fear him as a harsh cruel man. I felt . . . that he ought to have given me something to do, or else let me occupy myself as best as I could."


Young Sam's experience was far from novel. Education in those first years of the nineteenth century was a thing to be ground in grimly, devoid of joy or pleasure. Master Cole of Marblehead was a typical example of schoolmasters all over New England who taught lessons by sing-song rote, kept small children perched on backless benches for hours at a time, and punished the tiniest infraction with a touch of the rod. This was the way the average New England boy learned his letters, at the end of the switch and the cutting edge of the ferule.(2)


But Sam fumbling about in his misery felt ill-used. It was typical of the boy to feel, even gropingly at seven, that the system must be at fault, not himself. To that traumatic moment in Marblehead he dated the beginning of a life-long conviction that education should be gentle and creative, flowering from a child's own interests rather than imposed from above. Such a conviction would eventually help put children in new settings, produce schoolhouses that were spacious, airy and comfortable, and help create teachers who could persuade instead of punish. New methods of teaching, education for all even into the fantastic levels of high school and college—these were the revolutionary ideas May would promote through a lifetime devoted to educational reform.


May did not develop a towering original mind; the germinal ideas of educational reform in America were postulated first by such pioneers as Horace Mann and Henry Barnard. But these men found in May a sort of educational John the Baptist, one who had cried in the New England wilderness for educational reform a decade before they came on the scene. When they did appear, he embraced them and their ideas, supporting and nourishing them with all his eager optimism, promoting them wherever he went with the force of his personality and his pen.(3)


His own qualities proved ideal for this life-long mission. Warm-hearted, indefatigable, endearing, May was able to take some of the acid edge from reform, to sweeten some of its vinegary pronouncements, to make change more palatable as well as more understandable to the common man.


A Boston gentleman, he conferred a gentleman's prestige on reform.(4) Sublimely self-confident, he charged happily into battle with conservatism and reaction, challenged giants, and emerged from the worst battles wreathed in smiles and confident of final victory.


Like a good many of his contemporaries, May spread himself generously and all too thinly among burgeoning reforms of the day: women's rights, abolition, temperance, reform of prison, asylum and school. Unlike many other nineteenth century meliorists who dipped into school reform and quickly gave up because it proved slow and unexciting, May clung to his interest in education. For him, education was the heart and soul of all the other reforms. Educate every child of the republic properly and no other reforms would be necessary; slavery, prostitution, alcoholism and all the other results of ignorance and cruelty would melt away. Man would find himself in the utopia that was his natural heritage.(5)


* * *

Samuel Joseph May was born in Boston on September 12, 1797, tenth child of his parents, Colonel Joseph and Dorothy Sewell May. It was not an auspicious time to be born. The city selectmen had just warned the citizens that the season of contagious disorders was advancing; fever, dysentery and whooping cough were carrying off babies on every hand. (6) No one needed to warn the Mays of the dangers threatening the young; of their ten children born thus far, they had already lost four, and a fifth child would die on September 17, just five days after Samuel Joseph was delivered. (7)


Though a frail and sickly thing, he managed to cling to life and an entrancing one he shortly found it. The day before Sam's birth, one George Claghorn had the honor to inform his fellow citizens that "the Frigate CONSTITUTION is to be launched into her destined Element on Wednesday the 30th Instant . . . ." in the Boston harbor.(8) The city in which Sam and the famous frigate appeared that September furnished an exciting environment for a growing boy. He could roam the wharves, sniffing tar and rope and good salt air and listening to wild tales from imaginative seamen home from Indies or orient. In winter there was snowball fighting on the Commons and coasting on Beacon Hill. Sledders of daring disposition could keep right on going at the bottom of the hill, amid the clattering hoofs and rattling chaise wheels of Washington Street.(9) Boys who daily braved such hazards grew up; strong minded and independent. It was an independence fostered by stout Boston parents and Colonel May was no exception. Every man, the colonel insisted, should stand on his own feet, rely on his own resources, and supply his own wants. That parent does a child no good who refuses to permit such independence.(10)


Sam drew in this kind of an attitude with his mother's milk, grew up to be strong-minded, aggressive and extroverted with a decidedly nonconformist turn of mind. He had plenty of company. His Boston swarmed with free-thinkers, eccentrics, and social misfits destined to play major roles in the reforms to come. Amid this rough-edged throng, however, Sam had one distinguishing characteristic, an almost magical ability to remain affable, outgoing and affectionate toward the people he opposed, even while launching the most bitter attacks on their views. A quality like this could prove unsettling to anyone who tried to differ with him very long. Here was a man who could present the most enraging views, and then disarm his opponents completely with his easy unselfconscious warmth toward them as individuals. Who among all the reformers, wondered one of his contemporaries, "so combined sweetness and firmness, mildness and courage, fine tact, winsome ways, and stern faithfulness as he?"(11)


It took supreme self-confidence, this ability so love a man though you hated his opinions, the kind of self-confidence that saw no threat in contrary views. The quality was bred early into Sam, brought up by a mother conscious of an impeccable Boston ancestry. It was true that Sam's father, while providing competently enough for his family as the secretary of a large marine insurance firm, nevertheless had come from no particularly distinguished stock in the history of Boston. Sam's paternal grandfather had been a carpenter and builder. But Sam's mother was a Sewall springing from Quincys and claiming relationship to Hancocks, and oh, what fine old New England names those were! The Sewell connection commanded particular respect. Sam's uncle, the Honorable Samuel Sewell, served as chief justice of the entire commonwealth. Sam's great-grandfather had been the famous Chief Justice Samuel Sewall who had repented with chagrin his part in the Salem witch hangings.(12) Thus Sam's mother had come to a comparatively modest marriage, quietly secure in her heritage, and able to make her son properly conscious of his. When the time came, he could move out into a larger world with the easy bearing of a born Boston aristocrat.(13)


Such supreme faith in himself must also have been nurtured in a home remarkable for its tenderness and warmth. Both parents desperately wanted him. The Mays had lost two other sons, both named Samuel Joseph, before this third Samuel Joseph was able to survive. When Sam was four, his six-year-old brother Edward, a winsome, affectionate child, died in a tragic accident. After that, his parent's affections and concern were turned even more strongly on young Sam. At the age of nine, he could confess a small theft, a truly "heinous crime" in such a household, and receive not only the expected parental admonishment, upbraiding and dire warnings about a life of crime, but also compassion and understanding from two people who understand his misery.

"I was a very happy, joyous child," May recalled without self-consciousness of braggadocio. "I had many friends, and was rather a favorite among them."(14)


All this petting and indulgence, however, was tempered with a strong admixture of stiff New England discipline. Any well-brought up Boston boy was hedged about with a covey of restrictions, and laced into a proper character by unending exhortations to prudence and goodness and charity. A city that fined its citizens ten shillings for riding at a canter or walking too rapidly around a corner was not one to tolerate uninhibited boyish enthusiasms.(15) Young Sam's idea of heaven was a place where children could sit down at the breakfast table. He and his sister Eliza, as a proper part of discipline for the young, were required to stand at breakfast while their parents and the older children sat and enjoyed their coffee and toast.(16)


Boston elders readily spouted useful admonitions, happily indulging in this predilection even with other people's children. The Boston sage, William Ellery Channing, whose Federal Street home was just around the corner from the Mays' house at Number One Federal Court, frequently exercised this prerogative. When Sam was only six or seven he would trot round to call on Dr. Channing in his study. Channing made a pet out of him, as did everybody else, showed him colored pictures and loaded his pockets with tea cakes; but the doctor never missed a chance to impress Sam properly with the duty of kindness to the poor and miserable, outlining in graphic detail how much more Sam would enjoy his own life if he made others happy.


Moved by this advice on one occasion, young Sam decided to act on it, and gave away some of the Channing tea cakes to a ragged little boy he met on his way home. He went confidently back to Channing, eager to recount his virtuous act and restock his supply. Channing commended Sam's charity, praised his generosity, and sent him home. No more cake. Good Bostonians not only lived by their own moral precepts, but managed, when they could, that everyone else should too.


Colonel May, Sam's father, had as a young man established a reputation for high moral tone and unimpeachable honesty. When he was 38 his career as a merchant came to a disastrous halt in the midst of what his biographer called an "ill-advised speculation."(17) After days of deep depressions, the colonel resolved to give up all his property to satisfy his creditors, "even to the ring on his finger,"(18) but never again to try to become rich. Refusing several offers of partnership, he took a safe, secure position with the insurance firm, divested himself of all his business worries, and devoted the rest of his life to his family,(19) to numerous charities, and to the delights of reading and contemplation.(20) May's children grew up surrounded by books, On the May shelves were the colonel's favorites: the classic historians, the poets Pope and Addison, and the philosophers Paley and Priestley.(21)


Disenchanted with the search for wealth and enamored of the intellectual life, Colonel May determined that the best legacy he could give his children would be the finest education his remaining money could buy. He dispatched the young Mays to the private schools enjoying the best reputation among the Brahmins; no May would have set foot in a common school at that low point in the history of public education in Massachusetts. Sam went off at five to the ma'am schools; at eight, to a series of schools kept by men, including the authors of famous geography and a well-known text in arithmetic. Despite these erudite instructors, however, Sam came to be known more for good behavior than for scholarly achievement. Dull lessons bored him and until he reached his teens poor health plagued him. The worried Mays resorted to taking him out of school and sending him on trips to the country in hopes of helping the headaches, nausea and lassitude that assailed him in airless city schoolrooms. (On one of these trips to visit his uncle, Chief Justice Sewell, he encountered the infamous Master Cole. On another he studied with a minister in Stoughton. The minister proved a poor teacher and Sam was desperately homesick. The experience, however, left him with a love for the outdoors that lasted a lifetime.) At length Sam turned 13, his health improved, and his parents set about the serious business of preparing him to enter Harvard College. Such an entrance was, of course, a foregone conclusion to the ambitious educational program Colonel May had outlined for his son.


A supreme effort was indicated. Colonel May joined with some of the city fathers, apparently disenchanted with the Boston Latin School, in importing a scholar of considerable repute to establish a private school designed especially to prepare their boys for Harvard. There were Otises, Eliots, Parkers, and Parsons on the patrons list when Master Elisha Clap arrived to set up a select school for 25 boys in the basement of the First Church in Chauncy Place. He charged one hundred dollars a year for each student, a tuition exceeding that charged by any other master, and began Sam's preparation for his destiny across the Charles.


If Colonel May expected a high-priced education to turn Sam into a scholar, he must have been disappointed. Sam never had a scholarly disposition, and the Latin and Greek duly learned were more for the schoolmaster's approbation than his own delight. He managed to squeak into Harvard without conditions, and the Mays must have drawn a familial sigh of relief.(22)


Oddly fragmented as it was, Sam's education did prepare him in its own peculiar way for his life of nonconformity and reform.Exposed to a variety of people and places, Sam grew up with an easy acceptance of diversity, having rubbed off a little of his native provincialism even before he entered college. There was the little Black boy who went to one of the ma'am schools, more witty than any of the others, the best in reading, spelling and counting, and the equal of any of the rest on the playground too. Apparently Black boys could be born with brains.


There were the wives of sailors and sea-captains in Marblehead, used to taking charge and managing their own affairs while their men were at sea—a self-sustaining and independent lot—giving a small boy the idea that a woman's role might conceivably differ from that of the submissive females he saw at home on Beacon Hill.(23)


Then there were his good friends, Judah, Catherine and Slowey Hays, children of the only Jewish family in Boston. Colonel May and Moses Michael Mays had struck up a fine friendship; Colonel May took dinner with the Mays family every Saturday and presently he was taking Sam along. Sam would sometimes stay on, visiting for weeks, and watching the Hebrew fastings and prayers and charities. Instead of acquiring the more typical Bostonian hatred and fear of Jews, he managed to grow up without prejudice against the house of Israel or indeed any other religious group.(24) Later in life he could even join hands with the hated Catholics in common projects when his fellow Protestants were beginning to fear that the roaring wave of European immigrants might engulf and destroy some cherished beliefs and traditions.(25)


Possibly the most important feeling to develop in Sam as a result of this strange educational mosaic proved to be an increasing dissatisfaction with the system itself. Young Sam could not put it into words, even if he would. Over the formative years, however, an impressionable child had accumulated an increasing number of reasons for unhappiness with the increasing number of reasons for unhappiness with the school system—the dullness of the everlasting reading, writing and recital of the catechism at Mrs. Wallcut's ma'am school; the suffocating atmosphere of hot, stuffy classrooms in dank church basements, the sterility of Master Clap's rigid approach to learning.


Hundreds of other New England boys were suffering through a similarly arid education. They were growing up stout and satisfied merchants, clergymen, and lawyers, and assuming without qualm or question positions in Boston counting house, pulpit or bar. Their fathers' education was sufficient for them. Yet in that New England wilderness a few others were building impressions that must have paralleled those of young May. Back in the Connecticut hills a boy called Amos Bronson Alcott hated school and was to leave it forever, at 13.(26) Over in Franklin, Massachusetts, a farmer's son was growing up at hard work in the fields, never getting more than ten weeks schooling a year until he was 16. (27) His name was Horace Mann. A toddler called Henry Barnard was still in petticoats.


Grown into men, they were to change the whole face and course of American education, and Samuel Joseph May was to leap in enthusiastically to help them do it. All that was yet to come. At the moment young May was emerging officially from childhood at 16—generally happy with himself and all mankind—and looking over into Cambridge where the future lay.



(1) The details of this episode together with the quotations and the account of Sam's feelings and recollections come from an autobiographical fragment written by May and included in the memoir of his life published two years after his death. Thomas J. Mumford (ed.), Memoir of Samuel Joseph May (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1873), pp. 13, 14.

(2) For further discussion of corporal punishment in the schoolroom, see below Chapter IX.

(3) For a discussion of May's role in the promotion of educational reform, see below, Chapter VII.

(4) See, for example, Merrill, against wind and tide: "although part of Garrison's personality demanded expression, another part sought respectability, and he wanted to be associated with reformers of good family like Quincy, [Samuel J,] May, Sewell, Rogers." p. 173.

(5) See below, Chapter X, for further discussion of May's concept of education in relationship to the other reforms.

(6) Boston Gazette, September 11, 1797.

(7) Samuel May, Jr., A Genealogy of the Descendants of John May who came from England to Roxbury in 1610 (Boston: Franklin Press, 1878), p.115.

(8) Boston Gazette, September 11, 1797.

(9) Especially graphic in describing Boston boyhoods of this period is Van Wyck Brooks' The Flowering of New England (New York: E. P. Dutton and Cp., Inc., 1936), Chapter I. Also see David Donald's Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1960) p.4.

(10) F. W. P. Greenwood, A Good Old Age, A Sermon. . . on the Death of Joseph May, Esq. (Boston: S. N. Dickenson, 1841), p.12.

(11) C. D. B. Mills, Syracuse Daily Journal, September 20, 1875.

(12) Mumford, May Memoir, pp. 2-4.

(13) By the third sentence of his autobiography, Sam is discussing his Sewall connections and his relationship to Josiah Quincy and John Hancock "of Revolutionary memory." Ibid., pp. 2 and 3.

(14) Ibid., pp. 4-12, 17-19.

(15) Boston Gazette, September 11, 1797.

(16) Mumford, Memoir, p. 24.

(17) Greenwood, A Good old Age, p. 12.

(18) Ibid., p.12.

(19) Dorothy May's twelve pregnancies resulted in six living children, but the Colonel adopted two more along the way. May Genealogy, p. 115.

(20) Sometimes his reading had an inhibiting effect on his charity. When he read Malthus he grew discouraged about helping the poor. Obviously; all they could do was multiply. He decided it was better to prevent poverty than relieve it, and went about making helpful suggestions about hard work and economy to those he judged in need of such advice. Greenwood,A Good Old Age, pp. 12-19.

(21) Mumford, May Memoir, p. 2.

(22) Ibid., pp. 22-28.

(23) Ibid., pp. 14, 15.

(24) Ibid., pp. 15-17.

(25) History of the Diocese of Syracuse, W. P. H. Hewitt, ed. (Syracuse: Catholic Sun Press, 1909), p. 56.

(26) Odell Shepard, Pedlar's Progress, the Life of Bronson Alcott (Boston: Little Brown and Co., 1937), p. 10.

(27) Louise Hall Tharp, Until Victory: Horace Mann and Mary Peabody(Boston: Little Brown and Co., 1953), p. 24.

Page 3 of 12


Chapter II: A Desirable Standing


The Harvard college campus was not a particularly imposing place that fall of 1813, but it was improving. Young Samuel Joseph May arrived to find a little cluster of six red brick buildings plumped down in an almost barren yard. There sat Harvard Hall, giving somewhat meager housing to the college library of 15,000 volumes, commons, and recitation rooms; elegant little Holden Chapel now used for lectures; and four dormitories.(1) Harvard's new President Thomas Kirkland, had arrived just three years before, discovering the Yard itself a ragged commons boasting the college brew house, wood yard, and privies, a few trees and some erratic footpaths. Floating up to punctuate recitations would come squeals from the nearby college pig-pen, notably at slaughter time.

Kirkland had set to work briskly enough, putting this university out of the brewing business and relegating the houses of office to a more discreet spot behind a grove of pines. Now in the Yard elms were to be planted, regular paths laid out and the grass coaxed into something like a proper lawn. Already underway was a grand new structure, University Hall, and a feeling of excitement and change was in the air.(2)


Certainly the student body was a more diverse group than ever before. A quarter of May's fellow students came from Boston,(3) but added to the usual batch of Brahmin's sons came now a jostling swarm of merchants' boys idled by the same war that had paralyzed their parents' ships and counting houses. This unpromising assortment was being put to an unusual advanced education until peace should come and the sea lanes be opened again. They were, May found, "more inclined to business than to learning.”(4) A goodly number of them dropped out promptly with the peace of 1815 to appear again only in August for the monumental eating, drinking and general carousing of class reunion days.(5)


Mixing in were the bright but poor boys from the hill country, lured from farm or workbench to pass the entrance examinations, painfully managing to put themselves through on a variety of stipends as monitors, bell ringers, or president's freshmen. Adding a final exotic touch were the students from far-off places, southerners in swallow-tail coats and fine calfskin boots commanding admiration from the provincial Yankee boys for their fine manners and elegant ways. By 1820 near the end of that era of good feeling, more than a quarter of the students were coming from outside New England, a proportion not to be equaled for another thirty years.(6) Harvard was a place to rub off some of one's Federal Court bias.


There was, however, at least a delusion of outward uniformity in the required manner of dress. No student—be he Yankee, Yorker or fresh from South Carolina mansion house—could appear in anything but pants of blue, grey, dark blue or Black, topped with a prescribed waistcoat and a Black gown for all public occasions. The authorities permitted no gold or silver lace, cord or edging (here a heavy Puritan hand reaching out from the past), and assessed proper fines all round for any breach of the rules.(7)


Sixteen-year-old Sam May regarded the whole scene with a touch of condescension. The Yard seemed only a slight extension of the world he had managed so easily across the River Charles. He was stuffed with all the fine knowledge and scrupulous techniques necessary to the Harvard entrance examinations (. . . be thoroughly acquainted with the Grammar of the Latin and Greek languages. . . able to construe and parse Virgil, Salust, Cicero . . . familiar with Notation, Reduction and Simple Rule of Three . . . .)(8) and he set out rather grandly to decide which of his college courses might be worth studying and which might not.(9) The schedule was rigorous. The Prayer Bell at six was followed by morning prayers by recitation by breakfast at half after seven. Then to more recitation and study periods alternating through the day until five, thence to evening prayers, supper, and three or four more pages of Latin to get for recitation next morning at six. "You see, Sir," wrote one of May's classmates to a demanding father, "we have full employment."(10)


For all its rigor of scheduling, academic life at Harvard that fall of 1813 was not particularly conducive to original thinking or indeed to much thinking at all. Students ground in their lessons one hour, ground them out under the professor's nose the next. The premium was high on memory work, low on flights of fancy. Class work was almost entirely devoted to recitation with occasional comment from the professor; lectures were few and came primarily in special series arranged by separate subscription. The move to replace tutorial instruction with that of professors on endowed chairs was but recently underway. With the exception of one mathematics professor and two in medicine, not a single scholar with European training had ever been appointed to the faculty.(11)

Still several years in the future was the pilgrimage of Edward Everett, George Bancroft, George Ticknor and Joseph Cogswell to Gottingen that was to vitalize the Harvard intellectual climate with transfusions of German higher thought. The Harvard of May's years was well summed up by Tichnor, writing back from Gottingen in 1816:


. . . I cannot better explain to you the difference between our University in Cambridge and the one here than by telling you that it consists in the Library and that in Cambridge the Library is one of the last things thought and talked about—that here they have forty professors and more than two hundred thousand volumes to instruct them, and in Cambridge twenty professors and less than twenty thousand volumes . . . we are mortified and exasperated because we have no learned men, and yet make it physically impossible for our scholars to become such. . . .(12)


The venturesome New England quartet was to bring thousands of maps, books and charts back to swell the Harvard collection, together with an enthusiasm for the European intellectual renaissance that was to shake Harvard from tits eighteenth century torpor and inspire a whole new movement in American thought. In the fall of 1813, however, Everett was still a tutor at Harvard and Bancroft was just starting out as a freshman along with May. Except for an occasional bright boy like Bancroft who approached his elders easily, there was little communion between faculty and student body.(13) They regarded each other uneasily, met primarily on formal occasions when the rules were understood ahead of time, and generally managed to stimulate and interest each other as little as possible.(14) If any student went to meet a professor except on demand, he kept it a secret.


Certainly young May was not one to seek out faculty members sub rosa for extra intellectual stimulation. He was entirely too wound up in vast enjoyment of good music, good friends and an all-round good time. When he began his autobiography years later, he dwelt lovingly on the friends he made at Harvard but neglected entirely to mention any of the faculty, an oversight corrected later by his studious classmate George B. Emerson who eventually edited May’s papers and put in a long footnote on the faculty, eulogizing his own favorites.


Except for the monumental Andrews Norton, the little faculty was earnest but undistinguished. There was Levi Frisbie, professor of Latin, with eyes so weak he must sit in the classroom shielding them with a handkerchief. Professor Frisbie would never read again, but his memory appeared phenomenal. If a good scholar hesitated for a moment over the niceties of a translation, the best and most elegantly appropriate phrase would soon pop out from under the handkerchief. There was Dr. Hedge, kindly and pleasant, author of the famous logic, and Professor Popkin who taught Greek and carried an odd device called an umbrella. If one survived into one's junior year, there would be john Farrar, professor of natural philosophy and astronomy, so eloquent a lecturer that he could make a devout student like Emerson forget it was time for dinner.(15)


Eclipsing them all, even in 1813 when he was only 17 years old, was Andrews Norton, then college Librarian and soon to be named Dexter professor of sacred literature. Destined to route the Calvinists in behalf of liberal Unitarianism by force of sheer logic, Norton was to win his title "Unitarian Pope" from Carlyle through his ardent defense of common sense and John Locke against the wilder onslaughts of the Germanizing transcendentalists.(16) One of the few professors to leave a discernible mark on May's mind and career, Norton was to exercise a major hand in shaping the young Bostonian's philosophy. Fifty years later May could still recall the almost unparalleled respect and confidence Norton inspired.(17) Presiding over the entire establishment was the genial President Kirkland, now just well underway in creating what later alumni called Harvard's Augustan Age. Sympathetic and gentle, Kirkland seemed to know at any moment what might be happening in his student's lives, and called them frequently into his office for admonition, reassurance or fatherly advice. "He loved his work, he loved his students," said May's classmate, Samuel Eliot, "they were not merely students, but his students, his sons, and as he loved them, so they loved him. For this the College had been waiting almost two Centuries."(18)


Though easy-going and careless, apt to scribble a sermon on a scrap of paper and then forget to copy it off legibly enough to read, Kirkland was forgiven for such inattention to detail by the solid citizens who governed the college. A good many of them, idled by the War of 1812, spent more time than they otherwise would have in the affairs of the Corporation. They found much to admire in a man who was not only to raise the reputation of the institution, infusing it with a new power and intellectual vigor, but to bring into its treasury a goodly amount of wealth as well. Bachelor and Federalist, Kirkland was a great in First Family homes, was Boston's candidate for the presidency in 1806, and became the Brahmin idea of scholar and gentleman.


In 1813 administration and faculty under the vigilance of the Corporation composed a close little group, adhering still to eighteenth century patterns of thought but preparing almost indiscernibly for the intellectual awakening that was to come. Their graduates were to be sober, serious men, impatient of any preoccupation with the arts, and adept at logic and argumentation. These graduates had learned to think, sedately and prudently, and to write with force, style and some grace. They were destined to play prominent roles as scholars, statesmen and financiers, well blessed with the good of this world and confident of their position in the next.


From the beginning Sam fit uncomfortably into the mold. His freshman year was a miserable one. His college career almost ended in disgrace before it was well underway. On arrival he had brashly decided which courses would never be of any use to him, and had resolved to waste no time in studying them. By the spring of his freshman year he had fallen to a low place scholastically, and had become dissatisfied with school and thoroughly unhappy with himself. (19)


At this dismal point the subjects for the Bowdoin Prize dissertations were announced. One of the most prestigious of the Harvard competitions, the Bowdoin prize contest had been held annually since 1794 "for the advancement of useful and polite literature. . . "(20) To secure "impartiality in the judges and calmness in competitors," the names of the entrants were not announced until after the prizes were awarded, and then only those of the winners. Thus was to be secured vigorous industry and exertion of mind, while all the evils of competition, "jealousy, envy, suspicion of unfairness and mortification of public failure," were avoided.(21) It was a competition particularly pleasing to the Cambridge mind. No freshman had ever won one; no freshman was expected to try.


Young May decided to enter. If he won, he confided to his father, he would instantly have "a desirable standing in the class, which it will be much easier to maintain than to acquire, for if it should fail I shall be obliged to establish my character by a long series of almost imperceptible gradations, which is extremely discouraging and irksome."(22) It was a typical May stroke. If one could achieve the heights at one bold leap, why climb up painfully via the discouraging and irksome?


He set about work briskly, chose "The Causes of the Diversities of National Character" as his subject, kept his intention a profound secret. If his room-mate found out, he would tell everybody and ruin everything. May's library charge lists suddenly came to life—Kaime's Sketches of Man, Montesquieu on the spirit of laws, Sidney on government. During the term he wrote steadily and stealthily. In spring vacation he copied off his essay in the lavish hand that was to be his through life.(23) Signing it "Juvenis of the Freshman Class", he deposited it in the appointed place, and set out to wait anxiously through the long, hot summer. Classes droned on at their regular pace, but he found his whole intellectual life at fever pitch. He studied his hated Greek with unparalleled intensity, read 30 pages of history a day, and wrote smugly to his father that "No one sleeps more sweetly than he who when he puts his head on his pillow can look back on the past day and see nothing left undone which ought to have been done." There was a new kind of tranquility in these days, but night and early morning could think of nothing but his essay. (24)


Finally one August morning in chapel, President Kirkland rose, requested all to be seated, and to hear the judgment of the corporation on the Bowdoin Prizes. Thirty-one had been entered. All had been read and deemed meritorious, but preference had been given to four, including that of Samuel J. May of the freshman class!


May felt like sinking through the floor. His friends crowded around, congratulating this new kind of freshman,(25) and from that moment May's rehabilitation of reputation was underway. Winning the Bowdoin was the "great event" of May's college life. Despite his great pleasure in the accomplishment, he found his "cup of joy was not unmixed. Some contemptuous remarks came to my ears, and the cruel insinuation that it must have been written for me by another."(26)


It was like May to take faculty honors in stride but to fret about what his classmates thought. A man who could fill his college memoirs with names and detailed descriptions of all his friends without ever mentioning the name of a professor was not material for the scholar's life. He kept academic matters under respectable control after that, checked an occasional book from the library, and kept out of trouble with the faculty except for one warning about an illegal coat. He managed to graduate a presentable thirteenth or fourteenth of a class of 67,(27) but found his chief joy in live friends rather than dead savants.

After that first miserable year with a room-mate he could not trust, May decided to room with his cousin Samuel Sewall. They found it a happy arrangement for the rest of their college years. "Chumming", it was called. They lived in old Hollis, an imposing Georgian brick structure trimmed in white and punctuated with oriel windows as well as massive chimneys for all the fireplaces needed to heat the student rooms. Built in 1736 by the province of Massachusetts Bay, Hollis was arranged on the medieval chamber and study system. It had survived conversion into barracks for colonial troops in 1776,(28) and the high spirited occupancy of hundreds of Harvard boys before and afterwards.


The class of 1817, May and Sewall shortly found, was a fine one in which to make friends. May was soon known as one of the most cheerful and popular. "Everyone who met him was drawn towards him", recalled Sewall.(29) May's name inevitably found its way into almost every one of the memoirs Harvard men of that era felt it their duty to write in their declining years. Their class was considered outstanding, boasting as it did the names of George Bancroft, sterling historian; Caleb Cushing, ambassador and statesman; Samuel Eliot, father of the Harvard president, Charles W. Eliot, and May, philanthropist and reformer. "Of my classmates", May reminisced, "a number have since become distinguished men, as may be seen by recurring to the Catalogue; and we considered ourselves, as a whole, a superior set of fellows.”


For this superior set there were rather restricted means of entertainment. To keep them at their books and curb the distressing tendency to riot, the corporation set a demanding schedule. Even on Saturdays there was chapel and a recitation before one could conveniently escape across the West Boston Toll Bridge to visit relatives, real or imaginary. May could enter his name in the President's Freshman's book as visiting bona fide family, but he and the others were expected to be back in time to enter their names again at eight in the evening and pass the Sabbath eve sedately in their own rooms.(30)


Nonetheless no collegians ever managed to enjoy themselves more. Class football was just taking hold, and a monumental battle every fall between freshmen and sophomores went on for weeks every day at the noon hour. When he was 70 years old, May was still limping out into school grounds to teach the children how to play proper Harvard football, and of course he had to send to Boston to get a proper football to do it with.(31) There was also cricket and a game called in that pre-Doubleday era, "bat and ball.” There was bathing in the river at high tide in the summer time, and, for those who could afford it, a stable full of dubious nags for riding.


May was no rider; he was always awkward around horses. But he did love to sing, and the college spawned a flock of singing societies, orchestras and choirs. In his junior year, he was launched with some distinction into the glamour of a military life. Brave in breastplate, gun strap and cockade, he found his first junior theme returned with a mark of special approbation by the officer,(32) who promoted him to sergeant of the college company. It was a great day in 1817 when the Harvard Washington Corps paraded before President James Monroe in his grand tour of the northeast.(33) The old Virginia colonel, it may be surmised, enjoyed the parade ground performance fully as much as he did the other exercises of the day which featured a salutatory oration, "remarkable for its purity and classic elegance," given the pride of the class, Caleb Cushing, entirely in Latin.(34)


May had a "bump of combativeness" that was very well developed, Phrenologist Orson Fowler assured him in later years. May, who had in the years since his Harvard days turned into an ardent non-resistant, was somewhat amused by this analysis, but he always did feel a little nostalgic about that blue and white uniform with the dashing cockade.(35)


Aside from the president's visit, the outside impinged only occasionally on the tight little cosmos in the Yard. In 1814 the Harvard boys were dispatched to King's Chapel to participate in the service of Thanksgiving for Napoleon's first exile, and in February of 1815 when the brig "Favorite" arrived in the New York harbor bearing news of the treaty of Ghent, the Harvard boys broke from their customary cordon of discipline and celebrated gloriously with the rest. The college company fired the federal salute, the singers sang an anthem at prayers, and the colleges were brilliantly not to say extravagantly illuminated for an entire hour in the evening from eight until nine.(36)


It was really only at commencement time that the college doors opened and the outsiders came thronging in. The banks in Boston closed for the day, and gentlemen, old Harvard or not, took rooms in Cambridge to entertain their friends. There were booths, fairs and horse races, the entire occasion becoming one grand public festival for all of eastern Massachusetts. (37)


In the tide of general lavishness, parental purse strings were loosened, and fond fathers of graduating seniors spared no expense for the fashionable commencement spread. On the hot August day in 1817 when Sam was graduated, the Mays were invited to a monumental affair given by the parents of Sam's classmate, Stephen Salisbury. The Salisburys had dinner for 100 under a tent in a green field, and guests were plied with meats, puddings, tarts, cakes, ice cream, oranges—"everything of the very best quality"—down to madeira, porter, claret, brandy and rum. Father Salisbury, who had spent Stephen's college years spouting admonitions concerning prudence, caution and thrift, paid for this extravaganza without recorded complaint a total of $780.02 Stephen's average bill for an entire quarter at college usually ran to something under $40.00.(38)


Probably the opportunity for unbounded good fellowship with classmates he loved and respected was the major opportunity Harvard College offered Samuel May. Certainly the main effect of his college years was not one of intellectual stimulation. He could produce a perfectly respectable piece of scholarly research; (in 1856 he could still cite a source and compose a proper footnote) but these were academic grace notes, embellishments only to a life of practical, out-going activity. True to his Boston upbringing, May usually managed to avoid anything that would require aesthetic skills. He hated fiction, despised going about looking at art galleries, and appreciated music only when there was a rousing tune you could hum to. The college had him for four years. It could not make him a scholar, but neither did it make him a doctrinaire.


What it did manage to do for him was vital. As a classmate of young Thomas R. Sullivan, grandson of the Boston merchant prince, May was included in parties of the Boston elite where he mingled pleasantly with Eliots and Otises, and on one memorable occasion met Daniel Webster. Shortly after he left Harvard, he was invited to Nahant, favorite country resort of Boston's first families, to teach first family children and preach to their elders on Sundays. Thanks to a Sewell bearing and a Harvard degree, May moved easily into his lifelong orbit, one in which he did not hesitate to differ with Cabots or to write long admonitory letters to Lowells.(39) May's college experience confirmed his claim to a position in the Boston hierarchy; it helped make possible his eventual acceptance into the national establishment.


Meanwhile he was graduating at the age of 20, his beliefs and opinions still immature, his outlook optimistically vague. In the Harvard Divinity School he would find a profession and form the philosophy that would guide his life.



(1) Benjamin Thomas Hill, "Life at Harvard A Century Ago As Illustrated by the Letters and Papers of Stephen Salisbury, Class or 1817", Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, 1909-1910. (Worcester: Publication of the Society, 1911), p. 197.

(2) Samuel Eliot Morison, Three Centuries of Harvard, 1636-1936 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936). pp. 215-6.

(3) Timothy Dwight, " Boston at the Beginning of the 19th Century", Old South Leaflets, VI (Boston: Directors of the Old South Work, Old South Meeting House, n. d.), p. 14.

(4) Mumford, May Memoir, p.29.

(5) "The Class of 1817", a manuscript volume preserved in the Harvard Archives, gives mention to William F. Cary who left college at the "Peace of 1815" but faithfully turned up in 1863 for the 50th anniversary of the admittance of his class to college.

(6) Morison, Three Centuries of Harvard, pp. 198-201; Samuel A Eliot, A sketch of the History of Harvard College and of its Present State (Boston: C.C. Little and J. Brown, 1848), pp. 79-80.

(7)College Laws of 1807, cited in Hill, Life in Harvard, p. 216.

(8) Laws of Harvard College for the Use of the Students at Cambridge(Cambridge: University Press, 1814), p. 3.

(9) Mumford, May Memoir, p.30.

(10) For student schedules see the Salisbury letters, pp. 210, 218, 227-228; also George B. Emerson, Reminiscences of an Old Teacher (Boston: Alfred Mudge and Son, 1878), p. 17

(11) Morrison, Three Centuries of Harvard, p. 224.

(12) Ibid, p. 226.

(13) Mark Anthony DeWolfe Howe, The Life and Letters of George Bancroft, Vol. I (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1908), pp. 25-26.

(14) Andrew Preston Peabody, Harvard Reminiscences, quoted in Howe,Bancroft, pp. 25-6.

(15) Brooks, Flowering of New England, p. 38-40: Emerson,Reminiscences, p. 29, and Mumford, May Memoir, pp. 33-35.

(16) Brooks, Flowering of New England, p.40; Shepard, Pedlar's Progress, p. 253.

(17) May to Charles Eliot Norton, October 18, 1867, Harvard University.

(18) Quoted in Morrison, Three Centuries of Harvard, p. 197.

(19) Mumford, May Memoir, p. 30.

(20) Historical Register of Harvard College, 1636-1936 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1937), p. 70.

(21) Eliot, Harvard Sketch, p. 92-93.

(22) May to Colonel Samuel May, June 29, 1814. This is the earliest extant May letter, complete with youthful rhetorical flourishes and sober assurances of his attempts at industry and virtue. Harvard University.

(23) The prize essay is still preserved in the Harvard archives along with such memorabilia of the May college career as his library charging lists, and records of his brief encounters with the faculty.

(24) May to Colonel May, June 29, 1814.

(25) The only good friend who was not there was George B. Emerson. He had been experimenting with the idea of sleeping just four hours a night, but the omniscient President Kirkland found out about it and sent him home to rest and recover his health.

(26) Mumford, May Memoir, p. 33.

(27) Ibid., p. 33.

(28) From a memorial plaque on the side of the building.

(29) Mumford, May Memoir, p. 40.

(30) Morison, Three Centuries of Harvard, p. 208. The rumor got started once that the college was going to cut Boston Saturdays to one per month. That was almost enough to start another riot. Salisbury Letters, p. 211.

(31) Mumford, May Memoir, p. 247.

(32) Salisbury Letters, p. 227.

(33) W. P. Cresson, James Monroe (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1946), p. 288.

(34) Salisbury Letters, p. 234.

(35) For a good description of phrenology and an excellent chart clearly showing the bump of combativeness, see Frank Croft, "Phrenology Had All the Answers," McLean' s Magazine, September 24, 1960, pp. 26-28.

(36) Salisbury Letters, p. 220.

(37) Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Cheerful Yesterdays, p.42.

(38) Salisbury Letters, pp. 244-246.

(39) For one occasion on which May differed with a Cabot, see below, p. 47, f.n. His last recorded contact with a Lowell came on April 26, 1861, when he submitted a manuscript written by a friend to James Russell Lowell, editor of the Atlantic Monthly. May not only recommended the piece to Lowell; he advised him to publish it in three monthly portions, and indicated precisely the pages to be included in each section. Should the article prove unsuitable for the Atlantic Monthly, said May, in the tone of an older Brahmin addressing a newcomer on the scene, Lowell was personally to dispatch it to a magazine that could use it. May to "Prof. Lowell", April 26, 1861, Harvard University

Page 4 of 12


Chapter III: Prove All Things


Sam edged through the door of Dr. Henry Ware's study. He looked around apprehensively, but no one except the doctor was within hearing. Sam had something on his conscience; he expected its disclosure to shock Ware and threaten his own career.(1) He, Samuel Joseph May, son of a pioneer Unitarian father(2) and himself a candidate for the Unitarian ministry, could no longer accept the theory of Christ's virgin birth.


It was 1819. Sam was studying divinity at Harvard. As an undergraduate he had drifted into a decision to enter the ministry, but he no longer approached his career so casually. The boy who had once decided which freshman courses were worth his time had now undertaken to evaluate all of Unitarian doctrine. Some of it, he was shocked to discover, he could not accept.


Henry Ware listened silently while the details tumbled out. As Harvard's divinity professor since 1805, he must have entertained many such distraught young men. When Sam finished, silence filled the room. Sam felt like a criminal about to receive sentence. Finally Ware spoke. "My young friend," he said tenderly, "I am grad to find that you have arrived at a doubt. I perceive that you have begun to think on the great subjects to which you have turned your attention,—that you have entered upon study of Theology in good earnest."


Sam took a gulping breath of surprise and relief. But he could not leave the matter there. How, he wanted to know, could he ever resolve all his troubling doubts?


"Mr. May," said Ware, "I cannot resolve your doubts for you if I would; and I should not resolve them for you if I could. When finite minds turn to the contemplation of the nature, character, providence, and work of the Infinite, it is to be expected that some things will appear difficult to be understood, that doubts will arise." He himself still had doubts, Ware confided, and expected to have them until the day he died.


"But sir," May persisted, "what are the essential truths, — truths that I must believe?"


The older man may have permitted himself a smile. "All truth," he said in his peculiarly comforting way, "is essential. You are bound to believe whatever, at any time, shall appear to you to be true." If young Mr. May sincerely desired the truth, Ware assured him, God would not permit him to remain satisfied in error. If May's belief at any time led him to reverence God, keep his commandments, love his fellow beings and delight in doing them good, Ware concluded, such belief could not be a "dangerous error."


And with this pragmatic test for truth, May had to be content. It did satisfy him. Comforted and strengthened, he emerged from his crisis determined to keep at his poking and probing, uncomfortable though the results might be. After that encounter, he liked to say, perhaps in echo of Jefferson, he was never afraid to pursue any inquiry after truth, however it might seem to threaten cherished beliefs.


"Many there may be ready enough to lean on your word," he warned a later generation of Harvard divinity students in 1847. "Refuse the responsibility of allowing them to rest there. Insist that they go to Christ for themselves."(3) And whenever he stirred strident controversy, he would say happily, "This is what I want to do — to get people to think. If they think they will come to the truth."(4) Somewhere there existed an absolute truth. Of this, May felt certain. Each man, however, must make his way alone toward that truth. It was not surprising that the Pauline injunction, "Prove all things, hold to that which is food,"(5) became a guiding principle for this probing spirit. May inscribed it on the masthead of the newspaper he founded in his first parish(6) and acted as consistently on it as he could in the years that followed.


Dr. Ware's reaction that day in 1819 and the advice he gave were typical, both of the man and of the divinity faculty he represented. Founded in 1636 for the express purpose of training Puritan divines, Harvard College had been captured from orthodox Congregationalism by the Unitarians in 1805. Ware's appointment that year’s Hollis professor of divinity signaled this Unitarian triumph. After that date, young men who wanted to enter the liberal ministry came to the campus to read with the president of the college and Dr. Ware.(7) This informal style of professional education continued without much modification until 1815 when President Kirkland issued an appeal for funds specifically for divinity education. Appended to his appeal was an ominous warning by William Ellery Channing that the "profession of the ministry has an aspect not inviting to the young. . . . to the hasty observation of youth, there is a gloominess, a solemnity, a painful self-restraint belonging to the life of a minister." The profession of the ministry, intoned Channing, is thus "comparatively deserted. He also asked for money for scholarships.(8) Shortly thereafter subscribers to the new fund organized themselves into the Society for the Promotion of Theological Education in Harvard University.(9) After that memorable event, instruction was somewhat amplified but as late as 1819 May found the course of study "meager indeed."(10) With books few and poor and lectures sporadic, the students wandered about the college and acquired what education they might.


Ware and the other Harvard professors summoned on occasion to give special series of lectures to the divinity students may have provided an education sketchy in content, but it was an education devoted in spirit to the basic principle of freedom of inquiry. Such a principle the founders had written in to the constitution of the Society for the Promotion of Theological Education. Every encouragement, specified this document, must be given to the "serious, impartial, and unbiased investigation of Christian truth. . . . " No student or teacher was to be required to endorse" the peculiarities of any denomination of Christian."(11)


So punctilious in this regard was Dr. Ware that in setting doctrinal problems for class investigation he was careful to suggest readings expressing the most divergent points of view. Primed by such contrasting sources, students usually came back next time to clash sharply in class discussion. At the end of such vigorous sessions, Dr. Ware summarized the discussion impartially, giving full consideration to all views expressed and no inkling al all as to his own.(12)

If most of the divinity professors only hinted at the nature of final truth, one man was certain he had found it and did not hesitate to recommend it to others. This man was the Rev. Andrew Norton, giant among defenders of early rational Christianity and, beginning in 1819, Dexter Professor of Sacred Literature in the divinity program. Scholarly, ardent, aggressive, the doughty Norton loved to argue with his students, stimulating in them an equal joy in intellectual combat.(13) May was to charge into many a future battle, head high, arguments ready, and a beatific smile on his face.


When May first knew him, Norton had already embarked on his lifework, the demolition of the orthodox position that every word of Scriptures is equally divinely inspired. To understand the Bible and rightly divide the word of truth, Norton maintained, one must interpret the scriptures in the light of the culture and history of Biblical times. To this he brought the most scrupulous scholarship and new German methods of scriptural criticism.(14)


Equally important to an incipient educational reformer was Norton's enthusiasm for the philosophy of John Locke.(15) Locke could provide a firm foundation for a whole framework of reform thought. The human spirit at birth, Locke declared in his "Essay on the Human Understanding," is like a sheet of whitepaper. (16) As this "tabla rosa" is etched by experience, Locke, held, the only way of gaining knowledge is through the senses. The more subtle conclusions stem from reflection on this basic stuff experience.


This "sensationalist" view of human nature contrasted sharply with the traditional Calvinist concept of man as essentially evil. Seeing Adam's original sin in every child, Calvinists relied on an authoritarian education as the only way to cope with the depraved nature of the young. The best way to educate a child, they held, is to tell him what to believe, to break his spirit, and to put the fear of God into him. Traditional education based on this theological concept, both in Europe and in America , emphasized rote learning, harsh discipline, and liberal use of the rod.(17)


Locke's view paved the way for Rousseau and the French humanitarians to contend that human nature instead of being innately evil is essentially good and capable of perfection. Locke's theory that human nature is shaped by its surroundings also made it possible to argue that individual sin might arise at least in part from an unfavorable environment. Social evil might stem not alone from God's wrath at sinful man, but from environmental, conditions which could be changed.(18) From this rationalist-humanitarian thought grew much of nineteenth century reform in America . It was to be particularly important to educators. Reformers like May, bred such a tradition, could argue that a child's own nature might better be developed through love than through fear. They could develop teaching methods encouraging a child to draw conclusions from his own experience rather than depending entirely on rote learning of disembodied facts and figures that had no meaning for him. (19)


On Locke, May reared his own philosophical structure for reform. He prescribed the Essay on the Human Understanding as the first piece of required reading for young men eager to enter the ministry; a year spend studying this one work, he believed, was in itself a liberal education.(20)


Norton was a major influence in May's intellectual development. As a divinity student May not only attended Norton's lectures, but lived next door to him in the pleasant Appian Way and occasionally dropped in on the bachelor professor for a talk.(21)


Few teachers, May recalled later, inspired such respect and confidence as did Andrews Norton.(22) Many of the younger man's deepest convictions on educational practice echoed Norton's views. Norton thought that the system of encouraging children by comparing them with others was heathenish.(23) May did too, once refusing the principalship of a promising Boston school because the system of "emulation" was required by law.(24) Norton thought that whipping children was savage.(25) May spent a lifetime denouncing corporal punishment in the classroom.(26)


Thus, in this small seminary May found both the philosophy and the stimulus for a career of social reform. Rational Unitarian doctrines emphasizing human reason, and the goodness and perfectibility of human nature.(27) Harvard's divinity professors exemplified this progressive Unitarian philosophy. Twenty years later the transcendentalists would sneer at these early Unitarian teachers as a cold, bloodless lot, but the students of 1820 who learned from them while American Unitarianism was young found them warm, encouraging, and exciting to hear.


May finished divinity school in 1820 and was approbated to preach by the Berry Street Conference of Unitarian ministers in Boston.(28) He then preached at a series of churches and served as aide to William Ellery Channing. In 1823 the Rev. James Freeman, pastor of King's Chapel in Boston, preached May's installation sermon at his first parish in Brooklyn, Connecticut.


May was to cast his eyes carefully about to "discover what moral evils have sprung up in the present age," Freeman admonished. "To them you will pay your principal attention; and you will exert yourself to eradicate them, wherever they appear."(29)


Under such a charge, what young minister could resist a try at reform?



(1) The details of this incident together with the direct quotations and the account of May's feelings come from his autobiographical fragment in theMay Memoir, pp. 44-48.

(2) May's father, Colonel Joseph May, was one of 20 men in 1785 who voted to convert King's Chapel in Boston into the country's first Unitarian church. The oldest Episcopalian church in New " England , King's Chapel became Unitarian almost a generation before other liberal churches in New England adopted Unitarian views. See the May Memoir, page 2, and Our Unitarian Heritage by Earl Morse Wilbur (Boston: The Beacon Press, 1925), pp. 335, 390 and 399.

(3) Samuel J. May, Jesus The Best Teacher Of His Religion (Boston: William Crosby and R. P. Nichols, 1847), p.10.

(4) Joseph May, A Memorial Study, Samuel Joseph May, By His Son. . . .(Boston: Ellis Publishing Co., 1898), p. 21.

(5) 1 Thessalonians, 1:21.

(6) This newspaper, devoted to religion and reform, was named The Christian Monitor and Common People's Advisor and published in Brooklyn, Conn., beginning in 1832.

(7) Conrad Wright, "The Early Period (1811-40)." The Harvard Divinity School: Its Place in Harvard University and in American Culture, ed. George Huntston Williams (Boston: The Beacon Press, 1954) p. 23.

(8) William Ellery Channing, Observations on the Proposition for Increasing the Means of Theological Education at the University in Cambridge(Cambridge: Hilliard and Metcalf: 1816), pp. 12-14. A copy of this publication may be found in the Rare Book Room of the Library of Congress.

(9) Wright, "Early Period," Harvard Divinity School, pp. 24-27.

(10) As students, May recalled, he and his fellows were "left to ourselves to pursue our studies as we might, receiving no thorough training in any department." Mumford, May Memoir, p. 44.

(11) Wright, "Early Period," Harvard Divinity School pp. 36-7.

(12) Ibid., pp. 39-40. Says Wright on pages 59 and 60: "They [the Harvard divinity faculty] believed that careful training in biblical criticism would enable students to form for themselves sound conclusions on disputed points of theology. If was their conviction that free enquiry by disciplined minds was the only way to enlarge the domain of truth."

(13) Brooks, Flowering of New England, p. 43.

(14) Wright, "Early Period," Harvard Divinity School, p, 46.

(15) Shepard, Pedlar's Progress, p. 253.

(16) Octavius Brooks Frothingham, Transcendentalism in New England, A History (New York: Harper and Brothers, Harper Torchbook Edition, 1959), pp. 3. 118. The Transcendentalists were always very detailed when they wrote about Locke. They wanted everybody to know precisely what they disagreed with. Also helpful on Locke in this context is The American Transcendentalists edited by Penny Miler, (Garden City: Doubleday and Company, 1957) pp. 4, 104, 105.

(17) R. Freeman Butts and Lawrence A. Cremin, A History of Education in American culture (Henry Holt and Company: New York, 1953) p. 66.

(18) Merle Curti, The Growth of American Thought (2d ed.; New York: Harper and Brothers, 1951), p. 122.

(19) See Chapter VII for a discussion of the new educational methods May helped to develop.

(20) James Freeman Clarke. "Samuel Joseph May," Memorial and Biographical Sketches (Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1878), pp. 202-203.

(21) Mumford, May Memoir, p. 43. In a note to May's autobiography, May's friend George B. Emerson speculated that such visits "could not fail to awaken and encourage the highest thoughts and noblest purposes in a person so receptive of good as Mr. May."

(22) Samuel J. May to C. E. Norton, October 18, 1867.

(23) Emerson, Reminiscences, p. 21.

(24) In Memoriam, Samuel Joseph May (Syracuse: Syracuse Journal Office, 1871), p.21

This pamphlet was a reprint of May's obituary published in the Syracuse Journal after his death, July 1, 1871. The "emulation" system involved comparing children and awarding prizes to the best. May believed each child's work should only be compared with his own best performance.

(25) Emerson, Reminiscences, p. 21.

(26) See Chapter XI.

(27) Butts and Cremin, History of Education, p. 167.

(28) Mumford, May Memoir, pp. 60-61.

(29) James Freeman, "Charge to the Pastor," A Sermon Preached in Brooklyn, Connecticut, At The Installation Of Rev. Samuel Joseph May, November 5, 1823, By James Walker of Charleston. (Boston: John B. Russell, 1824), p. 25.

Page 5 of 12


Chapter IV: The Inalienable Right


Sam wound up his long speech and sat down amid the glares of his angry neighbors. He had just finished painting, in minute and embarrassing detail, a picture of the deplorable state of their own public schools in Brooklyn, Connecticut. They knew in advance, of course, that the common schools were in sorry shape over much of the state, but they did think that the education of their own young here in the pleasant village of Brooklyn was a shade superior to anything else in up-country Connecticut.(1)


Mr. May's unfortunate remarks proved especially mortifying to the local citizens in the presence of representatives from school committees all over the state, gathered to discuss the school situation. It was the afternoon of March 5, 1827. The occasion would prove historic: the first convention of citizens called in the United Stated to discuss the question of popular education.(2) Mr. May had written the circular summoning all interested Connecticut citizens to discuss the "numerous evils of the present system," though his name did not appear on the call. The circular was signed, instead, by the officers of the School Visitors in Brooklyn, Pomfret and Centerbury.(3) In this long and involved document, May posed a series of penetrating questions about books, teachers, school houses and teaching methods. He had designed them carefully to show the people of Connecticut they had no reason to be proud of their public instruction. Enough depressing information he thought, might prod the legislature to action.(4)


The circular proved electrifying to the countryside. More than a hundred towns responded; some sent letters, others dispatched delegates to the convention.(5) After the meeting had assembled, May encouraged the other delegates to confessions, by a "full unsparing exposure of the low state of the schools in Brooklyn."(6) As he had hoped, his tactics disarmed the other delegates, and they began to confess the shortcomings of their own school systems. The Brooklyn people perked up a bit as they heard worse things from other towns. The convention, aroused, voted to issue a full report of its deliberations and a call for reform.


This pioneer gathering in Brooklyn was evaluated 40 years later by Henry Barnard, editor of the American Journal of Education and a prominent historian of education in nineteenth century American life. The Brooklyn meeting, he said, called public attention through the state to the condition of the common schools and showed them "wholly inadequate to the thorough education of the young and undeserving the reputation claimed for them abroad."(7)

In the months following, other groups issued similar appeals. Pressure groups organized. A sluggish legislature bestirred itself to issue its own report condemning the disreputable state of the common schools. The reform of the Connecticut school system had begun.(8)


* * *

May had discovered the shameful state of the common schools in Connecticut almost as soon as he became pastor in 1822 of the First Ecclesiastical Society in Brooklyn, a parish he had insisted on taking despite strenuous opposition from parents and friends.(9) Why, they argued, give up his good prospects of a city parish? Why remove himself to the wilds of rural Connecticut, to the isolation of a village pastorate, to the entrenched bastion of Congregational Orthodoxy?


They wasted their breath. What delightful possibilities might there be for a man of battle in the First Society of Brooklyn—first and only Unitarian church in the whole of Orthodox Connecticut?(10) What clash and controversy in a state where only recently professed Unitarianism had been legal felony?(11) What stimulus might he find in a tiny congregation so ardent in its new-found Unitarianism as to have locked the door of the church against its protesting orthodox minister and his remaining trinitarians?(12) Who wanted to stay on in Boston where Unitarianism, already settling into respectability, was losing its tang of heresy, capturing counting house, bench and bar?(13)


May decided that the Brooklyn invitation was "a loud call to me, in the providence of God, to undertake the work of an evangelist in the most 'Orthodox' state in New England."(14) He was called in mid-February of 1822, and was ordained to the Unitarian ministry by the Boston clergy on March 14. He preached his first sermon as pastor in Brooklyn on March 17.(15)


The little village looked peaceful enough under the great elms that arched over churches, mills and shops. Its residents found their new minister a young man of vigorous intellect, good education and wide philanthropic interests.(16) Still a bachelor at 25, young May now stood a sturdy five foot, eight inches tall. His dark brown hair was combed back from a high forehead. His eyes were hazel, his nose roman," and his mouth generous and wide.(17) The Sewall cleft marked a firm chin.(18) Already he displayed one of his most distinctive characteristics: the ability to discriminate between what he felt about people personally and what he thought of their views. He could love a man and hate what he believed, simultaneously. It was an endearing characteristic, surprising in an ardent reformer, and destined to stand Sam in good stead in a life of controversy.(19) One of his typical gestures was to insist that when the struggling little orthodox group ordained their new minister, they should borrow the larger Unitarian church for the service. This gesture unsettled the speaker of the occasion, a fiery Calvinist who arrived ready to denounce all brands of Unitarianism, and discovered he was scheduled to deliver his philippic from a Unitarian pulpit.(20)


May found his parishioners a hardy, practical lot—all forty families of them. They were mostly farmers. Those who had graduated from agriculture to more urban concerns still were not adverse to a hard day of manual labor. Fresh from the city, May was astonished one day to find a principal parishioner, a former state senator and a man of substance, so dirty from burning off a woodlot that he refused to shake the preacher's hand.(21) The Hon. George Sharpe, however, had something more sophisticated on his mind than the shape of the back forty. He entertained a grave concern about the state of the common schools, a concern in which May joined when he was elected to the board of school visitors for the town(22) and first saw the schoolhouses.


May had come to Connecticut well-briefed on the reported glories of its common education and the magnificent school fund of $1,200,000 set aside by the state's legislature in 1795. He discovered, however, that the very existence of the fund dampened general interest and degraded education. Since 1795 the state's population and the number of schools had almost doubled, but Connecticut citizens, secure in the knowledge of their famous fund, persistently refused to tax themselves to pay for the increase. The fund was there. Why pay extra taxes? The fund should pay for some kind of teacher. Why raise the salary to get a good one? The fund must support a school where citizens wanted one. Why not have one at every front door?(23)


Thus, in Connecticut early foresight had led to latter day degeneration. Districts multiplied as funds available for each dwindled. The average male teacher commanded the munificent wage of $12 a month, something less than the common laborer. The unfortunates doomed to "board round" were more apt to get $6. As a result the corps of teachers consisted to a considerable extent of incompetents, ignoramuses, and drifters too footloose to hold down one job for 12 months of the year. The replacement rate was monumental.(24)


Jammed into Connecticut schoolhouses averaging 20 feet square were as many as 50 or 60 children together with their rulers, inkstands, pencils, maps, benches, desks, stove, or fireplace, woodbox, coats, hats, and 50 or 60 lunchboxes smelling of pork and cheese.(25) Wind whistled through the chinks in the winter; sun beat through curtainless windows in summer. Students alternately froze or sweltered depending on their distance from window or fire. The oldest students slumped on backless benches; the youngest dangled their feet, unable to touch the floor. Ventilation was miserable; headache and nausea and lassitude, the most frequent afflictions.(26)


Usually plopped square in the middle of the district, schools commonly occupied the cheapest available land, be it adjacent to marsh, pond or prison. Playgrounds were almost unknown. Less than half the schools in the state had toilets of any description.


The general quality of the teaching was pitiful; globes, blackboards and slates, almost unknown. "In short," concluded a committee reporting to the Connecticut General Assembly, "the great object seems to be to go through with a certain amount of processes and commit to memory a certain amount of words. . . with a kind of confused idea that knowledge will be the necessary result. The number of children who are trained to think. . . is by no means large."(27)


May moved in briskly on the disreputable situation in his district; he probed conditions of school houses, furniture, books and teacher qualifications. Everything disappointed him. He said so. Prodded by this new gadfly, the school committee stirred from its lethargy and took a more punctilious look at its teachers. The next batch of candidates were examined scrupulously. A paltry lot they were, to be sure. The committee rejected six of the fifteen applicants who could neither write nor figure accurately. The composition of a simple English sentence threw them into a panic and, huffed May, they knew no more of the geography of the earth than of the Mecanique Celeste. Yet they had all come well recommended as having taught acceptably in other towns.(28)

The Brooklyn committee thus earned a reputation for strictness. Subsequently, the worst of the incompetents gave the place a wide berth. Committeemen moved in to supervise the schools more thoroughly. The pastor was apt to appear in any classroom in the township. The pace of education in Brooklyn quickened perceptibly.


Still the large body of citizens remained obdurate. For this practical, hard-headed people, education was a casual thing to be fitted in between hoeing and harvesting or for a few weeks during the winter lull in the fields. In one school, May ascertained, half the pupils attended school about half the time, the rest less than one day in ten.(29) Parents refused to buy books, turned down invitations to visit schoolhouses, and stayed away from school society meetings when committeemen were to be elected. Taxpayers clutched their purses and turned away.(30) Parents who wanted their children to have decent educations sent them to private schools.


Taking to the lecture platform and to print, May pleaded the cause of public education. He made his debut on the national scene when a lecture delivered before the Brooklyn Lyceum in 1828 was printed with an editorial commendation in a promising new publication, The Journal of Education.(31)

Shrewdly he evaluated the current situation. These parsimonious New Englanders did care for their children, but a good many seemed to respect a hard-earned dollar more. If an appeal to love did not work, why not try fear? May stumped the countryside with a judicious balance of the two. These tight-fisted Puritans feared the rising lower classes. They feared revolutionists would overthrow the government. They feared their own sons would squander their inheritances. May played shrewdly on all these apprehensions.


May's situation in Connecticut paralleled that of the handful of hardy souls over the country who strove at this early date to shake the citizenry into a concern for education. Few Americans saw positive value in common schooling; many were afraid of it.


The common man, on the one hand, was all too apt to distrust education and the educated class. His own folk hero was the unlettered backwoodsman. Education was a pastime for the wealthy man; teaching, for the failure. The common man and his children had the crops to harvest with no time for foolishness.(32)


The elite, on the other hand, feared the rising democracy, and feared education would make the masses even more powerful and unruly. Prosperous advocates of laissez-faire considered education a private matter. They opposed socialization of education and fought the taxation of all for the benefit of some who happened to have children.(33)


May proved typical of those who undertook, with varying degrees of success, to prove that education could be all things to all men. His cogent arguments for his Brooklyn constituency would be repeated and elaborated on time and again in the years that lay ahead.


The first and most important people to reach were the wealthy and well-born, the substantial citizens and community decision-makers. In a forceful appeal, ostensibly intended for all "parents and guardians" of Brooklyn children but aimed at all the affluent, May made his case to the upper classes. "Be not unwilling to afford your children the advantages they may derive from a good teacher, for at least three or four months in the year, even if you do not happen to draw from the Public Fund so much money as will defray the whole expense," said May. "You cannot part with your own money for a better purpose than to educate your children." Any amount of inheritance, he warned, would be wasted on a child not educated to "correct view of life, integrity, industry, benevolence and piety." Without these qualities, heirs would only waste the substance their fathers labored so long to earn.(34)


There was more, and no one could be more skillful than the Brooklyn pastor in playing on the gentry's fear of social upheaval and depression. If the "stability of our civil institutions and the prosperity of our favored country depend, as we all say they do, upon the wisdom and virtue of our . . . men in; power, ought you not all to exert yourselves to the utmost, that hereafter the country may be in the hands of truly good and wise men, by doing all in your power to educate thoroughly the rising generation?(35) In a democracy, he pointed our shrewdly, no one can predict who will rise to power. "If we could foresee who were to be the people of power and influence," May later summarized this argument, "we could educate them alone." But since we cannot, our only security is in the "thorough intellectual and moral culture of the whole people."(36)


Only the education of all the people, he argued, can insure against the major social ills, crime, poverty, intemperance, mobocracy, and revolution.

These appeals were useful in persuading the rich, the well-born, and people who objected to schooling other people's children. They would have been very pleasing to a subsequent co-worker of May's in central New York, one George Geddes, who held education the only answer to the evils of "Radicalism, Agrarianism, Fourierism and emigration."(37)


Quite a different vein proved appropriate in addressing the average citizen. He must be persuaded that education could make him more prosperous, happy, and secure in his democratic freedoms. If the poor could only be led to see, May would say again and again, that a depressed social status stemmed from a faulty education! Proper education for all would insure that only those devoted to vice would be poor and that none could become rich because "every man could have his own competence and would be wise enough to want no more."(38)


Down through the years he would maintain the right of every individual, regardless of his social and economic status, to an education. Such an education May held an inalienable right.(39) "It is incumbent upon us to see that no one grows up a stranger to true liberty and the path to real happiness, and that no one shall be compelled by the poverty of his parents to live in darkness and sin."(40)


Finally, May assured both rich and poor, a good education affords the most eminently practical way to insure the best for every class. May, restless when exposed to too much music, art, or Shakespeare,(41) could easily grow eloquent over the utilitarian aspects of education. Surely, the prevention of poverty and suffering, vice and crime, was "both more merciful and more practicable," than the correction or relief of these evils after the fact.(42) "A very large proportion of murderers." he observed, "have been brought up in ignorance."(43)


Advancing these social justifications for improved education via lecture platform or periodical absorbed much of May's time during his ministry. In 1833, however, he would plunge into direct combat in defense of his ideas in an episode that would bring him both fame and notoriety on the national scene.



(1) Details of this convention, of the attitude of the citizens and of May's part in it, are drawn from May's autobiographical fragment in the May Memoir, pp. 118-123, as well as from other sources subsequently cited.

(2) This evaluation of the Brooklyn convention as first of its kind was made by Henry Barnard, editor of The American Journal of Education. See Samuel J. May to Dr. Thomas Robbins, August 17, 1855; #3730, Henry Barnard Papers, New York University Archives. Also A Brief Account Of His Ministry Given In A Discourse Preached To The Church Of The Messiah In Syracuse, New York, September 15, 1867, By Samuel J. May (Syracuse: 1867), p. 48. Also May to Henry Barnard, September 1, 1855, Barnard Papers, New York University.

(3) A copy of this circular is preserved with the Henry Barnard Papers. Inscribed on it in May's handwriting is "This circular was written by Samuel J. May." May had sent it to Barnard and asked for its return. Barnard, fortunately, rarely returned anything to anybody. The circular was preserved with his correspondence. May's own correspondence, diaries, and other papers, intact at the time of his death, have disappeared. His letters to others must be sought through libraries and collections over the country. Only Cornell University has a few of the diaries and small collection of family letters.

(4) Mumford, May Memoir , p. 118.

(5) A Brief Account Of His Ministry. . . By Samuel J, May ( Syracuse: 1867), p. 48.

(6) Mumford, May Memoir, p. 119.

(7) This evaluation comes from an unsigned biography of Samuel J. May published in The American Journal of Education (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1945), p. 325. Inclusion in the biographical sketches of theJournal, says Thursfield, was "a mark of some distinction, of recognition by an outstanding judge of leadership in education," p. 118.

(8) Samuel J. May, The Revival of Education, An Address To The Normal Association, Bridgewater, Massachusetts, August 8, 1855. (Syracuse: J. G. K. Truair, 1855), p. 19.

(9) Mumford, May Memoir, p. 77. May even resisted the advice of George Cabot, who spoke presumably on this occasion to a lesser being than was his wont.

(10) Ibid., p. 77.

(11) Shepard, Pedlar's Progress, p. 126.

(12) The First Ecclesiastical Society of Brooklyn had been split by the Unitarian Controversy soon after it broke out in Boston in 1815. Eventually the members of the Brooklyn church espousing the new doctrines became dominant. A typical controversy over possession of the church property resulted in the Unitarian members taking over the church physically and locking the others out of the church from 1817 to 1819. The ousted fragment founded a new orthodox church down the street in a smaller meetinghouse. Richard M. Bayles (ed.), The History of Windham County, Connecticut (New York: W. W. Preston and Co., 1889), p. 591.

(13) Shepard, Pedlar's Progress, p. 126.

(14) Mumford, May Memoir, p. 77.

(15) Ibid., p. 78.

(16) This is the way May was described by the township historian, Bayles,Windham County, p. 591.

(17) Details of his physical appearance including the "roman" nose come from May's U. S. Passport issued November 6, 1858. It is now preserved in the General Records Division of the National Archives, Washington, D.C.

(18) A picture of May's first cousin, Samuel Sewall, shows a decided family resemblance, particularly about the mouth and chin. Nina Moore Tiffany,Samuel E. Sewall, A Memoir (Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Co., 1898), frontispiece. The earliest daguerreotype of May, dated 1848, is in the files of the Onondaga Historical Association, Syracuse.

(19) This characteristic was always marked by his biographers. One of the best was James Freeman Clarke who found that May "united a courage which . . . shrunk from no respect for views differing from his own . . . ."Memorial and Biographical Sketches (Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1878) p. 206.

(20) Mumford, May Memoir, p. 99.

(21) Ibid., p. 82.

(22) It was customary in New England to commit the schools to the care of the ministers, often the only village residents with a claim to formal education. May's neighbors elected him as soon as they were sure he was there to stay. Mumford, May Memoir, p. 86.

(23) May, Revival of Education, p. 16.

(24) Ibid., p. 17.

(25) These humble products were the boast of Brooklyn. No other township its size produced so much in the whole commonwealth. Bayles,Windham County, p. 580.

(26) "Common Schools in Connecticut," American Journal of Education, V(1858), p. 141-7. This article was drawn from a report to the Connecticut General Assembly by representatives of 1600 Connecticut school districts in 1828.

(27) Ibid., p. 147.

(28) May, Revival of Education, p. 17.

(29) Samuel J. May, J. A. Welch, and George Sharpe, Address to the Parents and Guardians of Children Respecting Common Schools in Windham County (Brooklyn: Monitor Office, 1832), p. 3. The names of two other prominent citizens were appended to this report, but as usual, May was the responsible ghost.

(30) Ibid., pp. 2-4,

(31) Samuel J. May, "Common Errors in Education," American Journal of Education, IV (May and June, 1829), pp. 213-225. This was a different and earlier journal than Barnard's of the same name.

(32) Sidney Jackson, America 's Struggle for Free Schools (New York: American Council on Public Affairs, 1941), p. 33.

(33) Merle Curti, The Social Ideas of American Educators (New York: Scribner and Co., 1935), pp. 194-200.

(34) May, Sharpe and Welch, Parents and Guardians, p. 10.

(35) Ibid., p. 10.

(36) Samuel J. May, "The Importance of Our Common Schools," Lectures Delivered Before The American Institute of Instruction At Pittsfield, August 15, 16 and 17, 1843. (Boston: William D. Ticknor and Co., 1844), p. 231.

(37) Teachers' Advocate, I (February 4, 1846), p. 220.

(38) "An Address Delivered by the Reverend S. J. May at the Opening of a New and Highly-Improved District Schoolhouse in Hanover, Massachusetts., June 20, 1839," Common School Journal II, 14, pp. 226-7.

(39) May, "Importance of our Common Schools," American Institute Lectures, p. 225.

(40) May, "Opening of a Schoolhouse," Common School Journal, p. 220.

(41) ". . . some twenty or more ladies and gentlemen met here," he wrote in his diary January 10, 1870, "and spent three hours reading King Lear. Too much of a good thing." Or see his diary for December 7, 1859: "Spent forenoon in arranging letters from Europe and in framing and hanging pictures. Almost as tiresome work as visiting picture galleries."

(42) May, "The Importance of Our Common Schools," American Institute Lectures, p. 225. For May's views on the individual and personal objectives of education, see below, Chapter VII; for the religious objectives, Chapter IX.

(43) Samuel J. May, "Capital Punishment: Six Reasons Why it Should Be Abolished," New York Tribune, July 25, 1851.

Page 6 of 12


Chapter V: Those Chained Behind Us


By noon of June 27, 1833, Sam had completed a singular morning's work for a clergyman in an upcountry Connecticut parish. He had visited the county jail, picked a cell recently vacated by a murderer who left for the gallows, persuaded the jailer to clean it up, and had a bed brought over from the May house to replace the cell's dirty cot.(1)


Now he was finished and waiting for Miss Prudence Crandall of nearby Canterbury to arrive in custody of the sheriff. The cell was for her. Miss Crandall was not accustomed to such escort or such lodgings. An educated young Quaker spinster of elegance and determination, Miss Crandall was in trouble up to her pretty neck; she had managed to outrage the decencies of her village and particularly those of her wealthy neighbors. Welcomed originally to Canterbury by those very neighbors, she had opened a school, in her home and accepted their daughters as students. Then, however, she had allowed a young Negro girl to come, too. The citizens were appalled and their daughters hastily withdrawn. The resolute Miss Crandall, unintimidated, advertised for Negro students and they had come flocking from New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Providence.


To the villagers, Miss Crandall's 20 young ladies had looked like a black tide. Her neighbors had taken violent reprisal, refusing to sell her food, dumping filth in her well, and attempting to arrest her students as vagrants. Though the village of Canterbury was six miles away from May's Brooklyn, he had thrown himself into this new educational crisis the moment he first heard about it on February 27, 1833. Aroused by the story of Canterbury's indignation, Sam had hurried off to see Miss Crandall and offer help. With him went a Brooklyn parishioner, one George Benson. A good man to have along on such a mission, Benson was equipped with the proper sentiments, considerable money, and the prospect of William Lloyd Garrison as a son-in-law.(2)


A composed Miss Crandall welcomed the two men, but she soon showed her gratitude and relief at their appearance. As a woman, she could not with propriety state her own case in public, yet she was faced with the prospect of a town meeting called specifically to "abate the nuisance" of the Negro school.(3) No male had offered to defend her. She was willing to move the school to a less conspicuous part of the township, she told May, and asked him to appear as her attorney in the meeting to come. The citizens might be mollified by an adroitly offered compromise.


The town meeting March 9 in the major Canterbury meeting house, however, wound up in chaos. All attempts at order perished in the wild harangues of a leading Connecticut politician, Andrew T. Judson, who was particularly offended by the Negro school, He lived next door to Miss Crandall. Judson dominated the meeting, and then demanded and got immediate adjournment. May and another spokesman for Miss Crandall, Arnold Buffum of the New England Antislavery Society, were put out of the meetinghouse. They lingered on the green and persuaded some of the townspeople to listen to Miss Crandall's offer, but all hopes of compromise had vanished. Judson promptly mustered enough support in the Connecticut state legislature to pass a new "Black law" requiring approval by local authorities of any school for out-of-state Negroes. Miss Crandall was arrested on a charge of violating this new law on June 27.


Sam was undaunted by news of her indictment. With a rapidly developing flair for the dramatic, he sensed great possibilities in actually jailing Miss Crandall for the crime of having "proffered the blessing of a good education to those who, in our country, need it most. . . ."(4) He refused to put up bail, selected the murderer's cell as most appropriate for Miss Crandall' new role, and now on the afternoon of the 27th awaited his martyr-in-the-making.

Almost at sundown they met in front of the jail with the sheriff loudly protesting what he had to do. The drama was played out to a full gallery of citizens, horrified, inert, or enraged.


I would be a "______ shame and an eternal disgrace to the State,"(5) cried one, to put a lady into a murderer's cell. This was just the reaction May had planned on.


"Certainly gentlemen," said May, "and you may prevent it if you please."


He drew a torrent of abuse. The citizens avowed they wanted no more"_____ _____n-----s [the “n” word]" coming among them. May and his friends had encouraged all this. It was mean and despicable of them to desert Miss Crandall now.


"She knows we have not deserted her," said May. "The law which her persecutors have persuaded our legislature to enact is an infamous one . . . but the people generally will not so soon realize how bad . . . unless we suffer her persecutors to inflict on her all the penalties it prescribes. If you see fit to keep her from imprisonment in the cell of a murderer, you may do so . . . ; we shall not,"


May's antagonists turned away cursing. The sheriff, still protesting, turned Miss Crandall over to the jailer. The bolts of her cell were thrown behind her. She had, May felt, entered into history.


He was right. Miss Crandall's incarceration lasted only overnight. Next morning May bailed her out, and after two trials her case was eventually set aside by Connecticut's Court of Errors on a technicality.(6) Rising violence in Canterbury, however, did what the law would not. Prudence Crandall, terrified at last out of her composure by vigilante assaults that left her windows in shards and the house in flames, closed the school in September, 1833. May felt "ashamed of my color. Thus ended the generous, disinterested, philanthropic, Christian enterprise of Prudence Crandall."(7)


But its effects were only beginning. Reverberations echoed throughout the nation, bringing fame to the persistent Quakeress and to her ardent young "attorney" as well. May found himself a growing power in reform circles and increasingly known throughout New England at large.(8) Yankees began to stir uneasily, troubled in conscience. The denial of education to Negroes was proving not only unfair but dangerous, as rising crime among the ignorant Blacks seemed to show.(9) The cause of Negro education drew new importance and new adherents.


May's reputation among these campaigners went before him. Samuel Gridley Howe, chairman of the Boston School Committee, wanted Sam in 1845 as new principal of the notorious Smith School for Negro children in Boston. An unprecedented examination by representatives of the Boston School Committee had demonstrated the "deplorable condition" of this segregated institution.(10) The incumbent principle had "little faith in the capacities of the Negro children themselves," reported the committee.


May turned down the proffered post(11), but the offer was a tribute to his faith in the native capacities of the Negro. May believed that the Black was not mentally inferior to the white, only made to seem so by lesser education and opportunities. May first expressed this conviction formally in a series of published letters to Andrew T. Judson, his antagonist in the Crandall matter. May could, he told Judson, cite the reports of "physiologists" to show that Africans are not "naturally inferior" to other races. And even if such inferiority did exist, May argues, would it not provide more reason for giving Negroes particular assistance rather than crushing their talent and aspirations when they did appear?(12)


For those who argued that integration in education would mean intermarriage after school days were over, May had a frank reply. "Of course we do not believe there are any barriers established by God between the two races," he told Judson. "If there were any, the complexions of tens of thousands in our land show to our disgrace that those barriers are not impassable." He was careful to deny any advocacy of mixed marriage, but he maintained, "such connections would be incomparably more honorable to the whites . . . and the virtue of our nation, than that illicit intercourse which is now so common especially at the south."(13)


Despite such single choices urging integration, the northern states increasingly sought the answer to the problem of Negro education in the establishment of separate schools for the free Blacks. Through the Thirties and Forties the north found in such schools the solution to the problem of the increasing number of Negroes who managed to settle in northern communities despite increasingly stringent laws designed to keep them out. Cincinnati passed measures to expel all out-of-state Negroes who could not give guarantee of good behavior. Free Blacks were forbidden to come into Indiana and Illinois; it was a penal offense for any white person to help them come.(14) Still the number of free Blacks grew. Northerners were beginning to fear them almost as much as southerners dreaded the prospect of slave revolt; any attempt to admit northern Blacks into white schools almost inevitably met defeat. The primary school committee of Boston, that citadel of reform, voted it "inexpedient" in 1848 to act on a petition for abolition of separate Negro schools.(15) Most other communities followed suit.


This growing movement toward segregated education roused May to his most eloquent and indeed historic statement on desegregation in the schools.

"The institution of separate schools for the children of those who are 'guilty of a skin not colored like our own' is a perpetual imputation of fault, unworthiness, or inferiority, which must tend to discourage and keep them depressed," May wrote in 1864.(16) The argument was closely paralleled 90 years later in the "separate therefore unequal" decision of Chief Justice Earl Warren and his colleagues on the United States Supreme Court as they declared segregation unconstitutional.(17)


Give the Negroes an equal chance in the race for improvement, May urged, and "then if we get ahead and keep ahead of them, we may plume ourselves on our superiority. But it is no honor to us to beat those who are chained behind us, or encumbered with clogs. I am ashamed when I hear a white person assert the inferiority of Blacks."


"We are to show the world," he wrote, "that all men, not white men alone, but all, of every complexion, language, and lineage have equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and that all men . . . are capable of governing themselves . . . ."


* * *

Down through the years May thus wrote and fought and argued and agitated. When he could grab the reins of political power, he acted. In 1848 as pastor of the First Unitarian Society of Syracuse, New York, May was entrusted by his fellow citizens with the responsibility of drawing up the statement of principle on which the community's new school system was founded. Syracuse, a comparatively late settlement on the Erie Canal, had grown past its village proportions and had incorporated as a city.(18)


"Resolved," wrote May, "That in the bestowment of blessings of education, none of the children about us may be omitted with safety to the community any more than to themselves; for it is not in human wisdom to foresee by what individuals the public welfare may hereafter be most seriously affected."(19)

May's resolutions won approval; Negroes entered the new school system equally with whites. For a struggling village-turning-city, the decision was historic. Thanks to Samuel J. May, the city of Syracuse never segregated its schools; as late as 1860 the Syracuse Daily Journal could state that Syracuse still had the only completely integrated city school system in the state of New York.(20) (New York City, for one, still maintained separate schools for Negroes and whites in 1878.)(21)


Having engineered this heady triumph in 1848, May kept his hand in the integration battle for the next 20 years. He commuted from New York to his native Massachusetts to join the battles resulting in the antidiscrimination statute for the public schools enacted by the Bay State legislature in 1855.(22) He served on the board of trustees of the New York Central College in McGrawville, New York,(23) a unique little institution that flourished for a time in the Fifties on Gerrit Smith's money,(24) admitting Negroes, women, teetotalers, students too poor to pay their own way, and others generally outside the academic pale. It was the first college in the United States with a Negro faculty member.(25)


At the end of May's life a magnificent new opportunity for Negro education appeared with the end of slavery and the opening, at least temporarily, of the south to northern educators and their ideals. May leaped into this exciting new crusade as the Civil War neared its end. His old skills at organizing and money raising and agitating were effective as ever; the old appeals to the good of the nation were just as applicable now. Lame and aging though he might be at 71, he trumpeted repeated calls in 1868 in behalf of schools for the new southern freedmen and their children. "The education of these new constituents of our body politic is now a matter of paramount importance," he cried, echoing all the appeals he had made for the welfare of the democracy down through the years. "The well-being of the nation depends on it."(26)


As always, his fellow citizens responded to the deft May touch and the irresistible May appeal. Hundreds of dollars poured into the coffers of the Syracuse Freedman's Aid Society which could by 1868 plan to send four teachers to South Carolina instead of the two it had formerly maintained.(27) Here was an opportunity to take education to the Black man at the time and place he needed it most.


Almost a century later, May's battle for Negro education would still be underway. But during his lifetime he sighted the enemy, advanced to the first skirmishes, and took the high philosophical ground to be held by liberal thinkers and fighters for the next hundred years.



(1) A famous story in Connecticut annals, the case of Prudence Crandall has been duly chronicled in almost every history of the state and in many other memoirs, journals, and special accounts. Best narratives in giving May's role are May's own account in his Some Recollections Of Our Antislavery Conflict (Boston: Fields, Osgood, & Co., 1869), pp. 39-72; Mumford, May Memoir, pp. 148-152, and Samuel J. May's The Right of Colored People to Education Vindicated: Letters to Andrew T. Judson, Esq. and Others in Canterbury . . . (Brooklyn: Advertiser Press, 1833). An excellent secondary source is Hazel Wolf's On Freedom's Altar—The Martyr Complex in the Abolition Movement (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1952), pp. 51-54. The above account is drawn from these sources except where otherwise indicated.

(2) May was "among the first to be deeply influenced by Garrison." he heard Garrison's first Boston lecture in 1830, had been greatly impressed and had adopted the Garrisonian doctrine of immediate emancipation as his own. Louis Ruchames, The Abolitionists (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1963), p. 17. May married Garrison to Helen Benson in 1834. Merrill, Against Wind and Tide, p. 94.

(3) Bayles, History of Windham County, p. 502.

(4) May, Antislavery Conflict, p. 56.

(5) The direct quotations are all from May, Antislavery Conflict, pp. 56-57.

(6) Bayles, History of Windham County, p. 504. The money for Miss Crandall's defense and for publication of a newspaper giving her side of the story came providentially from Arthur Tappan, wealthy New York merchant who came all the way to Brooklyn to press on May all the money needed for trials and appeals. May, Antislavery Conflict, pp. 57-62.

(7) May, Antislavery Conflict, p. 71.

(8) This evaluation of May's new stature comes from a manuscript biography of May, "God's Chore Boy," by Freeman Galpin, Syracuse University Archives.

(9) Shepard, Pedlar's Progress, p. 272.

(10) The report of the inspecting committee is found in the Common School Journal, VII (October 1, 1845), pp. 299, 300. For an account of Howe and the school committee see Harold Schwartz, Samuel Gridley Howe, Social Reformer 1801-1876 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956), pp. 128-135.

(11) Supra, p. 37.

(12) May, Letters to Andrew T. Judson, p.21.

(13) Ibid., pp. 23-4.

(14) Early Lee Fox, The American Colonization Society, 1817-1840 (The Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science; Baltimore: The John Hopkins Press, 1919), XXXVII, p. 33.

(15) Religious Recorder, June 25, 1864.

(16) May to Andrew D. White, March 11, 1864, White Papers, Cornell University.

(17) Brown et. al. v. Board of Education of Topeka et. al., 347 U. S. 483 ( May 17, 1954). The parallel between May's views and those of the 1954 Supreme Court decision was first noted by James M. Smith in "The 'Separate But Equal' Doctrine: An Abolitionist Discusses Racial Segregation and Educational Policy During the Civil War," Journal of Negro History, XLI (April, 1956), pp. 138-147.

(18) For a further discussion of Syracuse, see below, Chapter VIII. The city of Syracuse was incorporated by act of the New York State Legislature on December 14, 1847. The act of incorporation was found defective in its provisions for schools. A special act providing organization of a city school system in Syracuse was passed by the legislature, April 11, 1848. May's resolutions giving philosophical basis for the system were approved at public meetings of citizens February 10 and February 28, 1848. Edward Smith, A History of the Schools of Syracuse (Syracuse: C. W. Bardeen, 1893), pp. 42-3.

(19) Onondaga Standard, February 16, 1848.

(20) Syracuse Daily Journal, August 1, 1860.

(21) Syracuse Courier, May 22, 1878.

(22) Statutes of Massachusetts, 1855, Ch. 256, sec. 1, as cited in Smith, "The 'Separate But Equal' Doctrine," p. 138.

(23) May to Andrew D. White, March 11, 1864, White Papers.

(24) Ralph Volney Harlow, Gerrit Smith, Philanthropist and Reformer (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1939), pp. 231-232.

(25) First and Second Annual Reports of the New York Central College Association Held At the College Buildings, McGrawville, July 4, 1849 and 1850). (Utica: Roberts and Sherman, 1850), 8-16.

(26) Syracuse Daily Journal, August 15, 1868.

(27) Syracuse Daily Journal, December 10, 1868.

Page 7 of 12


Chapter VI: The Soul of the School


The post for the May family one September morning in 1838 held a fat circular bristling with capital letters, italics, question marks and redolent prose.

Horace Mann, new secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, was using this circular to summon the people of the commonwealth to a series of popular conventions on the condition o f the public schools. Sam had moved his family to South Scituate, Massachusetts, just two years before, and deeply involved himself in Bay State education. As he opened the circular, his thoughts might have gone back to the nation's first popular convention on the common schools he, himself, had called a decade earlier. Any such reminiscences must have faded rapidly as he glimpsed the imperious message scrawled on the back of the circular.


The words raced across the page, handwriting slanted eagerly forward as if to infuse the reader with the same passionate energy driving the one who signed it, "Yours with great regard, Horace Mann." "Rev. S. J. May, Dear Sir:" the letter began: "Allow me in great haste to request you to be prepared specially on Monday . . . " and Mann clattered on, telling May precisely what part he wanted him to play in the convention scheduled for nearby Hanover, Massachusetts, on the coming Monday, September 3.(1)


Mann's tone was peremptory but May did not resent it. May had helped prepare this convention. He had arranged for the Hanover church to house the gathering and had personally invited Daniel Webster. Besides, if May could take instructions he could also give them. The Hanover convention, he had told Mann two weeks before, should be used primarily to promote Mann's proposal for a "normal school,"(2) a state seminary devoted exclusively to teacher training, outlandish as this ides seemed to some hard-headed Bay Staters.


Strange ideas were afloat about the school, May advised Mann. People said only the daughters of the rich would be able to attend, and that the public could compel the services of graduates only at exorbitant wages. "I give you these hints," May coached Mann, "so that you will be prepared to meet objections."(3)

May and Mann had begun to enjoy this felicitous give-and-take relationship a year after May assumed the pastorate of the "South Parish" in the town of Scituate in 1836. May and his family, now including his wife, Lucretia, and three children, found their new home ideally situated. The coastal community lay in country rural enough to encourage all the countryman's arts Sam had learned during his thirteen years in Brooklyn, yet close enough to Boston to afford easy access to all the choice reform spirits in that hub of the humanitarian's universe.


By now an experienced husbandman, May conscientiously tended his trees, vines, and gardens, and postponed fall journeys until he made sure his apples and potatoes were properly laid by for winter.(4)


Meanwhile, the hospitable May homestead overflowed with visiting reformers: William Lloyd Garrison, Bronson Alcott, Wendell Phillips, Lucretia Mott, Frederick Douglass, and many others.(5) Affectionate and jovial, they clustered in the May parlor for sessions punctuated with hilarity or with harmony around Sam's clear and beautiful singing voice. The May children glimpsed this jocular side to reform, but it was usually hidden from the general public which generally viewed reformers as acidulous, contentious, and overbearing.(6) May himself often astonished the unwary who envisioned a reformer as a fanatic with shrill tongue and piercing eye. On hearing May preach, one Detroit, Michigan, congregation was struck by "so quiet a fanatic, so cool and incendiary." One lady in his audience that day had never encountered a "genuine ultra-reformer" before. May managed, the pastor of the church commented dryly, to relieve her mind of "some painful dread of the class."(7)


The kindly, gracious side of May's nature appeared to best advantage as he moved with easy familiarity into the educational scene in Plymouth County, assumed the cleric's customary position on the school committee, and began prodding the people about their educational shortcomings in his old hard-to-resist fashion. His own home sat next to a rather mean little schoolhouse. May not only visited the schoolroom frequently, but put up a swing under a large tree nearby for the children to enjoy. In many other ways, recalled one scholar, "the pastor" made us children in that little, old, poor schoolhouse feel that we were of some account.(8)


May lived in the town of Scituate only six years, but his impact on the schools became part of the history of the area. May's presence in the schoolroom, declared the county historian almost a half-century later, "was a benediction. Few men ever possessed so fully the powers of attracting the affections of both young and old as this good and genial pastor."(9) May shortly discovered congenial spirits in the Rev. Edward Q. Sewell of the adjoining parish of Scituate and in the Rev. Charles Brooks of Hingham, a crotchety pioneer who had been agitating for a state teachers' seminary since 1835. Under pressure from this assorted ecclesiastical trio, Plymouth county people improved their schoolhouses, employed better teachers and even consolidated several districts into that educational rarity, a graded school. Their labors in Plymouth were unique enough to win commendation later from the historian of American education, Henry Barnard.(10)


May commanded national attention in 1839 by delivering a dedicatory address for a new schoolhouse at a time when most people, as Horace Mann said, would as soon think of dedicating a barn as a schoolhouse. Captivated by the address, Mann printed it in full in his Common School Journal, introducing the author as "that man of enlarged ideas and excellent views."(11) Barnard said it was one of the first of such addresses given anywhere and the speech, urging enlightened and humane teaching methods as well as comfortable schoolhouses, became an influential document in school reform.(12)


May had good reason to move about comfortably in Massachusetts. The school situation there was as bad as May had found it in Connecticut. Comparably, the picture was worse because Massachusetts' original standard of excellence had paced the region. Massachusetts had established a common school system as one of its original institutions. Between 1789 and 1824, however, the state legislature had lowered school requirements below the level set by the colonial school law of 1647. When May arrived in 1836, Massachusetts had no state or county school officers. Extreme local self-government in each of the 300 towns had resulted in a leadership chaos of more than 2,000 one-room, ungraded schools, each in charge of an elected committee with powers of taxation and control.(13) Women, usually girls of 17 or 18, taught the summer schools at an average salary of five dollars a month; men, frequently youths in their teens, taught the winter terms. Most of those employed as teachers had scant education past the simple rudiments of a common education. Only a few continued in teaching as a life's work.(14)


School systems all over New England had degenerated in similar fashion. Looking back on the situation later, May charitably attributed the deterioration to the early necessity of conquering field and forest. New England's original settlers were of "more than ordinary culture," said he. To "hunt, to fish and to war with ferocious beasts and savage men" were the arts in which their descendants must be trained: arts "not taught from books, nor inside of school rooms." The common people thought they needed only the elements of reading, writing, and arithmetic, May concluded. "Few of them, indeed, had leisure or inclination to seek for more."(15)


Other critics were to see the degeneration of the common school system as a facet of a general wave of anti-intellectualism swelling over the country after the demise of the Revolutionary generation and climaxing in the age of Jackson when the backwoodsman turned culture hero and the intellectual felt alienated from his society.(16)


The high noon of educational renaissance did not arrive fully in New England and the central states until the forties and fifties.(17) An early dawn, however, broke in the twenties when such men as James G. Carter, of Massachusetts, an experienced teacher, called from 1821 to 1825 for "radical reforms" including the reassertion of state control over local education and the establishment of a new kind of school for teacher training.(18)


By 1837, rising reform sentiment in Massachusetts enabled Carter, now chairman of the state legislature's committee on education, to persuade the legislature to create the Massachusetts Board of Education and help redress the balance of educational power between state and locality.(19) The new board persuaded a lanky Dedham lawyer with a glowing political future apparently before him, Horace Mann, to relinquish his presidency of the state senate to become secretary of the board. The post promised to be a thankless one; opponents to school reform were marshalling their forces. But Mann had seen a vision, the vision of teaching generations that "mind is God over matter . . . ."(20) Mann appeared on the educational scene as a veritable whirlwind, writing, lecturing, cajoling, traveling, and pleading in the name of educational reform. Under Mann's leadership schools improved; maps, globes, and libraries appeared in previously barren schoolrooms, and towns ventured to raise school taxes.(21) Mann inspired complete devotion in a few kindred spirits. May was one of the first attracted.


"Dear Sir," May wrote Mann on November 3, 1837, "Everybody wants Mann to come to talk on the Common Schools!" What a lift this tribute must have given Mann at the end of an exhausting tour of the state, including a speech at Plymouth. "Our own town is quite populous," May wrote, "having 3600 inhabitants, and there is a spirit increasing here, favorable to common schools. I am fully persuaded that such an address as you gave at Plymouth would do great good."(22)


May's letter inaugurated a unique friendship and working partnership that lasted until Mann's death in far Ohio 22 years later. Mann through the years enunciated policy and determined the course of reform; May helped pave the way, raise the money, influence the powerful, persuade the people, and explain before, during, and afterwards what Mann really meant.(23) Both men savored the relationship to the full.


Mann needed all the help he could get, particularly in the bitter battle for normal schools. The legislature in 1838 matched a $10,000 gift for the new school made by Edmund Dwight, a wealthy Boston merchant.(24) Mann thus had $20,000 to begin his teacher training program, but opposition ran high. Bitter controversy raged and a powerful assortment of enemies appeared to oppose the schools during legislative sessions through 1842. Opponents, fearing increased state control over education, argued that the normal schools would only consolidate "foreign" interference with local prerogatives. In any event, normal schools were unnecessary, the opposition asserted. Obviously anybody who had learned could teach. This argument, paralleling the assertion that he who eats can cook, was to haunt the teacher training movement for decades.(25)


Victory finally came on the floor of the legislature in 1840 and 1842, victory with implications far outside Massachusetts. Other states were considering the establishment of normal schools. Had the battle failed in Massachusetts, said Barnard later, the movement for teacher education all over the country might have been lost or long delayed.(26)


May, jumping into the battle, spoke all over his county on behalf of the normal schools and used his persuasive powers at every popular convention he could attend.(27) Together May and Brooks persuaded the people of Plymouth County to ask for one of the new schools.(28) A "highly respectable committee" of the Friends of Common School Education in Plymouth County became the first to appear formally before the state board of education in 1839 to ask that a normal school be located in their community.(29) Plymouth people had raised $10,000 for buildings,(30) a persuasive gesture. The board eventually rewarded their effort by establishing at Bridgewater the third normal school in Massachusetts. The board placed the first schools in 1839, one at Lexington; the second, at Barre.(31)


Having won this personal victory, May kept a watchful eye on the progress of the new schools. He and his brother-in-law, Bronson Alcott, visited the normal school at Lexington in July of 1840. May spoke to the young ladies on peace, and the shaggy Alcott mystified them with a rambling discourse on transcendentalism.(32)


May kept Mann posted on his views and activities. In February of 1842 he produced welcome support in Mann's current battle for appropriations to support the school at Lexington: "There is no project which the legislators of a free people should be more careful to encourage than one for the better education of the whole people . . . . I have heard of the good done by the Normal Schools at Lexington and Barre, but I have seen the good effect of our own school at Bridgewater."(33)


To this sympathetic friend, Mann turned five months later when the principal at Lexington, the frail Cyrus Peirce, resigned in broken health. Mann had "long thought" of May as Peirce's successor. Would May allow his name to be presented to the board of education for the vacant post?" My dear sir," Mann raced along, "neither my time nor my disposition allows me to indulge in compliment. You know something of what I think a Normal School teacher should be. With such opinions . . . you need no words of assurance of my regard for and opinion of you . . . "(34)


Mann knew May well. No blandishment could have won May's consent. The Scituate pastor had grave doubts. What if a colored girl should apply for admission? What about the conservative reaction to the appointment of an abolitionist as prominent as he?(35)


May fretted further that his own health might not stand the strain that had broken Peirce. With characteristic Victorian hypochondria, the 45-year-old May brooded frequently over the condition of his lungs and liver. At the moment his lungs were "oppressed and sore."(36) More importantly, he had a realistic notion of his own inexperience in teaching and feared he would be incompetent as a principal. "Were it not for this," he wrote Mann, "I should delight to spend and be spent in its behalf. It seems to me that I would willingly die, if I could by such a sacrifice make the School what it should be."(37)

Mann overrode these multiple objections, stifled his own doubts and those of some cautious legislators about May's abolitionism, and shoved the still-protesting pastor into the principalship. Still entertaining grave doubts, May resigned his Scituate pastorate over Mrs. May's outspoken objections and moved his family to Lexington.(38)


* * *

The academy building over which May now presided was a pleasant two-story, frame structure set on a wedge of land opposite the Lexington common and the old battle ground. The young ladies boarded and roomed in the upper floors; the lower level held a "model school" for neighborhood children on whom the normal students practiced their arts under the principal's direction.(39)


The Lexington school, was Mann believed, the "first Normal School, properly so called in the world, exclusively dedicated to the female sex. It recognizes, and indeed is founded upon, two great ideas,—the relative efficiency of the female sex in the ministry of civilization, and the value of female services in the education of the young."(40) May had long before espoused both these "great ideas." in the early years of his Brooklyn pastorate he had ventured into a novel educational experiment by persuading a young woman in his parish to try teaching an unruly, winter school.


Already, the big boys, who attended school only in winter, had ousted one male teacher; indeed "turning out the teacher" enlisted joyous participation as a prime winter sport of the age. Parents smiled complacently at such boyish escapades, and a teacher who came sniveling to the school committee knew what answer to expect: "Put them down or let them put you out."(41) During Mann's secretaryship of the Massachusetts board, he reported several dozen such cases each year, anything from locking the door against the teacher to beating him brutally and throwing his into the snow.(42)


"Such a thing had not been heard of, as a female keeping a winter's school," wrote May afterwards, but the stout-hearted Cecilia Williams agreed to May's challenging proposal. Shortly thereafter, Miss Williams' remarkable talents reduced the school to order, instilled some respect for scholarship in the students, and enabled the school to attain at least "respectable rank" in the town. The experience helped convince May that "female teachers can often, if not always, manage and instruct boys better than male teachers."(43)


Such as attitude toward women was almost unheard of in the twenties. Forty years later some of May's fellow reformers still balked at admitting women into any very serious educational undertakings.


"Mr. May is a fine speaker and a good writer, and I rather love the man," conceded one in 1864, "but he is crazy on women. He would have education pretty much all in their hands, and he would besides make them politicians,"(44)


His advanced views on women as well as several other qualities fitted May for a pioneer post in the normal school movement. He proved considerate and thoughtful of the young women in the normal school and less demanding than his perfectionist predecessor, Cyrus Peirce.(45) The students were delighted with their new preceptor. During May's regime, attendance more than doubled from 31 to 66 students, enabling him to hire two assistants to help him.(46)


* * *

As his finest attribute for this influential post, May had formulated an unusually comprehensive educational philosophy, compatible with reputable educational psychology of the day. Probably the single greatest influence on May's philosophy was the work of the German-Swiss educator, Johann H. Pestalozzi, whose philosophy dominated progressive American educational reform thinking in the second and third decades of the nineteenth century.(47)

May had probably become familiar with Pestalozzian theory as early as 1826 when he first met Bronson Alcott, an ardent exponent of Pestalozzian ideas. Pestalozzian works became staples of May's personal library, and by 1828 he presented Pestalozzian theory for home consumption in a lecture before the Brooklyn lyceum.(48)


Building on the work of Rousseau, Pestalozzi laid great emphasis on the natural and harmonious development of each child's own instincts and abilities. The teacher's prime responsibility lay in assisting in that development, not in imposing authority from above. Pestalozzi rejected rote teaching and emphasized the sense impression as a foundation for learning. Thus his students found themselves learning by doing rather than primarily by reading, listening, or memorizing. His primary teaching method involved letting children experiment with "real objects." Disciples of Pestalozzi brought weights, measures, leaves, shells, or blades of grass into the school to help children learn about their world from firsthand experience.

A striking aspect of Pestalozzi's philosophy was his belief that in each child there existed innate ideas which might be drawn forth by a series of questions in Platonic fashion. To develop these ideas as well as to capitalize on the evidence provided by the senses, Pestalozzi placed great emphasis on the development of each child's own faculties. In the 19th century, "faculty psychology" became the dominant academic psychology, emphasizing the development of three sets of faculties: the reason or intellect, the feelings and emotions, and the will.(49)


Educational reformers in the United States superimposed Pestalozzianism over their basic Lockean notions. These two eighteenth century philosophies joined in the minds of May and his colleagues and formed an uneasy alliance apparently relying on Locke's "sense impression" to help the child develop Pestalozzi's "innate ideas." To support this hybrid theory, some nineteenth century American thinkers emphasized the Lockean theory of reflection and de-emphasized Locke's basic contention that only the sense impression could provide material for reflection in an originally blank mind.(50)


Educators did not resolve, however, the basic dilemma: does the major source of knowledge come from without through the sense impression or from within, via the "innate idea"? Educators faced somewhat the same difficulty in the realm of character education. Is the character molded primarily by the individual's innate sense of moral right and wrong, or is it a product of forces working from without in the environment? How can a child be shaped and freed at the same time? Mann sought his answers in phrenology, a nineteenth century psychology behavioristic in approach, which maintained that desirable faculties could be cultivated through exercise and inhibited through disuse.(51) May once had his head read, but did not become a true believer. A true eclectic, May selected largely from these conflicting streams of philosophy and theory and never seemed disturbed by any potential conflicts among them. As Alcott' brother-in-law, May continued a lifetime under the influence of this major American transcendentalist, and even won a reputation in the 1840's as a transcendentalist himself.(52)


He believed deeply and sincerely in the reflective and intuitive powers emphasized by the transcendentalists as a means of arriving at ultimate truth: he seemed to regard the sense impression as a sort of auxiliary in the process. May eventually produced a sort of philosophical mixture of Pestalozzi and Locke heavily spiced with Alcott, a compound which seemed to satisfy him and the audiences who clamored to hear him talk year after year. The work of the educator, May assured one influential teachers' organization in 1847, was to help pupils form habits of observation, perception, and reflection. A true education, he said, was that "which tends to develop the individual being: which leads the individual to use with facility and accuracy the organs of his own body, the powers of his own mind, the affections of his own heart,—i.e. to unfold himself, to do and become what God has made him capable of being and doing . . . ."(53) On a more practical level, May also believed the schools played a valuable role in socializing children, teaching them to get along with others and preparing them for their work in life.(54)


May's most eloquent statement of educational philosophy came on a mundane occasion: the dedication of the Hanover schoolhouse. No doubt, many a budding intellect has been nipped, and the best affections of many a young heart have been crushed out, by the rude hands of teachers . . . who have to work upon children, as if they were blocks of wood or marble, to be hewn or chiseled into the desired form. Education means not so much the putting of anything into the mind and heart, as the drawing out, the unfolding, the educing, of what is in the human soul . . . . The mind of a child is not, as some seem to suppose, a bag, into which you throw words or ideas, as a boy would his marbles. No. It is an instrument, most delicate, strung by the Father of Spirits, and placed in the human frame, to be played on by that invisible being, whom we call self. The high purpose of education is not to teach a child to repeat the thoughts of others, but to lead him to think for himself. It is not to compel him to submit to the dictation of other minds, but to induce him to follow the conscientious convictions of his own,—to judge even of himself what is right, and to abide by that decision, as one who must give an account to the Author of his being.(55)


May applied these philosophical concepts to the actual role of the teacher in the schoolroom as early as 1828. The teacher must first awaken the child's curiosity May admonished, and then lead him by the simple course of reasoning or reflection to draw conclusions by himself. "Thus while [the child] is acquiring knowledge, he will be learning what is better, how to use his intellectual powers; and these will be strengthened by every effort . . . ."(56) No method could have been more foreign to the common practice of the teachers of 1828 who called a row of children to recite what had been learned, sent them back to memorize more, called the next row, and so on through the whole dull day.


In this 1828 work, Common Errors in Education, the 31-year-old May advocated teaching by the inductive rather than the deductive method of reasoning. Let little children first learn their own streams, roads, and rivers, he said. Then let them progress to the more grandiose abstractions of equators, meridians, and parallels. Such a proposition also ran directly counter to the common practice of teaching children to parrot massive words and mighty concepts which meant nothing to their childish minds. One little boy May knew had learned to recite reams of information about the heavenly bodies. Asked what heavenly bodies were, the boy responded readily: "When good folks dire sir, they go to heaven, and then they are called heavenly bodies."(57)


The mind must first consider particulars, May asserted, and, by comparing one with another, form larger divisions "proceeding to form from classes of truth the general and abstract ideas." A teacher should begin with what the young already know, the young pastor asserted, and proceed, "continually requiring them to exert their powers to discover what we wish them to know."(58) A teacher should not even tell a child that two plus two equals four, said May; he should lead the child to discover that truth for himself.


May had first encountered the processes of inductive thought in the classroom of a Catholic priest who kept a mathematics school May attended in Boston during the winter vacation of his freshman year at Harvard in 1813 and 1814. Both the teaching methods and the personality of the Rev. Francis Xavier Brosius, a refugee from anti-clerical persecution in France, left an irrevocable mark on May. In Brosius' classroom May first felt "the quickening influence of kindness and gaiety in a teacher. The bosom of Mr. Brosius was a well-spring of benevolence. Little jets from that fountain sparkled continually in his smiles, cheering and refreshing us in our severest efforts . . . .In the schools I afterwards kept, I longed to be myself as much like that excellent man, as my nature would allow."(59)


The teacher, May impressed on his young charges at Lexington, is the soul of the school. "If he have life, light and love, his pupils will be animated, intelligent and affectionate."(60) Teachers, May felt, should be qualified by competent knowledge, discriminating judgment, aptness to teach, good temper and "more than all, pure moral principles and unfeigned piety."(61) Such paragons, May felt, should not only know how to teach, but should be so well-informed on any subject that they could "promptly impart" any kind of knowledge required on the spur of the moment, in classroom or discussion.

"Never is knowledge so readily received nor so firmly fixed in the mind," May asserted, with more than a foreshadowing of twentieth century educational psychology, "as when it is imparted just at the moment the inquiry for it is naturally raised."(62)


Though he seemed to be producing a superior teacher, May grew increasingly restive at Lexington. His weak points began to show. In the eloquent statement of educational philosophy he admitted few equals, but, in the hard work of actual teaching, his own inexperience in the classroom and ineptness at organization painfully handicapped him. His background as a schoolmaster had been sketchy; only a few weeks each winter teaching country schools during his college years. Now the daily grind of the schoolroom complicated by endless chores involved in maintaining the "Normal House" exhausted him as they had his predecessor. Cyrus Peirce used to go to bed at midnight and get up at three to tend the fires;(63) this life did not agree with May.(64)


Then, too, he began to itch for his old reform cronies and conflicts. No young colored girl, sadly enough, had appeared to ask for admission. Life was a dull round of classes, punctuated by exhausting visits of inspection made by delegations from around the country, each delegation eager to observe this new phenomenon.(65)


One sparkling cold January night in 1843 May threw caution to the winds and bundled up some of the students for a gay Saturday night sleighing expedition to an abolition meeting in nearby Waltham. Word of this adventure into radicalism shocked some parents, prompted the withdrawal of one student, and elicited an immediate reprimand from the appalled Horace Mann. Under constant fire for his revolutionary educational activities, Mann could not afford to have his schools involved in the antislavery controversy, too. A principal, he admonished May, had no business trying to make his pupils abolitionist any more than to make them Unitarians or bank or anti-bank. The state and the public had given money to make good teachers, he said, "and any diversion . . . to any other object is obviously a violation of the trust."


May replied with some spirit, dexterously avoiding the real issue. He had never promised to withdraw from abolition, he said and besides the whole affair was accomplished on Saturday night on his own time! He was not neglecting his duty to the school. The correspondence went into abolition and education history alike.(66) The friendship between the two men survived, strong as ever, but in 1844 May heard with delight that Peirce had recovered from his illness. May resigned happily to permit Peirce's return on August 31, 1844, and concluded his service to the school by finding a larger building in West Newton to accommodate the increased number of students his administration had attracted.(67)


Probably relieved to have dull, dependable, old Cyrus Peirce back on the hob, Mann nonetheless paid warm tribute to May at the conclusion of his principalship. May's "well known character," wrote Mann in his Common School Journal, "is a sufficient testimony to the pure and elevated spirit that animated the school for the two years during which he was connected with it. "Mr. May," wrote Mann, perhaps a bit wryly and regretfully, "May well be called a saint before his time . . . .(68)


May had learned his lesson. Never again did he return to active teaching. He had, however, established a reputable status in the world of education during the spotlighted two years he spent as principal of the country's first state normal school. During his years at Lexington, said Barnard, May pioneered in the art of object teaching by using to teach lessons such common things as weights, measures, seeds, shells, and even the paring of a horse's hoof. May prepared a manual on object teaching that was subsequently "lost in the hands of the publishers," said Barnard.(69) May's pioneer efforts with this educational method antedated by some 15 years the eventual popularization of object teaching in this country by Edward A. Sheldon of Oswego, New York. May's reputation as an educational authority was confirmed in 1847 when the American Institute of Instruction invited him to give a major address on the education of the faculties.


* * *

By 1845 his reputation had spread sufficiently well to penetrate the fastnesses of upstate New York. When a small, progressive Unitarian society in the village of Syracuse asked May to become its pastor in 1845, the knowledgeable gentlemen on the society's board extended their invitation because "your familiarity with the common school system, and your capacity and disposition to elevate it, have operated strongly upon some of us and we have gone on in the reflection that this would be of high importance in our Society and would help to raise us relatively . . . ." They hoped, they wrote, that May was "not yet so committed as to prevent you from consideration of the question . . . ."(70)


May was not at all committed. He packed up his family and his furniture and headed west.



(1) Horace Mann to May, August 31, 1838. Horace Mann Library, Antioch College.

(2) The word "normal" is derived from the Latin word "norms" meaning a model or rule. Teachers were by implication to be given rules for teaching.

(3) May to Mann, August 16, 1838, Horace Mann Papers, Massachusetts historical Society.

(4) May to "My Dear Friend," September 6, 1837; John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.

(5) May obituary, Syracuse Daily Standard, July 3, 1871.

(6) Samuel J. May's son, Joseph, liked to recall this gaiety among reformers, as in his William Lloyd Garrison, a Commemorative Discourse(Boston: G. H. Ellis, 1879), p. 8.

(7) S. J. Barrows, (ed.), Life and Letters of Thomas J. Mumford with Memorial Tributes. ( Boston: G. H. Ellis, 1879), p. 51.

(8) Mumford, May Memoir, p. 168.

(9) D. Hamilton Hurd, (ed.), History of Plymouth County (Philadelphia: J. L. Lewis, 1884), p. 339.

(10) [Henry Barnard], "Samuel J. May, An American Educational Biography," American Journal of Education, XVI (1866), p. 145.

(11) May, "Dedication of a Schoolhouse," Common School Journal, II (July 15, 1839), pp. 218-224.

(12) [Barnard], "May Biography," American Journal of Education, XVI(1866), p. 145.

(13) Arthur O. Norton, The First State Normal School in America : The Journals of Cyrus and Mary Swift (Harvard Documents in the History of Education, Vol. I; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1926), xxxiii-xxxiv.

(14) Ibid., xliii.

(15) May, Revival of Education, pp. 10-11.

(16) Richard Hofstadter, Anti-intellectualism in American Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962), pp. 154-160. Also see Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., The Age of Jackson (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1945), Chapter 29.

(17) Lawrence A. Cremin, The Transformation of the School (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961) p.20.

(18) Norton, Peirce Journals, pp. xxxiv-xxxv.

(19) Ibid., xxxvii.

(20) Louisa Hall Tharp, Until Victory: Horace Mann and Mary Peabody(Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1953), p. 136.

(21) Ibid., pp. 137-141.

(22) May to Mann, November 3, 1837, Mann Papers.

(23) For a further discussion of May as Mann's missionary to the unconverted, see Chapter VII.

(24) Common School Journal, I (February 1, 1839), pp. 33-35.

(25) "Committee of the Legislature on Education: Majority Report, Against Normal Schools, 1840," Peirce Journals, p. 265.

(26) Ibid., p. xiv.

(27) Samuel J. May, A Brief Account of his Ministry given in A Discourse preached to the Church of the Messiah in Syracuse, N.Y., September 15, 1867 (Syracuse: Masters and Lee, 1867), p.29.

(28) [Barnard], "May Biography," American journal of Education, XVI(1866), 145.

(29) "Second Annual Report of the Board of Education," Common School Journal, I ( October 15, 1839) p. 308.

(30) Common School Journal, II (March 11, 1840), p. 232.

(31) Barnard, "May Biography," American Journal of Education, XVI(1866), p. 145.

(32) Alcott "spent the morning," defining transcendentalism, wrote one of the students, "but I have not yet learned what it is." Norton, Peirce Journals, xxiii.

(33) May to Mann, February 13, 1842. Mary Peabody Mann, Life of Horace Mann (Boston: Walker, Fuller and Co., 1865), pp. 171, 172.

(34) Mann to May, July 27, 1842, Mann Papers.

(35) Abolitionism was the communism of its day as far as social acceptance was concerned. May had served as agent of the New England Antislavery Society in 1835 and 1836, been mobbed five times, and was widely and unfavorably known among the state's more solid citizens for the warmth of his Garrisonian attachments.

(36) According to his children and his contemporaries, May lived almost all his 73 years in excellent health. Odd and transitory ailments, however, were apt to attack him just when he was deciding to leave one spot and move somewhere else. A mysterious swelling on his face delayed his transfer from Lexington to Syracuse in 1845. May to Dudley Phelps, March 19, 1845, May Memorial Unitarian Church Records, deposited at First Trust and Deposit Company, Syracuse, NY.

(37) May to Mann, September 2, 1842, Massachusetts Historical Society.

(38) Mann to May, November 9, 1842, Mann Papers.

(39) Peirce to Henry Barnard, January 1, 1841, Norton, Peirce Journals, p. xlviii. Also see George B. Emerson, "Description of Lexington Normal School," Common School Journal, II (March 11, 1840), p. 236.

(40) Common School Journal, I (March 15, 1838), p. 86.

(41) Editorial on May Centennial containing a history of social customs in the history of common schools, Syracuse Daily Standard, September 26, 1897.

(42) Lawrence A Cremin, (ed.), The republic and the School: Horace Mann on the Education of Free Men (New York: Bureau of Publications, Teachers College, Columbia University, 1957), p. 22.

(43) Miss Williams later married the Rev. Charles Brooke of Hingham, May's associate in Plymouth County reform. For the Brooklyn incident, see [Barnard], "May Biography, American Journal of Education, XVI (1866), pp. 144-145; Samuel j. May, A sermon, preached at Hingham, March 19, 1836, being the Sunday after the death of Mrs. Cecilia Brooks (Hingham: J. Farmer, 1837), pp. 21, 22.

(44) John D. Philbrick to Henry Barnard, July 6, 1864, New York University. Philbrick was a long-time superintendent of schools in Boston, a pioneer in this office. Until the second quarter of the century, women taught only in the summer schools and progressed very slowly thereafter into higher positions. Curti, social Ideals of American Educators, p. 173.

(45) "I am too indulgent, and cannot help being." May wrote Mann, July 17, 1844, May Memoir, p. 181. Peirce, though in retirement, had protested to Mann because he had heard that May did not make the pupils "agonize" as they should. Mann to May, February 6, 1843, Mann, Horace Mann, p. 171.

(46) May Memoir, p. 179.

(47) Shepard, Pedlar's Progress, p. 85.

(48) Pestalozzian works in May's library included Exposition of the Principles of Conducting Infant Education by J. P. Greaves; Henry Pestalozzi, by Dr. E. Biber, and a volume called Hints to Parents . . . in the Spirit of Pestalozzi's Method. May offered to loan these books to Henry Barnard; retrieving them from their new home in the Barnard Library proved quite a chore. May to Barnard, July 30, 1857; December 4, 1857, New York University.

(49) Bronson Alcott, "Pestalozzi's Principles and methods of Instruction,"American Journal of Education, IV (March and April, 1829), pp. 97-107. also see Ellwood P. Cubberley, Public Education in the United States(Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1919), pp. 262-268, and Butts,Education in American Culture, pp. 218-219, 177-178.

(50) Butts, Education in American Culture, p. 178. Here is an example of this amalgam from May's own writing: " The correctness of our ideas depends on the accuracy with which our senses perceive externals. If perceptions are wrong, reflections cannot be right, and complex ideas in the mind and emotions in the heart will partake of the inaccuracy." Samuel J. May, "The education of the faculties and the proper employment of young children," The Lectures Delivered Before the American Institute of Instruction at Plymouth, August, 1847 (Boston: American Institute of Instruction, 1847), p. 90. For basic Lockean theory see above, Chapter III.

(51) Cremin, The Transformation of the school, p. 12.

(52) In 1847 the graduating class of Harvard Divinity School invited May to make the traditional Divinity School Address and informed him, in something less than tactful fashion, that he had been chosen on the eleventh ballot by a seven to six vote, because he represented "the theological movement known as transcendentalism." The dissenting six wanted somebody less controversial. See Willard L. Sperry, "A Beautiful Enmity," The Harvard Divinity School, pp. 157-158.

(53) S. J. May, "The education of the faculties and the proper employment of young children," The Lectures Delivered Before the American Institute of Instruction at Plymouth, August, 1847 (Boston: American Institute of Instruction, 1847), pp. 89, 101.

(54) May told the county superintendents' convention in 1845 that parents should send their children to school because of the desirability of learning to know "those they are to pass through life with." District School Journal. VI (April 23, 1845), p. 52. May's aim throughout his career as chairman of the Syracuse Board of Education, according to the board's historian, was to "make the course of study complete and practical, so as to be a fit preparation for a business life." Edward Smith, A History of the schools of Syracuse (Syracuse: C. W. Bardeen, 1893), p. 142.

(55) May, Dedication of a Schoolhouse, p. 223.

(56) May, Common Errors in Education, 216.

(57) Ibid., p. 219.

(58) Ibid., p.222.

(59) S. J. May, "Speech on the occasion of the dedication of the Salina School House, May 12, 1859," Twelfth Annual Report of the Superintendent of Public Schools of the City of Syracuse, March 15, 1860(Syracuse: J. G. K. Truair and Co., 1860), p. 45.

(60) May, Opening of a School house in Hanover, p. 223.

(61) Ibid., p. 223. "Spend money on teachers rather than building, "May advised Gerrit Smith in 1855 when Smith was straining to found his own university. Smith thought this good advice; unfortunately his "university" at McGrawville perished, teachers and buildings alike, when Smith's interests were diverted to more pressing excitements such as John Brown's enterprise at Harper's Ferry. Smith to May, August 27, 1855, Smith Papers, Syracuse University.

(62) S. J. May, Memorial of the Quarter Centennial of the establishment of Normal Schools in America . (Boston: C. P. Moody, 1866), p. 34.

(63) Mann, Horace Mann, p. 163.

(64) May to unidentified correspondent: "I believe I know what a Normal School should be,—but I have so little facility in managing the details of the plan, that dissatisfaction has been reward of labors almost every night." October 2, 1842, Massachusetts Historical Society.

(65) In December of 1843, May did escape into Boston for one grand and glorious convention of reformers, a socialist convention at which all the experimental communities were represented, and all the other untrammeled spirits had their say. May had a reviving chat with Alcott who was about to break up his own small community of himself and Charles Lane at Fruitlands. Abby Folsom was there too and had a few sensible words to say, "crazy as she is generally thought to be." Letter from Charles C. Burleigh, quoted in "The Isms of 40 Years Ago," Harpers Magazine, LX (December, 1880), p. 183.

(66) Mann to May, January 27, 1843; Mann to May, February 6, 1843; May to Mann, February 7, 1843; Mann to May, February 22, 1843. Substantial portions of the interchange were published in the memoir of Horace Mann written by his wife and published in 1865. May had protested their inclusion, feeling at that late date that the letters would reflect on Mann's antislavery spirit. Mrs. Mann demurred, believing the letters would clear her husband's name. Never did anyone love "the man, whom all his friends involuntarily call 'dear Mr. May' better than [Mann]," she wrote, "and none the less, but all the more, because Mr. May is, by his nature and culture alike, so profound a hater of slavery. What a comment it is upon the torpid state of the national conscience at that time, that no public interest was safe that was associated with the desire to do away with chattel slavery!" Mann, Horace Mann, p. 167. Merle Curti gives a good account of the contretemps in Social Ideals of American Educators, pp. 130, 131.

(67) Eben S. Stearns, "Historical Sketch of the Normal School," Quarter Century, pp. 51-52.

(68) Common School Journal, VII (September 1, 1845), p. 261.

(59) Barnard, "May Biography," American Journal of Education, pp. 141-145. Barnard himself was involved in the loss of May's manuscript. He was supposed to pick it up from Harper and Brothers' New York office in 1847, but there is some evidence to indicate that he never accomplished the errand and that the manuscript perished in the fire that leveled Harper and Brothers shortly afterward. May to Barnard, January 8, 1847; Harper Brothers to Barnard, March 4, 1847. Harper and Brothers to the author, October 17, 1957.

(70) Dudley Phelps to Samuel J. May, January 31, 1845. Records of May Memorial Unitarian Church, Syracuse, New York.

Page 8 of 12


Chapter VII: To Let the Community Know


Sam sat quietly and, he hoped, calmly. Inwardly he was seething. Packed around him in the Syracuse convention hall were scores of New York teachers, gathered that July 30 of 1945 to declare their professional independence, form a state society, and belabor their natural enemies: county superintendents, ultra reformers, and any other high-flown outsiders who pretended to know more about the inside of the schoolroom than teachers did.


Principal G. H. Anthony of the Albany Classical Institute was just warming to his subject, "The Rod Versus Moral Suasion." Reformers, cried he, favor change whether for better or worse. Reform is the watchword of the day: reformers, "the most prominent if not the most useful members of society,"

Insubordination to law and a whole host of other evils the speaker shortly discovered to be rooted in the reformers' abandonment of the schoolteachers' trusty friend, the rod. Moral suasion, "that milk and water system" which deplores physical coercion, could stem only from that philosophical infidelity, the doctrine of perfectibility. Perfectibility, mind you, that concept that man is naturally holy, that monster born of atheistic France and the transcendental Germany ! Such a false system could circumscribe the usefulness of the school, undermine family order, and aim a death blow at the reign of law. . . .

"We believe," he concluded, addressing any reformers who still survived in the hall, "that you really do consider yourselves the great lights of the present age . . . . "Perhaps it is painful . . . but we must tell you that your rushlight is not quite so brilliant as the sun . . . . "(1)


There was the usual applause and the usual motion to print. Sam jumped to his feet. His abolition battles had given him a good technique for managing meetings and a thorough grounding in parliamentary law. Speaking "calmly but with determination," he congratulated himself afterward, he declared the lecture repulsive and false. He also opposed the motion to print. An approving outburst came from the audience; Anthony's supporters, stunned by this unexpected parliamentary tactic, withdrew the motion. However a minister who looked to Sam "as if he were a lineal descendent of John Calvin" rushed off with the manuscript to publish it immediately in the Religious Recorder,(2) a Syracuse weekly with a strongly orthodox point of view and a distaste for "distinguished Unitarian ministers."(3)


Next on the agenda came Thomas Valentine of Albany, a man dedicated to organizing a New York teachers' association "as a prairie dweller sets a backfire," he liked to say, against the "streams which emanate from Massachusetts . . . poisoning all our channels of education with their hateful influence."(4)

Valentine rose to commend the present school system as "sound and useful," deplore the use of European models for American teacher training, and aim a few venomous barbs at Horace Mann. At that time Mann was engaged in a bitter controversy with 31 Boston schoolmasters. He had charged them with brutal floggings in the classroom; the schoolmasters had retaliated by ridiculing Mann's normal schools. Many New York teachers sympathized fervently with their Boston counterparts.


Certain visionaries, remarked Valentine, imagine a day when all vice and crime and inclination to wrong will be done away with . . . they are unfit for any office and "ought at once to be translated to the eternal regions of Utopia."(5)


May jumped up again, this time to defend Mann and oppose adoption of Valentine's report.(6) The convention haggled through a loud afternoon, finally amending the report to omit the offending passages.(7) Victory! May went home to rest.


He returned to battle next day, refreshed and ready to move an insertion in the minutes specifying that the motion to print Anthony's address had been withdrawn. He pushed a good thing too far; the convention indignantly rejected Sam's motion as an "implied stigma" on the address. Mr. Anthony also protested. He had been abused and insulted by those calling themselves moral suasionists and if he was treated to much more of it, he would show fight.(8)

May was glad to oblige. He was pained at the frequent sneers at moral suasionists. He did not advocate the entire disuse of the rod, but he and other moral suasionists believed that mischievous and ill-disposed people might be reformed by kindness without the use of violence. Moral suasionists had sought to arouse teachers' confidence in the power of love. Solomon had enjoined the use of the rod, May conceded, but Jesus Christ was an "infinitely wiser man," than Solomon and he gave no such precepts. "If teachers will go into their schools in the spirit of Christ, rather than of Solomon, we believe they will find no need of the rod."(9)


This appeared too much for one J. N. McElligott, a New York City teacher who disputed with some heat the implication that teachers who used the rod were not Christians.


Mr. May protested. He had not implied they were not Christians. He had said if teachers had true Christian spirit, the rod would rarely be necessary.


Had Mr. May forgotten the fact, interposed another delegate cuttingly, that Jesus Christ once used the whip himself?


The Religious Recorder in its report of the meeting printed no retort to that last sally, from Mr. May, but the Recorder always came down strongly on the side of Solomon.(10)


The proceedings concluded with a rousing exhortation by one Professor Frederick Emerson of Boston, concluding a program planned by the Albany teachers to discredit Mann and all his adherents. An old antagonist of May's, Emerson dwelt lovingly on the wickednesses of modern transcendentalists, no-government men, and advocates of labor-saving educational machinery.(11)


May, on his feet, was blocking the motion to print Emerson's lecture and pelting the Bostonian with pointed questions when opposition appeared from an unexpected quarter. Thundering into the arena came a new antagonist, General James R. Lawrence, ponderous Syracuse attorney appalled by the explosive tactics of this upstart Unitarian newcomer to the community. A stout Episcopalian conservative, General Lawrence professed great regret at the indignity offered to strangers in Syracuse by this process of "catechising and fault-finding." He had born it in silence hitherto, but would bear it no longer! The motion to print, reported the Religious Recorder with satisfaction, was carried by a strong majority.(12)


"Perhaps my course towards Mr. Emerson was not the most politic," May wrote to Mann afterwards. "But it was so evident he had been invited here, dubbed Professor, and set up before the community as a great man, in order to carry a point—that I felt called upon to put to him the questions I did—and if the Syracuse lawyer who knew nothing of the merits of the case had not interfered, I presume I should have obtained such an answer from "Prof." Emerson as I wished. As it resulted—I believe my course did more good than hurt."(13)


May wrote happily. Shortly afterward he found the Boston conservatives attacking his July stands,(14) and his cup overflowed. It was good to be back in the thick of battle, hurling insults and dodging brickbats, instead of cowering in a schoolroom with lessons to hear and fires to build and the intellectual and political purity of 60 young women to preserve immaculate.


The net effect of the convention proved heartening to May and Mann. Thwarted in its attempt to present a solid front against Mann's reforms, the Albany teachers' clique also lost its battle to locate the publication of the newly-formed New York State Teachers' Association in Albany.


The Teachers' Advocate began publishing immediately in Syracuse, the site selected by the convention, and in its columns May carried on his war with Valentine. They clashed repeatedly over the success of the Massachusetts normal schools. On this ground May had sure footing. He bombarded Valentine through several issues with facts and figures to show that normal education flourished in Massachusetts, and eventually had the satisfaction of a published apology from Valentine disavowing any intention of malice or misstatement, plus the Albany educator's promise to withdraw from the paper war.(15) No further installments of Valentine's projected series on normal schools appeared.


"So you see," May wrote Mann somewhat smugly as one who had been accused of turning renegade by leaving Massachusetts, "I may yet have an opportunity to do something for the reform of the schools."(16)


Coached carefully by May, Mann himself made a series of forays into New York, and eventually converted some of his more vocal opponents. New York State, however, remained officially committed to the practice of scattering its primary teacher training facilities in academies across the state rather than centering them solely in normal schools designed for the purpose.


* * *

Syracuse had now made itself a splendid spot for the Advocate, for May, and indeed for anyone deeply involved in the era's educational issues. Many of the questions agitating Massachusetts in the thirties had stirred New Yorkers by the time May arrived in 1845; if Massachusetts had grown less lively with Mann's successive victories over the recalcitrant, upstate New York bubbled with the most satisfying ferment of conservatism and dissent. In addition, New York had one enormous advantage over the Bay State, Mann declared. New Yorkers had been "exempted from the immense labor of forever boasting of their ancestors and have had more time to devote to their posterity."(17)


A land of transplanted Yankees, upstate New York had been settled by families from the New England hills. These immigrants brought with them a Puritan concern for education and established schools almost as soon as fields were plowed and cabins roofed. These early settlers provided an elementary education for their children which in quality at this basic level exceeded that available in any other state west of New England. Thus prepared, upstaters read voraciously a greater variety of newspapers than could be found in any other state except Massachusetts. Yorkers of that era were, in the opinion of their biographer, Whitney Cross, "extraordinarily wide-awake, well-informed and ambitious for greater knowledge."(18)


New York organized a common school system, however, much later than did Massachusetts. The Empire State established a $50,000 school fund in 1795, adding to it subsequently by a variety of devices including a state-wide lottery, but did not organize a permanent system of common schools until 1812.(19) The school law of 1812 provided, however, for a state superintendent of schools and for a more realistic state control of education than did early Bay State legislation.(20) By the time May arrived in 1845, town and county superintendents supervised the common schools under close direction from Albany.(21) In addition to teacher training departments in eight academies over the state and a normal school in Albany, the state maintained a system of annual teachers' institutes for those already in practice. This annual post-graduate education program so attracted Mann that he imitated it with his own teachers' institutes in 1845. Such a sincere form of flattery gratified New Yorkers.(22)


"Gentlemen known to have excelled as educators or to have given much thought to . . . education" appeared before these institutes, May found. As a prime example of the species he soon was traveling the state to participate in these admirable undertakings.


"They help to create a public opinion that will demand suitable preparation in those who would be teachers," May wrote Mann approvingly. The crude manners of the young males he met at the institutes, teachers who seemed to punctuate every sentence by spitting on the floor, appalled the erstwhile Brahmin, but he kept his eyes resolutely on the horizon.(23)


* * *

As one now primarily concerned with the creation of public opinion, May delighted in his new home. He had left the glittering excellence of Massachusetts feeling that "I was coming away from more good than I should find here or anywhere . . . . " he wrote Mann. Especially in education he expected Syracuse to be much behind the Bay State. To his surprise he found Syracusans passionately involved in all the conflicts over development of the common schools.(24)

Syracuse had been slow in sharing these heady concerns. The country around it was well settled before this village exploded into existence with the building of the Erie Canal in the early 1820's. By 1845, however, it had mushroomed into a community of more than 8,000 people,(25) and was making up in intensity what it lacked in experience. In 1845 the canal cut directly through the village, trains dashed down the streets, and carriages raised whirls of dust as they rolled along unpaved roads. Young trees and plank sidewalks attested to the youth of the community, but already Syracuse proved an exciting gathering spot for New Yorkers who came from all over to this rapidly growing commercial center. Commercial travelers declared the new Empire House the finest public house between Buffalo and Albany. There you could get a meal for twenty-five cents and, as the teetotaling Mays might have been pained to discover, whiskey for three cents a glass.(26) The Teachers Advocate, however, had settled in Syracuse not only because of its central position in the state but because of the "intelligent, liberal and enterprising spirit of its citizens."(29)


Such recognition was new. Five years before, educators who were looking for a horrible example invariably pointed to Syracuse. At that time an itinerant lecturer took a model of the best schoolhouse in the village and exhibited it about the state to show how bad a schoolhouse could be.(30)

Of the 1600 children at the time, 600 had never attended any school and the remainder attended only sporadically. One Syracuse school crammed half its students into "a dark and damp cellar, which excluded the cheerful light of day and must have had a remarkable effect in repressing that hilarity in the pupils which is so annoying to nervous teachers."(31)


A school without a schoolhouse also floated about the village, a "migratory, mendicant school," once located temporarily in the basement of a public house where classes were enlivened by the "brawl and confusion of dram drinking, arrival and departure of noisy travelers, and their lumbering vehicles." The school finally came to rest in a loft above a machine shop, scholars vibrating in tune with the lathes and steam engines below. "There was apparently a great emulation between the pupils, engines and workmen to produce the greatest confusion, and it required delicate perceptive faculties to decide which succeeded."(32)


Syracusans finally wearied at serving as butt for such dubious humor. They raised taxes, improved schools, formed a common school association,(33) and in August of 1845 achieved recognition from Superintendent Francis Dwight of Albany for their "wonderful reformation that has . . . placed [Syracuse schools] among the best schools of the Union."(34)


May's position as pastor of a Unitarian congregation distinctive for its intelligence, leadership, and liberalism provided the best possible podium for assisting in such reforms. Of the 56 male members of the Unitarian society in 1845, fully half were outstanding men on the community.(35) A number proved sympathetic enough to work with their pastor for the reforms he loved, and several, such as Dudley Phelps and Hiram Putnam, helped shape the educational renaissance of the community during the 1840's. In the opinion of another parishioner, Schoolmaster Joseph Allen, May's church deserved great credit for May's achievements as "probably the only congregation in which he could have the full swing he was given."(36) Over the years his parishioners gave May exceptional freedom to write, organize, petition, and travel at his own discretion. Occasionally they opened their private purses to help him do it.

May had come to New York as a sort of desperation move when no other attractive post consistent with his reform views had presented itself; but he had preached several sermons to the Unitarians in Syracuse on various reforms dear to his heart before he accepted their call, and he considered they were sufficiently warned of his peculiarities in advance.(37) He found Syracuse exceptionally congenial and so consistently exciting that he remained for the rest of his life. Samuel J. May proved a major influence in creating for the city its nineteenth century reputation as a hotbed for reform.


Now coming into his prime at 48 years of age, May in 1845 could reassume his most effective role in education: skilled publicist, promoter and defender of educational reform. From the time he first determined as a Harvard freshman to improve faculty and student opinion of his scholarly abilities, May had displayed shrewd talents for molding public opinion.


"My opponent has really spoken, once or twice, as if he had unmasked me, dragged me out of my hiding place," May cried in mock despair during a series of theological debates with a Methodist parson in 1854. "Why, Sir, I have been as much above board and outspoken, as a man could be, ever since I lived in this city . . . . I am anxious to let the community know all my sentiments and purposes, and to interest as many in them as I may be able to."(38)


May bowed to no one, even the expert Horace Mann, in his ability to let the community know, and to create a favorable climate of opinion for whatever reform he espoused at the moment. In this lifelong undertaking he employed all the available methods and media: meetings, conventions, posters, placards, public notices, brochures, tracts, letters to the editor, petitions, surveys,(39) audio-visual education,(40) advertisements, button-holing of legislators, celebrity endorsements, direct mail, great debates, and a good many others the twentieth century would come to think of as its own.


May also had fine command of more subtle methods. He could achieve wonders via friendship with the decision makers of his society as well as through a knowledge of the processes of group dynamics. When a meeting was called or an organization formed, May could rarely be found presiding from the chair. He almost always managed to snag one of the backstage positions where power was more likely to lie; he made his influence felt either as secretary or as chairman of the resolutions committee. Other people ran the meetings and made the pronouncements: May decided in advance what they would say.


May's personal talents and preferences suited him admirably for this role. He wrote with vigor and clarity; his speaking voice was striking for the beauty of its tone. At the art of personal persuasion he admitted few peers. He professed great respect for the skills of the professional communicator and proposed that journalists should be ordained as were ministers of religion.(41) The fact that newspaper editors usually loved or hated him insured ample space for all his projects.


Jailing the refined Miss Crandall in 1833(42) was only one example of May's flair for the dramatic; it cropped out consistently when he needed it most. In 1857 he decided he would help a young Syracuse friend, Andrew D. White, enroll a colored man at Yale. May found a likely candidate for this venture. "He is, I am happy to say," May wrote White, "an unmistakable negro, an unmixed descendant from African ancestors. He has thick close curly hair, a flat broad nose and lips of ponderous size . . . . he will excel in the dead languages and elegant literature."(43)


May disliked direct physical action; one year spent as agent of the violently controversial New England Antislavery Society in 1835 to 1836 was enough for him. Except for helping with the "rescue" of the slave, Jerry McHenry, from federal marshals in Syracuse in 1851, he never again engaged in anything so immediately violent. But he did love to prod others. "I smile to think how successful you are in getting up mobs," wrote Wendell Phillips after a May diatribe against the Mexican war had thoroughly aroused the pro-war faction in Syracuse. "You act in Connecticut—lo, Judson's mobs. You come to Boston—the mobs of 1835! You go into exile at Syracuse. Lo, war mobs! Is it not clear that summer—calm as you seem, it is but seeming and underneath lies the veritable mob compeller, S. J. May?(44)


May did not pretend to be an original thinker, but he did have a skill for discovering promising new thinking in others and then graphically distilling its essence for the public at large. He delighted in promoting the work of those he identified as the true instigators and original spirits of the great educational reforms. His support of Horace Mann was a case history in such relationships; Mann called on him countless times to influence legislators, sway meetings, and find funds. "Become all things to all men," Mann wrote him in 1842. "Go preach; and wherever you preach, speaking with a flaming tongue, miraculously convert. Let us carry the cause through one year more and I think the young giant will be able to take care of himself."(45) May was still raising money for Antioch College under Mann's presidency in 1859 when Mann was approaching his death bed.(46)


May was always sending off educators such as Henry Barnard or Andrew D. White with letters of introduction to the influential people May knew in Chicago, Detroit, or London. He assisted White into some closely guarded Boston libraries by a well-timed note to Charles Francis Adams,(47) and helped White achieve his first national publication in the Atlantic via a letter of recommendation to its editor, James Field.(48) Though May himself had hoped to publish an article on the education of idiots [sic] in Barnard's American Journal of Education, he generously stepped back and recommended another article on the subject to Barnard, an article first brought to May by Edouard Seguin,(49) a young Frenchman working at the Idiot Asylum in Syracuse. This French educator became known throughout the world as a pioneer in this hitherto neglected field.


During his years in Syracuse, May served as close friend and personal advisor to the eccentric millionaire-philanthropist of nearby Peterboro, Garrit Smith. May always had a new young educator who could use some of Smith's money; Andrew D. White and Horace Mann were only two of the hopefuls who rode the train with May from Syracuse to Canastota and found the Smith carriage waiting at the station to convey them to the major house at Peterboro.(50) White had particularly high hopes after he came home from one of these conducted tours to Peterboro. Shortly thereafter, in his mail was a letter from Smith: "I was proposing to contribute largely to a school. But I was taken sick and woke up in a Lunatic Asylum. This greatly reduced my courage."(51)

White eventually had his university, but the glory went to Ezra Cornell.


May sacrificed himself most thoroughly to that eccentric genius, A. Bronson Alcott. May first heard of Alcott's pioneer school in Cheshire, Connecticut, as a result of the call issued to the Brooklyn convention in 1827.(52) He promptly wrote Alcott, and was rewarded by a personal appearance from this pensive, dreamy young man in 1828. Alcott and May were mutually enraptured; they spent long hours under the Brooklyn elms discussing every possible scheme for meliorating the human condition.(53) Alcott emerged from this encounter with May's recommendation that he go to Boston to teach, and with a strong interest in May's sister, Abigail. For the good of American transcendentalism and the detriment of May's family finances, Sam married Alcott to "Sister Abba" in 1830(54) after Alcott's disastrous venture in keeping an Infant School in Boston, a venture well ahead of its time, the man destined to become the Sage of Concord never exerted himself consistently at any remunerative work again, depending on his wife, daughter, and the largesse of the Mays for support.


May's correspondence is filled with notes, letters, and records of the diversion of May funds to the support of the Alcott household. The income from Sam's inheritance of $8,000 was immediately appropriated on his father's death to support Abba's family. "All her portion of my father's estate," May explained to his Scituate congregation, had "gone to pay her husband's debts."(55)


In 1845 the interest on the $8,000 was still supporting "an indigent sister and brother," May explained to his new congregation in Syracuse.(56) That same year May and Ralph Waldo Emerson worked together to procure the home in Concord, Massachusetts, called "The Wayside" for the Alcotts after Bronson's disastrous venture into communal living at Fruitlands;(57) when Nathaniel Hawthorne bought the house in 1853, May directed that money from the sale go to Abba.(58) Not until the success in 1868 of Little Women, published by Alcott's daughter, Louisa May, could the Alcott's live in independence. In Miss Alcott's novel, the March family was poor because the father, Mr. March, had "lost his property trying to help an unfortunate friend."(59) May's niece was hardly autobiographical in this detail.


During all this time May retained a genuine affection for his craggy brother-in-law, exploding only once and privately to his cousin, Samuel Sewell, about Abba's sad situation: "The more I think of her strange husband—the more I am shocked at his selfishness. I pity her with my whole heart." (Alcott's one-time assistant in the Boston infant school, Elizabeth Peabody, had been visiting the Mays and rousing Sam with stories of Bronson's odd behavior.)(60)

Generally Sam managed to think respectfully of the intellectual capacities of the lofty Alcott, to arrange for Bronson to present an occasional series of his "talks" in Syracuse, and to refer to Alcott when speaking to outsiders as "that remarkable man."(61)


Thus down through the years May cherished educational genius where he found it and made popular the ideas formulated by brilliant men. His was the role of both prophet and apostle for the great American educators of his age. He made straight in the desert a good many highways; he enjoyed preparing every one.



(1) Religious Recorder, August 7, 1845.

(2) May to Horace Mann, August 7, 1845, Massachusetts Historical Society.

(3) Religious Recorder, August 7, 1845.

(4) Teachers Advocate, I (December 31, 1845), p. 257. Consistency in metaphor was not an invariable hallmark of that enthusiastic age.

(5) Teacher' Advocate, I (September 10, 1845), pp. 17, 18.

(6) Religious Recorder, August 7, 1845.

(7) Ibid., also May to Mann, August 7, 1845.

(8) Religious Recorder, August 7, 1845.

(9) District School Journal, VI (September, 1845), pp. 115-116.

(10) Religious Recorder, August 7, 1845. No published account of these upheavals could be described as impartial. The Religious Recorder and theTeachers Advocate, new organ of the teachers association, invariably favored the orthodox-conservative side of a question: The District School Journal published by the New York State School Department in Albany always declared for reform and moral suasion.

(11) Religious Recorder, August 7, 1845.

(12) Ibid. Any interested person, minister, attorney, or citizen could attend almost any convention of the day and all felt free to speak at will, though they could not vote. Such varied participation considerably enlivened the proceedings.

(13) May to Mann, August 7, 1845, Mann Papers.

(14) May to Fowle and Capen, September 4, 1845, Massachusetts Historical Society.

(15) Teachers' Advocate, I (June 10, 1846), p. 621; I (August 19, 1846), p. 740; II (September 10, 1846), p. 8.

(16) May to Mann, August 7, 1845. Mann had told May in an earlier letter that he never should have left Massachusetts. Mann to May, July 4, 1845. Actually May had spent his lifetime moving from comfortable situations into difficult ones and, when the difficulties were conquered and his heresies accepted, leaving for more exciting places. He bore a similarity to Garrison whom in Lowell's phrase, was "so used to standing alone that, like Daniel Boone, he moves away as the world creeps up to him and foes further into the wilderness." C. E. Norton (ed.) The Letters of James Russell Lowell (New York: 1904), I, p. 177, cited by Arthur Schlesinger,The American as Reformer (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1950), p. 110.

(17) Common School Journal, I (March 15, 1839), p. 81.

(18) Whitney Cross, Burned-Over District (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1950), pp. 92, 93, 103.

(19) S. S. Randall, A Digest of the Common School System of the State of New York (Albany: Van Benthuysen & Co., 1844), pp. 8, 13.

(20) Frank P. Graves, "History of the State Education Department," Alexander C. Flick (ed.), History of the State of New York (New York: Columbia University Press, 1933-1937), IX, p. 9.

(21) Ibid., p. 25.

(22) District School Journal, VI (December, 1845), p. 171.

(23) May to Mann, October 22, 1845. New York children were no better. "I will not spit on the floor," was suggested to the New York school superintendents convention in 1845 as a motto for their children, but most New York scholars remained, as one speaker commented wryly, "in a state of salivation." Common School Journal, VII (April 22, 1845), p. 240;District School Journal, VI (June, 1845), p. 50.

(24) May to Mann, April 26, 1845, Mann Papers.

(25) Syracuse population in 1844 was 8,256. Franklin H. Chase, Syracuseand its Environs (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Co., 1924), p. 412.

(26) Paul Paine, "Books and Folks," a column describing Syracuse when May arrived. Undated, unidentified clipping, May file, Onondaga Historical Association. Also see Joseph May, Services in Honor of Samuel Joseph May(Boston: George H. Ellis, 1886), p. 29.

(27) Quoted in the Onondaga Standard, September 2, 1846.

(28) May to William B. Fowle, May 9, 1845, Massachusetts Historical Society.

(29) Prospectus for the Teachers' Advocate, printed in the Religious Recorder, August 21, 1845.

(30) District School Journal, VI (June, 1845), p. 54.

(31) "Schools of Syracuse," District School Journal, VI (August, 1845), pp. 77, 78, 91. The author did not sign his name; presumably he was a personage considered important enough to have his article published at length in the official organ of the state education department.

(32) Ibid., p. 91.

(33) District School Journal, V (April, 1844), p. 19.

(34) District School Journal, VI (August, 1845), p. 91.

(35) Estimate based on comparing the 1845 membership list of the church found in May Memorial Church Records with biographical material in individual members' files at the Onondaga Historical Association. Interview with Richard N. Wright, president of the Onondaga Historical Association, December 12, 1955.

(36) Syracuse Daily Standard, October 21, 1897.

(37) May, Brief Account, p. 33. Also Dudley P. Phelps, "History of the Unitarian Society, 1838 to 1845," pp. 9-10. No date. Onondaga Historical Association.

(38) Discussion of the Doctrine of the Trinity (Syracuse: Wesleyan Book Room, 1854), p. 20.

(39) To stand off critics of the Lexington school in 1844, he surveyed the graduates. Of the 34 he had certified, "only two have failed to realize my expectations and one is recovering herself." May to the Massachusetts Board of Education, Common School Journal, VII (November 6, 1844), pp. 65-66.

(40) May waxed especially enthusiastic when some village artist would bring him a new chart showing a map of the heavens or the progressive stages in the life of a drunkard. He regularly badgered publishers to print them. The "audio" part in that day had to be provided by the teacher.

(41) Barrows (ed.), Life and Letters of Thomas J. Mumford, p. 169.

(42) See Chapter V.

(43) May to Andrew White, November 18, 1857, Cornell University.

(44) Galpin, "God's Chore Boy," p. 178.

(45) Mann to May, December 13, 1842, quoted in Mann, Life of Horace Mann, p. 166.

(46) May to the Rev. Henry W. Bellows, December 24, 1858.

(47) May to Charles Francis Adams, July 25, 1858, Harvard University.

(48) May to White, July 30, 1862, Andrew D. White Papers, Cornell University. Also, May to Editors, Atlantic Monthly; May 3, and August 15, 1861. White Papers.

(49) May to Barnard, February 19, 1856, Barnard Papers.

(50) May to White, August 3, 1862; May to White, July 30, 1862, White Papers.

(51) Gerrit Smith to Andrew D. White, September 3, 1862, White Papers.

(52) Mumford, May Memoir, pp. 121-122.

(53) Ibid., p. 122.

(54) Ibid., p. 123.

(55) May to members of the Second Parish in Scituate, April 18, 1842, quoted in Mary L. F. Power, "The Pastorate of the Rev. Samuel Joseph May at the South Parish of Scituate, 1836-1842," Onondaga Historical Association.

(56) May to Hiram Putnam, Thomas Spencer and John Wilkinson, January 27, 1845, Unitarian Records.

(57) May to Ralph Waldo Emerson, January 13, 1844; December 22, 1844. Harvard University.

(58) May to Samuel Sewall, June 12, 1853, Massachusetts Historical Society.

(59) Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (New York: Little, Brown, Co., 1868), p. 31.

(60) May to Samuel Sewall, July 12, 1853, Massachusetts Historical Society.

(61) May to Henry Barnard, July 30, 1857, Barnard Papers.

Page 9 of 12


Chapter VIII: Love the Unlovely


Sam read the resolutions in what his friend, John Greenleaf Whittier, like to call his "sweet persuasive voice."(1) He had need of all his persuasiveness; sweetness would probably do little good. He was bent on convincing the gathered citizens of Syracuse to raise taxes enough to pay for a school system free to all the children who wanted to come. Gathered in Market Hall(2) that February 10 of 1848, the city's leading residents listened to the resolutions they had asked Sam to write as a foundation for the kind of school system their newly-incorporated city should have.(3)


Most of the resolutions caused little comment and passed easily; not so, the Reverend Mr. May's Resolution 4. “Resolved," he read, that it is as fitting and proper that a complete system of schools, free to all the children of this city, should be amply sustained at the public expense as that our city government . . . should be so supported.”


The citizens stirred. Some resisted. The resolution was "accepted in principle," reported the Onondaga Standard, but some doubted its expediency "at the time." The citizens appointed a group of five stalwarts: John Wilkinson, Dennis McCarthy, Henry J. Sedgwick, Hiram Putnam and Hamilton White, to consider a detailed plan of public schools as May had recommended. This properly balanced group was to report back to another meeting.(4) Wilkinson and Putnam were both members of May's Unitarian Society; Wilkinson had served as trustee of School District in the village of Syracuse;(5) Putnam, as trustee of the old District No.7 schools and as an exceedingly vocal secretary of the Onondaga Common Schools Association.(6) Sedgwick and White were Calvinists; McCarthy a Catholic. All were interested in the schools.


New York State as a whole had never provided free schools for its children. Parents who wanted their children to go to school paid "rate bills," the difference between what the state school fund and local taxes provided and what the schools actually cost. Parents who did not pay could not send their children unless they were willing to be declared paupers and let their children stand the shame.(8) Only two of every seven children in Onondaga County went to school regularly enough to be counted.(9) The proud or the frugal just let their children run the streets.


The idea of socialized education was stoutly resisted by some in that day and in that city. Many who owned land or industry, and some who had neither, resisted the idea of paying good tax money to educate other people's children. What would happen to the spirit of private enterprise, they queried, if the schools were free to all? Surely parents with initiative wanted, indeed demanded, to pay their own way! The others weren't worth bothering about. Proponents of free schools had to fight not only the economy minded and the advocates of laissez-faire, but sectarians who wanted no schools they could not dominate, and child labor lords who balked at the prospective loss of cheap help.(10).


(In 1850 when May engaged in the battle for free schools on a statewide basis, he begged Horace Mann to address an approaching free school convention in Syracuse because the free school law was being attacked by "certain wealthy individuals and moneyed institutions.”(11))


May maintained, as he always had, that free education would promote prosperity and insure the safety of democratic institutions, as well as help abolish the worst effects of poverty, crime and intemperance. “If it be greater wisdom to prevent evil than to attempt its remedy," declared May in the preamble to his 1848 resolutions, “then will every community that has due regard to its own good be careful that a system of thorough intellectual and moral culture for all the children within its embrace shall be well appointed and amply sustained.”(12)


In little more than two weeks the citizens of Syracuse succumbed to such arguments. Inhabitants of New York, Brooklyn, Buffalo, Rochester, Albany, and Williamsburgh had preceded them.(13) On February 28 an adjourned meeting of citizens approved a plan recommended by its committee—a plan providing for a general system of schools governed by an eight-man board of education chosen by the city's Common Council, "the schools to be free.”(14)


At its initial meeting the new Syracuse Board of Education elected as its first president Hiram Putnam, a former sea captain with some of the glamour of the China trade still about him.(15) In subsequent sessions Putnam's board opened a Pandora's box by decreeing that every school day should open with prayer or scripture;(16) ordained that the only teachers hired should be those abstaining from tobacco and the use of liquor as a beverage,(17) and set salaries for these moral paragons at $35 to $50 per month for men, $15 to $18 for women.(18) (The major advantage of hiring women became rapidly more visible.) To finance school expenses the state empowered the city to lay a biennial property tax.(19)


On April 26, the clerk could write with a proud flourish, "Resolved, that the President of the Board give public notice that the Common Schools of the City will be opened free to all the children of the City.”(20) Syracusans did love to italicize that significant word.


Thus the words from May's pen had come alive for hundreds and thousands of children. "To no two men," a biographer of the succeeding generation was to say, "was the school system of Syracuse more indebted than to Captain Putnam and his beloved pastor, Samuel J. May.”(21) May framed the school system for rich and poor, white and black alike. Putnam made it work.


* * *

Education, May believed, was a basic right of all citizens in a democracy. After he arrived in Syracuse in 1845 he fought to extend this right to all the culturally deprived: Negroes, juvenile delinquents, Indians, idiots [sic] and women. He surprised one convention of teachers by urging them to go into their schools in the spirit of Christ, "meaning to seek and to save them that are lost; being especially mindful of the neglected, ill-looking., ill-dressed, ill-tempered, not wishing them away, but rejoicing to have an opportunity to do for them in school what is not done for them at home. Let this class of children be at once made to feel that they are really cared for; that they are not shunned but sought after; not despised but valued; not doubted, but trusted; not despaired of, but hoped for . . . Love the unlovely, and they will put their unloveliness away.”(22)


The juvenile delinquents of May's day and locality were the canal boys, scruffy youngsters who drove the animals pulling the boats down the Erie. As he walked to town from James Street hill and crossed the bridge over the canal every day, May was astonished to hear the obscenities floating up in piping childish tones from the towpath below.


Fresh to a new community and intrigued by its particular problems, May promptly inquired about the canal boys. He discovered they were often abused and neglected.(23) In the winter the homeless ones huddled in the salt boiling houses(24) or sought food and shelter in the Onondaga County jail, an institution which so jammed in the boys with the older offenders that the Teachers’ Advocate denounced it as a "school of vice" for the young.(25).


May acted promptly. Invited to a meeting of ministers in December of 1845, he proposed a memorial to the legislature insuring the boys some protection to their persons, compensation for their services, homes and suitable schooling in the winter for the orphans, and a reformatory for those "who should become delinquents.”(26)


A convention of citizens heard May's description of the young boys who trudged through their city and inhabited their jail; the citizens, petitioning the legislature, asked for a house of refuge in Syracuse for the reformation of "canal boys and other juvenile delinquents under 18" who might otherwise go to jail or workhouse.(27)


May was disappointed in the result. The legislature did establish a western House of Refuge, but in Rochester instead of Syracuse,(28) and the system of guardianship and the other advantages he craved for the children were omitted. Down through the years he pressed Syracusans to set up a reform school for "'truant and refractory children." He was always thwarted. Such an institution, the city fathers invariably replied, would be too expensive to contemplate.(29)

He thus gave unqualified support in 1867 when a Roman Catholic priest, the Rev. James O'Hara, bought the old, poor-farm building at Split Rock south of the city, and established a reform school. Father O'Hara imported as teachers four members of the Christian Brothers, an order, as May explained to his Protestant fellow citizens, devoted especially to "the reformation of the vicious and juvenile delinquents." May wrote a special letter for the Syracuse Daily Journal, calming fears that Protestant boys admitted might be converted into Roman Catholics and calling on the wealthy and benevolent of the city to make the school "what we so much need.”(30)


May had a special affinity for these small social outcasts. He often visited a reform school headed by a friend of his who reported that the boys "crowded right around him when he came into the playground . . . . He did not lecture them but showed them something new about their games. . . ."(31)

This tolerance and understanding did not extend to a sentimental softness about youthful crime, however, especially when his own interests were involved. May was enormously pleased when Syracusans built and named a public school for him in 1868. He sent for a football to Boston, the only proper place to send for anything, and when it came, hobbled off to the school ground despite his 70 years and bad leg to show the boys of the May School how to play football.(32) When a group of six to 10-year-olds broke windows in the May School, however, he promptly filed a complaint. On his oath the boys were arraigned and charged with malicious mischief. All pleaded not guilty, were tried, convicted, and sentenced to a fine of $10 each.(33) May loved children but he would take no nonsense from them.


May exerted an equal effort for the education of Indians. When he arrived in Syracuse, he found a run-down remnant of the once mighty Onondagas inhabiting a reservation a few miles south of the village. Disputes between Christian Indians and those who adhered to the religion of the Long House, plus a general indifference on the part of the whites around them, had blocked educational progress on the reservation. May had long been fascinated by these "aborigines,” and he could never bear to hear them spoken of as an “effete race, destined to extermination as fast as the superior races of man shall come on to take possession of the lands. . . .” Indians should be educated, he felt, "to help them unfold the nature that God has given them, in which we see traits enough like our own to assure us they are human, and therefore capable of becoming partakers of the divine.”(34)


Now he had an opportunity; the Indians on December 22, 1845, had agreed to let their meeting house be used for a school. The Christian Indians wanted a teacher to make their children good, reported the Teachers’ Advocate, the pagans wanted their children educated to enable them to cope with the whites who were not so good.(35)


At the inevitable meeting of citizens, with May serving on the resolutions committee, Syracusans petitioned the legislature to grant $600 for an Indian schoolhouse plus a four-year appropriation for maintenance. This demonstration project was to show the educability of Indians, a proposition still sharply under question. Acting with unaccustomed alacrity, the state legislature allocated six hundred dollars for a school plus a grant of $250 annually for the next five years.(36)


Speaking in a language he hoped would be acceptable to his Indian hearers, the Rev. Mr. May on November 12, 1846, helped dedicate the new little white schoolhouse on the reservation. "Brothers," he said, "I am happy to be here today." True, the day was dark and cloudy and the season dismal and "this seems like the sad condition of the Indians now. But soon we know spring will come and these trees will be covered with leaves; and the fields will look green and beautiful . . . ."


"Now, I consider the building of this school house here, as the spring season to the Onondagas. Knowledge and goodness will be to you and your children, what the light and warmth of the sun will be to the fields and trees. They will cause you to look bright and happy; they will cover you with the green leaves and flowers of improvement; and enable you to bring forth in abundance the fruits of the good spirit.”(37)


Not all the dedicatory speakers displayed such tact. One minister of puritanical mien urged his auditors to be more like the Mohawks, Oneidas and, Senecas. Then you will not be idle, drunken and despised," he commented helpfully. “You will learn to be useful and happy in this life and you may be happy in the life to come.”(38) Not surprisingly, it was Mr. May and not the Rev. Mr. Gregory who continued through the years to help Indians raise money for their schools and obtain qualified teachers, and to serve the Indians as a sort of unofficial agent in dealings with the state.(39)


The education of the mentally retarded aroused May's particular interest after Dr. Harvey Wilbur, pioneer American educator in the field, transferred the “New York Asylum for Idiots" from Albany to Syracuse in 1855.(40) The first state institution to be formally established for the education of the retarded,(41) the idiot asylum rose on a hill west of the city and proved an object of interest to educators from all over the country. May took pleasure in escorting such visitors as Horace Mann to the asylum, and May himself addressed a Syracuse meeting on the subject of idiot education with Dr. Wilbur and several of his students in the audience.(42) Dr. Wilbur was experimenting with May's favorite instructional method, object teaching, and May followed his work with interest, hoping, as he wrote Barnard, to discover what might be learned from idiot education "applicable to the teaching of all children.”(43)


May based his case for still another special kind of education, that of women, on the same Jeffersonian reasoning that undergirded his general philosophy of education. "Women have natural rights, no less than men," he declared, "and because natural they are also inalienable, and can never be set at naught or disregarded with impunity.”(44) In what he believed was the first defense of woman's rights from an American pulpit, May asserted that the female mind is competent; indeed, "the majority of female children are so much more disposed to study and so much quicker to learn than those of the other sex that there may be found in the community a greater number of pretty well instructed women than men.”(45)


No matter how great their intellectual needs or powers, May declared, "women are still denied the benefits of higher education, thus depressing the sex and leaving them at the mercy of men. Educate the women, May advised, and admit them to public councils. Wars will less frequently arise and the redemption of the world will come more quickly.


May found ample room for agitation in a community where the Union Lyceum could meet to debate the question: "Are the females as susceptible of intellectual improvement as the males,”(46) and where the Teachers' Advocate could quote a speaker blaming women's bad health on the overworking of the female mind in the seminaries.(47)


May's pioneer sermon caused a stir in the community and made an impact in this country and abroad. Published first in 1846, it went through several editions both here and in England , and it achieved the largest circulation of any of his writings.(48) Some Syracusans took a dim view of this brand of philosophical heresy. In a long sermon on "The Christian Citizen's Duty Towards the Propagators of Error," the city's Episcopalian rector, the Rev. W. B. Ashley, castigated May particularly for his role in "unsexing women.”(49)


In many ways, however, western New York was particularly receptive to such reform thought. Horace Mann on a speaking tour found the western part of the state more alive to the importance of thorough female education than Massachusetts. And the women! The young ladies of the west simply amazed Mann in their size, strength, and general development. He wrote Cyrus Peirce in astonishment after visiting one Rochester boarding school for young ladies. "Twenty such foreheads, marveled Phrenologist Mann,”I never saw, 'all in a row.’”(50)


On these trips Mann often visited the May home where he could see another typical young woman of the west, May's daughter Charlotte. Of her scholarship, May was inordinately proud.(51) Charlotte flourished in a family singularly devoted to education. Though her father liked to write about learning, her mother was the real scholar of the family. Mrs. May knew more about the contents of her husband's library than he did; was singularly devoted to English letters, history and the arts; read French fluently, and in her old age learned enough Italian to enjoy the major poets.(52) Surrounded by such women, May could put considerable faith in the competence of the female mind.


Probably May exerted his most decisive effort for coeducation on Andrew D. White. In 1857 May read with disapproval a White article in the New Englander asserting that a "mere flowing of abridgements" was enough education for a woman. May exploded. Such was serious error, he wrote White, “how serious I hope you will live long enough to realize fully—and acknowledge frankly. The education, the training of women ought in all respects to be as thorough, as profound, as that of men. Indeed, if the education of either sex should be the more complete, it is that of the female; for to them more than to the other is committed the instruction of children. But I would have both sexes educated equally well—educated together.”(53)


White accepted the older man as counsellor as well as friend; after White became president of Cornell University, the two often met either in Syracuse or Ithaca to confer about the affairs of the institution.(54) On July 1, 1871, White visited May, now seriously ill in his daughter's home in Syracuse. White told the old man of a liberal gift promised to Cornell on condition that young women should have the same advantages as young men. The old spark flared; Sam was delighted. Cornell should have his own portrait of Prudence Crandall if the offer were accepted, he promised, and said good-bye in his old cheerful and affectionate way. At ten that evening, he died.(55)


In the fall of 1875, the Syracuse Daily Journal was able to report "one tenth are females" of the new freshman class at Cornell University.(56)

A final aspect of May's conviction that education should be extended to all was his belief that people of every age might profit by continued learning. He was continually promoting projects for adult education and helped to found lyceums, lecture series, forums, societies for mutual instruction, and the Franklin Institute which became the Syracuse Public Library. Through May's friendships with the famous, Syracuse enjoyed such speakers as Caleb Cushing, Horace Mann, Theodore Parker, Bronson Alcott, and Carl Schurz. May tried to snag Emerson, but never succeeded.(57)


In a day when "high" schools were regarded with suspicion by many as the trappings of aristocracy, May fought for a free high school in Syracuse to extend the limits of common school education for all. In early Syracuse the only bridge between common school and college came in the private academies which flourished and died depending on the skill of the principal and the number of moneyed patrons they could attract. They were generally a mediocre lot; none approached the excellence of those in Pompey, Cazenovia, and Homer.(58)


When May was 61, his fellow citizens elected him president of the Syracuse Board of Education, a prime position of power from which to press his ideas for reform. He first raised the question of a public high school at a board meeting in 1865, persuaded Andrew D. White to canvass the city sampling sentiment, and arranged for a public meeting at which citizens voted to float a $75,000 bond issue.(59) In 1869 he had the satisfaction of presiding at the dedication exercises for a new high school and of taking most of the credit for its establishment.(60)


May never lost this flair for reform. At the age of 72 he began agitating for one of the new kindergartens to be added to the Syracuse school system. He called the kindergarten "that improvement in the common method of teaching very young children." He imported Miss Elizabeth Peabody, prime mover of the new American kindergarten movement, to address the Syracuse citizenry(61) and pressed the idea on the city council.


He did not live to see the kindergarten system introduced into the city nor the establishment of the new Syracuse University, another development he had long favored. As his life ended, however, he could take pleasure in having helped to extend the privilege of education to many who might have gone illiterate, and to lengthen the span of formal learning for many others whose schooling would have been both meagre and short.



(1) J. G. Whittier, "The Antislavery Convention of 1833," Atlantic Monthly, XXXIII (February, 1874), pp. 166-172.

(2) Much village life centered on this structure which housed both a market and a hall used for gatherings of citizens. See Charles E. Fitch, "Market Hall," Syracuse Daily Herald, October 16, 1898.

(3) For details on the city's new status and that of its schools, see above, p. 66.

(4) Onondaga Standard, February 16, 1848.

(5) "Journal of School District No. 5, 1839-1848," Ms. volume, Archives of the Syracuse City School System.

(6) In Memory of Captain Hiram Putnam (n.d., n.p.), Hiram Putnam file, Onondaga Historical Association.

(7) Common School Journal, I (March 15, 1839), pp. 81, 82.

(8) District School Journal, VII (November, 1846), p. 142.

(9) District School Journal, VII (June, 1846), p. 205.

(10) Curti, Social Ideals of American Educators, p.87; Jackson, Free Schools, p. 93.

(11) May to Mann, May 21, 1850, quoted in Curti, Social Ideas of American Educators, p. 87. New York state schools were not entirely free until 1867 when the last of the rate bills were abolished.

(12) Onondaga Standard, February 16, 1848.

(13) District School Journal, VIII (March, 1848), p. 193.

(14) Onondaga Standard, March 1, 1848.

(15) Putnam Memorial Booklet; also “Minutes of the Syracuse Board of Education,” April 21, 1848.

(16) Board of Education Minutes, .May 9, 1848.

(17) Ibid., May 2, 1848.

(18) Ibid., May 2, 1848.

(19) “An Act in relation to the Public Schools in the City of Syracuse, Passed April 11, 1848, by the Senate and Assembly of the State of New York,” ms. volume, Syracuse City School System Archives.

(20) Board of Education Minutes, April 26, 1848.

(21) Putnam Memorial Booklet.

(22) May to Mann, October 20, 1844. May was disconcerted to find it was a new discovery to so many that "evil might be overcome with good" in school no less than elsewhere.

(23) May, Brief Account, pp. 35, 36.

(24) Teachers’ Advocate, I (December 31, 1845), p. 267.

(25) Teachers’ Advocate, II (August 20, 1848), p. 50.

(26) May, Brief Account, pp. 35, 36.

(27) Teachers’ Advocate, I (December 31, 1845), p. 267.

(28) Onondaga Standard, June 2, 1847.

(29) Smith, History of the Syracuse Schools, pp. 142, 153.

(30) Syracuse Daily Journal, September 23, 1867.

(31) May Memoir, p. 247.

(32) Ibid., p. 247.

(33) Syracuse Daily Journal, October 2, 1869.

(34) May, Brief Account, pp. 33, 34.

(35) Teachers’ Advocate, I (December 24, 1845), p. 249.

(36) District School Journal, VII (April 30, 1846), p. 60.

(37) District School Journal, November 14, 1846. Not all Syracusans were equally enchanted with the glories of education for Indians. "The advancement of education in the science of Agriculture and in letters," mourned the editor of the Onondaga Standard, September 2, 1846, "is destroying the charm of these rude festal scenes among this remnant of a once powerful tribe. And the time is not far distant when they will cease, and the places which now know them will know them no more."

(38) District School Journal, November 14, 1846.

(39) Galpin, "God’s Chore Boy,” p. 302; Samuel J. May diary, May 8, 1865, Cornell University.

(40) May to Barnard December 29, 1855, Barnard Papers.

(41) Syracuse Daily Journal, October 17, 1861.

(42) Syracuse Daily Journal, October 18, 1854.

(43) Harvey Wilbur, “Object Instruction System," American Journal of Education, XV (1855), pp. 191-208. Also May to Barnard, February 19, 1856, Barnard Papers.

(44) S. J. May, "Letter from the Rev. S. J. May to the Woman's Rights Convention, October, 1850," Letter from Angelina Grimke Weld to the Women’s Rights Convention held at Syracuse, September, 1852(Syracuse: Master's Print, 1852), p. 8.

(45) Samuel J. May, The rights and condition of women: Considered in The Church of the Messiah, November 8, 1846 (Syracuse: Stoddard and Babcock, 1846).

(46) Religious Recorder, September 11, 1845.

(47) Joel Hawes, “Formation and Excellence of Female Character,"Teachers’ Advocate, I (April 15, 1846), p. 502.

(48) Mumford, May Memoir, p. 190.

(49) Syracuse Daily Standard, November 23, 1852.

(50) Mann to Cyrus Peirce, March 27, 1852, Mann, Horace Mann, p. 360.

(51) May to "My dear uncle,” March 14, 1849, Massachusetts Historical Society.

(52) Mumford, May Memoir, pp. 276, 277. Interview with Charlotte's daughter, Miss Katharine Wilkinson, May, 1956.

(53) May to White, September 20, 1857, Cornell University.

(54) Interview with Miss Wilkinson.

(55) In Memoriam, p. 9.

(56) Syracuse Daily Journal, September 20, 1875.

(57) May to Ralph Waldo Emerson, August 13, 1856, Harvard University.

(58) Syracuse Daily Journal, January 13, 1847.

(59) Syracuse Daily Journal, December 5, 1866.

(60) Galpin, “God’s Chore Boy,” p. 298.

(61) Syracuse Daily Journal, June 27, 1870.

Page 10 of 12


Chapter IX: More Encouraging Views of Man


On October 22 of 1855 an angry letter to the editor exploded from the pages of the Syracuse Daily Standard. A 10-year-old girl had received from her teacher an "infliction on the hand" severe enough to call for doctor's services, declared the writer, and a boy of Mr. H. "had 100 blows administered to him by Miss Slocum." The letter proved spark to tinder; controversy flamed over flogging in the public schools. School board officers maintained there was no real flogging; opponents countered by wondering ominously whether a "German boy" had not been so severely punished in the schoolroom as to cause his death.(1)


From a purely legal standpoint, Syracuse teachers who trounced their pupils were perfectly within their rights. As one of its first official acts, the Syracuse Board of Education in 1848 had taken a forthright stand and endorsed the necessity of “judicious corporal punishment in the preservation of Order, Authority, and proper discipline . . . .”(2)


As a matter of fact, most prudent teachers of the era accumulated for themselves a whole arsenal of punishment devices; a fool’s cap, a ferule, a switch, and—in some country schools—a bundle of ox gads five or six feet long.(3) In many a schoolroom, from a nail up near the ceiling hung a heavy leather whip, the rawhide. Rarely used, the ominous blacksnake nonetheless remained omnipresent to terrorize the timid and threaten the recalcitrant. No one tampered with this fellow. Of him the whole school stood in awe.(4)


The child who tasted the rod at school could rarely look for sympathy at home; every lash in the schoolroom was proverbially followed by two in the woodshed. Children had few rights. The most brutal treatment at home or in school was commonly considered nobody's business but that of the parent or teacher involved.(5)


In Syracuse of the mid-fifties, however, with liberal sentiments in ferment on every hand, some parents had begun to doubt the wisdom and openly to question the value of the daily whippings common in the schools.(6) School officials grew uncomfortable.” Corporal punishment is of much less frequent appearance than formerly," the clerk of the board insisted defensively in 1857.(7) In 1858 the board, itself suddenly required teachers to keep a record of every thrashing given.(8)


Teachers complied, but under protest. At teachers' meetings they passed resolutions staunchly endorsing the teachers' right to keep order by whatever method he chose.


In such an atmosphere of tension and dissent, Samuel J. May was elected to the school board in 1864.(9) In 1865 his fellow commissioners named him president.(10) For the first time May now held a position of actual administrative power. He could not only urge and cajole from the sidelines; he could act.

For such action, he quickly found ample reason. Obedient to the behest of 1858, Syracuse teachers reported they had administered 2,862 whippings to their children during the school year of 1865 and 1866. Despite this "liberal use of the rod," teachers still were forced to suspend innumerable numbers of children from school because of their distracting influence.(11) May talked to teachers, conferred with parents, prodded his fellow board members. Rising public opinion gave him support. At last on March 28, 1867, he had his way. The board voted to prohibit the use of corporal punishment of any kind in the Syracuse schools.(12)


This break with hoary schoolroom tradition did not take place without protest. Superintendent of Schools Edward Smith entertained dire misgivings. Some of the teachers threatened to give up their schools.(13) All means of maintaining order had been taken from them, they protested, and they envisioned calamity for the school system as a whole.(14)


As the months went by, however, and the predicted disasters did not materialize, Smith became increasingly optimistic about the changed regulation. By the time he issued his report in 1868. He had become an out-and-out convert to the new order. The ruling had originally concerned him gravely. He confessed in the 1868 report, but now he had "no hesitation in saying that in my opinion the schools of Syracuse are better disciplined today than they have ever been before.”(15) The number of suspensions for misconduct had actually dropped, he found, and "the atmosphere of almost every room became brighter.”(16)

May did not bog down in complacency. Still concerned over the teachers' views, he went down to the high school in May of 1870 to an elementary teachers' meeting, and "endeavored to draw from them a full and frank avowal . . . respecting the effect of our prohibition of corporal punishment. None expressed a wish to have that mode of governing restored to our Schools—But there was more unanimity and warmth than I expected."(17) On June 4, the junior and senior high school teachers voted against the restoration of corporal punishment, 66 to 4,(18) making May's victory complete.


Syracuse citizens eventually came to regard the prohibition of corporal punishment as a striking example of civic pioneering. They plumed themselves on this achievement, but gave May almost sole credit. Syracuse was one of the first cities in the country to abolish corporal punishment, wrote a county historian proudly in 1891, and the moral tone of the schools was now "infinitely better than when whipping was in vogue.”(19)


" Rochester never had a Samuel J. May," editorialized the Syracuse Daily Standard in that same year, "so corporal punishment is still a part of her public school system.”(20) This victory over brutality, the citizens felt affectionately, was a kind of crowning triumph to good Mr. May's years of battling for educational reform. Having helped create the Syracuse schools free and open equally to all, he had now delivered them from the senseless brutality that was once a hallmark of the system. When May resigned as chairman of the board at the age of 73, his fellow commissioners wrote a rousing tribute into the board minutes.(21) May's frequent inspection trips had given him a thorough knowledge of teachers, methods, equipment, and problems in the Syracuse schools, they knew. During his six years in office he had dealt personally with refractory children and their parents, had hired teachers, recommended textbooks, signed hundreds of checks, appeared at countless exhibitions and attended to every detail of school administration. But his most important contribution, Syracusans thought, was the tone he set for the schoolroom. “To no man in the country may greater credit be awarded," wrote a biographer on May's death in 1871, "for the gentler modes of correction which have nearly banished the fool's cap and the birch from systems of education.”(22)


* * *

May's opposition to corporal punishment undoubtedly owed much to his searing memory of the cruelty of Master Cole in the Marblehead Academy at the turn of the century, as well as to Andrews Norton's strictures against brutality. But May's repugnance to physical punishment and indeed the entire controversy over the use of the rod were founded on something more fundamental. May’s old opponent from New York City, Mr. McElligott, defined the problem precisely in' 1847.


Corporal punishment was no mere matter of' school policy, McElligott warned his fellow teachers, but involved rather a "deep, dark and delicate" religious doctrine. When we enter on this topic, he said, "we get instantly upon the line of demarcation between two exactly opposite classes of religionists—The thing involves the whole question of the natural purity of human nature.”(23)


Human nature was essentially depraved, held the Calvinists who had dominated colonial schooling. Every son of Adam was inevitably damned by his first ancestor's sin, in their view, unless personally redeemed by divine grace. Because every child was inherently sinful, only threat of punishment—to be dispensed both immediately and in the hereafter—could deter the evil behavior otherwise bound to result. Children were "infinitely more hateful than vipers" in the sight of God, the Rev. Jonathan Edwards had thundered in the eighteenth century.(24) His congregations nodded assent.


By the nineteenth century this harsh Calvinism had been moderated somewhat, but as late as 1830 infant Calvinists in Boston were still piping a "hymn for children" including a dire warning that "his wrath may strike my guilty head, his fire from heaven may lay me dead, and send my careless soul to dwell, low in the gloomy flames of hell."(25)


In breaking from orthodox trinitarian and. Calvinistic theology, American Unitarians had espoused what May liked to call "more delightful views of God, and more encouraging views of man than those held up by the evangelical churches . . . .”(26).


As one of his encouraging views, May believed that children are born with the "capacity of holiness.” Most sin he attributed to the incompetency or negligence of parents. With the proper examples set before them and with a proper environment surrounding them, he held, human children could be perfect as Christ was perfect.(27) To foster this perfection, May put his faith in the power of love rather than in physical force. From this commitment stemmed his aversion to violence of all kinds, corporal punishment, capital punishment and war.(28)


"Let it be remembered, we are called to be as holy as Christ was holy . . . ," May reminded the Harvard theological students of 1847 in one of his most winsome statements of belief, "not conformed to this world but transformed into the likeness of the beloved son of God. We are called to be followers of God as dear children,—perfect in our limited and finite sphere as the Deity is perfect in his unlimited and infinite.”(29)


A good many working teachers who spent: their days in the classroom differed sharply. If the teacher is simply to preserve children in a state of innocence and allure them to virtue by its beauty, queried the Teachers Advocate in 1845, why is it that children learn to do evil more readily than good?(30)

The great error in the perfectionist position, asserted the Advocate, is the belief that children are "naturally innocent, pure and morally perfect, and would continue so if circumstances did not draw them into folly and vice.” The teacher, said the Advocate, must use remedies as well as antidotes, corrections as well as safeguards.


Here the Advocate was only echoing the Boston schoolmasters whose controversy with Horace Mann in those years of 1844 and 1845 was at its height. Having no immediate war of his own to wage, May suffered vicariously with Mann and proffered considerable advice, sympathy, and philosophic consolation. "Your notions respecting the true method of encouraging the young children of Adam are in direct conflict with the cherished, the fundamental of the orthodox doctrines [sic] respecting the imps of fallen man," May wrote Mann in 1844. "They cannot admit the principle, you advocate, into the government of children. without conceding that there is more of the angelic than of the devilish in them; and rather than admit what they have so long, so stoutly denied, they would see the Hon. Secretary and the board, and Normal Schools annihilated—and subject the youth of our country to more of that treatment which is adapted to make friends of them and would make them so, if the good principle in human nature were not stronger than the evil."(31


* * *

The issue of the basic moral nature of the child dominated the educational battleground in an era when inculcation of moral virtue held sway as a primary objective of the entire educational process. New York's children, prescribed the School Law of 1812, "are to be prepared for the reception of great moral and religious truth.”(32) Only the village atheists could be expected to object. From the colonial period on, dominant educators in most parts of the country had simply assumed education in morality, preferably Protestant Christian morality, to be the sine qua non of any educational effort. For the colonialists whose schools were dominated by churchmen with fixed notions on the proper way to impart religious and moral truth, the matter proved comparatively uncomplicated. The appropriate version of the catechism took its place in the curriculum beside the ABC's, and sectarianism was taught without question in the schools. By the 1830's and 1840's, however, many states had embarked on the grand experiment of providing a secular education for all the children who would come. How could children learn morality in such a nonsectarian setting?


To the native Protestants who dominated legislatures, town meetings, and the educational hierarchy, the answer appeared simple: read the Bible in the classroom.


“The prime object of all education is, or ought to be, the cultivation of our moral nature." reported J. N. McElligott to the State Teachers' Association in 1846 from his vantage point as chairman of the association's committee on the Bible in the schools.


Since the Bible is "the only infallible guide in morals—the unquestioned and the unquestionable rule of right," it should be used everywhere young people are educated.


The delegates puzzled over the best ways of "teaching highest principles without teaching sectish doctrine. They agreed on Mr. McElligott's method, one that came to be common throughout the country: reading Bible passages without comment at the beginning of each school day.(33)


The little group of men on the first Syracuse school board in 1848 gave the same answer: let the children listen to the Bible daily. This seemingly unexceptionable injunction was written into the board minutes on May 9, 1848; any board complacency on the subject, however, proved short-lived. Almost immediately, angry Catholic parents remonstrated, protesting the reading of the Bible in the schools and threatening to withdraw their children from the fledgling system if the practice persisted.


Obviously taken aback, the little board hemmed and hawed, postponed decision, proposed and scuttled various solutions. The lone Catholic on the board, County Treasurer Cornelius M. Brosnan,(35) urged immediate rescinding of the requirement, but the others demurred.


Finally, on October 4 they resolved unanimously that "Whereas we are desirous to remove every obstacle, supposed or real, in the way of a full attendance of the young," that Catholic children would not be disciplined for tardiness if they stayed out of the schoolroom for the first two minutes in the morning. Apparently two minutes of the sacred scriptures conveyed enough morality to last all day.(36) By this time Pandora's box was open for good, however; the dictum of 1848 did not settle the matter. The problem persisted though no new solution appeared. In 1858 the formal regulations of the board prescribed a morning reading from the Old or New Testament without note or comment. No pupil whose parents objected was required to be present.(37) The whole thing seemed so simple to the Protestants who dominated the social system: what harm could come from reading the Bible if no comment were made?


To Catholics, however, not only did reading of the King James, instead of the Douay version prove repugnant, but reading without comment and leaving interpretation to individual discretion directly violated the Roman Catholic practice of reading scriptures only when accompanied by authoritative interpretation.(38) Strongly Protestant in its persuasion, the board persisted, however, in its belief that a daily dose of Scripture was the best medicine against moral ills; if the Roman Catholics did not wish to avail themselves of this preventive, that was their affair.


As a tinier and less vocal minority, the Jews of Syracuse received even shorter shrift. In 1859, recounted the board's historian, the "Hebrews sent in a petition asking to have their children dismissed at half past three that they might study their own language and another asking for the use of a room in Putnam School for a debating club. Both were denied.”(39).


May disagreed sharply with his fellow citizens in their treatment of such religious minority groups. In 1853 he wrote to Henry J. Randall, superintendent of the state's common schools:


. . . there are a great many of our Protestant brethren who seem never to have conceived the idea, or else were very careful to ignore the fact that our Roman Catholic, Jewish and Infidel fellow citizens have rights as well as themselves—and that if they be in error, the true way to convert them is not to set at naught their conscientious scruples—perhaps outrage their religious feelings—but to show a scrupulous regard to them."(40)


May had taken this position publicly almost the moment he set foot in Syracuse. Leaving Mrs. May to do the unpacking, he had hurried off to a meeting of New York's town and county superintendents held in his new village on April 22, 1845.(41) Jumping, in his usual uninhibited fashion, into the discussion. May insisted that Protestants had no right to prescribe Bible reading in the schools if Catholics objected to it. Furthermore, he admonished his new fellow citizens, the moral and religious character of a school depended not on any book in it, but rather on the character of the teacher.


If we are careful to get for instructors of the young, men and women of pure elevated character, we shall be sure to have all that is best in the Bible infused into our children, though the book be not opened in their presence. But if the instructors . . . be low-minded, artful, hypocritical, selfish, sensual, though they may read the Scriptures solemnly every day . . . the spirit of true religion will not probably be found in their schools.”(42)


Furthermore, the common schools were "schools for the whole people. Without distinction of party or sect,” he told the superintendents, and everything of a sectarian or partisan nature should be kept out of them.(43) This strongly worded statement on separation of church and state characterized May’s entire approach to the problem.


Most of his hearers in that convention would have agreed with the statement on the surface of it. The question remained: was the Bible a sectarian book?

Once admit any sectarian aspect to the Scriptures, warned New York County Superintendent David Reese, once admit "that it is unfit to be read in our schools and listened to by our children, and what kind of moral education can you confer . . . ?”(44) The Rev. Thomas Castleton, a Presbyterian divine of Syracuse, agreed. Every teacher, no matter how moral his example, needs some authority for the truths he argues, asserted the Rev. Mr. Castleton. The Rev. Mr. May, as usual, continued hotly in the minority.


* * *

Whether or not abstract moral instruction could actually influence a child's behavior after he left the schoolroom did not appear to trouble educators of the day. May preferred to rely for the most part on religion by osmosis, but there were times when some new teaching gadget so delighted him that he abandoned his usual detachment in the matter. His good friend, Orson Barnes, Onondaga County superintendent of schools, once turned up with a large chart depicting the cardinal virtues and vices and their happy or miserable results in after life, as the case might be. May loved it. With an old promoter’s zeal, he wrote immediately to a publisher friend back in Boston. Just add a few Hogarthian [satirical narrative] illustrations, he urged, and the chart might give children a very graphic idea of what happened to drunkards and liars and thieves.(45) Shortly thereafter "Barnes Pictorial Moral Instructor" blossomed forth from the wall of many a school, and a little rakish progress enlivened the day for scores of innocent young upstaters. Hopefully, the various awful fates of the vicious and the appended scriptural quotations, presumably King James version, were enough to "impress on the child the cardinal rules of morality." At least 20 prominent Onondaga doctors, lawyers, teachers and preachers including Samuel J. May who signed a testimonial advertisement were convinced it could be true.(46)


Despite such an occasional passing fancy, May clung through his lifetime to a principle he had enunciated formally in 1839, that the best moral education comes via training the young in self-reliance and self-government rather than depending entirely on their submission to outside authority no matter how enlightened.


"Children, no less than adult men, should be governed only by the power of inward principle, not by the fear of outward penalty," May urged in his dedicatory address of the Hanover schoolhouse in 1839. "No firm enduring basis of character is laid," he continued, "until a youth . . . has come to do right and avoid wrong, from choice." Many had begun to doubt whether the "momentous experiment" of the new American republic would succeed. "If our great experiment fails," he warned, "it will be for the want of moral principle. And the experiment will fail, if far greater pains be not taken to train up our youth in the art of self-government.”(47)


This was indeed a singular view, espoused only by such rare spirits as Bronson Alcott.(48) May seemed not to have heard it from anybody else; he apparently evolved this original and striking concept alone. "I wish some far abler hand than mine," said he, "would set forth this view of our system of public instruction.”(49) Most educators on the contrary believed firmly that the major objective of moral training was the inculcation of respect for authority. They based their hopes for the republic on such learned submission.


May's unflinching opposition to such popular ideas of the day brought him far more criticism than praise. May had "left religion and morality out of his theory," charged his detractors.(50) He netted even more blame when he tried to couple actual involvement in the great moral issues of the day with schoolroom instruction, as in his ill-fated attempt to take the Lexington young ladies to the abolition rally in 1843. Neither Mann nor Henry Barnard nor any of the leading educators of the day could afford to have their experiments jeopardized by connection with any controversial enterprise. May's practical idea of teaching moral theory by involvement in direct moral action was unthinkable. Moral instruction was to be preserved, a cold and bloodless thing, entirely within schoolroom walls.(51)


Opposition to May in the matter of corporal punishment was outspoken enough; his critics were even more shrill when he voiced his opposition to other forms of physical violence as aids to moral virtue. In 1851 after he wrote a long letter for the New York Tribune(52) denouncing capital punishment, critical reaction was swift.


"The Rev. Samuel J. May, who has already become as much the subject of notoriety as an excessively mean and diminutive man ought to expect, has made another grasp at mad immorality by advocating . . . practical impunity for murder," said the Detroit Daily Advertiser. "We trust his constituency, the assassins, keep him in good pay!(53)


Nobody bothered to reply in May's behalf at the moment, though agitated friends kept him well supplied with clippings. His defenders later became more eloquent, "Some said he left religion and morality out of his theory," recalled Andrew D. White in 1875, four years after May's death. "He had these in his heart; he taught them by his example.”(54)


It was to be left to an anonymous editorialist writing for the Syracuse Daily Standard on the occasion of the May centennial in 1897, to produce May's most eloquent defense and fitting epitaph.


"Of all the people who will join by thought or word or act of love in the observance of the 100th anniversary of Samuel J. May" said the Standard. "the school children of New York stare and particularly those of our own county, should be foremost . . . . What Mr. May did for the children in his long life would amount to as much as all his other achievements united, and it is by reason of his crusade for the emancipation of children that he is most revered and will be longest remembered.”(55)



(1) Syracuse Daily Standard, October 22, 1855.

(2) Minutes, Syracuse Board of Education, October 18, 1848.

(3) James Hooper, Fifty Years in School (Syracuse: C. W. Bardeen, 1900), pp. 71-73. [Note: Although the spelling is gad, the author may have meant goad. An ox goad is traditionally a wooden stick or pole with a pointed tip.]

(4) Lead editorial discussing the history of corporal punishment in area schools, Syracuse Daily Standard, September 26, 1897.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Twelfth Annual Report of the Superintendent of Public Schools of the City of Syracuse March 15 1860 ( Syracuse: J. G. K. Truair and Co., 1860, pp. 13, 14.

(7) Annual Report of the Clerk of the Board of Education of the City of Syracuse for the year ending March 14th, 1857 (Syracuse: Daily Journal Office, 1857), p. 9. The man was an incurable optimist. He also reported that communication between pupils by whispering had nearly ceased.

(8) Regulation of the Board of Education of the City of Syracuse as revised March 4, 1858 (Syracuse: F. L. Hagadorn, 1858), p 22.

(9) Smith, History of Syracuse Schools, p. 253.

(10) May Diary, March 28, 1865. Next morning he was presented with 120 checks to be signed, first inkling of the extent of the detail work of his new position!

(11) Emma Smith Burdick, Edward Smith, Syracuse Schoolmaster(unpublished Master’s thesis, Department of Education, Syracuse University, 1940), p. 72.

(12) Smith, History of Syracuse School, p. 131.

(13) Twentieth Annual Report of the Superintendent of Public Schools of the City of Syracuse for the year ending March 3, 1868. ( Syracuse: B. Herman Smith, 1868), p. 29

(14) Smith, History of Syracuse Schools, p. 131.

(15) .Twentieth Annual Report, p. 31.

(16) Smith, History of Syracuse Schools, p. 131.

(17) May Diary, May 21, 1870.

(18) May Diary, June 4, 1870.

(19) Dwight H. Bruce, Memorial History of the City of Syracuse. ( Syracuse: H. P. Smith and Co., 1891), p. 536.

(20) Syracuse Daily Standard, November 18, 1891.

(21) Smith, History of Syracuse Schools, p. 142.

(22) In Memoriam, Samuel Joseph May, p. 30. The best accounts of detail in May’s administration come from daily entries in his diary.

(23) Teachers’ Advocate, II (August 13, 1847), p. 569.

(24) Shepard, Pedlar’s Progress, p. 81.

(25) Christian Register, IX (June 19, 1830), p. 1.

(26) “Dedicatory Sermon, Church of the Messiah, Preached by Samuel J. May, April 14, 1853,” A Backward Glance O’er Traveled Roads . . . ., Elizabeth C. Walsh and Helen Saddington (eds.), (Syracuse: Central Printing Co., 1938), p. 42.

(27) What Do Unitarians Believe? ( Albany: Parsons and Co., 1860), p. 9.

(28) Having made a commitment to non-violence, May inevitably faced the classic dilemma of the pacifist reformer: what course should be taken when force appears to be the only way to achieve a good end? This dilemma tortured him particularly in the matter of abolition. Was he justified in using force to rescue a run-away slave from federal marshals seeking to return property to southern owners? Was the North justified in using force to win the Civil War so that slavery might be ended? May found a solution, but it did not seem to satisfy him thoroughly. He would not use force to attain a good objective, he decided, but neither would he prevent anyone else from using force whose conscience did not prohibit it. This left May free to support war and violence from a respectable distance without actually dirtying his own hands, or taking action that would violate his own personal convictions. See May to Ralph Waldo Emerson, August 13, 1856, Harvard University.

(29) Samuel J. May, Jesus, the Best Teacher of His Religion, A Discourse Delivered Before the Graduating Class of the Cambridge Theological Scholl(Boston: William Crosby and H. P. Nichols, 1847), p. 4.

(30) Teachers' Advocate, I (November 26, 1845), p. 184.

(31) May to Mann, October 10, 1844, Mann Papers.

(32) Randall, Common School System, p. 17.

(33) Teachers’ Advocate, II (September 10, 1846), p. 21.

(34) Minutes, Syracuse Board of Education, May 9 and July 31, 1848

(35) Mr. Brosnan appeared only once afterwards in Syracuse history when a serious shortage of county funds was discovered in 1850. Mr. Brosnan may or may not have been at fault; at any rate he left the city under a cloud, and repaired to Virginia City where he recouped his lost dignity by rising to a supreme court justiceship in the new state of Nevada.

(36) Minutes, Syracuse Board of Education, October 4, 1848.

(37) 1858 Regulations of the Board of Election, p. 19.

(38) Butts, History of Education in American Culture, p. 273.

(39) Smith, History of Syracuse Schools, p. 112.

(40) May to Honorable Henry J. Randall, November 16, 1853, Library of Congress.

(41) District School Journal, VI, (April 22, 1845), pp. 41-51.

(42) This particular quotation is what May recalled he had said in 1845, contained in his letter to Randall of 1853.

(43) District School Journal, VI (April 22. 1845).

(44) Ibid., p. 47.

(45) May to William B. Fowle, June 12, 1845, Massachusetts Historical Society.

(46) Teacher’s Advocate, I (November 12, 1845), p. 154.

(47) May, “Opening of a Schoolhouse," Common School Journal, p. 224.

(48) Curti, Social Ideals of American Educators, p. 60.

(49) May, “Opening of a Schoolhouse," Common School Journal, p. 224.

(50) Andrew D. White, "Speech on Dedication of May Bust," Syracuse Daily Journal, September 18, 1875.

(51) For an excellent discussion of Mann's and Barnard's plight in this regard see Curti, Social Ideals of American Educators, pp. 125, 126, 141. May’s hassle with Barnard arose over a biography of Cyrus Peirce May wrote for Barnard's Journal of American Education. May took special pains to include one of Peirce's expeditions into abolition agitation; Barnard struck it out and kept it out, despite May’s protests. Even in an education journal, no whiff of such controversy could be allowed. May to Barnard, September 10, 1857, Barnard Papers; also see Thursfield, Barnard'sJournal of American Education, p. 128.

(52) New York Tribune, July 25, 1851.

(53) Detroit Daily Advertiser, July 29, 1851.

(54) Syracuse Daily Journal, September 18, 1875.

(55) Syracuse Daily Journal, September 26, 1897.

Page 11 of 12


Chapter X: Epilogue—Saint Before His Time


Viewed as a whole, the life of Samuel Joseph May seems a helter-skelter thing, a hodgepodge of enthusiasms and undertakings of the wildest variety. All in one morning Sam could sit down to read the latest tract on woman's rights, interrupt himself to tend to an Indian wanting a hand-out at the door,(1) compose a fund-raising appeal for Horace Mann's failing college at the west, entertain a set of elderly ladies hoping to convert him to trinitarianism, and give it all up in behalf of a walk downtown to put a notice for an antislavery meeting in the papers.(2) On hand at any one time he was sure to have at least a dozen worthy projects, all competing for his interest and his energy and his slender funds. No wonder some of his parishioners complained hi. sermons were dull.(3) Who had time to write sermons?


Nevertheless one can trace a single thread running through the many-splendored pattern of the fabric of his life, a thread of a continuous and sober interest in the education of the young. This interest provided the coordinating factor, the steadying influence, the single continuing devotion that helped to bring unity to his most varied undertakings.


For Sam, education was the heart of all the other reforms, the one that would eventually render the others unnecessary and obsolete. “Valuable as are many of the plans benevolence has devised for the melioration of the human condition,” said he in his most terse description of the relationship, “no one is comparable in importance to that which proposes the education of the whole people. This goes to the foundation of individual and social well-being.”(4)

Educate a child properly and he would never need to be desperately poor; educate him properly and he would never hold another human being in bondage, fall prey to drink or vice, victimize a child or a woman, abuse the criminal or the idiot or the insane. In a republic of perfectly educated citizens, the need for all the other reforms would melt away.


This Utopian dream was ever before May; he became rare among other reformers for his lifelong adherence to this ideal. Education for most nineteenth century enthusiasts involved too long a process. They would far rather indulge in the excitements of addressing meetings, standing against mobs, or being hung in effigy.(5)


May had his taste of mobs and effigies and violence—in 1835 he was mobbed repeatedly by proslavery enthusiasts in Vermont,(6) in 1851 he helped rescue the Negro, Jerry, from federal marshals in the midst of one of the wildest mob scenes Syracuse had ever seen,(7) and in 1861 he found himself hung and burned in effigy by Syracuse southern sympathizers in the city's Hanover Square(8) —but he always returned to his abiding interest and continuing dream.

His interest in education as well as in the other reforms stemmed from a deep but essentially uncomplicated religious faith. Religion for May was no sedentary thing. Near the end of his life he succinctly assessed his beliefs:


The worship of the true God is not a service of the lips, or rites and ceremonies. It is not a service that requires us to be so much upon our knees as on our feet, busily engaged in useful employments, in labors of love.(9)

Love of God meant to May service to his fellow human being; faith in God and man meant confidence in reform. Schools, he told Horace Mann, are the way God has chosen for reformation of the world.(10) "The more I have to do with the various reforms, to which Christianity would lead," he wrote Henry Barnard, "the more sensible am I made of the need of good instruction, mental and moral culture, to begin with."(11)


May's faith in education as the God-given key to all the world's ills typified nineteenth century perfectionism. The twentieth century, in its disillusionment and its neo-Calvinistic fears of the evil latent in every man, would look back with envy as well as condescension to the confidence and glowing optimism of the nineteenth.


* * *

May won fame in his own day. His name appeared frequently in newspapers in many parts of the country, and figured largely in the diaries, memoirs and personal histories of his time. His death brought glowing obituaries in such leading newspapers as the New York Tribune.(12) A "memoir" of his life—a book-length collection of letters, stories and reminiscences plus an autobiographical fragment—received admiring reviews both in the United States and in England after its publication in 1873.(13) The impact of his life was most evident in his adopted city of Syracuse. A city-wide centennial celebration of his birth held in Syracuse in September of 1897, more than a quarter century after his death, absorbed the energies and attention of Syracusans for a week and brought his old friends from many parts of the country to pay tribute to his memory.(14) In 1921, fifty years after his death, he was still ranked first in an all-time "Syracuse Hall of Fame," selected by the mayor and a group of leading citizens.(15)


Elsewhere, however, his fame faded, and his name dropped from text to footnotes in the histories of reform, there to be frequently confused with that of his less distinguished cousin, Samuel May, Jr., of Leicester, Massachusetts.(16)


How does a biographer account for such dwindling renown? The nature of May’s personality and the role he elected to play may provide at least part of the answer. As the abolitionist poet John Greenleaf Whittier once said, everyone loved Sam May at first sight.(17) The power of his personality was such, wrote one historian; that "even his opponents were unconsciously influenced by his sentiments and spirit, and soon became co-workers with him for the common good of humanity."(18) The young Unitarian minister chosen to edit May's "memoir" declared he had been drawn to May "by a mighty magnetism."(19)

May's cousin, Samuel Sewall of Boston, recorded that ". . . everyone who met him was drawn toward him."(20) Mary Peabody Mann, that sometimes forbidding New Englander, found herself along with everybody else "involuntarily" calling him "dear Mr. May."(21) To Theodore Parker he was always "dear Sam Jo."(22)


Such glowing references may be charged in part to Victorian sentimentality or to what one orthodox newspaper described tartly as "the Unitarian genius for eulogy."(23) Nonetheless the evident goodness, geniality, and sweetness of the man's personality are enough to make any biographer despair. Where are his weaknesses? The most vitriolic verbal assaults on May almost invariably dealt with his unconventional views, not with his nature. He was occasionally accused of gullibility in allowing himself to be "imposed on, through the very excess of his philanthropy,"(24) but almost the only really disparaging comment extant comes from a great-grand nephew of May's, Walter D. Edmonds, hinting at a family tradition involving May' s "kind of personal sternness in dealing with his immediate family," and parsimony in denying his wife a. "second candle for the mountain of family sewing."(25)


In general, the power of May's personality seemed to overshadow his other qualities. Intellectually, May had few peers, said one old friend, but he was never given proper credit because the "intellect seems to have been . . . overshadowed by the affections."(26) May's personality at first hand appeared irresistible; put down on paper, however, it dwindled off into a string of overworked adjectives. History may have difficulty in evaluating such men whose effectiveness depends so heavily on their own charisma and so much less on what can be recorded by or about them.


Such an endearing personality as Sam's may also have lacked precisely the firmness or even the abrasiveness that would attract the kind of notice necessary to preserve his name. May could never have written as Garrison did, "I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—AND I WILL BE HEARD."(27) He could never have brought himself to characterize the constitution as a "covenant with death and an agreement with hell."(28) May did not agree with many of Abraham Lincoln's actions, but he would not have called the president, as did Wendell Phillips, "the slave-hound of Illinois."(29). He was not to attain the kind of immortality won by Horace Mann with his unequivocal injunction, "Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.(30) His colleagues in reform, fairly or not, were long remembered for their extreme views embodied in such catch-phrases and commands, while May, the mild-mannered and moderate, dropped from sight.(31)


Though May did take well-defined positions in controversial areas, and though he could differ in pronounced fashion with the views of another, he could not seem to entertain or express such unsettling emotions as distrust or hatred of an opponent’s personality. May rarely indulged in personalities; personal rancor in an exchange made him uneasy. If he could not: bring an antagonist around to his point of view, he usually could establish rapport with him on a personal basis. .At the end of eleven, long, furiously contested debates on the subject of the trinity between May and a Methodist parson in 1854, for example, May informed the Rev. Luther Lee that he thought Lee’s Methodist opinions unscriptural, irrational, and inconsistent. However, he cherished Lee as a man and a Christian. May said, because he knew Lee abounded in love and good works.(32). The two shook hands warmly and animosity vanished.


In the presence of an overbearing antagonist who refused to be won over by May charm, however, Sam was not above withdrawing from the field, as he did after the unpleasant encounter with General Lawrence at the teachers' convention of 1845.(33) He could not seem to reply in kind, even to maintain a firm conviction.


Another personal factor, a mixture of self-confidence and humility in his own opinion of himself, may also have helped keep May in the ranks of the secondary figures in the reports of historians to come. Born to the Boston purple, May usually conveyed a feeling of quiet confidence in what he was and where he came from, a sense of security which rendered unnecessary any self-promotion. A May of the Boston Mays and Sewalls needed no advertisement and produced none. . He rarely showed interest in glory or high position. As a protégé of Channing, he might have pushed for a more prominent pulpit and gone on to achieve high position in the ranks of the Unitarian clergy; he went instead to Connecticut, a land without another Unitarian minister. In 1845 he could have stayed on in Boston and in education at Howe's invitation; he chose instead to retreat to what seemed to any proper Bostonian the frontier of upstate New York.


In Syracuse he stayed the rest of his life. Syracuse gave him what he needed—opposition, stimulation, excitement—and he never seemed to want to move back to Boston where more resounding titles might have waited. The achievement of enduring national fame seemed to have no place on the May agenda.

If he appeared quietly confident of his status, he also possessed an honest humility about his own gifts. "I have had ability given to me to do nothing in my day worth remembering," May once said to Theodore Parker. "If I have begotten children who may live after me . . . why should you covet them, seeing that your name in virtue of your own mental and moral strength . . . is to outlive mine."(34) In this letter May was obviously comforting a childless friend, but his estimates of his own prospects seem realistic and sincere.


May's actions often confirmed this self-estimate of his own abilities. "I had some thought of sending you for your Journal a sketch of the Rise and Progress of the Art of teaching Idiots . . . " May once wrote Barnard, "but I have just obtained from Dr. Edw. Seguin a memoir, with which I am so pleased, that I hasten to send it to you instead. . . . Dr. Seguin is a remarkable man. . . ."(35). And thus vanished any chance May might have had to achieve national notice as an expert in this new and exciting field.


This self-chosen role as promoter and facilitator of the efforts of others gave May warm and affectionate notice in the memoirs of the great, but did little to preserve his own renown.


In addition, his very versatility and his boundless interest in everything under the sun kept him from the concerted drive in one field that helped bring fame to Garrison, for example, in antislavery, or Anthony in woman's rights. All the reformers dabbled widely, but the famous usually managed to channel their primary energies in one direction.


May, on the other hand, could barely see one project through to the beginnings of success before taking off after another. He had a pretty shrewd idea of his own tendencies in this respect. He was willing to work at the woman's rights movement until it became popular, he told the ladies at the National Woman's Rights Convention in Syracuse in 1852; then, he would "go at something else."(36) He acted this way toward education, too, but he managed to return to it more frequently over a longer period of time than to any of the others. The Harvard undergraduate who assumed as his first public position the teaching of a country school took as his last the chairmanship of a city board of education.


The actual role May played in the educational system also provides a clue to the ephemeral quality of his reputation in this field. His position outside the operating hierarchy for most of his years in education gave him an invaluable rostrum from which to preach reform and criticize the activities of the working educators; it did not provide him with the position of actual power he needed to put his own name on the reforms he sought. Only for a brief period as president of the Syracuse board of education did he hold the kind of power necessary to impose reforms for which he personally could take chief credit.

Even in 1848 when his resolutions resulted in the establishment of a free, racially integrated, school system in Syracuse, he achieved the result because of his position in the power structure of the community, not of the educational system itself. At that unique point in the history of Syracuse when it paused in transition between village and city, the citizens were making the rules for the school system, a prerogative they subsequently relinquished to their new school board. At that point in time, an influential clergyman could turn his ideas into action. May's ideas closely paralleled and sometimes anticipated those of Horace Mann as secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education and of Henry Barnard in a similar position in Connecticut. May did not have the executive authority within the system of Mann or Barnard; their fame lasted while his did not.


In some respects, May does not deserve this obscurity. He was an innovator both in education method and in ways of enlisting public support of educational reform. In the 1820's when interest in the common schools was just beginning to revive, he pioneered in opening the field of teaching to women and called the nation's first convention of citizens to consider the schools. In 1829 as one of the early contributors to William Russell's pioneer educational journal, May advocated new and exciting teaching methods at a point in time when Mann was still rustling legal briefs, Alcott had barely emerged on the Boston scene from the Connecticut hills, and Barnard was still an undergraduate at Yale.


In the 1830s and 1840s May was one of the most vocal in the advocacy of the Pestalozzian methods and philosophies which pre-figured many of Dewey's reforms. These methods resembled Progressivism in that they were designed to teach children only what they could understand, to make use of actual objects as learning material rather than to cite vague abstractions, and to banish fear and artificial rewards and punishment from the classroom.(37) May believed that educators should appeal first to the natural interests of the child. and lead him or her on to further discoveries from that first vital contact. May also emphasized. as did progressive educators, the importance of the school experience in preparing a child for life. in teaching him how to get long with his fellows, and in giving him a working vocation.(38)


The work of May helped bring into the school system many children who had previously been excluded. For this wide variety of children. twentieth century progressivists were to redesign the school system and redefine its objectives. "If everyone were to go to school, the methods and meaning of education in the twentieth century would have to change." asserted a later educational historian.(39) May helped make this change necessary.


May's major significance to a later age, however, lies in his early identification of issues and controversies that continued unabated for decades and in the liberal stands he took in these controversies. He was one of the first to fight for the Negro's right to education and to call segregated educational facilities for Negroes inherently unequal. He ranked among the males who first took to the rostrum in behalf of higher education for women. He pioneered in the battle to socialize the American school system. Though he believed that a child could learn virtue and morality in school through contact with virtuous and moral teachers, he was among the first to urge the removal of all sectarian influences, such as Bible reading, from the schools lest the rights of religious minorities and the nonreligious be violated.


The perceptive among his contemporaries recognized that the primary significance of May's life lay in his ability to anticipate issues and to take courageous positions for what he felt was the good of generations to come. May was, as his successor in the Unitarian pulpit of Syracuse pointed out, always pushing "into advance fields of thought and action, away beyond the masses of the people."(40) The Rev. Mr. Calthrop had pronounced an excellent epitaph.


* * *

On a September afternoon in 1875, the people of Syracuse met to honor the memory of Samuel Joseph May and to dedicate a bust of their most distinguished fellow townsman, a piece of sculpture that was to remain forever in the high school May had built. People had brought offerings of flowers and vines and evergreens to deck the platform in front of the building. The grass was still damp from rain, but people overflowed the lawn and the sidewalks. Carriages and wagons and buggies filled the street. In the audience prominent citizens, lawyers, doctors, and teachers mingled with artisans and laborers. A scattering of Negroes edged the crowd.


Syracuse had never claimed one whose fame was so widespread as that of Dr. May's, Andrew D. White told his fellow citizens as he climaxed a series of long, laudatory speeches by accepting the bust in behalf of the board of education. May's face had gone abroad, White said, as the companion of Whittier, Sumner, and Emerson. The beloved Unitarian pastor would long stand as the apostle of education in the first rank of reform.


The president of Cornell University had been eloquent; it was left, however, to a modest Syracuse bookkeeper once ordained to the ministry, the Rev. C. deB. Mills, to pronounce his old friend's most appropriate eulogy.


"It needs yet a finer age), said. the Rev. Mr. Mills, "justly to apprehend and fully to appreciate this soul. . . . There were plans of his for human amelioration that must wait for a riper age to be welcomed and realized. In a future day when life shall be set to a higher key . . . then shall Samuel J. May be more thoroughly studied, felt, and known."(41)


Sam would have loved the whole affair. He would have enjoyed the performance of the high school chorus. He might have smiled over the choice of that back-slidden Unitarian, the Rt. Rev. Frederic Dan Huntington, Episcopal bishop of Syracuse to offer the official prayer. He most certainly would have relished the final touch, an audience rendition of the "Doxology" with its resounding endorsement of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.


Being human, however, Sam would have basked in all the warm and loving praise; being optimistic, he would have taken heart from the predictions of success for his reforms; and as for the day when his life would be more thoroughly studied, felt and known; well, he would wait.



(1) May's family tried to protect him against these intrusions when he was in his study. They complained he always got to the door before they did. Mumford, May Memoirs, p. 269.

(2) May's diaries are the best sources for his varied occupations. In them he carefully noted a wide variety of undertakings, but rarely revealed his own feelings or reactions.

(3) William P. Tilden, "He Was A Good Man," Services in Honor of Samuel Joseph May. Boston: George H. Ellis Press, 1886, p. 13.

(4) May, "Importance of Our Common Schools," American Journal of Education, IV, p. 225.

(5) Relatively few of the radical reformers continued their devotion to the cause of improved education, says Cross in his Burned Over District, p. 235. “Formal education was a slow process compared with lecturing and publishing."

(6) May, Recollections of Our Antislavery Conflict, pp. 152-153.

(7) Ibid., pp. 374-379.

(8) Ibid., pp. 394-395.

(9) "Theater Service—Rev. Mr. May's Sermon," Syracuse Daily Standard, May 4, 1869.

(10) Quoted in Mann to May, September 22. 1848. Mann, Horace Mann, p. 271.

(11) May to Barnard, January 8, 1847, Barnard Papers. May considered himself a Christian, though some members of the orthodox denied his claim to that appellation. After he died, the Syracuse "Sons of Temperance" haggled until sundown about the resolutions to be written in his memory. A Methodist clergyman had objected to using the term "Christian" to describe Mr. May. Undated, unlabeled clipping immediately after May’s death, S. J. May file, Onondaga Historical Association. AlsoSyracuse Daily Standard, October 24, 1897.

(12) "Samuel Joseph May," New York Tribune, July 7, 1871.

(13) Life and Letters of Thomas Mumford, pp. 101, 102.

(14) Syracuse Evening Herald, October 20, 1897.

(15) Syracuse Evening Herald, February 20, 1921.

(16) See Anna Mary Wells' Dear Preceptor: The Life and Times of Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1963. Of four index references to "Samuel J. May," all without exception actually refer primarily to Samuel May, Jr., though the author is unaware of the existence of two Mays and confuses them gloriously.

(17) Quoted in a letter from R. L. Carpenter to Thomas J. Mumford, Life and Letters of Thomas Mumford, p. 101.

(18) Clayton, History of Onondaga County. p. 189.

(19) Life and Letters of Thomas Mumford, pp. vi-vii.

(20) Mumford, May Memoir, p. 40.

(21) Mann, Life of Horace Mann, p. 167.

(22) John Weiss, Life and Correspondence of Theodore Parker. New York: Appleton and Co., 1864, I, pp. 143, 296, 318.

(23) The Advance, quoted in Life and Letters of Thomas Mumford, p. 197.

(24) Syracuse Daily Standard, July 3, 1871.

(25) Walter D. Edmonds to Richard N. Wright, November 9, 1956, Onondaga historical Association.. Otherwise a biographer is driven to inferring unattractive qualities more from a lack than a presence of positive evidence. It is possible, for example, that May took a typically .patronizing attitude toward those he helped. Many runaway slaves found refuge in his barn on their way to Canada ; there is no evidence they ever sat down with him at his family table.

(26) C. deB. Mills, Syracuse Daily Journal, September 18, 1875.

(27) The Liberator, January 1, 1831.

(28) Resolutions adopted by the New England Anti-slavery Society, January 27, 1843. May had little use for Garrison's excesses in speech. "I respect and love Mr. Garrison's fervent devotion to the cause of the oppressed, and his fearlessness in reproving the oppressors; but no one can disapprove, more than I do, the harshness of the epithets, and the bitterness of his invectives." May, Letters to Judson, p. 8.

(29) Quoted in David Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956, p. 20.

(30) Tharp, Until Victory, p. 310.

(31) One is tempted to quote the twentieth century moral philosopher, Leo Durocher, "Nice guys finish last." Leo Durocher and Edward Linn , "Candid Memories of Leo Durocher, Saturday Evening Post, 236, May 11, 1963, p. 53.

(32) Doctrine of the Trinity, p. 160. These debates intrigued the city and its editors. May had long "fulminated against orthodoxy with an arrogant confidence . . . . " thundered the Central New Yorker. This comment, said the Syracuse Daily Standard, was palpably unfair. After all, "Mr. May is the weaker party, theologically considered, in the proportion of three to one, and we protest against a powerful fellow like the Central New Yorkertaking the part of his antagonist." Syracuse Daily Standard, February 17, 1854.

(33) See above.

(34) May to Theodore Parker, quoted in Galpin, "God's Chore Boy," p. 219.

(35) May to Barnard, February 19, 1856, Barnard Papers.

(36). Syracuse Daily Standard, September 13, 1852.

(37) See, for example, John Dewey, Experience and Education, pp. 5 and 6, as quoted in Paul Woodring, A Fourth of A Nation. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1957, pp. 16, 17. "If one attempts to formulate the [new] philosophy of education, we may, I think, discover certain common principles. To imposition. from above is opposed expression and cultivation of individuality; to external discipline is opposed free activity; to learning from texts and teachers, learning through experience; to acquisition of isolated skills and techniques by drill is opposed acquisition of them as a means of attaining ends which make direct vital appeal; to preparation for a more or less remote future is opposed making the most of the opportunities of present life; to static aims and materials is opposed acquaintance with a changing world."

(38) Smith, History of Syracuse Schools, p. 142

(39) For discussions of the work of early nineteenth century educators as models for the twentieth century progressive movement, see Lawrence Cremin, The Transformation of the School, pp. viii, ix, and x; also Curti,Social Ideas of American Educators, pp. 66 and 67. The quotation is from Cremin.

(40) The Rev. S. R. Calthrop, "Tribute to Mr. May," Syracuse Daily Journal, September 20, 1875.

(41) This quotation and the entire account of the dedication comes from the Syracuse Daily Journal, September 20, 1875.

Page 12 of 12




Primary Sources


Note: Four major manuscript collections incorporating substantial numbers of Samuel J. May letters have been used in this study. They are the papers of Henry Barnard, Horace Mann, Gerrit Smith, and Andrew D. White as cited below. Aside from the significant number of letters grouped in these collections, the Samuel J. May papers are scattered widely in various libraries and depositories. The author has searched manuscript collections in more than 20 universities, libraries, and historical societies as detailed in the preface. Almost all of them yielded useful material. May corresponded so widely with the reform leaders of his day that almost any representative collection can be expected to produce at least one or two letters from him. References to these single letters are cited in the footnotes together with their current locations, but are not included below.

Henry Barnard Papers, New York University.

Horace Mann Paper, Massachusetts Historical Society.

Gerrit Smith Papers, Gerrit Smith Miller Collection, Syracuse University.

Andrew D. White Papers, Cornell University.

Samuel J. May Diaries, scattered volumes from 1859 through 1871, Cornell University.

Samuel J. May, "The Causes and Diversities of the National Character," unpublished prize entry in the Bowdoin Competition, 1814. Harvard University.

Samuel J. May, College Records. Includes records of books taken from college library, records of infractions of college rules, and undergraduate appointments as proctor, etc. Harvard University.

"Class of 1817." Ms. volume includes reports of class reunions. Harvard University.

Dudley Phelps "History of the Unitarian Society, 1838 to 1845," Circa 1874. Unpublished Ms. in the file of May Memorial Unitarian Church, Onondaga Historical Association, Syracuse, New York.

Second Minute Book, Unitarian Congregationa1 Society in Syracuse(Church of the Messiah), 1845 to 1890. Ms. volume preserved with other miscellaneous church records under society's name at First Trust and Deposit Co., Syracuse, New York.

"Journal of School District No. 5." Ms. volume covering the period from January 26, 1839, through August 2, 1848. Office of the Syracuse Board of Education, Syracuse, New York.

Minutes of the Syracuse Board of Education. Ms. volumes including the years 1848, 1849, and 1850. Office of the Syracuse Board of Education, Syracuse, New York.

Power, Mary L. F. "The Pastorate of the Rev. Samuel Joseph May at the South Parish of Scituate, 1836-1842," Circa 1873. Unpublished Ms. in Samuel J. May file, Onondaga Historical Association, Syracuse, New York.

Official Documents and Publications

Brown et. a1. v. Board of Education of Topeka. et. al., 347 U. S. 483. May 17, 1954.

Annual Report of the Clerk of the Board of Education of the City of Syracuse for the year ending March 14th, 1857. By George L. Farnham, Clerk of the Board. Syracuse: Daily Journal Office, 1857.

Regulations of the Board of Education of the City of Syracuse (as revised March 4, 1858). Syracuse: F. L. Hagadorn, 1858.

Eleventh Annual Report of the Superintendent of Public Schools of the City of Syracuse for the year ending March 15, 1859. Syracuse Daily Journal, 1859.

Twentieth Annual Report of the Superintendent of Public Schools of the City of Syracuse for the year ending March 3, 1868. Syracuse: B. Herman Smith, 1868.

First and Second Annual report of the New York Central College Buildings, McGrawville, July, 4, 1849 and 1850. Utica: Roberts and Sherman, 1850.

Laws of Harvard College for the Use of the Students at Cambridge.Cambridge: University Press, 1814.

Newspapers and Periodicals

Publications are included below in which a run of the files over a period of time was useful in this work. Special references from individual newspapers are otherwise cited separately in the footnotes.

Christian Monitor and Common People’s Adviser. Brooklyn, Connecticut, 1832-1833.

Christian Register. Boston, 1828-1830.

Common School Journal. Boston, 1839, 1840, 1843, 1845.

District School Journal. Albany, 1844-1848.

Niles Weekly Register. Baltimore, 1820.

Onondaga Standard. Syracuse, 1846-1848.

Religious Recorder. Syracuse, 1845.

Syracuse Daily Journal, 1847, 1865-1871.

Syracuse Daily Standard, 1851-1854, 1865-1871.

Teachers' Advocate, Syracuse, 1845-1847.

Contemporary Periodical Articles

Alcott, Bronson. "Pestalozzi's Principles and Methods of Instruction."American Journal of Education, IV, March and April, 1829, pp. 97-107.

Barnard, Henry. "Samuel J. May, An American Educational Biography," The American Journal of Education, XVI, 1866, pp. 141-145.

Hawes, Joel. "Formation and Excellence of Female Character," Teachers' Advocate, I, April 15, 1846, p. 502.

May, Samuel, Jr. "Colonel Joseph May, 1760-1841," New EnglandHistorical and Genealogical Register and Antiquarian Journal, xxxvii, April, 1873, pp. 113-121.

Whittier, John Greenleaf. "The Antislavery Convention of, l833," Atlantic Monthly, XXXIII, February, 1874, pp. 166-172.

Wilbur, Harvey. "Object Instruction System," American Journal of Education, XV, 1855, pp. 191-208.

"Common Schools in Connecticut," American Journal of Education, V, 1858, pp.114-117.

"The Isms of Forty Years Ago," Harpers Monthly, LX, January, 1880, pp. 182-192.

Diaries, Letters, Memorials, Memoirs, Pamphlets and Sermons

Barrows, S. J. (ed.). Life and Letters of Thomas J. Mumford with Memorial Tributes. Boston: G. H. Ellis, 1879.

Clarke, James Freeman. Memorial and Biographical Sketches. Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1878.

Channing, William Ellery. Observations on the Proposition for Increasing the Means of Theological Education at the University in Cambridge.Cambridge: Hilliard and Metcalf, 1816.

Dwight, Timothy. " Boston at the Beginning of the 19th Century," Old South Leaflets, VI, pp. 126-150. Boston: Directors of the Old South Work; Old South Meeting House, Circa 1820.

Emerson, George Barrell. Reminiscences of an Old Teacher. Boston: Alfred Mudge and Son, 1878.

Fitch, Charles E. In Memoriam, Samuel Joseph May. Syracuse: Journal Office, 1871.

Greenwood, Francis William Pitt. A good old age (a sermon preached at King’s Chapel, March 7, 1841, on the death of Joseph May, Esq., aged 81 years). Boston: S. N. Dickinson, 1841.

Hill, Benjamin Thomas. "Life at Harvard A Century Ago as Illustrated by the Letters and Papers of Stephen Salisbury, Class of 1817," Benjamin Thomas. "Life at Harvard A Century Ago as Illustrated by the Letters and Papers. Of Stephen Salisbury, Class of 1817," Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society (1909-1910). Worcester: Publication of the Society, 1911.

Hooper, James. Fifty Years in School. Syracuse: C. W. Bardeen, 1900.

Howe, M. A. DeWolfe. The Life and Letters of George Bancroft, Vol. I. New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1908.

Mann, Mary Peabody. Life of Horace Mann. Boston: Walker, Fuller and Company, 1865.

May, Joseph. William Lloyd Garrison, a Commemorative Discourse Preached at the First Unitarian Church, Philadelphia. Boston: G. H. Ellis, 1879.

Mumford, Thomas (ed.). Memoir of Samuel Joseph May. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1873.

Norton, Arthur O. (ed.). The First State Normal School in America : The Journals of Cyrus Peirce and Mary Swift, Vol. I (Harvard Documents in the History of Education). Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1926.

Tiffany, Nina Moore. Samuel E. Sewall, A Memoir. New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1898.

Tilden, William P. "He Was A Good Man," Services in Honor of Samuel Joseph May. Boston: George H. Ellis, 1886.

A Sermon Preached in Brooklyn, Connecticut, at the Installation of the Rev. Samuel Joseph May, November 5, 1823, by James Walker of Charlestown. Boston: John B. Russell, 1824.

Weiss, John. Life and Correspondence of Theodore Parker, Vol. 1. New York: Appleton and Company, 1864.

Discussion of the Doctrine of the Trinity Between Luther Lee, Wesleyan Minister, and Samuel J. May, Unitarian Minister, Reported by Lucius C. Matlack. Syracuse: Wesleyan Book Room, 1854.

A Memorial Study, Samuel Joseph May, by His Son, Joseph May, at the Meeting Celebrating the 100th Anniversary of May’s Birth, in May Memorial Church, October 25, 1897. Boston: George H. Ellis, 1898


Publications of Samuel Joseph May

Note: Listed here are only the publications pertinent to this study. May published widely in many fields, though no reliable bibliography of his works has been published.

May, Samuel Joseph. "Common Errors in Education," American Journal of Education, IV (May and June), 1829, pp. 213-225.

May, Samuel Joseph. Address to the Parents and Guardians of children respecting common schools in Windham County. by G. Sharpe. S. J. May, and J. A. Welch. Brooklyn: Monitor Office, 1832. (This document was actually written by May alone.)

May, Samuel Joseph. The Right of Colored People to Education, Vindicated. Letters to Andrew T. Judson, Esq. and Others in Canterbury, Remonstrating with Them on Their Unjust and Unjustifiable Procedure Relative to Miss Crandall and Her School for Colored Females. Brooklyn: Advertiser Press, 1833.

May, Samuel Joseph. . A Sermon Preached at Hingham, March 18, 1837. Being the Sunday After the Death of Mrs. Cecilia Brooks. Hingham: J. Farmer Press, 1837.

May, Samuel Joseph. "An Address delivered by Rev. S. J. May, at the Opening of a New and Highly Improved District Schoolhouse in Hanover, Massachusetts, June 20, 1839," Common School Journal, II, pp. 218-224.

May, Samuel Joseph. "The Importance of Our Common Schools" The Lectures Delivered Before the American Institute of Instruction at Pittsfield, August 15, 16, 17, 1843. Boston: William D. Ticknor and Co., 1844.

May, Samuel Joseph. "The Education of the Faculties and the Proper Employment of Young Children." The Lectures Delivered Before the American Institute of Instruction at Plymouth, August, 1846. Boston: William D. Ticknor and Co., 1847.

May, Samuel Joseph. The Rights and Condition of Women, Considered in the Church of the Messiah, November 8, 1846. Syracuse: Stoddard and Babcock, 1846.

May, Samuel Joseph. Jesus. the best Teacher of his Religion. A Discourse Delivered Before the Graduating Class of the Cambridge Theological School. Boston: William Crosby and H. P. Nichols, 1847.

May, Samuel Joseph. "Letter from the Rev. S. J. May to the Woman’s Rights Convention, October, 1850," Letter from Angelina Grimke Weld to the Woman’s Rights Convention Held at Syracuse, September, 1852.Syracuse: Master’s Print, 1852.

May, Samuel Joseph. "Capital Punishment: Six Reasons Why It Should Be Abolished," New York Tribune, July 25, 1851.

May, Samuel Joseph. "Dedicatory Sermon, Church of the Messiah, Preached by Samuel J. May, April 14, 1853," included in Saddington, Helen, and Walsh, Elizabeth, Backward Glance O’er Traveled Roads Being an Historical Sketch of May Memorial Church (Unitarian Congregational Society in Syracuse) on the Occasion of Its Centennial Anniversary 1838-1938, October, 1938, Syracuse, New York. Syracuse. New York. Syracuse: Central Printing Co., 1938.

May, Samuel Joseph. The Revival of Education, An Address to the Normal Association. Bridgewater, Massachusetts. August 8 1855. Syracuse: J. G. K. Truair, 1855.

May, Samuel Joseph. Memoir of Cyrus Peirce. First Principal of the First State Normal School in the United States . Hartford: F. C. Brownell, 1857.

May, Samuel Joseph. What Do Unitarians Believe? Albany: Weed, Parsons, and Co., 1860.

May, Samuel Joseph. Memorial of the Quarter-Centennial Celebration of the Establishment of Normal Schools in America Held at Framingham, July 1. 1864. Boston: C. C. Moody, 1866.

May, Samuel Joseph. A Brief Account of His Ministry given in A Discourse Preached to the Church of the Messiah in Syracuse, New York, September 15, 1867 (by Samuel J. May). Syracuse: Masters and Lee, 1867

May, Samuel Joseph. Some Recollections of our Antislavery Conflict. Boston: Fields, 0sgood and Company, 1869.


Secondary Sources


Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. New York: Little, Brown, and Co., 1868.

Bayles, Richard M. (ed). The History of Windham County, Connecticut. New York: W. W. Preston and Co., 1889.

Brooks, Van Wyck. The Flowering of New England. New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1936.

Bruce, Dwight, E. (ed.). Memorial History of the City of Syracuse. Syracuse: H. P. Smith and Co., 1891.

Butts, R. Freeman and Cremin, Lawrence, A. A History of Education in American Culture. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1953.

Chase, Franklin H. Syracuse and Its Environs. New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Co., 1924.

Cooke, George Willis. Unitarianism in America . Boston: American Unitarian Association, 1902.

Cremin, Lawrence, A. (ed.). The Republic and the School: Horace Mann on the Education of Free Men. New York: Bureau of Publications, Teachers’ College, Columbia University, 1957.

Cremin, Lawrence, A. The Transformation of the School. New York: Alfred H. Knopf, 1957.

Cresson, W. P. James Monroe. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1946.

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Other Sources

Personal interview with Dr. Martha May Eliot, April 1, 1959. Notes of interview in possession of author.

Personal interview with Katharine May Wilkinson, May 9, 1956. Notes of interview in possession of author.


Bibliographical Data

Name: Catherine L. Covert
Date and Place of Birth: October 30, 1923, Decatur, Indiana
High School: Freeport High School, Freeport, Illinois. Graduated, 1941
College: State University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, B.A., 1945