Henry Barnard (1811-1900) was born in Hartford, Connecticut. He graduated from Yale in 1830, taught school for a year in Pennsylvania, then returned to Connecticut to study law. Although he gained admission to the bar in 1834, he never practiced. After a sojourn in Europe, Barnard was elected as a Whig to the Connecticut legislature and soon adopted the reform of the common school as his great cause. In 1838 he was instrumental in the passage of a law establishing a permanent state Board of Commissioners of the Common Schools. Barnard was appointed its secretary and held the post until the board’s abolition in the partisan political battles of 1842. Barnard used his brief tenure to initiate state supervision of public schools. Like his Whig associates, he saw the schools as agencies of moral reform, but increasingly he emphasized the social and leveling role of the public school in a democracy. Schools, he contended, should not be regarded as common because they were free but because they were for all, within reach of the poor, yet attracting the well-to-do by their excellence.
Barnard’s dismissal gave the Rhode Island General Assembly the opportunity to implement his concepts in Rhode Island. Although his stay was of less than seven years, Barnard exercised a profound impact on local education. The legislature first appointed him as “agent” of the state, charged with preparing a plan to improve the public school system. Thanks to Thomas Dorr’s innovations as school committee president in Providence, Barnard’s stated objective was to raise the other local systems to the standard of that city. In his brief tenure, Barnard succeeded admirably. Two years of investigation led to the drafting of his encyclopedic Report of the Condition and Improvement of the Public Schools of Rhode Island, a study which prompted the passage of the School Law of 1845. This statute, drafted by the legally-trained Barnard was praised by the great educator Horace Mann as a measure that would give Rhode Island “one of the best systems of public instruction in the world.” A stanch advocate of teacher education, he sponsored a series of institutes for teachers that led to the establishment in 1854 of the Rhode Island Normal School (now Rhode Island College).
Barnard served as the state’s first commissioner of education from 1845 until 1849 when a temporary break in health and his yearning to return home led to his resignation. Subsequent to his stint in Rhode Island, Barnard held numerous educational posts culminating in his appointment as America’s first commissioner of education in 1867. During the years from 1855 through 1880, he published the massive and influential American Journal of Education and wrote several important books on various aspects of the educational process. He left public life in 1870 and died in his native Hartford in 1900 at the age of eighty-nine.