Henry Barnard was born in Hartford, Connecticut, on January 24, 1811, the son of Betsy Andrews and Chauncey Barnard, a sea captain and farmer. He graduated from Yale in 1830, taught school for a year in Pennsylvania and then returned to Connecticut to study law. Although he gained admission to the bar in 1834, he never practiced as a lawyer. After a sojourn in Europe, he was elected as a Whig to the Connecticut legislature, and he soon adopted the reform of the common school as his great cause.
In 1838, Barnard was instrumental in the passage of a Connecticut state law establishing a state Board of Commissioners of the Common Schools. He was appointed its secretary and held that post until the board’s abolition by Democrats in partisan political battles during 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.
The dissolution of Connecticut’s Board of Commissioners gave the Rhode Island General Assembly the opportunity to implement Barnard’s ideas in Rhode Island. To this end, Wilkins Updike, a learned South Kingstown legislator, introduced a bill to assess the status of schools throughout the state. When it passed, Barnard was hired into Rhode Island employment at the rate of three dollars per day.
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 the pioneering efforts of John Howland; of Brown’s president, the Reverend Francis Wayland; and especially of Thomas Dorr, the school committee president in Providence, Barnard’s stated objective—to raise the other local systems to the standard of that city—succeeded admirably.
Two years of investigation and numerous presentations to town meetings throughout the state enabled Barnard to draft his encyclopedic Report of the Condition and Improvement of the Public Schools of Rhode Island, a study that prompted the passage of the School Law of 1845. This statute, written mainly by the legally trained Barnard, was praised by the great educator Horace Mann (a native of Franklin, Massachusetts) as a measure that would give Rhode Island “one of the best systems of public instruction in the world.” The school law crafted by Barnard, with the assistance of Wilkins Updike, marked the beginning of modern public education throughout Rhode Island. His state system of education provided for the post of commissioner to oversee the public schools, a position to which Barnard was promptly appointed. Financing, the resolution of disputes and the approval of teachers would all emanate from the state through the commissioner, who would report to the legislature annually. In effect, the General Assembly became the state school board. The goal of this arrangement was “uniformity in the administration of the system” and accountability.
Barnard’s legislation also increased the powers and duties of the towns. With the approval of the commissioner, the towns could establish school districts to tax for the support of their schools, while retaining the right to elect school committees and clearly defining their existing powers of examination, inspection, regulation and suspension. In addition, the towns would be authorized to establish public libraries “for the use of the inhabitants generally,” a provision that Barnard regarded as “of first importance.”
The new law’s regulations relating to teachers were stringent for the times. Quoting the maxim that “As is the teacher, so will be the school,” the law required the teacher to obtain periodic certification in order to be paid with public funds. It demanded proof of “good moral character, competence in basic subjects and the ability to govern a school or classroom.” The qualifications needed for teaching would include “not only knowledge, but the power to impart that knowledge.”
To counter the argument that his state system was expensive, Barnard offered a standard Whiggish response: “It was more economical to educate the young than to meet the later costs of pauperism and crime that resulted from ignorance.” Further, Barnard asserted that education would elevate the poorer class. One section of his law affirmed his belief that “the cardinal principle of a system of common and public schools [operates] by placing the education of all children, the rich and the poor, on the same republican platform, as a matter of common interest, common duty, and common right.” Such a philosophy meant that no child should be deprived of schooling because of the inability of the parent or guardian to pay the school tax.
A staunch advocate of teacher education, Barnard also sponsored a series of institutes for teachers that led to the establishment in 1854 of the Rhode Island Normal School (now Rhode Island College), a project carried forward after Barnard’s departure by his successor, Elisha R. Potter Jr. An excellent elementary school on the college’s Providence campus is named in Barnard’s honor.
Barnard served as the state’s first commissioner of education from October 1845 until 1849. His 1848 annual report to the General Assembly contained a detailed and still valuable history of Rhode Island’s public school system to that date. In that year, he published a book entitled School Architecture to advance his belief that “schools should be comfortable, pleasant places” conducive to learning.
Barnard was probably induced to return home when Connecticut passed a bill in 1849 creating a state normal school for the training of teachers, since the school’s first board of trustees selected him to be its principal, a position the law combined with that of state superintendent of the common schools. Subsequent to his stints in Rhode Island and Connecticut, Barnard held numerous educational posts, culminating in his appointment as the first United States commissioner of education in 1867, a position he held until 1870. 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.
According to Edith Nye MacMullen, Barnard’s principal biographer, “it is difficult to depict Henry Barnard, the private person.” Barnard was clearly popular with his peers and a person of warmth, but he seemed distant from his family. The Catholic faith of his dutiful wife, Josephine, appears to have been a source of friction. He scarcely referred to his children in his correspondence. Two daughters died in childhood, and his son, a lawyer, passed away shortly after his marriage and the birth of Barnard’s granddaughter. His two surviving daughters remained unmarried and cared for their illustrious father until his death in 1900 at the age of eighty-nine in the house where he was born.
For additional reading:
The Leaders of Rhode Island’s Golden Age, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley, The History Press, Charleston, South Carolina.