John Howland

Inducted: 2000
Born: 1757
Died: 1854

Without hyperbole, John Howland can well be called “the father of free public education in Rhode Island.” He was born in Newport on October 31, 1757, the fourth of eight children in the family of Joseph and Sarah (Barber) Howland. He was the namesake and fifth-generation descendant of a Mayflower passenger who had come to Plymouth in 1620 as an indentured servant and rose to become a leader in Plymouth Colony.

John was home-schooled by his parents and aided in his efforts to read by two Newport clergymen who were friends of his very religious father. At age twelve, he and his family moved to Providence, where he became apprenticed to Benjamin Gladding as a barber and hairdresser.

Howland played an active role in the American Revolution, exploits that he described in his fascinating published Recollections. After winning independence, he opened his own hairdressing shop in Providence on North Main Street. On January 28, 1788, he married Mary Carlisle, a great grandniece of Benjamin Franklin, a man whom Howland admired greatly.

In early 1789, Howland was instrumental in forming the Providence Association of Mechanics and Manufacturers, a group that immediately began to lobby for Rhode Island’s ratification of the federal Constitution. Once that goal was achieved, the association began its campaign for free public education, with Howland in the lead.

With the assistance of Attorney General James Burrill Jr., in 1799, Howland organized an educational lobby. This effort induced the General Assembly to pass a free-school act on March 13, 1800, despite opposition from the country towns. Howland directed his town’s efforts to comply with this innovative statute, and Providence appointed its first school committee, with Howland as its dominant voice, in August of that year. On the last Monday of October 1800, the Providence tax-supported public school system, consisting of four schools, held its first session; in attendance were 988 white pupils of both sexes, who were to be “faithfully instructed without preference or partiality.”

Passage of the School Law of 1800 did not mandate free schools throughout the state, and except for Providence and Smithfield, the towns refused to implement the act fully and secured its repeal in 1803. Providence maintained its system, however, with Howland serving as an influential school committee member until June 1822 and after that as a relentless crusader for the free-school cause until his death.

In the final entry of his autobiographical Recollections, Howland noted with great satisfaction that “I did what Roger Williams never attempted or never had a disposition to do. I formed and brought into existence the public schools in this town, which Governor Hopkins once attempted but could not accomplish.” This work, he stated, will live “for ages after the world shall have forgotten that such a being ever existed as John Howland.”

Howland referred to the fact that during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Rhode Island’s schools were private ventures assisted and sometimes encouraged by the towns but supported mainly by fees charged to those who attended them. Town (i.e., public) aid was limited to such actions as building and leasing schools or furnishing part of the schoolmaster’s salary. Governments felt that the primary responsibility for children’s education resided with parents, relatives, churches, and motivated citizens. At the colony and state levels, educational assistance was limited to approving lotteries to raise money to construct school buildings, granting corporate charters for institutions of learning, and exempting property used for educational purposes from taxation. Education without taxation was the rule that Howland overcame.

Most of the makers of modern Rhode Island profiled lack detailed scholarly studies that scrutinize their motives, methods, and achievements, but Howland has his analyst. Professor Francis X. Russo of the University of Rhode Island wrote a 1964 doctoral dissertation on “The Educational Philosophy of John Howland,” which reveals the reformer’s basic beliefs. Howland demanded a good, tax-supported common education that would provide practical preparation for useful living and, especially, moral preparation and spiritual enlightenment so that future generations would be ensured “liberty of government and security of property.” He was convinced that it was the duty of government to provide education for all children, for unless they were educated, an enlightened citizenry would not exist to provide moral and civic leadership. These were undoubtedly good thoughts for a man who lacked a formal basic education (though he did receive an honorary master’s degree from Brown in 1835).

Other positions of note held by this self-educated reformer included Providence town auditor, town treasurer, president of the Providence Association of Mechanics and Manufacturers, clerk and deacon of the First Congregational Society, and president of the Rhode Island Historical Society.

Howland’s work with the historical society was especially noteworthy. He was one of that organization’s founders in 1822, and he became its president in 1833 upon the retirement of Governor James Fenner. He led this scholarly organization for the next twenty-one years until his death. Howland was not a trained historian (few in those days were). He might be described, instead, as a collector or an antiquarian who greatly enriched the holdings of the society, and in his 1839 presidential address, he encouraged other Rhode Islanders to do likewise.

John Howland was ninety-seven years of age when he died on November 5, 1854. He and his wife, Mary, had five children who lived to adulthood and eight more who died before John Howland.

John Howland was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2000.

For additional reading:
The Leaders of Rhode Island’s Golden Age, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley, The History Press, Charleston, SC, 2012.

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