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  • Writer's pictureNorfolk Towne Assembly


Updated: Feb 26, 2021

Throughout 2020 and into the new year, our ideas of what education should look like here in Virginia have been challenged by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Depending on our location, we have gone back and forth between classroom teaching, remote teaching, and hybrid teaching models. Many of us are upset with our public officials who have chosen to err on the side of caution while others have accepted the need for these actions. Many are upset with the cancelation of classes because suddenly the public schools are not there to care for our children during the day and that disrupts our lives. In today’s post, we thought it might be interesting to look at what education was like in Virginia during the Colonial era and the early years of the American republic.


At the beginning of English colonization of North America, there was no general legislation on education. In fact, between 1530 and 1833, there was no legislation in England encouraging schools except for a few acts concerning colleges and secondary schools. As a result, the history of education in England is connected to the history of the church.

With the dissolution, of the Catholic Church in England in 1539 by Henry VIII, care for the vast number of poor, which made up about one sixth of the population, fell to the Church of England and indirectly to the Crown, as the head of the Anglican Church. This responsibility was addressed through two main means, apprenticeship and the “poor laws”.

The main features of these laws were:

  • Any one not apprenticed should be bound to the first applicant.

  • Wages were set by law, and in the case of anyone receiving higher wages, the apprentice and the one to whom he was bound were punished.

  • These laws were enforced by magistrates (civil officers) who belonged to the Gentry.

  • The Statutes of Labor provided that anyone not employed could be forced to be bound to a man for husbandry (farm work).

  • Unmarried women between the ages of twelve and forty could be forced into service, especially at harvest time.

  • It was necessary that parents who apprenticed a child should own a certain amount of property.

  • The Master of the apprentice was bound to give his ward all the arts, secrets, and mysteries of the trade.

  • No apprentice could quit work without the consent of two magistrates.

This all went together to create a system of education where the master was responsible for the teaching of skills the indigent o they could support themselves in the future. It also acted to support the production of goods and services to the benefit of the nation.

English Poor Law of 1601
English Poor Law of 1601

In addition, the Crown also set up a Direct Tax for the Support of the Poor who were unable to work due to age or infirmity. Beginning in 1553, two officers were appointed in each community or county to collect this tax money and by 1661, the English Poor laws also contained the following provisions:

  • The requirement that all youth, not of independent living should be bound to masters.

  • The obligation of those in authority to provide for the apprenticing of all such children through the appointment of Overseers of the Poor.

  • That these officers should have the power to use the funds procured from the poor tax for the support of these apprenticed children.

  • That these overseers should have the right to purchase material for the use of the children.

  • That the Overseers of the Poor should furnish materials to be used by the children.


The roots of colonial American institutions, including education, are to be found primarily in England. This is particularly true of early colonial Virginia. During the early years of the colony, settlers adopted many of the laws of England here and they remained in force throughout the early years of the colony. The English church, social customs, forms of government, and educational institutions were patterned after, if not identical to, those of England.

While many of the institutions in the Virginia Colony were similar to those in England, the opportunities to build something new, presented by the new lands, caused some Englishmen to begin to look at new ideas on education. In 1621, an anonymous donor, who identified himself with the somewhat fatalistic moniker of “Dust and Ashes” wrote to the Company complaining that money (550 livres) he had donated to the Company for the purpose of “conversion of Infidells’ (Indian) Children” had not been used as he wished but, instead been given to the “gentlemen of Southampton Hundred” who had failed to use it for those purposes. He was now asking the “whole Body of you Honorable and worthie Companie” whom he entrusted to dispense the funds see that the funds are “speedily and faithfully converted to the worke intended” which he specifies as the erecting of some schools or other way whereby some of the Children of the Virginians could be instructed in Christian religion and good manners.

A Primitive 17th Century School
A Primitive 17th Century School

As the 17th Century wore on, the population of Virginia grew through, at least in part through the importation of indentured servants. During the period from 1620 to 1750, about 80,000 indentured servants arrived in Virginia. Among these “imports”, because of the Irish and Scottish rebellions, were cultured persons, men of education and good families.

The Planters, or upper class, naturally were interested only in an educational system that affected their own children, and hence introduced the tutorial system, to which they were accustomed in England. Some of the indentured “gentlemen” who arrived in Virginia were sold to the Virginia Planters as tutors for their children. In other cases, actual tutors were brought over from England under terms of indenture.

The early educational interest among the people of Virginia concerned itself with orphan children that were sent over from England as a result of the Poor Laws. Virginia received her quota of these orphans. In 1619, provision was made for 100 children to be sent to the Virginia Colony. The orphans came from London and £500 was sent to support their apprenticeship among the colonists, with the only stipulation that they be taught “some good trade” by their masters. In 1620, the Colony requested more children. The Apprenticeship Law of 1643 addressed the upbringing of these orphans, requiring that, in addition to learning a trade, they be brought up in the Christian religion and be instructed in ‘the rudiments of learning” which could be construed to mean reading and writing. The Apprenticeship Law of 1646 was much more specific in that it described the school building required and is the first account of this sort of workhouse school for teaching trades in America.

Commissioners of the several countieş shall make choice of two children , male or female , eight or seven years at least, to be sent to James City ( Jamestown ) to be employed in the public flax factory work under such master and masters as shall thus be appointed , in carding, knitting, spinning, and so on , and that said children shall be furnished from the counties with six barrels of corn , two coverlids, one rugg , one blanket, one bed , one wooden bowl or tray, two pewter spoons, a sow shote of six months, and two laying hens, convenient apparel, both linen and woolen , with hose and shoes. That there be two houses built by the first of April next, forty feet long apeace with good substantial timber. The houses to be twenty feet broad apeace, eight foot high in the pitche, and a stack of brick chimney standing in the midst of each house, and that they be lofted with sawne boards and made with convenient partitions, commissioners have caution not to take up children from such parents who by reason of their poverty are disable to maintain and educate them. That the governor hath agreed with the Assembly for the sum of ten thousand pounds of tobacco to be paid him the next crop to build said houses.

A Weaver and his Apprentices
A Weaver and his Apprentices

While it is not certain that this plan for an industrial school at Jamestown was put into operation, - documentary evidence for the execution of these laws is to be found only in the proceedings of the “Orphans' Courts in the various counties in Virginia - the presence of these general laws indicates at least that there was a well-defined sentiment for education among the colonists. Other general laws (1705) provide that masters shall be compelled to teach orphans to “read and write .” This is the first legislative provision requiring the teaching of reading and writing.

There were children who did not fall under these laws. These were the children of parents who were more fortunately situated from an economic standpoint and were able to look after the training of their own children. During the 17th and part of the 18th centuries, several types of “elementary schools” developed in the Colony. These included the grammar school, the endowed free school, community schools, and the tutorial system.

The Grammar school usually was an institution of secondary or college grade where classical languages and mathematics were taught. In Virginia they often combined the primary instruction in “reading, writing, and ciphering” with the higher education.

The Free Schools taught a curriculum like the Grammar Schools, with the exception that they were sometimes supported by an endowment fund that had been provided by one or more benefactors. In England, this type of school was often known as a charity school. The Eaton School in Virginia is often referred to in the records as Eaton's Charity School. These days there is some confusion about the word “free” in connection with schools of this time. A “free” school in some cases means a school where a “liberal” education may be had. The other meaning of the term “free school” is that there are no fees for tuition, and in some cases for board and clothing. There were many attempts to establish such schools in the 17th century, but they seem to have failed for various reasons.

The first plan for a free school in Virginia was designed for the education of the Indian youth, endowed by a donation to the London Company of nearly $14,000 in gold. After several attempts to use the money in the way specified in Southampton Hundred and Martin's Hundred, the company finally invested the entire sum in the erection of iron works from whose profits thirty Indian children were to be educated. The Indian uprising of 1622 brought an end to both the idea of the Indian School and the ironworks. The second attempt, this time to educate the white children of the colony, also ended abruptly with that same 1622 Indian uprising.

Bearing date of 1634 , the will of Benjamin Syms bequeaths the foundation for a free school in Virginia, the Syms Free School. This was the earliest provision for effective free education in America and precedes by at least two years the famous gift of John Harvard to the college in Massachusetts. This school was to be located in Elizabeth City County (present day Hampton, VA) and to afford free education for the children living within the bounds of “the adjoining parishes of Elizabeth City and Poquoson from Marie's Mount downward to the Poquoson River”. In 1643 the General Assembly passed a law to put the school into operation and by 1647 the school seemed to be on a firm foundation with a completed house built for the purpose. Twenty-five years later, Dr. Thomas Eaton donated five hundred acres of land, buildings, livestock, and two slaves to found the Eaton Charity School school. He stipulated that this school was to educate the poor children of the county. The school was so popular that in 1759 a statute was passed to limit attendance to only poor children at Eaton. In 1805, the two schools were merged by an act of the General Assembly and called Hampton Academy. There is considerable evidence that free schools of this type existed throughout Virginia by the beginning of the 18th Century with donors funding them in Northumberland, Isle of Wight, Lower Norfolk, Gloucester, Lancaster, and Middlesex Counties.

A surviving "oldfield" school building in NC
A surviving "oldfield" school building in NC

Community schools, later known as “Old Field Schools”, involved the heads of various families living in the same neighborhood coming together to construct a building and employ a teacher for their children at a per pupil rate. Sessions of these schools were usually held from April until September and were the largest single source of education for the majority of the children of the colony. Although there was no connection between these schools and the Church or Colonial government, other than granting of teaching licenses, many times the local clergyman of the parish or community was the teacher. This seems to have been a method for clergymen to add to their income over and above their regular salary. This only made sense since, these men had been educated at some of the best schools in England. In the absence of regular clergymen, the church “readers often performed the duties of teacher at these schools.

Finally, the Tutorial System, one of the most effective forms of instruction in England, was used by rich Planters to supply an education for their children. These private tutors very often carried their pupils into the rudiments of higher learning which served as preparation for admission into the grammar schools either in Virginia or in the mother country. Many of the rich planters, from the earliest days of the colony, sent their children to England after a period of tutorage at home.

Rev. Philip Vickers Fithian, tutor hired by Planter Robert Carter
Rev. Philip Fithian, tutor hired by Planter Robert Carter

These tutors instructed the girls of the family as well as the boys, but the instruction beyond the rudiments of reading and writing took a little different course with the girls. At some point in the early 18th Century, we know that some girls must have had classical training because we know that some of the noted men of the Colony received their preparation in the classics, to enable entrance to William and Mary, from their mothers. The girls' training was more often directed into the field of literature with lessons in elocution and English grammar.

Typically, a tutor was hired under a contract that provided “meat, drink, lodging, and washing,” and sometimes a few acres free of rent upon which to plant tobacco and vegetables. In addition, he was to receive a fee, usually amounting to around 25 dollars, for furnishing tuition to the children of the family. In order that the tutor should be able to supplement his meager income, he was permitted to have as pupils the sons and daughters from neighboring families, usually boarding at the planter’s home during the time school was in session. A school day was divided into three periods:

  1. from six to eight, after which a recess was given for breakfast;

  2. from nine to twelve, followed by lunch;

  3. from three until six, when school was out for the day.

Throughout the first half of the Eighteenth century the types of schools in Virginia remained similar to those of the Seventeenth century, consisting of private tutors for the wealthy; the community or Old Field schools for the middle class; and the Grammar schools for secondary training. There was no attempt to work out a state system of education until Thomas Jefferson’s proposed plan in the last quarter for the eighteenth century.

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson

This plan for public education was based upon Jefferson’s political philosophy of republicanism was a people-first, mostly bottom-up political vision with a moral underpinning of local self-government. This vision of republicanism was critically dependent on a democratic and meritocratic vision of education—education for the general citizenry and higher education for those who would govern. Only in such a manner could tyranny be forestalled. Jefferson believed:

“Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves therefore are its only safe depositories. And to render them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree.”

Education, for Jefferson, was broad and visceral— it catered to the whole person, not just the public image, and involved the whole community. Most significantly, it was ongoing. Later in life, Jefferson outlined six features of education in a letter to Joseph C. Cabell:

  1. Basic education should be available to all.

  2. Education should be tax supported.

  3. Education should be free from religious dictation.

  4. The educational system should be controlled at the local level.

  5. The upper levels of education should feature free inquiry.

  6. The mentally proficient should be enabled to pursue education to the highest levels at public expense.

Over the years he authored several reports and bills, beginning with his Bill for Establishing a System of Public Education which he presented to the General assembly in 1779.

Because of Jefferson’s penchant for local control, this bill provided for no higher authority for administration than the local district or county. In fact, the matter of deciding whether a school should be established at all was left to those same local authorities and was the main reason for the failure of the plan. Those “local authorities” were made up of the wealthy, aristocratic elements of the population who saw no logic in taxing themselves to set up an institution which they would not use for their own children and so, Jefferson’s proposal languished in the General Assembly.


In 1796, the General Assembly finally passed Jefferson’s proposal however it was amended in such a way as to neuter it from the start. The amendment said that the court of each county shall determine the year in which Aldermen shall be appointed to oversee the implementation of the school plan. The courts were careful not to “determine the year” for such appointments.

The 1817-1818 session had a bill up for consideration which, if passed would have supplied a good scheme of public education. The Lower House passed the act by a large majority (66 to 49), but the Senate tied (7 to 7), and the Speaker cast the deciding vote against the bill. Beginning in 1818 the interest in Virginia shifted to higher education and secondary education rather than establishment of primary level schools, and remained thus until around 1846

The Literary Fund

The Literary fund was established in 1810 by an act of the General Assembly, and formed the nucleus for the support of free schools in Virginia. The act ordered that all “escheats, confiscations, fines, penalties and forfeitures, and all rights accruing to the state as derelict, shall be set aside for the encouragement of learning.” In 1816 the Legislature added to this accumulative fund the amount of $1,210, 550, the proceeds from a loan made to the federal government for the War of 1812 and now returned to the state.

An 1811 act defined the purpose of this fund as “providing schools for the poor in any county of the State. By the same act, the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Treasurer, Attorney-General, and the President of the Court of Appeals were made a corporate body to have control of this fund, invest the monies, and dispose of the interest as directed by the General Assembly. The legislation also stated that when the income from this fund amounted to $45,000 annually, it should be used for the education of the “indigent” white children, distributed on the basis of the white population in the counties. In each county, the county courts were to appoint commissioners, varying from two to thirty-two, according to the size of the county, whose duty it was to seek out the “indigent” pupils and to employ teachers for these pupils at the rate of three and a half to four cents per pupil per day of attendance.

In the beginning, none of this fund could be used for building schools or for equipment, but in 1829, the General Assembly passed an act providing that ten percent of the allotment could be used for building schoolhouses, or if the local community paid three-fifths of the total cost of the house, $100 of the fund could be used provided the patrons raise a like amount. In this case, the school was to be free to all.

Norfolk Academy ca. 1840
Norfolk Academy ca. 1840

The Academies

Prior to 1800, there were around twenty-five “academies”, generally known as “Classical Schools” in Virginia. The term “Academy” came into common usage a bit later once sciences became more popular and were being taught in secondary schools. Graduates of Princeton and Yale came to Virginia and established these schools in sections of the state where the strongest church centers were. Some of these early academies became the basis of colleges in Virginia. Others, such as Norfolk Academy (1788), Winchester Academy (1786), Petersburg Academy (1794), Margaret Academy (1807), Staunton Academy (1810), New Market Academy (1817), Concord Academy (1809), New London Academy (1795) and Alexandria Academy (1785), existed for a long time. Some of them are still operating as private preparatory schools or military academies. Over time, there was one or more of these academies in every county of the state.

New London Academy, Bedford Co. VA
New London Academy, Bedford Co. VA

These schools taught the classics, (higher mathematics, and the sciences such as physics, chemistry, and botany), and also gave instruction in the elementary subjects. Their main means of support, except for some very small appropriations from the Literary Fund that 17 of them occasionally received, was tuition fees paid by the students.

A complete system of public education for Virginians was not provided for until the new state constitution of 1869 was adopted following the Civil War. This Constitution provided for, among other things:

  1. Election of a Superintendent of Public Instruction by the General Assembly

  2. A Board of Education composed of the governor, superintendent of public instruction, and the attorney-general who shall have the power to appoint, oversee, and remove, subject to confirmation by the senate, all county superintendents of public schools.

  3. That the General Assembly shall enact a law at its first session to provide a uniform system of public free schools, and its introduction into all counties no later than 1876.

  4. That once the public free school system is in place the General Assembly shall make laws prohibiting parents and guardians from allowing their children to grow up in ignorance and vagrancy.

  5. That the Board of Education shall provide uniformity of textbooks.

I hope you found this article on primary and secondary education in Virginia during the Colonial and Early Republic periods informative and educational. (After all, isn’t that what an article on education should be?). If you enjoyed this post, please take a moment to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post). This will allow you post comments to let me know your thoughts on our articles, suggest new subjects for future articles, and allow us to inform you when we post new articles. Please be assured that the Norfolk Towne Assembly never shares our community members information with outside entities except as required by law. I also invite you to return to our blog home page and sample some of our earlier articles on a variety of subjects.

Finally, if you live in Virginia or North Carolina, I would invite you to visit The Norfolk Towne Assembly’s home page to learn more about us, what we do, and how, if you are interested in our activities, you can get involved.


Carpenter, J. (2013, October). Thomas Jefferson and the Ideology of Democratic Schooling. Democracy & Education, 21(2), Article 5.

Goldin, C. K. (2003). THE “VIRTUES” OF THE PAST: EDUCATION IN THE FIRST HUNDRED YEARS OF THE NEW REPUBLIC. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Heatwole, C. J. (1916). A History of Education in Virginia. New York: The Macmillan Company.

Holowchak, M. A. (2013, October). "The Diffusion of Light": Jefferson's Philosophy of Education. Democracy and Education, 21(2), Article 4.

Madigan, J. C. (2009). The Education of Girls and Women in the United States: A Historical Perspective. Advances in Gender and Education, 1, 11-13.

Moore, R. B. (1957). A history of education in Suffolk and Nansemond County, Virginia. University of Richmond, Education. Richmond: University of Richmond.

Moore, T. O. (1998). The Enlightened Curriculum: Liberal Education in Eighteenth-Century British Schools. University of Edinburgh, Liberal Arts Department. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh. Retrieved December 7, 2020

Neill, E. D. (1867). The History of Education in Virginia During the Seventeenth Century. Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office.

Neill, E. D. (1869). History of the Virginia Company of London, with Letters to and from the First Colony Never Before Printed. Albany: Joel Munsell.

Thattai, D. (2017, November). A History of Public Education in the United States. Retrieved from


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