Today in NYC History: The Great School Wars, Religious Edition (1842)

William Seward, governor of New York from 1839-1842.

William Seward, governor of New York from 1839-1842.

Yesterday we looked at the origins of the New York public school system. Today we look at a second major crossroads in the history of New York education – the question of religious education in public schools. On April 11, 1842, Governor William Seward signed a bill authorizing local control to school boards, a messy compromise between Protestants and Catholics that ultimately led to the modern Board of Education.

When we left our “free schools”/”common schools,” they were being run by a quasi-public organization named the Public School Society. Originally founded by patrician Quakers, the Public School Society had been swept up in the Baptist revivals of the Second Great Awakening, and the schools were now put Christian study at the center of their curricula. Catholics found their use of the King James Bible anathematic to any kind of moral or educational study, and would not send their children to public schools. For a while, New York politicians had ignored this festering dispute, but with the number of Irish Catholic immigrants increasingly rapidly during the late 1830s, education was fast becoming a political hot potato.

Enter William Seward. A titan of New York politics as governor and senator for two decades before he joined President Lincoln’s Team of Rivals, he is perhaps best known for “Seward’s Folly,” the $7 million purchase of Alaska. A year into his first term as governor, however, Seward boldly stepped into the hornets nest. As a Whig, he was a strong supporter of a robust public educational system. But recognizing that many poor Catholic children were not participating in the current system, he pledged Catholics that he would fund their schools, so that their children “may be instructed by teachers speaking the same language as themselves and professing the same faith.”

Seward’s proposal threw Protestant voters into a tizzy. Nativist papers responded by claiming that Seward was trying “to take away our children’s funds to bestow them on the subjects of Rome, the creatures of a foreign hierarchy” and giving Catholic schools “a reward for Catholics’ bigotry and ignorance.” Seward was barely re-elected in 1840.

The next year, Seward’s schools superintendent John Spencer tried to compromise with a new proposal to give more local school control, allowing Catholics a voice in how public schools were run in their own neighborhoods. “Abortions for some, miniature American flags for others!” as Kang would say. Meanwhile, Catholics got organized. Led by the fiery orator (was there any other kind back then?) Bishop John Hughes, dominated the 1841 New York City elections, whipping up Irish voters in never seen numbers.

Tammany Democrats, who were increasingly seeing urban Irish Catholics as a long-term base of the party, got behind Spencer’s proposal in the winter of 1842. The bill’s lead sponsor, New York City’s William Maclay, denounced the Public School Society as having “failed to accomplish the great object of its establishment – the universal education of the children in the city of New York.” The superintendent who replaced Spencer, William Stone, countered that most of New York City’s public schools were in excellent condition, and that the number of Catholic children boycotting the system was grossly exaggerated.

Maclay’s bill passed easily and Seward signed the bill on April 11, 1842, allowing local New York City wards to operate as towns and chart their own educational course. Nativists responded by attacking Irish on the street and pelting their churches with stones, though the Irish would get their chance at mob rule in due course. The Public School Society eventually responded to the criticism of their school management by surrendering their schools to the Board of Education in 1853, paving the way for a truly secular, universal public school system. Meanwhile, the Bishop Hughes’ rabid campaign against public schools resulted in the expansion of the Catholic school system, separate from the public school system, at great costs to the church, and politically gave up the Board of Education to Protestant control.

Thus, the divisive saga came to an end without any side really “winning,” but the debate set the stage for a modern, secular Board of Education. The issue of state funding for religious schools hasn’t gone away. At present, one of the main battles in Albany is over the education investment tax credit, which is being pushed by a coalition that includes religious schools. Opponents argue that the tax credit is backdoor system to weaken state investment in public schools.

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