“If I could but see you happily situated (after the trials and crosses you have born since my reverses came upon us,) where you could injoy more rest, more advantages for mental and moral improvement which I know you so much long for. I should then be a happy man. The welfare of our children will always be uppermost in our minds & I am greatly mistaken if here is not the best place for them that we can possably expect to get…I see not why our children may not be highly Educated in Body & Mind.”
James Stetson to Dolly Stetson, Feb. 10, 1843
Introduction: Education and Reform
The Northampton Association for Education and Industry saw education as key to their beliefs, morals, and aspirations. The Stetson family clearly based their decision to move to the community and their later decision to remain a part of the community (when others were leaving) on the education provided by the Association. Education was central to reform life of the 1840s and central to the lives of the Stetsons. (See Almira Stetson’s March 4, 1845 letter to her father.)
Education at Mid-Century
In response to the market revolutionMajor economic shift in the 1820s and 30s in which Americans moved from a self-sufficient home economy to a market economy reliant on currency and wage labor., immigration, and the growth of democracy in the 1830s, many reformers looked to education to maintain Protestant values and morality. The Second Great AwakeningA series of religious revivals that swept through the United States in the early decades of the 19th century. Religious revivalismA movement to reawaken religious faith and participation through large meetings led by evangelical ministers who encouraged attendees to repent to God publicly. led to many reform movements across the north. sparked moral activism in education.
Massachusetts’ reformer Horace MannHorace Mann was an education reformer from Massachusetts, who worked to establish free, public, non-sectarian education for every man and woman. Edit argued for common schools, compulsory education and experiential learning. Books like the McGuffey ReadersA series of school readers that were created by Rev. William Holmes McGuffey beginning in 1833. They were published by a small publishing company called Truman and Smith based in Cincinnati, Ohio. were developed to teach moral education to young Americans through hard work, punctuality and sobriety. The expansion of schools during this era coincided with a new cultural recognition of childhood. The American child was “born” and needed to be raised and cared for “appropriately.” In response to Protestant influences on public schools, private Catholic schools were opened to Catholic youth.
Throughout the mid-1800s new denominational colleges opened to promote the ideas of religious reform. Mount Holyoke CollegeMount Holyoke College is a liberal arts women’s college in South Hadley, Massachusetts, that was originally founded by Mary Lyon in 1837 as a women’s seminary. became the first women’s college. Oberlin opened its doors to women. The lyceum movementAdult education was also expanded through lyceum lecture societies which provided lecturers for local communities. encouraged adults to further their education in social issues and activism. Establishing schools for the blind and deaf extended education to many who previously had no access. Dorothea DixDix was an army nurse during the Civil War who became a key leader in the movement for health reform, the establishment of state mental hospitals, and the recognition of mental illness. and others fiercely advocated for the establishment of mental asylums and the recognition of mental illness. All of the movements saw education as the key element to social reform.
Education at the Association
The Stetson letters provide an amazing window into the ways in which these educational movements appeared in the everyday life of the reformers at the NAEINorthampton Association of Education and Industry. The Stetsons began their journey to Northampton because of education—its importance to Dolly, James, and their children is clear throughout the letters.
The NAEINorthampton Association of Education and Industry provided education for children that was based on a model of “learning by doing” and clearly stressed the role of hard work in developing values and work ethic. While this educational theory was initially intentional, children at NAEINorthampton Association of Education and Industry became necessary actors in the economic survival of the community, as becomes clear in Almira Stetson’s grievances to her father.
Overtime education at NAEINorthampton Association of Education and Industry changed due to teachers’ departures and the economic demands of the Association. The nature of children’s work at NAEINorthampton Association of Education and Industry becomes a point of contention for the members and the line between education and labor became blurred. Despite these issues, the Stetsons and other families valued the educational opportunities they were able to offer their children in Northampton—opportunities they would not find outside of communal living.
In addition to children’s education, the Northampton Association allowed Dolly Stetson and other adults, especially women, opportunities to expand their own education. The work-sharing created by communal living allowed Dolly and other women to read more often, participate in community meetings, and enjoy the visiting lecturers who frequented the Association throughout its existence.
The community hosted conferences on communitarian living which provided opportunities for members to argue, shift, and solidify their utopian ideals. Young women, like Almira Stetson, were encouraged to read the writings of female activists and aspire to emulate the actions of Abby KellyKelly was a leading nineteenth-century abolitionist and women’s rights activist. She was born in Massachusetts and advocated for the end of slavery and for full civil rights for African Americans. and the Grimke sistersGrimke sisters Angelina and Sarah Grimke were two early female abolitionists and women's rights activists. They traveled throughout the North, lecturing about their first-hand experiences with slavery on their family plantation in South Carolina..
While the association maintained gender-proscribed work, it clearly provided women with political and educational opportunities that would not be realized as easily in communities outside of the Association. Dolly’s references to lyceums asylums, and newly founded denominational colleges–Almira briefly attended nearby Mt. Holyoke College–show how the national trends appeared on the local level and how informed she remained on the current issues. Education was taken seriously at NAEINorthampton Association of Education and Industry by young and old.
Throughout the Stetson letters, the family demonstrated its commitment to education on a personal, community, and national level to develop the mind, body, and soul. In exploring their letters, one sees many references to the national trends in education. Not only do the letter reinforce the existence of these reforms but they demonstrate just how interconnected reformers were within the changing social trends.