Colonial Education

Educating Colonial America

As early America formed, colonial leaders worked to shape the different aspects of the new communities. The settlers in many New England colonies sought to escape religious persecution and create a safe place to practice religion. Although education was not on the forefront of the colonials’ minds, some leaders understood the importance of a liberal education. The new generations born into the colonies needed to at least have the ability to read in order to understand the Bible, uphold community morals, and contribute to the community. Colonies such as Massachusetts began to enforce laws of compulsory education. The Massachusetts Bay School Law of 1642 outlined the “good education” deemed necessary for the children to “benefit any…Common-wealth.” The laws compelled parents and masters to “inable them to perfectly read the English tongue, & knowledge of the Capital lawes” ( The Massachusetts Bay General School Law of 1647, otherwise known as the Old Deluder Satan Law of 1647, attributed the “lack of knowledge of the Scriptures” to the work of Satan (Massachusetts Law Libraries).

Figure 1: Old Deluder Satan Law of 1647 (Massachusetts Trial Court Law Libraries)
Figure 1: Old Deluder Satan Law of 1647 (Massachusetts Trial Court Law Libraries)

The communities afforded both girls and boys the opportunity to learn to read in New England. Unlike their mothers and grandmothers who were among the first generation of settlers, fifty percent of women could sign their names by the end of the colonial period (Solomon, 3). Although the number differed to the eighty percent of their male counterparts, the colonies prioritized the education of young girls, in particular those of trading and aristocratic families, at a basic level to the colonies. The ability to boast well brought up, educated daughters earned respect and higher social status for some families. In general, the ability to understand “bible reading as a means of achieving piety” was the main objective in educating young women (Solomon, 3).

The education of young women served to provide the nation with better wives and mothers, regardless of social status or familial occupation. For most women did not view “educational deprivation” as a concern as their expectations did not exceed those essential to “fulfill their prescribed duties” (Solomon, 3). While colonies in New England provided more rudimentary educational opportunities to new generations of young women in comparison to the generations raised in lower class Europe, the motives behind female education remained for the sole purpose of creating a pious, stable community.


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