Truancy and Non-Attendance in the Chicago Schools
Chapter 2: The History of the Compulsory Education Legislation in Illinois:
The Struggle for a Free School System, 1818-55
Edith Abbott and Sophonisba P. Breckinridge
No history of compulsory education legislation can ignore the long preliminary struggle for the establishment of a free school system; for it was, of course, impossible in America to think of making education compulsory before it became free. The history of the growth of the free compulsory system in Illinois is of more than local interest-, for Illinois is the largest state in the middle western group, and the course of development of such legislation in Illinois has been determined by conditions similar to those existing in many other states.
An account of the establishment of a free compulsory educational system in this state may be divided into three periods: (1) the period of the struggle for the "free" principle-from the year 1818, when Illinois was admitted to statehood, to the year 1855, when the principle of taxation for the support of free common schools was accepted in the free school law of that year; (2) the period of struggle for the compulsory principle from the year 1855 to the year 1883, when the first compulsory law was passed; (3) the period of struggle for the perfection of the compulsory law, a struggle which has been going on ever since the passage of the first compulsory law in 1883 but which entered upon a new phase, which should perhaps be designated as a fourth "period," when preventive legislation, such as child labor and juvenile court laws, began to supplement the compulsory laws that could not become effective without such supplementary statutes.
Theories of the necessity for universal education as the basis of successful democratic government were not easily put into operation in the frontier states. It should not be overlooked that when Illinois became a state these theories had not been reduced to practice anywhere, although the "Commonwealth of Massachusetts" had made a most commendable beginning. In an excellent summary of his chapter on "The Common School in the First Half Century," Professor McMaster says,
When John Quincy Adams took the oath of office . . . . the common school did not exist as an American institution. In some states it was slowly struggling into existence; in others it was quite unknown. Here, the maintenance was voluntary. There, free education was limited to children of paupers or of parents too poor to educate their sons and daughters at their own expense. Elsewhere, state aid was coupled with local taxation. Scarcely anywhere did the common school system really flourish. Parents were indifferent. Teachers as a class were ill fitted for the work before them, and many a plan which seemed most promising as displayed in the laws accomplished little for the children of the state.
The almost desperate struggle for the bare necessities of life together with the difficulties of organizing an educational system in an undeveloped agricultural state proved to be almost insurmountable in a great state like Illinois with a territory of over fifty-six thousand square miles. The perplexing problems that arose in connection with the organization of the government of the new state, as well as pressing political questions relating to slavery and to internal improvements, absorbed the time and the energy required for the establishment of a state-provided free school system. Moreover, a large proportion of the pioneer settlers of this state had emigrated from Pennsylvania, Louisiana,
(19) and Kentucky--states in which the principle of universal education through public schools had not yet been established.
In its origin, the Illinois free school system may be said to go back to the ordinance of 1785, which provided that in the Northwest Territory, the great public domain from which Illinois and the other "North-Central" states were created, the sixteenth section (one square mile) of every township should be set aside for the support of public schools in the township. An earlier draft of the ordinance, which also made provision for the support of religion, had provided that "there shall be reserved the central section of every township for the maintenance of public schools; and the section immediately adjoining the same to the northward, for the support of religion. The profits arising therefrom in both instances, to be applied forever according to the will of the majority of the male residents of full age within the same." But Congress refused to assent to the reservation for religion and refused also to pass an amendment making the reservation "for charitable uses,"  So that in the end education alone was provided for.
Bancroft, commenting on this legislation in his History of Ike Constitution, says,
It was a land law for a people going forth to take possession of a seemingly endless domain. Its division was to be into townships, with a perpetual reservation of one mile square in every township for the support of religion, and another part for education. The House refused its assent to the reservation for the support of religion, as connecting the church with the state; but the reservation for the support of schools received a general welcome.
Later the ordinance of 1787 contained the well-known declaration that "religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall be forever encouraged." It is, however, interesting to note that these grants for schools were due not wholly to a noble solicitude for education but in part to a belief that if provision were made for schools people would remove more readily into a new territory and the public lands would therefore be more salable.
The territorial legislature of Illinois passed no laws relating to education, and the subject was not mentioned in the first constitution of the state, that of 1818. But in the same year the act of Congress that had provided for the admission of Illinois as a state contained two provisions regarding education. These provisions of the so-called "enabling act" were as follows:
I. That section numbered sixteen, in every township, and when such section has been sold or otherwise disposed of, other lands equivalent thereto, and as contiguous as may be, shall be granted to the State, for the use of the inhabitants of such township, for the use of the schools.
2. That five per cent of the net proceeds of the lands lying within such State, and which shall be sold by Congress, from and after the first day of January, one thousand eight hundred and nineteen, after deducting all expenses incident to the same, shall be reserved for the purposes following, viz., two-fifths to be disbursed, under the direction of Congress, in making roads leading to the State, the residue to be appropriated by the Legislature of the State, for the encouragement of learning, of which one-sixth part shall be exclusively bestowed on a college or university.
Although no attempt will be made to review the history of these famous educational land grants, it should be noted that the school lands were unfortunately not valuable enough to bring in any income during the early years when public lands were still available for new settlers; the short-sighted policy of the wasteful management and sale of these lands which was adopted by Illinois as by other new states in the hope of getting an immediate return, produced funds utterly inadequate even for the poorest sort of schools. It therefore soon became
(22) apparent that the only method of providing for education was that of taxation, a method stubbornly resisted by the great majority of the new settlers, many of whom were desperately poor.
As early as 1825 the Illinois legislature had passed an act providing for a school system supported by public taxation, but in passing the law the legislature had taken a step that was a generation in advance of public sentiment; and, according to Governor Thomas Ford, the very idea of a tax was "so hateful " that the act was "the subject of much clamorous opposition." "The people," he said, "preferred to pay all that was necessary for the tuition of their children or to keep them in ignorance rather than submit to the mere name of a tax by which their wealthier neighbors bore the brunt of the expense of their education."
This advanced law of 1825, which was entitled, "An Act providing for the establishment of free schools," is so interesting that the preamble and part of the first section are quoted at length:
To enjoy our rights and liberties [the preamble stated] we must understand them, their security and protection ought to be the first - and it is a well-established fact that no nation object of a free people, has ever continued long in the enjoyment of civil and political freedom, which was not virtuous and enlightened, and believing that
(23) the advancement of literature always has been and ever will be the means of developing more fully the rights of man, that the mind of every citizen in a republic, is the common property of society, and constitutes the basis of its strength and happiness; it is therefore considered the peculiar duty of a free government, like ours, to encourage and extend the improvement and cultivation of the intellectual energies of the whole.
And the first section of the statute provided that
There shall be established a common school or schools in each of the counties of this state, which shall be open and free to every class of white citizens, between the ages of five and twenty-one years of age.
The legislature boldly assumed that if education were essential the people would be willing to tax themselves to provide it, since in no other way could the necessary funds be obtained. But in providing that a majority of the voters in any district might decide on the levy of a general property tax to provide for the support of the common schools of that district, the legislature had attempted to establish a principle which the people of Illinois were not ready to accept in the year 1825. The law was the object of such bitter opposition that it was promptly repealed by the next legislature, and a period of more than a quarter of a century elapsed before the representatives of the people could be persuaded to make any provision for tax-supported schools.
In interesting contrast to our present school law, which requires that all children within specified ages must be sent to school, the early law of 1825 merely provided for an annual report of the number of children living in each school district and "what number of them are actually sent to school." Contrary also to present practice, the law penalized not the parents of children who did not go to school but the parents of those who did. Thus the law provided that the work of building or repairing schoolhouses and furnishing the schoolhouses
(24) "with fire and wood and furniture" should fall upon everyone who had the care of a child between five and twenty-one, provided such child attended school "for the purpose of obtaining instruction."
It has been said that the obnoxious provisions of this law were promptly repealed. Early in the year 1827 the succeeding legislature wiped out the essential principle of the free school law of 1825 by an amendment which provided that no person should be taxed for the support of a free school except by his own consent "obtained in writing," a provision that placed the schools on a subscription basis. The new law was called, "An act providing for the establishment of free schools, approved January 15, 1825, and for other purposes" (passed February 17, 1827). The section relating to taxation was as follows:
SEC. 4. No person shall be taxed without his consent. No person shall hereafter be taxed for the support of any free school in this state, unless by his or her own free will and consent, first had and obtained, in writing. And any person agreeing and consenting shall be taxed in the manner prescribed in the act to which this is an agreement: Provided, that no person shall be permitted to send any scholar or scholars to such school, unless such person shall have consented, as above, to be taxed for the support of such school .....
The General Assembly of 1829, which was also reactionary with regard to educational matters, passed a new school law, which again provided that no person was to be taxed for the support of free schools unless he gave consent in writing. This law also contained a disastrous provision for the sale of school lands as soon as proper authorization could be obtained from Congress. The support of education thus became, except for small sums derived from the permanent school fund, dependent on what was really a system of voluntary subscriptions, which meant that not only the children of those parents
(25) who were indifferent to education but the children of parents who were poor or unduly thrifty were alike unprovided for and unprotected. Schools were only for those children whose parents were either well-to-do or willing to make sacrifices for the sake of their children's future. Four years later, the school law of 1833 added a provision that there was to be "gratuitous instruction" for all "orphans and children of indigent parents residing in the vicinity." In general, however, pauper children were not compelled to go to school. A pauper child was bound out as an apprentice with a provision in the indenture that he was to be "taught to read and write, and the ground rules of arithmetic."
Unwilling to tax themselves for the support of schools, the early legislators of Illinois were only too quick to take advantage of any help that might come from the federal land grants, and the wasteful method of alienating for a song the lands that were destined to be almost fabulously valuable was soon inaugurated. The General Assembly of 183 1, without waiting for congressional sanction, passed an act  providing for the immediate sale of those sections of land "numbered 16" in each township, which the state was supposed to hold as a trust fund for the education of its children.
As a result of the unwillingness or inability of the people to provide schools, the majority of the children of Illinois were without any chance of schooling. An article in a contemporary journal, the Annals of Education,  said that in 1831 only about one-fourth of the children between four and sixteen years of age attended school during any portion of the year. The schools that existed were kept open only a few weeks in the year and were miserably equipped and taught.
Discouraging as was the educational situation at this time, the hope of a free school system was by no means dead. Societies were organized to promote the cause of free common schools, and " addresses " and " memorials " were circulated as propaganda in behalf of public education. In February, 1833, an educational convention was held at Vandalia, then capital of the state, and early in the following year the "friends of education " began to make preparation for securing favorable legislation at the next session of the legislature. Popular interest in the subject is evidenced by the fact that more than half the counties in the state sent delegates to the second Illinois educational convention, held at Vandalia, December 5,1834. This convention, of which Stephen A. Douglas was the secretary pro tem., issued an address to the people of Illinois 
(27) urging them "to adopt a system which would carry to every man's door the means of educating his children as the offspring of freeman should be taught," and asking the question, "Shall it be said that Illinois is too poor to educate her sons and her daughters ? To hesitate upon this subject is to charge the people with a want of spirit and an ignorance of the character of the age in which they live." That this convention was not prepared to urge any radical measures is indicated by the following extract from the memorial sent to the legislature:
In proposing for adoption any plan of common school instruction in this state, reference must be had to the state of feeling on this subject which pervades the community, as well as to our pecuniary resources. The prevailing public sentiment, we believe, will not authorize the adoption of a system, which will have to be enforced by heavy pains and penalties, and encumbered with all the minute
(28) details of the school system of many of our sister states, with the management and operation of which, the citizens of this state are unacquainted.
In a communication to the General Assembly during this same year, Governor Joseph Duncan, who as a member of the General Assembly had introduced the free school law of 1825, called attention to the important but neglected subject of education. "Every consideration," he wrote, "connected with the virtue, elevation and happiness of man and the character and prosperity of our state, and of our common country, calls upon you to establish some permanent system of common schools, by which an education may be placed within the power, nay, if possible, secured to every child in the state."
It is interesting to know that Abraham Lincoln was a member of this legislature and that he had already published in the Sangamon Journal the following statement of his position on the question of public education.
Upon the subject of education, not presuming to dictate any plan or systems respecting it, I can only say that I view it as the most important subject that we as a people can be engaged in. That every man may receive at least a moderate education, and thereby be enabled to read the histories of his own and other countries, by which he may duly appreciate the value of our free institutions, appears to be an object of vital importance on this account alone, to say nothing of the advantages and satisfaction to be derived from being able to read the Scriptures and other works, both of a religious and moral nature, for ourselves. For my part, I desire to see the time when education, and, by its means, morality, sobriety, enterprise and industry, shall become much more general than at present, and I should be gratified to have it in my power to contribute some-
(29) -thing to the advancement of any measure which might have a tendency to accelerate the happy period.
Fortunately the "friends of education" were rewarded by one substantial measure of progress during the decade 1830-40 -the enactment of a special school law for Chicago. This statute, which became a law in February, 1835, provided for free schools, which were to be supported by an annual tax levy "sufficient to defray the necessary expense of fuel, rent of schoolroom, and furniture." The school trustees were given authority also to levy and collect such additional taxes as were voted by a majority of the legal voters of the district. At this time Chicago had a population of more than four thousand and
(30) had seven schools. As several of these were supported in part by appropriations made from the school fund of the town, they were properly called public schools. The interest from the township school fund was apportioned among the several teachers of the town in proportion to the number of days of school attendance by the pupils registered in the school. But no teacher could be paid unless a certificate was presented showing that he had " given gratuitous instruction to all such orphans and children of indigent parents residing in the vicinity, as had been presented for that purpose."
The "friends of popular education" and the "friends of the common schools" were very active during the decade 1840-50. In fact, it may be said that during the entire period between the repeal of the free school law in 1827 and the enactment of the law of 1855, which placed the public school system on a firm basis, the cause of popular education was the subject of a constantly growing public agitation. The societies already mentioned held frequent meetings and did their best to arouse an interest in the cause of free education. The burning question that agitated the state was "shall the property of the state be taxed to educate the children of the state?" and, strange as it may seem to readers of the present day, the majority of the voters of the state continued to give a negative answer.
There were, however, influences operating between 1840-50, and even earlier, to further the cause of free schools. The rapid increase in population, which was almost phenomenal in the two decades between 1830 and 1850, went along with a
(31) rapid increase in wealth, which meant the breakdown of the most important obstacle in the way of school taxes. Added to this was the very important fact that many of the new settlers of this period came from eastern states where they had grown accustomed to a free school system supported by taxation. In May, 1841, however, it was estimated that more than one-half of the children of the state did not attend school at all and that most of the schools were not in session more than thirty days in the year.
In the year 1841 the Illinois Education Society met at Springfield and in a memorial to the General Assembly made the very moderate proposal that a majority of three-fourths of the legal voters of a township should be permitted to levy a tax "to a limited amount" for school purposes. "What evils," it was asked, "could grow out of trusting three-fourths of the people of a township with the liberty of thus acting for themselves, in behalf of the education of their children?  But although a new school law was passed in 1841, it failed to make the necessary provision for taxation.
(32) In the autumn of 1844 a convention of the "friends of education" was held at Peoria, and an attempt was made to organize a movement to demand local taxation sufficient to maintain a free school in every district during a school term of not less than three months. Some extracts from their "Memorial in Behalf of Public Schools" indicate how strong was the opposition to a school tax and how far from general was the belief in the principle of free state-provided education. Thus the "Memorial" says:
We come now to consider, finally, the one great requisite of the proposed plan-Taxation . . . . . We come out frankly and boldly, and acknowledge the whole system-every effort, is intended only as a means of allurement to draw the people into the grasp of this most awful monster-- a school tax . . . . . We do not, however, propose coercing any to employ him who prefer to let him alone. All we ask is, to give those permission to use him who are so inclined. Our position is, that taxation for the support of schools is wise and just-that it is, in fact, the only method by which the deficiency for defraying the expense of popular education, beyond that supplied by the public funds, can be equalised amongst those who should pay it.
The "Memorial" calls attention to the fact that in the preceding legislature a bill had been introduced to require a vote of two-thirds of the people of a township to levy a school tax,
(33) and the " Memorial " earnestly urges that such a decision should rest with a majority.
Why should there be any fear of abuse under the law? Certainly there is no danger of having too good schools; that too much will be paid to teachers; or that money will be squandered by those who themselves pay it. To require a two-thirds vote looks very much as though one or all of these results were to be feared . . . . . In other public measures, it is considered safe to trust to a majority to manage; and we can see no great danger in education, or its too rapid promotion, that it should be singled out to be used with caution.
Accepting the principles laid down in this memorial, Governor Ford in his first message to the General Assembly in 1844 spoke of the subject of common school education as "of the utmost importance to the well-being of the people; the due provision for which is essential to the perpetuity of enlightened republicanism, and absolutely necessary to a proper and just administration of our democratic institutions." He recommended no definite measure, however, except the establishment of the office of state superintendent of schools with the duty of collecting statistical and other information to enable the General Assembly to legislate "with an enlightened judgment."
The legislature, however, not only accepted the governor's recommendation but went much farther and in 1845 passed a law that recognized the free school principle by providing for local taxation by a two-thirds vote of any school district.
(34) This statute also contained an interesting provision prohibiting the use of any foreign language in the tax-supported schools, as follows: "No school shall derive any benefit from the public or town fund unless the text books used in said schools, shall be in the English language, nor unless the common medium of communication in said schools shall be the English language."
Two years later an attempt was made by the state superintendent of common schools to ascertain how many counties had levied school taxes, but only fifty-seven out of the ninety-nine counties of the state replied to the letter of inquiry sent out, and in only twenty-one of these counties had the tax been levied. It was charged that the large property owners were most strongly opposed to the assessment of taxes for school purposes. They were able to educate their own children without public assistance and were unwilling to have their property taxed for the education of the children of those who had no taxable property.
Fortunately the energies of the "friends of education" never flagged. A great common school convention was held in 1846 in Chicago, the city of free schools, at which the mayor presided. There was, it will be remembered, a special law enabling Chicago to tax herself for school purposes, and the school system which had been established was looked upon with great respect. In the report of the superintendent of common schools to the General Assembly of 1846-47, although the shortcomings of the school system of Illinois were vigorously portrayed, Chicago was pointed out as an example to be followed.
In the county of Cook alone [the superintendent reported] the inhabitants--deeply impressed with the importance of the common
(35) school education-have raised, by voluntary taxation, under the provision of the law, the large sum of five thousand, two hundred and four dollars, which will continue and increase as an annual tax; and what has been the result ? Their schools are in a most flourishing condition. They have erected large and elegant school-houses, procured competent and accomplished teachers, and have two thousand and ninety-five children in daily attendance at these nurseries of learning.
The legislature, however, moved backward rather than forward and amended the law of 1845 by making it more difficult to secure a school tax. The old law had provided for a tax levy by two-thirds of the voters who attended a meeting held for this purpose. The amended law provided that a majority of all the voters of the district must approve the tax. All voters who failed to attend the meeting would in this way be counted as voting in the negative.
But the right of every child to a free common school education was making headway against the property owners who were so unwilling to be taxed. In a report issued by the secretary of state acting as superintendent of common schools it was urged as a duty upon every citizen in the state "to erect upon a permanent basis, a plain practical system of free common schools." It was estimated that there were only schools enough for about three-fifths of the children of the state, although state pride necessitated the comforting reflection that Illinois "in the establishment of her system of schools was far in advance of any of the states at a similar period of their
(36) history." On January 1, 1849, the day beginning the sixteenth session of the General Assembly, the friends of popular education held a great convention at the state capitol, and at a public meeting held in the House of Representatives a great audience passed a resolution declaring " that the property of the state should be taxed to educate the children of the state."
It was seven years, however, before this principle was finally embodied in a free school law, and a persistent organized effort to secure public understanding of the educational needs of the state was necessary during these intervening years. Governor French discussed the subject in his first message to the seventeenth General Assembly in 1851, and the superintendent of schools in a report to the same session of the General Assembly pointed out the futility of the current systems of levying school taxes.
A majority of all the legal voters of any school district [he said] is now required to levy a tax for building, furnishing or repairing schoolhouses, or for the support of schools. Experience has shown that great difficulty generally exists in inducing a sufficient number to assemble together to secure any efficient action. Mere absence on the part of a few may defeat the most necessary objects-, and it has been found next to impossible to make a legal assessment. It is submitted whether it would not be better to allow a majority present at any meeting, legally convened, to determine the question of levying such a tax.
In 1853 Governor Matteson in his inaugural message to the eighteenth General Assembly recommended the " entire repeal of all laws regulating common schools, and the adoption of a simple system, plain in its provisions, supported by a tax upon property, when the school fund is not sufficient for such purpose, and made free to all alike."
Others steps led rapidly to this end. In the same year the secretary of state, still acting as superintendent of common schools, presented an interesting report to the legislature in which he set forth that--
the sum raised by an ad valorem tax, for the support of schools in 46 counties, is reported to be $51,101 - 14. A large proportion of this has been applied to the building and repair of schoolhouses, but little, comparatively, and that only in a few counties, having been devoted to the payment of teachers and the general support of schools. In 20 counties out Of 74, no such tax was levied, and the commissioners of 8 counties, in consequence of the default of the township treasurers, were able to communicate nothing relative thereto. 
The report says further,
Under the law as it now stands, a majority of the legal voters of districts . . . . have it in their power, by a majority of voters, to levy a tax for the support of schools, thus enabling them, if they see proper, to avail themselves of all the advantages of free schools. I am not aware that in a single instance this has been done, nor can any motive be assigned for the action . . . . unless a preference for the system which now prevails.
In 1854 the office of state superintendent of public instruction was separated from that of the secretary of state, and Ninian W. Edwards, son of a former governor of the state, became the first holder of the new office thus created. In his first report to the General Assembly, written December 10, 1854, he vigorously urged as a "first principle that education should be supported by a tax on property," which would give "to every child of the state a right to be educated and to all an equal right."
The free school law of 1855 followed. This law provided for a state school tax, for unrestrained local taxation, and for a free school, in every district, during six months in the year. The opposition to the free school system had been especially hostile in the southern counties of the state, and only the provision of a state tax, by which the contribution of the richer counties was shared with the poorer counties, enabled the bill to pass. "If those fellows up north want to pay for schools down here we'll let 'em," a representative from the southern part of the state is reported to have said.
The state of Illinois had finally realized the necessity of educating its children, but the provision of free schools was soon discovered to be only one step toward this end. It was recognized by the friends of universal education that a compulsory attendance law was necessary to compel all children to attend the free schools that were provided for them by the state.