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TO JOSEPH C. CABELL 1 - Thomas Jefferson, The Works, vol. 12 (Correspondence and Papers 1816-1826) 
The Works of Thomas Jefferson, Federal Edition (New York and London, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904-5). Vol. 12.
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TO JOSEPH C. CABELL1
Monticello, Jan. 14, 1818
—When on the 6th inst. I was answering yours of Dec. 29, I was so overwhelmed with letters to be answered, that I could not take time to notice the objection stated, “that it was apprehended that neither the people, nor their representatives, would agree to the plan of assessment on the wards for the expenses of the ward schools.” I suppose that this is meant the “pecuniary expense of wages to the tutor”; for, as to what the people are to do, or to contribute in kind, every one who knows the situation of our people in the country, knows it will not be felt. The building the long houses will employ the laborers of the ward three or four days in every 20 years. The contributions for subsistence, if averaged on the families, would be 8 or 9 lbs. of pork, and a half a bushel of corn for a family of middling circumstances—not more than 2 days subsistence of the family and its stock—and less in proportion as it could spare less. There is not a family in the country so poor as to feel this contribution. It must then be the assessment of the pecuniary contribution which is thought so formidable an addition to the property tax we now pay to the state that “neither the people, nor their representatives would agree to.” Now, let us look this objection in the face, and bring it to the unerring test of figures;—premising that this pecuniary tax is to be of 150 dollars on a ward.
Not possessing the documents which would give me the numbers to be quoted, correctly to a unit, I shall use round numbers, so near the truth, that with the further advantage of facilitating our calculations as we go a long, they will make no sensible error in the result. I will proceed therefore on the following postulates, and on the ground that there are in the whole state 100 counties and cities.
Let us then proceed on these data, to compare the expense of the proposed and of the existing system of primary schools. I have always supposed that the wards should be laid off as to comprehend the number of inhabitants necessary to furnish a captains company of militia. This is before stated at 500 persons of all ages and sexes. From the tables of mortality (Buffon’s) we find that where there are 500 persons of all ages and sexes, there will always be 14 in their 10th year, 13 and a fraction in their 11th, and 13 in their 12th year; so that the children of these three years (which are those that ought to be devoted to the elementary schools) will be a constant number of 40; about enough to occupy one teacher constantly. His wages of $150, partitioned on these 40, make their teaching cost $3½ a-piece, annually. If we reckon as many heads of families in a ward as there are militia (as I think we may, the unmarried militia men balancing, in numbers, the married and unmarried exempts) $150 on 67 heads of families (if levied equally) would be $2.24 on each. At the same time the property tax on the ward being $5000÷12, or $416, and that again subdivided on 67 heads of families (if it were levied equally) would be $6.20 on a family of middling circumstances, the tax which it now pays to the state. So that to $6.20, the present state tax, the school tax, would add $2.24, which is about 36 cents to the dollar, or one third to the present property tax: and to the whole state would be $150 × 1200 wards equal to $180,000 of tax added to the present $500,000.
Now let us see what the present primary schools cost us, on the supposition that all the children of 10, 11 and 12 years old are, as they ought to be, at school: and if they are not, so much the worse is the system: for they will be untaught, and their ignorance and vices will, in future life cost us much dearer in their consequences, than it would have done, in their correction, by a good education.
I am here at a loss to say what is now paid to our English elementary schools, generally, through the state. In my own neighborhood, those who formerly received from 20s to 30s a scholar, now have from 20 to 30 dollars; and having no other information to go on, I must use my own numbers, the result of which, however, will be easily corrected, and accomodated to the average price through the state, when ascertained; and will yet, I am persuaded, leave abundance of difference between the two systems.
Taking a medium of $25, the 40 pupils in each ward now cost $1000 a year, instead of $150, or $15 on a family, instead of $2.24; and 1200 wards cost to the whole state $1,200,000 of tax, in addition to the present $500,000 instead of $180,000 only; producing a difference of $1,020,000 in favor of the ward system, more than doubling the present tax, instead of adding one third only, and should the price of tuition, which I have adopted from that in my own neighborhood, be much above the average thro’ the state, yet no probable correction will bring the two systems near a level.
But take into consideration, also, the important difference, that the $1,200,000 are now paid by the people as a poll tax, the poor having as many children as the rich, and paying the whole tuition money themselves; whereas, on the proposed ward levies the poor man would pay in proportion to his hut and peculium only, which the rich would pay on their palaces and principalities. It cannot, then be that the people will not agree to have their tuition tax lightened by levies on the ward rather than on themselves; and as little believe that their “representatives” will disagree to it; for even the rich will pay less than they do now. The portion of the $180,000, which, on the ward system, they will pay for the education of the poor as well as of their own children, will not be as much as they now pay for their own alone.
And will the wealthy individual have no retribution? and what will this be? 1. The peopling his neighborhood with honest, useful and enlightened citizens, understanding their own rights and firm in their perpetuation. 2. When his own descendants became poor, which they generally do within three generations, (no law of Primogeniture now perpetuating wealth in the same families) their children will be educated by the then rich, and the little advance he now makes to poverty, while rich himself, will be repaid by the then rich, to his descendants when become poor, and thus give them a chance of rising again. This is a solid consideration, and should go home to the bosom of every parent. This will be seed sowed in fertile ground. It is a provision for his family looking to distant times, and far in duration beyond that he has now in hand for them. Let every man count backwards in his own family, and see how many generations he can go, before he comes to the ancestor who made the fortune he now holds. Most will be stopped at the first generation, many at the 2d, few will reach the third, and not one in the state go beyond the 5th.
I know that there is much prejudice, even among the body of the people, against the expense and even the practicability of a sufficient establishment of elementary schools, but I think it proceeds from vague ideas on a subject they have never brought to the test of facts and figures; but our representatives will fathom its depths, and the people could and would do the same, if the facts and considerations belonging to the subject were presented to their minds and their subsequent as certainly as their previous approbation, would be secured.
But if the whole expense of the elementary schools, wages, subsistence and buildings are to come from the literary fund, and if we are to wait until that fund shall be accumulated to the requisite amount, we justly fear that some one unlucky legislature will intervene within the time, charge the whole appropriation to the lightening of taxes, and leave us where we now are.
There is, however, an intermediate measure which might bring the two plans together. If the literary fund be of one and a half million of dollars, take the half million for the colleges and university, it will establish them meagrely and make a deposite of the remaining million. Its interest of $60,000 will give $50 a year to each ward, towards the teacher’s wages, and reduce the tax to 24 instead of 36 cents to the dollar; and as the literary fund continues to accumulate give one-third of the increase to the colleges and university and two-thirds to the ward schools. The increasing interest of this last portion will be continually lessening the school tax, until it will extinguish it altogether; the subsistence and buildings remaining always to be furnished by the ward in kind.
A system of general instruction, which shall reach every description of our citizens from the richest to the poorest, as it was the earliest, so will it be the latest of all the public concerns in which I shall permit myself to take an interest. Nor am I tenacious of the form in which it shall be introduced. Be that what it may, our descendants will be as wise as we are, and will know how to amend and amend it, until it shall suit their circumstances. Give it to us, then in any shape, and receive for the inestimable boon the thanks of the young and the blessings of the old, who are past all other services but prayers for the prosperity of their country and blessings for those who promote it.
[1 ]From Niles’s Register, vol. xiv., p. 174.