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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersBecoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763
Becoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763
Theme: GrowthTheme: PeoplesTheme: EconomiesTheme: IdeasTheme: American
Theme: Ideas

Harvard College, 1726
Harvard College, 1726
- Becoming a Learned Citizen

- Colleges
- Clubs, Societies, Salons, and Taverns

"A Native of America, especially of New England, who cannot read or write " writes John Adams at age 29, "is as rare a phenomenon as a comet." In his early diaries Adams extols the colonies' drive for education and learning, deeming it part of God's plan "for the Illumination of the Ignorant and the Emancipation of the slavish Part of Mankind all over the Earth."1 Here we will explore several aspects of learning and education in the British Atlantic colonies of the 1700s. What constitutes the "Illumination of the Ignorant" in the colonial American mind?
  • Becoming a Learned Citizen. In 1765, when John Adams noted the widespread literacy of New Englanders, he was referring to white men of well-to-do families, of course, for whom learning and assuming a role in civil society were givens. Yet how did one decide what to learn or what comprised one's role as a learned citizen? "What is the proper Business of Mankind?" asks John Adams as a new Harvard graduate ("business" here meaning the enterprise of life). Here we read how three colonial Americans answered this question: (1) Adams, as a young man in his twenties, deciding between the ministry and the law, and striving to overcome his "laziness" and pursue a self-designed course of studies; (2) Benjamin Church, a young Harvard student, envisioning the life of an elite educated man in "The Choice: A Poem"; and (3) Martha Wadsworth Brewster, a Connecticut mother in her twenties, penning acrostic poems of advice to her young children. What characterizes the "learned citizen" in the 1700s? How do these characteristics define the "Founding Fathers" of the Revolution and early republic?
    • - John Adams, diaries, selections: 1756-1765.
    • - Benjamin Church, "The Choice: A Poem," 1752, excerpts.
    • - Martha Wadsworth Brewster, "An Acrostic for My Only Son," "An Acrostic for My Only Daughter," in Poems on Divers Subjects, 1757.

  • Colleges. Nine institutions of higher learning existed in eight of the colonies before the 1770s (here listed with founding date, present name, colony, and establishing denomination):
    1636: Harvard (Massachusetts/Congregational)
    1693: William and Mary (Virginia/Anglican)
    1701: Yale (Connecticut/Congregational)
    1746: Princeton (New Jersey/Presbyterian)
    1749: University of Pennsylvania (Presbyterian)
    1754: Columbia (New York/Anglican)
    1764: Brown (Rhode Island/Baptist)
    1766: Rutgers (New Jersey/Dutch Reformed)
    1769: Dartmouth (New Hampshire/Congregational)

    They were small colleges for young men of established families, most formed to prepare ministers for the establishing churches. Here we view three documents that illustrate the colonial perspective on higher learning: (1) the earliest student regulations at Yale College; (2) Benjamin Franklin's proposals for a college in Pennsylvania; and (3) the debate over selecting an urban or a rural setting for the first college in New York. What shared goals for organized learning appear in these documents? How do they differ from the goals of public and private education today?
    • - "Orders and Appointments to be Observed in the Collegiate School in Connecticut," Yale College regulations as transcribed by a student in 1726, excerpts.
    • - Benjamin Franklin, Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania, 1747, full text with excerpted footnotes.
    • - William Smith, Some Thoughts on Education, with Reasons for Erecting a College in this Province, and Fixing the Same at the City of New-York, 1752, excerpts.

  • Clubs, Societies, Salons, and Taverns. In 1750, urban social life in British America bore more resemblance to today's cosmopolitan scene than to colonial town life of fifty years earlier. With more wealth, security, and leisure, white colonists formed a myriad of cultural associations—conversation (and drinking) clubs, subscription libraries, science discussion groups, women's "tea tables" and literary salons, and the egalitarian repartee of coffeehouse and tavern society. "For the most culturally sophisticated early Americans, Society was an ideal," writes literary historian David Shields. "It named that community in which one found insight, pleasure, and emotional fulfillment through conversation and cooperation."2 Here we glimpse that ideal as manifested in two men's conversation clubs (the Junto Club of Philadelphia and the Tuesday Club of Annapolis), two library societies (Philadelphia and Charleston), and one society for the discussion and promotion of science (the American Philosophical Society). Finally, we read "Modern Politeness," one poet's satire of a young man's drive for culture gone awry. (For the earliest African American associations from the 1790s, see The Making of African American Identity: Vol. I, COMMUNITY: #5, Mutual Benefit.)
    • - Benjamin Franklin, On the creation of the Junto Club, 1727, and the Library Company of Philadelphia (subscription library), 1731, excerpts from Franklin's Autobiography and other writings.
    • - Benjamin Franklin, A Proposal for Promoting Useful Knowledge among the British Plantations in America (American Philosophical Society), 1743.
    • - Dr. Alexander Hamilton, History of the Ancient and Honourable Tuesday Club, written 1754-1756, published 1990, excerpts.
    • - The Rules and By-Laws of the Charlestown Library Society, founded 1748, published 1762.
    • - Henry Brooke, "Modern Politeness," poem, 1726.

How do eighteenth-century American goals for learning and intellectual camaraderie compare with those in twenty-first century America? (42 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. To these colonial Americans, what constitutes the "Business of Mankind" in terms of learning and self-improvement?
  2. What endeavors lead to the "Illumination of the Ignorant?" For what purposes?
  3. How does one decide what to learn and what comprises one's role as a learned citizen?
  4. How do "Founding Fathers" John Adams and Benjamin Franklin answer these questions?
  5. How do the earliest American colleges address this question?
  6. How do the secular cultural institutions (clubs, societies, etc.) address this question?
  7. How do individual colonists address this question, especially in devising their own studies and learning goals, and in forming their own secular cultural associations?
  8. In his poem "Modern Politeness," what does Henry Brooke satirize about eighteenth-century society and its cultural associations?
  9. How do eighteenth-century American goals for learning compare with those in twenty-first century America?
  10. Devise eighteenth-century and twenty-first century responses to these comments from the texts:

    • - "Every Man has in Politicks as well as Religion, a Right to think and speak and Act for himself . . . I must judge for myself, but how can I judge, how can any Man judge, unless his Mind has been opened and enlarged by Reading."
      ___John Adams, diary, 1761

    • - "The Idea of what is true Merit, should also be often presented to Youth . . . as consisting in an Inclination join'd with an Ability to serve Mankind, one's Country, Friends and Family; which Ability is (with the Blessing of God) to be acquir'd or greatly increas'd by true Learning; and should indeed be the great Aim and End of all Learning."
      ___Benjamin Franklin, Proposals, 1747

    • - "Every student shall consider the main end of his study, to wit [which is] to know God in Jesus Christ and answerably to lead a Godly sober life."
      ___Yale College student regulations, ca. 1701

    • - "BUT at a decent Hour with social heart,
      In Love, and Humour should my Friends depart:
      Then to my Study, eager I'd repair
      And feast my Mind with new Refreshment there;
      There plung'd in Tho't my active Mind should tread,
      Through all the Labours of the learned Dead [Greek and Roman writers] . . ."
      ___Benjamin Church, "The Choice," 1757

    • - "Set not your Heart on Pomp, and Worldly Pleasure,
      Tis not a lasting, nor a solid Treasure.
      Employ your Thoughts on Good, delight in Reading,
      Receive the Lord, and Live, and Die Believing."
      ___Martha Wadsworth Brewster, "An Acrostic for My Only Daughter," 1757

    • - "Young Dapper once had some pretence,
      To Mother Wit, and Common Sense;
      And had he but apply'd those Parts
      To Sciences, or useful Arts,
      Religion, Med'cine, Law or Trade,
      Lord, what a Figure had he made!
      But all his Stars contriv'd in Spite
      That he should only be Polite."
      ___Henry Brooke, "Modern Politeness," 1726

Framing Questions
  •  What central ideas distinguished the eighteenth- from seventeenth-century American colonies?
  •  How were these ideas shaped, and how did they influence the colonists' perception of themselves and their relationships with God, with each other, and with Britain?
  •  How did their concepts of liberty, rights, equality, and independence change in this period?
  •  To what extent were the shaping ideas "American"?

John Adams's diary entries:  8
"The Choice," poem:  3
A mother's poems for her children:  1
Rules for Yale College students:  3
Proposals for Pennsylvania college:  7
Site of New York college:  5
Junto & lending library:  3
American Philosophical Society:  3
Tuesday Club:  5
Charlestown Library Society:  2
"Modern Politeness," poem:  2
TOTAL 42 pages
Supplemental Sites

The Education of John Adams, from the Massachusetts Historical Society

The Diaries of John Adams, from the Massachusetts Historical Society Benjamin Franklin: An Extraordinary Life. An Electric Mind (PBS/TPT)

Penn in the Age of Franklin, online exhibition from the University of Pennsylvania

1 John Adams, Fragmentary draft of a dissertation on canon and feudal law, Diary #10, February 1765 (later published in the Boston Gazette in four parts, 12 & 19 Aug., 30 Sept., 21 Oct. 1765).

2 David S. Shields, "The Early American Salon," Humanities 29:1 (January/February 2008); online at

- Harvard: A Prospect of the Colledges in Cambridge in New England, engraving attributed to John Harris after William Burgis, 1726 (first state, with hand coloring), detail. Massachusetts Historical Society. Reproduced by permission.
- Columbia: View of Columbia College in the city of New York, by J. Anderson, engraving by Cornelius Tiebout, from The New-York Magazine, or Literary Repository, May 1790. New York Public Library Digital ID #54235. Permission pending.
- Yale: Engraving by John Greenwood, with inscription "To the honorable Jonathan Law Esqr. Govr. of Connecticut . . . this prospect of Yale College . . . ." New York Public Library Digital ID #53920. Permission pending.
- Academy of Philadelphia (later University of Pennsylvania): Fourth Street Campus, College Building (built 1740) and Dormitories and Charity School (built 1762); reproduction of an original pencil sketch by Frank H. Taylor, 1918. University of Pennsylvania Library, University Archives #20040114014. Permission pending.

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1. Religion I   2. Religion II   3. Religion III
4. Learning   5. Communication   6. Science
7. Health

TOOLBOX: Becoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763
Growth | Peoples | Economies | Ideas | American

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