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Peirce to Mann, 1856

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From the Department of Latest Acquisitions comes a biography of Horace Mann’s most important ally in his cause for universal public education, Cyrus Peirce of Massachusetts. Peirce, whose name despite appearances is in fact spelled correctly, was a Harvard educated Unitarian minister, educator, and reformer. The girls’ school he established in Nantucket in the 1830s counted among its students Maria Mitchell, one of the most prominent astronomers in early America. In 1839 he was principal of Nantucket High School when Mann, then Secretary to the Board of Education, appointed Peirce to direct the first ever normal school at Lexington, an institution established to train teachers and set standards, or norms, whence the name comes.

Live To The Truth: The Life and Times of Cyrus Peirce (published in 2014) was written by retired Nantucket teacher and historian Barbara Ann White, for whom Antiochiana provided Mann and Peirce letters. In appreciation, she donated a copy of the finished product to the library, complete with a lovely dedication. Barbara has an additional (and rather unexpected) connection to Antioch College through her acquaintance with currently enrolled undergraduate Sean Allen (’17), also a Nantucketer.

Like Mann, Peirce was both passionate and indefatigable in his reform of education. Both men saw a comprehensive, systematic approach to education as critical to the continued existence of the United States. Peirce advocated strongly for the professionalization of teaching as well as for its standardization, making him the ideal candidate to run the normal school that became Framingham State University in 2010. He opposed corporal punishment, then the preferred method of classroom discipline, and in every way sought to “humanize teaching” as Barbara so aptly states in her introduction.

Reprinted below is Peirce’s reply to a letter Mann wrote in 1856, the first communication the crusader compatriots had had in four years. Most apparent in Peirce’s letter is the great admiration the two had for each other. After going on at considerable length about the value of Mann’s good works, he responds to an inquiry for a qualified teacher in the area. At the time Mann was preparing for one of the larger confrontations he would have as president of Antioch College: the appointment of the next principal of the College’s Preparatory School, over which he was at odds with the Board of Trustees. At issue was the principal’s primary qualification as either a good educator or a good Christian, and it does not take much guesswork to realize which of the two Mann regarded the more important.


Dec. 18. Cyrus Peirce, West Newton, to Mann (ACL)

To Horace Mann—the man to whom I am indebted for whatever good work I have done, or a reputation I have acquired as a Teacher, than to all others whomsoever, Greeting:

     Your favor of the 10th inst. was more than good news from a far Country! It carried me back to the scenes and events and trying conflicts of the past through which you have toiled for the good cause of Education, in some of which it was my privilege to accompany you. The Lord reward you according to your works, and on this principle you must receive a large share of the Lord’s favors. Yes, your epistle put me in remembrance of by-gone times, events; it stirred up the depths of my soul and I could no more refrain myself than could Joseph in the presence of his brethren. Why, my friend, and brother, I had a right to be moved, for besides all the intrinsic power of your letter, it must be remembered, it was the first communication I have had from you (except a single note on a matter of business with Mr. Allen), since you first left West Newton for Antioch! This is the first outpouring of soul;—this seemed to bring you near to me. I rejoice with you in your present prospect. Just before receiving your letter, I read a very favorable notice of the condition and prospects of Antioch College in the Boston Evening Transcript. Go on and prosper. If any one has a right to succeed in his purpose for the future it is Horace Mann in his plans and projects in regard to Education. I’ll take the liberty to say to you—what I say to others on all suitable occasions, viz., when, in the distant future, the Roll of Contributors and worthy Benefactors to the cause of Education is made up, if I am permitted to make one of the innumerable company of beholders, I shall expect to see Horace Mann’s name lead all the rest. A hundred times I have said in my wrath, that had things been as they ought to have been, Horace Mann would never have gone from Massachusetts. Massachusetts couldn’t afford to lose such a man! But the Lord seeth not as man seeth. I begin to believe that Ohio and the mighty West wanted you; had a work of Education for you to do which no other man could accomplish; and this is the reason you are at Antioch; and I begin to be reconciled. I rejoice that you are doing the work whereunto you are appointed, so gloriously. You express your strong anxieties in regard to the future. I sympathize with you. You ask if I am willing to retire from the field, while so much ground remains to be conquered from the enemy! I answer, I have not retired. I am still in the field, still wearing the harness. I still teach with Mr. Allen, but, as usual, in a very moderate way.

     Why, my brother, did you ever expect that the Lord would bring to pass all the Good you supposed he had in reserve for the race, within the short compass of your own life? He must work very fast to do so. No, you and I must be content to see the work done, afar off ‘by faith.’ Be diligent as God is—and, I must say, patient too. Why, my dear Sir, he that lays the foundation stone, or any stone between the foundation and the top of the edifice, does just as much towards its completion, as he who places the key stone and finishes the work, and is entitled to as much gratitude, honor, and glory.—You ask if I know a good Normal Teacher. No, not disengaged. I think well of Richard Edwards of the Normal School at Salem, rather quick-tempered; of Marshall Conant of Bridgewater, and of Mr. Allen, Principal of the English School connected with Rensselaer Institute, He is not a Collegian, but for an English School I think he has great adaptation, very great, and great skill at disciplining and managing poor kids. He is a graduate of the Normal School at Bridgewater. He is N.T. Allen’s bother. I am confident he would succeed in what he may undertake to do.

(Cyrus Peirce)