Massachusetts School Laws
The Massachusetts School Laws were three legislative acts of 1642, 1647 and 1648 enacted in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The most famous by far is the law of 1647, also known as the Old Deluder Satan Law (after the law's first sentence) and The General School Law of 1642. These laws are commonly regarded as the historical first step toward compulsory government-directed public education in the United States of America. Shortly after they passed, similar laws were enacted in the other New England colonies. Most mid-Atlantic colonies followed suit, though in some Southern colonies it was a further century before publicly funded schools were established there.
Education provision prior to the 1647 Act
The law was one of a series of legislative acts directed at public education in the colony. The first Massachusetts School Law of 1642 broke with English tradition by transferring educational supervision from the clergy to the selectmen of the colony, empowering them to assess the education of children "to read & understand the principles of religion and the capital laws of this country." It held parents and masters responsible for their children's and apprentices' ability to read and write, stressing education rather than schooling. However, its implementation appears to have been somewhat neglected. Probably in response to this, the 1647 law was enacted by the Massachusetts General Court to impel the towns of the colony to found, operate and fund schools.
Framing and provisions of the Acts
The 1647 legislation specifically framed ignorance as a Satanic ill to be circumvented through the education of the country's young people. It required every town having more than 50 families to hire a teacher, and every town of more than 100 families to establish a "grammar school". Failure to comply with the mandate would result in a fine of £5. The grammar school clause was intended to prepare students to attend Harvard College, whose mission was to prepare young men for the ministry.
The rationale for the law reflected the Calvinist Puritan ethos of the time and in particular the influence of the Reverend John Cotton, who was a teacher in the First Church of Boston and one of the Massachusetts Bay Colony's most influential leaders. The Puritans sought to create a literate population to ensure that, as the law put it, "ye ould deluder, Satan" could not use illiteracy to "keepe men from the knowledge of ye Scriptures."  Their religious beliefs emphasized the view that personal knowledge of the Scriptures was an essential requirement for temporal living and eternal salvation. The statute also endorsed the principle that the interpretation of the Scriptures should be done under the aegis of proper authority, namely the Puritan leaders, in order to avoid "false glosses of saint seeming deceivers".
A further piece of educational legislation was passed in 1648, addressing and extending the schooling requirements set out in the 1642 law. It stipulated that children and apprentices, under the authority of parents or masters, were to be taught reading, the public laws, the catechism and "some honest lawful calling, labour or employment." Selectmen were to act as supervisors of the population, conducting examinations and if necessary fining parents or placing the young with other masters if their education was neglected.
The practical implementation of the educational laws appears to have been distinctly inconsistent. By the end of the 1650s, all eight of the 100-family towns and a third of the 50-family towns had met the respective requirements for grammar schools and the hiring of teachers. However, the remainder of the towns and many new towns ignored both mandates and instead paid the fine. The Massachusetts Civil Code of 1660 reiterated the school laws, but still met with a lack of implementation; to enforce it, a fresh act was passed in 1668.
Text of the Massachusetts School Law of 1642
Forasmuch as the good education of children is of singular behoof and benefit to any Common-wealth; and whereas many parents & masters are too indulgent and negligent of their duty in that kind. It is therfore ordered that the Select men of every town, in the severall precincts and quarters where they dwell, shall have a vigilant eye over their brethren & neighbours, to see, first that none of them shall suffer so much barbarism in any of their families as not to indeavour to teach by themselves or others, their children & apprentices so much learning as may enable them perfectly to read the English tongue, & knowledge of the Capital Lawes: upon penaltie of twentie shillings for each neglect therin. Also that all masters of families do once a week (at the least) catechize their children and servants in the grounds & principles of Religion, & if any be unable to do so much: that then at the least they procure such children or apprentices to learn some short orthodox catechism without book, that they may be able to answer unto the questions that shall be propounded to them out of such catechism by their parents or masters or any of the Select men when they shall call them to a tryall of what they have learned of this kind. And further that all parents and masters do breed & bring up their children & apprentices in some honest lawful calling, labour or employment, either in husbandry, or some other trade profitable for themselves, and the Common-wealth if they will not or cannot train them up in learning to fit them for higher employments. And if any of the Select men after admonition by them given to such masters of families shall find them still negligent of their duty in the particulars aforementioned, wherby children and servants become rude, stubborn & unruly; the said Select men with the help of two Magistrates, or the next County court for that Shire, shall take such children or apprentices from them & place them with some masters for years (boyes till they come to twenty one, and girls eighteen years of age compleat) which will more strictly look unto, and force them to submit unto government according to the rules of this order, if by fair means and former instructions they will not be drawn into it.
Text of the Massachusetts General School Law of 1647
It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures, as in former times by keeping them in an unknown tongue, so in these latter times by persuading from the use of tongues, that so that at least the true sense and meaning of the original might be clouded and corrupted with love and false glosses of saint-seeming deceivers; and to the end that learning may not be buried in the grave of our forefathers, in church and commonwealth, the Lord assisting our endeavors.
It is therefore ordered that every township in this jurisdiction, after the Lord hath increased them to fifty households shall forthwith appoint one within their town to teach all such children as shall resort to him to write and read, whose wages shall be paid either by the parents or masters of such children, or by the inhabitants in general, by way of supply, as the major part of those that order the prudentials of the town shall appoint; provided those that send their children be not oppressed by paying much more than they can have them taught for in other towns.
And it is further ordered, that when any town shall increase to the number of one hundred families or householders, they shall set up a grammar school, the master thereof being able to instruct youth so far as they may be fitted for the university, provided that if any town neglect the performance hereof above one year that every such town shall pay 5 pounds to the next school till they shall perform this order.
- Eric R. Eberling, Massachusetts Education Laws of 1642, 1647, and 1648", in "Historical Dictionary of American Education, ed. Richard J. Altenbaugh. Greenwood Press, 1999. ISBN 0-313-28590-X
- Patrick W. Shannon, Broken Promises: Reading Instruction in Twentieth-Century America, p. 3. Praeger/Greenwood, 1989. ISBN 0-89789-161-9
- Andrew J. Milson (ed.), Readings In American Educational Thought: From Puritanism to Progressivism, p. 1. IAP, 2004. ISBN 1-59311-253-X
- Thomas C. Hunt, "Bible Reading", in Historical Dictionary of American Education, ed. Richard J. Altenbaugh. Greenwood Press, 1999. ISBN 0-313-28590-X