Founding Zealots

How Evangelicals Created America's First Public Schools, 1783-1865

Non-Fiction - Historical
372 Pages
Reviewed on 01/09/2014
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    Book Review

Reviewed by Barbara Peterson for Readers' Favorite

Author Thomas Hagedorn begins his narrative in 1783. Just after the end of the Revolutionary War, the United States had so many debts that it was unable to give back pay to Army officers and enlisted men who had fought during the war, let alone the plots of lands in the West that they had been promised. How does a fledgling nation that has just won its freedom develop a workable government and pay off its debts? Hagedorn delves deeply into American history – not just the history of public schools but of the United States itself and its expansion westward, because all of this is inextricably intertwined. I’d frankly never realized that one of the main reasons why the United States expanded westward was as a means of paying off the debts it owed to its solders...or that American Indians of the time actually had to give reparations to the United States because they’d fought with the British!

Author Hagedorn follows his subject in chronological order from March, 1783 when General Washington effectively put down the “Newburgh Conspiracy,” in which officers of the Continental Army were being encouraged to mutiny against the Confederate Congress in order to gain the back pay and Western lands that had been promised to them. From this introduction, Hagedorn takes us to the nitty gritty, starting with the Reverend Manasseh Cutler, who in 1787 travels to New York to lobby Congress for “land in the Ohio Country for his Yankee friends and guaranteeing those would-be pioneers that they could bring their government and their culture with them.” Cutler is the founder of the movement – his son Ephraim Cutler and other Calvinists continue it for the next sixty years and thirty territories/states.

Founding Zealots is densely written and reflects Hagedorn’s twenty years of research, not only into the history of the fight of several determined parties – New Englanders and Calvinists - to found public schools where “teaching of religion and morality was more important than any other school activity” and those who wished to prevent them, but also the concurrent political and economic factions and the social history of the time. As befits a scholarly work – although this book is well-written and, by concentrating on specific individuals, keeps our interest – there are detailed notes and references. This book will be of interest to religious scholars, education scholars, and students of American history. Highly recommended.