Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Robert Coram, 5 March 1791

From Robert Coram

Wilmington March 5. 1791


In conformity to an act of Congress for the encouragement of Learning I herewith send you a Copy of a Pamphlet which I have lately published. You will perceive from the 76 page that I had not read your notes when I wrote it, as your plan is more liberal and extensive than the one I have proposed; but as the pamphlet bids fair to run a second edition, I will endeavour to make amends for the error I have committed by not having your book in my posse[ss]ion when I finished my pamphlet.—I am Sir with Respect &c.

R. Coram

RC (DNA: RG 59, MLR); endorsed as received 9 Mch. 1791 and so recorded in SJL.

Robert Coram (ca. 1761–1796) was born in England and brought as an infant to Charleston, S.C. His father, a merchant, became a Loyalist during the Revolution, but Coram enlisted in the state navy and served with Alexander Gillon on the South Carolina and, for a brief time, with John Paul Jones on Bon Homme Richard, being cited for “gallant behavior” in the engagement with Serapis. He was captured by the British in 1782 and, on being discharged from prison ship, he went to Delaware, married, kept school, served as librarian for the Wilmington Library Company, was elected to the Delaware Constitutional Convention in 1792, and, for six months before his death on 9 Mch. 1796, edited The Delaware Gazette. He was an ardent republican and a founding member in 1794 of the Patriotic Society of Newcastle County (John A. Munroe, “The Philadelawareans,” PMHB description begins Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 1877- description ends , lxix [Apr. 1945], 138).

The enclosed pamphlet was Coram’s Political inquiries: to which is added, a plan for the general establishment of schools throughout the United States (Wilmington, 1791). The author sent a copy to Washington on the same day, stating that he “wrote it Chiefly with a design of being useful to my Country” (Coram to Washington, 5 Mch. 1791, DLC: Washington Papers). If TJ did look up the page indicated, he found this statement: “Mr. Noah Webster is the only American author, indeed the only author of any nation, if we except perhaps Montesquieu, who has taken up the subject of education upon that liberal and equitable scale which it justly deserves. I had the present work in idea, some time before Mr. Webster’s essays made their appearance; and was not a little pleased to think he had anticipated my idea” (Political inquiries, p. 76). Coram’s statement that he had not read Notes on Virginia when he wrote his own pamphlet collides with another observation about the aborigines: “Excepting Clavigero’s history of Mexico, the short account given by Mr. Jefferson, Carver’s travels, the history of the five nations, and Bancroft’s history of Guiana, I do not recollect an account of the American, which deserves the name of history” (same, p. 12).

Coram’s pamphlet did not run to a second edition. It had little influence in its own day and its chief interest lies in the fact that it exemplified the widespread feeling arising out of the ferment of the Revolution that laws and institutions in the United States, particularly systems of education, should be framed in accordance with republican principles of equality. His Political inquiries was indeed less coherent than the speculations on the subject by such contemporaries as Noah Webster, Benjamin Rush, James Sullivan, Nathaniel Chipman, Samuel Knox, and Samuel Harrison Smith—the two last being winners of the award of the American Philosophical Society, itself exemplifying the republican impulse, that had been created to encourage the development of plans of liberal education “adapted to the genius of the Government of the United States … on principles of the most extensive utility” (Knox, An essay on the best system of education adapted to theUnited States [Baltimore, 1799]; Smith, Remarks on education [Philadelphia, 1798]). Coram’s admittedly undigested plan, his heavy dependence on Webster, his idealization of the American Indians, his extravagant language, his emphasis on class differences, and his obvious utopianism made his diffuse observations on education quite impracticable and unrealistic for the society to which he addressed himself. His treatise was, in fact, an emotional response to revolutionary ideals by a man of some talent who was genuinely interested in education but who lacked both formal instruction and intellectual discipline. Civilized man, Coram declared, “has neither habitation nor food; but forlorn and out cast, he perishes for want, and starves in the midst of universal plenty” (p. viii). Man had been miserable at every stage of civilization and, in spite of all his science and philosophy, had made only “a retrograde advance to happiness” (p. v). These were astonishing words to address to Americans in 1791 who were far from starving and who believed themselves to be opening a new era in history. But this was the premise that Coram set forth.

The essence of his political view was that the unequal distribution of property was the parent of almost all disorders in government and society. He saw the remedy for this in a system of equal education so that all might be sufficiently trained in the sciences and the arts to gain a subsistence. Pointing to the widely accepted doctrine of equality in America and indeed postulating an equality of mental powers as well as an equality of rights, Coram then incongruously grounded his plea for education on the assumption of deep inequalities existing in the American economy and society. His thesis—it was scarcely more than that and certainly lacked the qualities required for a truly systematic and coherent plan—was obstensibly addressed to the United States, but his proofs of decadence and degrading inequality were drawn from Europe. This air of unreality in the context of his own society perhaps explains why the pamphlet received no attention until modern historical investigation brought it to light and the wars and depressions of the twentieth century seemed to give some relevance to its assertion that man in civilized society “starves in the midst of universal plenty” (Charles A. and Mary R. Beard, The rise of American civilization, iv [New York, 1942], p. 126–37; A. O. Hansen, Liberalism and American education, p. 63–79; H. G. Good, A history of American education [New York, 1956], p. 81–2, 93–4–the last a perceptive comment on the unrealistic and ill-timed proposals of Coram and others). But in his own day the irrelevancy of Coram’s premise provided the most distinguishing feature of an otherwise unoriginal essay.

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