Horace Mann (1796-1859), “Father of our Public Schools,” was born in Franklin, Massachusetts, on May 4, 1796. His family was poor, and his father died when Horace was thirteen. Up to the age of fifteen, he never attended school for more than ten weeks in a year. After attending the village school, he went to Williams Academy in Wrentham, while he earned money braiding straw for the hat factories of Franklin. Before enrolling at Brown he studied rhetoric, Latin and Greek with a Mr. Barrett, an itinerant teacher who was very proficient in these subjects when he was sober, for six months. He is listed as a freshman in the Catalogue of Officers and Students of Brown University in October 1814, but apparently left, probably because of illness, as the next year’s Catalogue includes his name as a sophomore with the note, “Left college since the catalogue of 1814.” He reentered in 1816 and graduated in 1819 as valedictorian of his class. His Commencement address was entitled “The Gradual Advancement of the Human Species in Dignity and Happiness.” He studied law with J. J. Fiske of Wrentham during the summer of 1819, after which he was appointed tutor in Latin and Greek at Brown. He was also expected to serve as librarian, a job which was part of the tutor’s responsibility. In 1821 he entered the law school of Judge James Gould at Litchfield, Connecticut. He opened his law practice in Dedham, Massachusetts, in 1823. In 1830 he married Charlotte Messer, to whom he had been devoted since college days, when she was the ten-year-old daughter of President Messer. After her death less than two years later, Mann left Dedham to live in Boston and practice law with Edward G. Loring. Having been elected to the Massachusetts Senate in 1827, he was involved with the passage of legislation creating the State Board of Education and the first state insane asylum in the United States. He was still poor, and for several years while he was in the Senate, he slept in his law office to save rent.
In 1837 he began ten years as Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, during which he promoted the common schools and the proper training of teachers. He brought about the establishment of the first state normal school in the United States, which was opened on July 3, 1839 in Lexington. In 1843 he married Mary T. Peabody, one of “Peabody sisters of Salem.” In 1848 he was elected to the House of Representatives to fill the term of John Quincy Adams, who had died in office. He was nominated for governor of Massachusetts by the Free Soil party, but was not elected. In 1853 he became the president of Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, a new “experimental college,” which was non-sectarian and coeducational. His administration of the college was beset by opposition and financial problems. He continued as president until 1859, when he delivered his last baccalaureate address, which included the often quoted words, “I beseech you to treasure up in your hears these my parting words; be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” He died in Yellow Springs on August 2, 1859. Two years later his body was removed to the Mann lot in the North Burial Ground in Providence.
Mann’s nephew, Julian Hawthorne, son of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Sophia Peabody, described his appearance:
“ My uncle, Horace, as I remember him, was a very tall man, of somewhat meager build, a chronic sufferer from headaches and dyspepsia. His hair was sandy, straight, rather long and very thick; it hung down uncompromisingly round his head. His face was a long square, with a mouth and chin large and unmitigably firm. His eyes were reinforced by a glistening pair of gold-bowed spectacles. He always wore a long skirted black coat. His aspect was a little intimidating to small people; but there were lovely qualities in his nature, his character was touchingly noble and generous, and the world knows the worth of his intellect. He was anxious, exacting, and dogmatic, and was not always able to concede that persons who differed from him in opinion could be morally normal ...”Mary Peabody Mann wrote in her biography of him:
“When his is called a “rugged nature,” because he could not temporize, and because he made great requisitions of men upon whom were laid great duties, I see only his demand for perfection in others as well as in himself. ... Principles were more to him than even friends; which is no light praise of one who loved so tenderly, and felt so keenly every suspicion of his motives. ... The tenderness of his character can only be equalled by the moral force with which he assailed whatever he saw to be wrong in the world. ...”From the American Phrenological Journal (Mann was a believer in phrenology and named one of his sons for phrenologist George Combe) we have this assessment:
“His brain is large for his body, and although the head in circumference is only of full size, the hight (sic) of it is unusually great. The head may be denominated a ‘three-story one,’ which gives elevation to his character, and an aspiring disposition. His power is moral and intellectual, rather than physical. We seldom find so large a brain in the tophead, in the region of the organs of reason, imagination, sympathy, dignity, perseverance, wit, and moral sentiment, joined with so little basilar brain in the region of the animal and selfish organs.”