It was clear that the new American republic would need a well-educated populace in order to make the experiment of representative democracy a success. Education was increasingly viewed as something beneficial to all of American society, rather than simply to the individuals involved. Well-educated people would vote more wisely than illiterate ones, allowing the democracy to function effectively. In addition, Americans were more likely to prosper and enjoy the fruits of their success if they were better educated.
Noah Webster's famous "Blue Back Spellers" taught millions of children standard American spelling. Officially called the American Spelling Book, it was published in 1783, and sold over a million copies. The "Blue-Back Speller" was part of the three-part A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, with a spelling book, a grammar book, and a reading book. In addition, Rev. Jedidiah Morse's Geography Made Easy, published in 1784, introduced Americans to the lands and peoples of the world.
Across the country, but especially in the North, Americans were working to establish an educational system that would benefit more than just children from privileges families. William Manning proposed that a college and grade school education should provided for all Americans which required "no student or scholar to pay anything for tuition." Jefferson favored a system a system of public education, with free education for everyone, for at least three years free, plus a mechanism to educate the most intelligent students, regardless of age, through college. In 1789, Massachusetts used tax revenue to finance public education, the first state to do so. New York opened its first free school in 1806. Dr. Benjamin Rush presented a "Plan for Establishing Public Schools" to the Pennsylvania legislature. Although it did not pass in the legislature, Rush went ahead and helped establish the Philadelphia Society for the Free Instruction of Indigent Boys.
On average, students began college at a younger age than they do now, some as young as 13. In addition to their schoolwork, college students had to memorize and live by long lists of rules. Many were fined if they were caught dancing, gambling, swearing, fighting, dueling, playing billiards, keeping a dog, breaking furniture, striking a teacher or attending the theater. They were fined $.30 for missing chapel, $3.00 for getting drunk and, at Harvard, $3.00 for going to the theater in nearby Boston. In the Boston area, at least, students were not prohibited from drinking beer, which was served in the commons. Despite all the rules, or perhaps because of them, college students were often a rowdy, protesting bunch. According to one observer: "... uprisings are not unusual in American colleges ... the students broke windows, chairs, furniture, and everything that came to their hands, and were at the point of destroying the very buildings."
Most schools offered classes in languages, basic mathematics, theology, ethics, history, geography, and Newtonian physics. Some schools taught other sciences: Yale offered mineralogy classes, and Columbia had courses in botany and
chemistry. Students could study engineering only at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, which opened in 1802. Relatively few people went to college to study for a career - most schools were liberal arts institutions which aimed to produce well-educated people rather than skilled technicians. Job or career training usually occurred in apprenticeships, after or instead of college.