Lost Southern History Recovered
By E. Ray Moore, Jr., Th.M.
The Covenant News ~ April 13, 2007
Destroying the Republic: Jabez Curry and the Re-Education of the Old South. New
York: Algora Publishing, 332 pp. By John Chodes. $29.95 (quality paperback)
New York playwright and author, John Chodes, has written a significant book
that uncovers the neglected history surrounding the rise of state-sponsored
education in the South during Reconstruction and the years following. Chodes,
a longtime friend of the South and of the limited Constitutional government
that the South represents, has written on this history before in periodicals
such as Chronicles, The Freeman, The New York Tribune and The Southern Partisan.
This book, however, may now be the definitive work on this topic to date. It
joins the growing number of quality books on the history of the harm caused
by state-sponsored public schools by notables such as 1991 New York Teacher
of the Year, John Taylor Gatto in Underground History of American Education
(2001) and Dr. Andrew Couslon’s Market Education (1999). Also, Dr Bruce Shortt
published The Harsh Truth About Public Schools in 2004, and the late Marlin
Maddoux, a Christian talk show host, wrote Public Education Against America,
published posthumously in 2006, both of which are primarily for the church audience.
Chodes relates the tragic story of the rise of state-sponsored public education
and what he called the "nationalizing" of the South’s mostly private
or religious schools. He parallels these events with the life story and contributions
of Jabez Curry. A Confederate officer who rode with General Nathan Bedford Forrest,
Curry served as a member of the US and Confederate Congresses, as a Baptist
minister, a lawyer, an author, the President of the Baptist Richmond College
in Virginia, and as US ambassador to Spain. In the period of time from the War
Between the States until the 20th Century, Jabez Curry may have been considered
one of the South’s most important personalities. Although not a household name
in the South today, Curry deserves to be remembered for his success as well
as for the role he played in converting the South’s mostly private-school system
into public or state-funded schools. While the Unitarian, Horace Mann, of Massachusetts
is rightly called the "Father of K-12 public education in America,"
Jabez Curry played a similar role as "The Horace Mann of the South."
Chodes organized Destroying the Republic chronologically around Curry’s life
from the 1850’s until the turn of the 20th Century. Though not a full biography
of Curry, the book, nevertheless, exposes Curry’s role as the principal advocate
and organizer of state-sponsored public education in the South. This story portrays
how anyone can surrender prior principles and convictions which results in capitulating
to ideals once believed to be inimical to faith, family and freedom. Curry was,
before and during the war, a strong proponent of the ideals of the South and
the Old Republic.
Chodes book divides into two sections. Chapters 1-9 explore Curry’s early life
story, his origins and his service in the Confederate Congress and Army. It
provides fascinating reading as one rides in and out of the lives of great personalities
of the period such as President Jefferson Davis, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, Lt.
Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and the Confederate Congress. Curry witnessed or
participated in many of the important events and battles of the War years. Chapters
10-17 constitute the case for Curry’s role in the rise of state-sponsored public
education in the South during and after Reconstruction. The core of Chodes’
book will for many recover a portion of lost Southern history.
Chapter 7 entitled "Southern Preaching as Guerrilla War" discusses
two of Curry’s scholarly works, Establishment and Disestablishment and Struggles
and Triumphs of Virginia Baptists, written after the War, in which Curry traced
the history of Christendom through the centuries and argued for the historic
separation of Church and State position common to Baptist heritage. Chodes claims
that Curry wrote these books indirectly to argue for the superiority of the
Southern cause at a time when Federal Reconstruction prohibited open, aggressive
advocacy of the Southern cause.
Chapter 8, "Reconstruction as Re-education," reveals a post-war "reconstruction"
that overtook the South socially, culturally and religiously as violent as Marxian
revolutions in the modern era. Society today has either forgotten or does not
appreciate the enormity of this change. Most history ignores this era or only
describes the period in terms of the experiences and changes for former Southern
The book’s second section, Chapter 11, entitled "Jabez Curry and the Peabody
Education Fund," exposes Curry as a catalyst in the conversion of the Southern
private and religious school system into tax-funded, state and federally controlled
public schools. Beginning with gifts of several million dollars in 1867, George
Peabody founded the first major US philanthropy with the purpose of helping
the defeated South recover by setting up state-sponsored schools while converting
the dominant Southern system of private and religious schools into state-schools,
adopting the Northern Unitarian education model. Jabez Curry became the second
General Agent in 1881 following the tenure of Barnas Sears, who successfully
assured that no ex-Confederate state could re-enter the Union without a clause
in the new state constitution demanding state-controlled, tax-supported schools.
Sears died in 1880, but he had set the stage well. The policy begun by Sears
of giving matching grants from the Peabody Education Fund to Southern cities
or counties for establishing a tax-funded state system would continue under
As General Agents of the Peabody Fund both Sears and Curry carried forward
the Horace Mann strategy to create state-controlled teacher training Normal
schools. In the 1830’s -1840’s when Horace Mann and the Unitarian socialists
completed their efforts for state takeover of Massachusetts schools, the critical
element in that plan was the creation of Normal schools or teacher training
colleges. Prior to the post war period the South had no Normal schools. Under
Sears’ guidance the state of Tennessee was first with the founding of the George
Peabody Teachers College. Curry commented on this strategy in A Brief Sketch
of George Peabody saying, "It is a concurrent experience in all countries
which have established systems of public instruction that they are very incomplete
and defective, if they do not embrace professional schools, where the science
of education and the art of education are regularly taught."
Chodes describes the long-time friendship beginning in 1867 between Sears and
Curry, both Baptist ministers, and how Curry was "transformed to believe
in universal, tax-funded common schools." Chapter 11 chronicles the gradual
conversion of Jabez Curry to this new position on education, one he once held
as contrary to Southern principles. This conversion apparently began when he
reversed his position on "universal, tax-funded schools." Had Curry
remained true to his beliefs as espoused in his earlier works Establishment
and Disestablishment and Triumphs and Struggles of Virgina Baptists, he may
have concluded that separation of church and state properly held also applies
to separation of school and state.
Curry, an associate and friend of some of the leading figures of the time,
had a fascinating history with President Rutherford B. Hayes, also a trustee
for the Peabody Fund. Chapter 12 relates Hayes’ rise to the Presidency in the
contested election of 1876. Republican Hayes defeated Democrat Samuel Tilden,
gaining the electoral votes of South Carolina and Louisiana, in a promise to
remove Federal troops. This chapter explodes the popular modern myth that federal
intervention in the South’s local schools is an innovation of the late 20th
Century. Hayes participated in the Peabody Fund as had President Grant before
him. Hayes, more than any other President, wanted Washington, DC, to control
local and state education. This federal control of education, an early Republican
position, has continued to this day in such agendas as "No Child Left Behind."
Chapters 14 and 15 explain the pivotal and critical impact of education philosophy
on the nationalization of Southern education. Chapter 14 shows the influence
of Commissioner John Eaton and the Bureau of Education, which eventually evolved
into the large federal agency, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare,
now divided into Departments of Health and Human Services and Education. Eaton
and Curry worked as allies in the process of nationalizing Southern schools.
Both Chapters 14, 15 introduce William Torrey Harris, G. Stanley Hall, John
Dewey and Edward Thorndike, all major thinkers and educational scholars, who
introduced Darwinism as foundational to "the new psychology" and progressive
education into American education during the last decades of 19th Century and
early 20th Century. These two chapters are among the most significant on the
deleterious repercussions of these radical educators whose views so permeate
all education including Southern schools today.
Curry left the Peabody Fund in 1885 to become Ambassador to Spain, after which
he returned to the Peabody Fund where he would complete two decades of total
service. Chodes suggests that Curry had regrets about his participation in the
conversion of Southern private and religious schools into state-run public schools.
In 1898, however, Curry could still boast, "The South is now in rapid transition
from private education to an education prescribed and supported by public authority."
The process of nationalizing Southern schools has come full circle. All the
consequences of this error have cast human and social debris upon the shores
of not only Southern but all American culture. Libertarians, Conservatives,
Christians now question the very idea of state-sponsored public education. For
some Christians, Scripture clearly and unambiguously assigns the education of
children to the family with assistance from the Church; the state or government
is the "Great Usurper." One lesson from Curry’s life is that the Christian
Faith does not immunize from practical error if not consistently applied as
a worldview. Not only the Baptist Curry, but Baptists all across the South have
supported public education, but that is beginning to change. "Those who
fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it," said Santayana.
John Chodes has written a critical book that can help with understanding first
the history of the rise of state-sponsored public schools and then its damage;
now remedial action can begin. The South, slow to adopt state education and
only under coercion, could lead the way by rejecting that system and returning
to the ideal model of private, religious and home schools. The South would thus
give herself a great gift and one as well as to the American culture and the
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