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The committee, exasperated by Lancaster's chronic indebtedness, finally discharged him from his responsibilities. A paranoid Lancaster counterattacked by writing a deluded pamphlet, "Oppression and Persecution," that destroyed his esteem and led most of his remaining supporters to abandon him. Quietly, the committee raised money to send Lancaster to America.
Lancaster arrived in New York in 1818. But his system had preceded him by 12 years. By the time he stepped ashore, there were more of his monitorial schools in the United States than in England. Lancaster was greeted like royalty. The mayor and governor officially received him. He visited the U.S. House of Representatives, which honored him with a resolution calling him a "friend of learning and of man."
Yet for aficionados of the free market, the story of the Lancaster system in the United States is more depressing than the rise and fall that took place in England. Particularly in New York State, government involvement via subsidy sullied the system almost from the beginning.
In 1805, the prominent philanthropists Thomas Eddy and John Murray formed "The Society for Establishing a Free School in the City of New York," whose purpose was to educate poor children who were ineligible for instruction by the various church-sponsored schools. Benjamin Perkins, the group's secretary, knew Lancaster and had seen his operation in England and recommended it. Within a year, the Free School Society (FSS) was incorporated, and the first classes were being held in Manhattan.
One of the Lancaster system's most powerful American friends was a man who would later serve as New York State's governor, DeWitt Clinton. Clinton was an early member of the Free School Society, and upon his request the New York State legislature granted the Free School Society a $4,000 subsidy to construct a building and $1,000 to wared paying the school's expenses. The money came from a tiny liquor and tavern tax, so that the general public was not yet affected.
By 1818, three schools, teaching thousands of New York City's poor, were in operation. DeWitt Clinton was now governor. State-funded construction of five more schools was planned, which called for a wider tax-a real-estate tax was imposed.
New York State rapidly moved from subsidizing the FSS to managing it. By 1825, the Free School Society had changed its name to the New York Public School Society (pss) and was admitting children of all economic levels. One year later, the PSS advocated a new city-wide education tax, labeling any who would oppose it "avowed advocates of popular ignorance."
Then, the coup de grace. The PSS, a closed corporation subsidized by the state, came under fire. John Spencer, state secretary, disclosed that "the Public School Society receive[s] nearly the whole amount of the fund belonging to the city." Moreover, he pointed out, the society had "acquired the entire control of the system of public education; [and] the taxpayers, who contribute to the fund, have no voice in the selection of those who administer the system."
Spencer quickly extended the state's authority by creating a Board of Commissioners (it soon became the now-familiar Board of Education) to "oversee" the PSS. Oversight meant control. Slowly, the PSS was strangled to death and finally, in 1852, the Board of Education absorbed it. Soon the cost of schooling quadrupled. Joseph Lancaster's system was dead.
The man himself had died years earlier. Lancaster settled in the Quaker redoubt of Philadelphia upon his arrival in the United States. But rumors of his profligate lifestyle and mammoth debts followed him from England. So he wandered, through South America, Canada, Baltimore, New Haven, everywhere. He was broke, staying with friends and admirers, always believing he had been persecuted.
In October 1838, while in New York to give a lecture, Joseph Lancaster was run over by a horse-drawn beer wagon, just a block away from one of his schools. He was 59 years old. Biographer Salmon writes, "His death was untimely in a double sense; it need not have come at 60, and for his reputation's sake it should have come at 30."
But let's allow Lancaster the last word on his radical and forgotten system. "Politicians," he wrote in his middle age, "have purposely interfered in what was originally a work of pure benevolence; and though they could neither corrupt or command the fountain, they have contaminated the stream."-
John Chodes is the communications director of the New York City Libertarian Party.