Monday, 29 August 2016

William Paca’s Education in Context



Plate from Birch’s Views of Philadelphia 1800

The city of Philadelphia was the perfect city for founding schools in the 18th century. Being commercially wealthy and active, it was possible for more schools to survive as there was a larger middle class with the stability and motivation to pay for education. Importantly, it was a cosmopolitan city, where people could learn English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese, as well as Classical Latin and Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic.[1]

William Paca and his older brother, Aquila, were sent to the Philadelphia Academy and Charity School in 1752.[2] From this advertisement in the Maryland Gazette, printed in December 1750, we get a sense of the education they would have received:

Youth will be taught the Latin, Greek, English, French, and German Languages, together with History, Geography, Chronology, Logic, and Rhetoric; also Writing, Arithmetic, Merchants Accounts, Geometry, algebra, Surveying, Gauging, Navigation, Astronomy, Drawing in Perspective, and other mathematical Sciences; with natural and mechanic Philosophy, &c. agreeable to the Constitutions heretofore published, at the Rate of Four Pounds per Annum, and Twenty Shillings, entrance.[3]



Maryland Gazette for 27th February 1751

The curriculum of the Philadelphia Academy and Charity School may look very out-dated, but it was cutting-edge for its time. While many schools in colonial America tried to imitate European systems, the Philadelphia Academy was decidedly more innovative. The curriculum was shaped by important authors on education in the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin and William Smith, who both encouraged a strong, artistic education, but also placed a huge emphasis on the pragmatic side of learning. This was to prepare men for the unique conditions of colonial life. 

Benjamin Franklin founded the academy and college in 1749-50 in buildings that had acted as an underdeveloped charity school. It was also in this year that he published his pamphlet, Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pensilvania.



William Smith was a Scottish educator from Aberdeen who was in correspondence with Franklin. After winning Franklin’s approval of his own theories of a progressive education he was appointed to the position of provost in 1755.

Franklin’s Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pensilvania (1749) discusses the need for mixing Classical, ‘ornamental’, and practical, ‘useful’ subjects:

As to their STUDIES, it would be well if they could be taught every Thing that is useful, and every Thing that is ornamental: But Art is long, and their Time is short. It is therefore propos’d that they learn those Things that are likely to be most useful and most ornamental. Regard being had to the several Professions for which they are intended.[4]

by David Martin (1767) Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia



The basics were clear handwriting, arithmetic, accounts, and the principles of geometry and astronomy. In addition, instead of just teaching Classical languages and the famous authors for the sake of it, Franklin clearly states that even the artistic side of education must have a purpose. For instance, reading ‘universal history’ will ‘furnish them with Matter for their Letters, &c.’ and be ‘of great Use to them, whether they are Merchants, Handicrafts, or Divines.’[5] ‘[T]rue Merit’ should be the aim of every youth, ‘as consisting in an Inclination join’d with an Ability to serve Mankind, one’s Country, Friends and Family; which Ability is (with the Blessing of God) to be acquir’d or greatly increas’d by true Learning; and should indeed be the great Aim and End of all Learning.’[6]

William Smith’s A General Idea of the College of Mirania (1753) is slightly more severe. He divides education and the boys who should receive it into two distinct groups, which suggests a different education was necessary for those of the thrifty middling classes than that intended for the young men who were required to develop ‘eloquence.’

First, the ‘Mechanic Professions’ course lasting nine years, which Smith believed was ‘the shortest Way of forming Youth to act in their proper Spheres, as good Men and good Citizens.’[7] The curriculum primarily consisted of ‘Mathematics, Ethics, Oratory, Chronology, History, the most plain and useful Parts of natural and mechanic Philosophy’, then ‘something of Husbandy and Chymistry’.[8]

Gilbert Stuart, Dr. William Smith, (1801-1802) University of Pennsylvania Museum

The second type of education was ‘The Latin School’. Smith theorised that ‘Knowledge of the learned Languages [Latin and Greek], as the Means of acquiring other useful Knowledge, is indispensibly necessary to the first Class [Latin school]. To the Second [Mechanic school], the Time thus spent is entirely thrown away, as they never have any Occasion to make use of those Languages.’[9] The Latin School devoted the first five years to learning Latin, ‘Declensions, Conjugation, St. Luke’s Gospel, Lucian’s Dialogues, &c.’,[10] before moving on to Greek and mathematics, including geometry, astronomy, chronology, surveying, navigation, ‘and the other most useful Branches of the Mathematics.’ Logic and metaphysics were also included, but were not a major focus as they were less advantageous.

The curriculum then moved on to philosophy in the third year, with Plato, Cicero, Locke, and Hutchinson. In the fourth year rhetoric was studied in the works of Tully and Quintilian. Pupils were reading these works to learn ‘eloquence’, with the ambition that reading these works made the students ‘apprehend its Plan, Series, Delicacy of Address; the Strength and Disposition of the Proofs; the Justness of the Tropes and Figures; the Beauty of the Imagery and Painting; the Harmony and Fullness of the Periods; the Pomp and Purity of the Diction; and, in fine, the Grandeur of Thought; that astonishing Sublime; the Torrent of Eloquence; which, moving, warming, seizing the Soul, sweeps all irresistably down before it.’[11]

Smith wants his students to achieve ‘a certain Elevation of Thought’, through both practical, advantageous, and useful subjects, but also learning the ornamentations that would make his students seem a class above the rest.




[1] L. B. Wright, The Cultural Life of the American Colonies: 1607-1763 (Dover, 1957), 109.
[2] J.B. Russo, William Paca’s Education: The Making of an Eighteenth-Century Gentleman and American Patriot, Historic Annapolis Foundation (Annapolis, 1999), 2-3.
[3] Maryland Gazette (27th February 1751), 3.
[4] B. Franklin, Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pensilvania (Philadelphia, 1749), 11.
[5] Ibid., 26.
[6] Ibid., 30.
[7] W. Smith, A General Idea of the College of Mirania: A Sketch of the Method of teaching Science and Religion, in the several Classes: and Some Account of its Rise, Establishment and Buildings (New York, 1753), 14.
[8] Ibid., 16.
[9] Ibid., 14.
[10] Ibid., 17.
[11] Ibid., 20. 

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