Blackstone’s Commentaries:
with Notes of Reference (1803)

St. George Tucker

Abstract of the Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, in Virginia

UNDER this head of subordinate magistrates, we must notice the aldermen, who are directed to be chosen in every county for the purpose of carrying into execution the act to establish public schools.

This act, so far as it extends, is nearly a transcript from the bill, “For the more general diffusion of knowledge,” which was prepared by the committee of revisors appointed in 1776, and reported to the general assembly in 1779, but with many others was not acted upon by the legislature, when the consideration of the bills reported was taken up. That bill proposed, that three aldermen should be annually chosen by the freeholders of each county, who should divide the county into hundreds, in each of which a school-house should be built, in such place as the electors of the district should appoint; in which reading, writing, and common arithmetic should be taught gratis to all the free children in the district, for the term of three years; and as much longer at their private expense, as their friends might think proper. That an overseer, or visitor be appointed over every ten schools, to visit them, and examine the scholars. That the teachers’ salaries be paid by the counties.

That the several counties be arranged into nineteen districts, in each of which a grammar school should be established, in such place as a majority of the overseers, or visitors of the hundred schools within the district, should appoint, containing a school room, a dining room, four rooms for a master and usher, and ten or twelve lodging rooms for scholars; where should be taught the Latin and Greek languages, English grammar, geography, vulgar and decimal fractions, and the extraction of the cube and square root. That one visitor of these schools should be annually chosen in each county by the overseers of the hundred schools. The expense of these establishments to be paid out of the public treasury.

That each hundred overseer, out of the schools visited by him, should annually choose some one boy, of at least two years standing in the school, and of the best and most promising genius and disposition, whose parents might be unable to give him farther education, to proceed to the grammar school of the district, there to be educated, for a further time.

That an annual visitation for the purpose of probation, should be held at each grammar school, at which one third of the boys of one years standing only, and who shall be found to be the least promising, shall be discontinued as public foundationers, and all of two years standing should also be discontinued, save only one, of the best genius and disposition, who should be at liberty to remain four years longer on the public foundation, and thenceforward be deemed a senior.

That the visitors for the districts south of James River, and those north thereof, should, alternately, every year, choose from among the seniors, one of the best learning, and most hopeful genius and disposition in each district school, to proceed to the college of William and Mary, there to be educated, boarded and clothed for three years at the public expense.

Such are the outlines of a plan that does honor to its authors, and if ever it be carried fully into effect, will evince of what importance its speedy adoption, in its fullest extent, may be to the commonwealth.

The act of 1796, c. 1, provides, that three aldermen be annually elected at the same time that members of assembly are elected, by the electors qualified to vote for delegates, whose election shall be certified to the county court, and entered of record …. that the aldermen, or any two of them, shall meet annually at their court-house on the second Monday in May, and consider of the expediency of carrying the subsequent parts of the act into execution. If they judge it expedient, they are to divide their county into convenient sections, distinguishing each section by a particular name, and returning their division to the county court, there to be recorded. That the householders in each section on the first Monday in September, thereafter, shall meet at such place as the aldermen may direct, and choose the most convenient place within the section for building a school-house; which shall be built and kept in repair by the aldermen, and a teacher appointed by them; who shall teach reading, writing, and common arithmetic; and all the free children, male and female, within the section, shall receive tuition gratis for three years; and as much longer at their private expense as their friends may think proper. That the salary of the teachers, and other expenses of the schools, in each section, shall be defrayed by the inhabitants of each county, in proportion to the amount of their public assessment, and county levies, to be ascertained by the aldermen of each county …. The corporate towns are, by the same act, empowered to act distinctly from the counties, in which they are situate …. This act contains the following remarkable proviso. That the court of each county, at which a majority of the acting magistrates shall be present, shall first determine the year, in which the first election of aldermen shall be made, and until they so determine, no such election shall be made. And this subject the courts are to take into consideration in the month of March, annually, until each election be made.

It is easy to perceive, that this proviso, and that which authorizes the aldermen, when elected, to consider of the expediency of carrying the act into execution, are calculated to defeat it’s execution, in every county where illiberal and parsimonious magistrates may compose the court; or, illiberal and parsimonious persons be chosen as aldermen. They prove also the existence of an opposition to the act in the legislature, itself, founded upon the most illiberal, and parsimonious principles, without any regard to the public good. For it must be evident that the act will only be carried into execution in those counties, where liberality of sentiment, and a just estimation of the value of education, prevail, and not in those, where they are most wanted.