Horace Mann was born on May 4, 1796, into a poor Yankee farming family. He learned the habits of self-reliance and independence because of his family situation. He attended six weeks of schooling at age ten and every year thereafter until he was twenty, but he knew where the library was in town and he made good use of it. He enrolled at Brown University when he was twenty years old and graduated three years later in 1819 as the valedictorian of his class. He spent a short period of time studying law at Wrentham, Massachusetts; he taught Latin for a couple of years (1820-22) and worked as a librarian for two additional years (1821-23) at Brown University. During the 1821-1823 period of time he also studied law at Litchfield Law School and was admitted to the bar in Norfolk, Massachusetts, in 1823.
Mann married Charlotte Messer in 1830. Charlotte was the daughter of Asa Messer who was the president of Brown University, and she died on August 1, 1832, only two years later. Mann was devastated by Charlotte’s death but eventually married a second time in 1843 to Mary Tyler Peabody. The couple went on a dual honeymoon to Europe with Samuel Gridley Howe and Julia Ward Howe. The Mann’s became parents of three sons: Horace Mann, Jr., George Combe Mann, and Benjamin Pickman Mann.
Mann was elected to the legislature in 1827 and served until 1833; he had active “interests in education, public charities, and laws for the suppression of intemperance and lotteries.” He was instrumental in the establishment of the state lunatic asylum at Worcester and became the chairman of its board of trustees in 1833. In 1833 he was elected to represent Boston in the Massachusetts State Senate; he became Senate president in 1836-1837. He also spent time as the majority leader where he focused on “funding the construction of railroads and canals.”
In 1837 Massachusetts founded the first board of education in the United States, and Mann was appointed to be the secretary of that board. He took the job “because it was a paid office position established by the legislature.” He started as secretary but “began the work which was to place him in the foremost rank of American educationists.” At this point, he withdrew from politics and as well as professional and business engagements.
Mann became the national spokesman for education and “worked with a remarkable intensity, holding teachers’ conventions, delivering numerous lectures and addresses, carrying on an extensive correspondence, and introducing numerous reforms.” He traveled to every school in Massachusetts in order to “physically examine each school ground.” He established a “normal school system” in several areas and “began preparing a series of annual reports” that circulated widely.
Mann founded and edited The Common School Journal in 1838 in which he “targeted the public school and its problems. His six main principles were: (1) the public should no longer remain ignorant; (2) that such education should be paid for, controlled, and sustained by an interested public; (3) that this education will be best provided in schools that embrace children from a variety of backgrounds; (4) that this education must be non-sectarian; (5) that this education must be taught by the spirit, methods, and discipline of a free society; and (6) that education should be provided by well-trained, professional teachers. Mann worked for more and better equipped school houses, longer school years (until 16 years old), higher pay for teachers, and a wider curriculum.”
In 1843 Mann went to Europe at his own expense to visit schools especially in Prussia. Upon his return to Massachusetts, he published the results of his tour in his seventh annual report. “In 1852, he supported the decision to adopt the Prussian education system in Massachusetts. Shortly after Massachusetts adopted the Prussian system, the Governor of New York set up the same method in twelve different New York schools on a trial basis.
“Mann hoped that by bringing all children of all classes together, they could have a common learning experience. This would also give an opportunity to the less fortunate to advance in the social scale and education would `equalize the conditions of men.’ Moreover, it was viewed also as a road to social advancement by the early labor movement and as a goal of having common schools. Mann also suggested that by having schools it would help those students who did not have appropriate discipline in the home. Building a person’s character was just as important as reading, writing and arithmetic. Instilling values such as obedience to authority, promptness in attendance, and organizing the time according to bell ringing helped students prepare for future employment. Mann faced some resistance from parents who did not want to give up the moral education to teachers and bureaucrats. The normal schools trained mostly women, giving them new career opportunities as teachers.”
Mann spent more time in politics before being chosen to be president of Antioch College at Yellow Springs, Ohio, in September 1852. He held that position until his death. He was popular with the students, and his lectures promoting public education across the Midwest were well attended. He hired his niece, Rebecca Pennell, who became “the first woman faculty member to be paid on an equal basis with her male colleagues.” The following commencement message was given to the class of 1859, and it is repeated to the graduating class at each commencement: “be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”
Horace Mann collapsed shortly after the 1859 commencement and died that summer. His body was originally interred in Yellow Springs, but his second wife later moved it to the North Burial Ground in Providence, Rhode Island and buried it next to his first wife, Charlotte Messer Mann.
“Most historians consider Mann to be the most important and beneficial leader of education reform in the antebellum period.” Horace Mann has been honored with many memorials, the greatest of which is the title of “Father of the Common School Movement” by educational historians.