The Peoples Free School or Dog Convention: A Tale of Two Broadsides

This past April, AAS received a plain brown envelope via U.S. Mail, with no return address.  The envelope was carefully opened by our Acquisitions staff and two folded broadsides were found inside.  There was no note included, no inscriptions or marks on the broadsides, and, as luck would have it, there was not even a legible return postmark on the envelope!  Our Acquisitions Librarian sent out an email to the curators inquiring if one of us had ordered the broadsides from a catalog or perhaps won them at an auction.  Since broadsides fall in the Graphic Arts Department, I was the likely candidate, but, in fact, I had never seen the broadside pair and had no idea who might have sent them.

The two broadsides are clearly related to each other and were likely produced in Foxborough, Massachusetts, in 1859.  In fact, they were probably made from the same set-up of type, with, as will be shown, some amusing differences.  The first broadside is a legitimate announcement for a political convention to be held in Worcester, Massachusetts, on September 1, 1859.  The convention was being organized by The Peoples Free School party.  Sylvanus D. Horton, of Rehoboth, Massachusetts, who is listed as chairman, calls for towns across the state to send delegates for nominations to a new political party that will work to repeal the “odious” School Law.

Free School Convention bdsd

The School Law had been proposed by the State Board of Education in January and February of 1859. It called for abolishing the district school system in favor of a centralized authority to control school spending, construction, and the evaluation of teachers.  District schools tended to be in rural areas where populations were spread out over multiple small towns.  Most larger town and city schools were already following protocols supported by the Board, and the School Law was an attempt to create a uniform system across the state.  A look at newspaper coverage of the time shows that the issue was clearly divided along urban/rural lines.  The Barnstable Patriot reported on May 5, 1859, “No Committee, however much they may be interested in education, can so well judge of the wants of our schools as parents themselves.  Let that odious law, undesired and unsought by the people, be by them denounced and repealed!  Leave the power in the district, unless the people, in town meetings, choose to abolish the district system.  Let the people control their own affairs.”   A few months later the Worcester Spy called for calm and reason, pleading for rural areas to let the “good gentlemen of the Board of Education” make their case to the state Senate.  It added that there was a need to “equalize the pecuniary burden of constructing school houses … [T]he present system perpetuates small and inefficient schools and the system proposed will secure the wisest and most efficient management of the schools.”  Education was a hot topic in 1859 and some of the issues under debate still resonate today – modern topics such as the rise of the charter school movement, debate over management of public school resources, implementation of standardized testing, and Common Core curriculum come to mind.

The meeting of The Peoples Free School Convention was held in Worcester as scheduled, but not many people showed up and action on forming a platform was tabled until October.  City papers made hay from this: the Boston Traveler noted on September 2, “Not a man of influence in the state was present,” and the Worcester Spy complained that less than sixty people attended and that it was wrong and distracting for the small group to politicize the issue by trying to build a political platform around it.

Free Dog Convention bdsdThe second broadside gives us some insight into the opinion of the unknown printer of The Peoples Free School Convention broadside.  This second version was actually known to AAS, as another copy is preserved in our collection.  The comic printing stands logic on its head, calling for a Free Dog Convention to be held on the impossible date September 31 at 1:00 a.m.   Instead of school laws, the text calls for the repeal of the “infamous sumptuary laws which deprive poor men of their indefeasible right to keep as many Dogs as children.”  All of the participants’ names have been changed, with Chairman Sylvanus D. Horton becoming Sylvester D. Squakman (of Canisville, not Rehoboth), and delegates like Charles Changemind, D.M. Shallowbrain, and Darius Oldfogy being called to participate from Foxborough.  It’s safe to say that the printer was probably not a supporter of district schools.

We are delighted to have this pair of broadsides at AAS.  We wish we knew who sent them to us, so we could give proper thanks!  For now, they are being listed as the gift of an anonymous donor.  Having the pair preserved together opens up the research potential of both sheets.  Scholars interested in education movements, urban/rural conflicts, state politics, and American nineteenth-century humor are all welcome to come to Worcester to have a look– we promise they will not be treated in a “loose and unequal manner” by Charles Fussyfeather or Martin Standstill.  Just please do not bring your dog to the library.

Free School-Dog Convention

Published by

Lauren Hewes

Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Graphic Arts, American Antiquarian Society

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