The New England Primer:
Forward and Technical Notes

by Jay Johansen

Foreward

We are hearing a lot these last few years about efforts by the "Religious Right" to try to push their religious beliefs in public schools, to have prayer at school events, and so on. Our courts have consistently rejected such efforts as unconstitutional, usually on the grounds that they violate the First Amendment.

If such proposed practices violate the Constitution, it is fair to ask just what sort of education the writers of the Constitution had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment. It does not necessarily follow, of course, that the intentions of these men were perfect and must bind the nation for ever. But there are procedures for changing the Constitution, so unless and until the relevant sections are changed, the intent of the original writers is still the supreme law of the United States.

So what was the intent of the writers for a suitably secular, First-Amendment-conforming, public education?

One way to answer this question is to look at the textbooks actually used in schools in the early days of our nation. In this sense, the New England Primer provides an excellent "case study".

The New England Primer (pronounced prim' er, short "i") was by far the most commonly used textbook in the United States for over 100 years. The first edition was printed in 1690 and it was still in use in 1900. It was used in both public and private schools. It was intended to be used to help teach children to read: it includes a rhyme to teach the alphabet, vocabulary words, and many short poems and other practice reading selections. While the idea of having separate grade levels was not introduced until the 1800's, this book was used for what would today be considered first grade. It also includes some religious references.

Most if not all of the writers of the Constitution would have used this book in school. They were all surely aware of it. It continued to be used, with no apparent challenge, long after the Constitution was ratified. If it violated what they had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment, surely someone would have said something about it. So it is fair to say that the people who wrote the First Amendment must have considered the treatment of religion in this book acceptable. I therefore offer it here as an example of a book which fully conforms with our Constitution. I urge you to scan through it and see if you can find the religious references.

Perhaps we could short-cut some of the debate by re-introducing The New England Primer into our public schools ...

Technical Notes

For those who are interested, I give her a few technical notes about my "HTML edition" of The New England Primer.

This edition is based on a 1777 edition, which I was fortunate enough to find available in a modern facsimile reprint. (Copyrights from 1777 have long since expired.)

In order to make a "clean" Web version, I decided to make little effort to preserve the original formatting. For example, the headings on each section are rendered with the classic Web header styles, though in the original headings were rendered with a somewhat-inconsistent mix of larger type, italics, and capitals. I have also inserted horizontal lines in some places where there are page breaks in the original text, to help divide the material into logical sections.

I have preserved italics and capitalization. In many cases these will look strange to modern readers, as styles today are quite different. (Personally, I was particularly taken aback by the practice of putting the first TWO letters of some words in capitals and the rest in small letters. One capital seems natural; two strikes me as quite odd. But fashions come and go, I suppose.)

I have generally preserved cases where the first letter in a paragraph or section is in larger type. (For those users with browsers that support changing font sizes, anyway.).

I have not preserved the alternate style for the letter "s". (You know, where it looks like an "f" without the cross-bar.) All "s"'s in this edition appear in the modern style.

I have made absolutely no changes to the text of the book. (No deliberate ones, anyway.) This includes archaic spellings and punctuation. (Not to mention the uninformative title used on a number of readings: "Another".)

I have scanned in the cover page and the two "major" illustrations and included them in the appropriate places in the text. The original had a series of small illustrations to go with the rhyming alphabet, but these were so small and the quality of the originals I had was rather poor, so I decided not to scan these in. I also made no effort to scan in the decorative "flower pattern" dividers that appear in a few places, and instead simply put in horizontal lines. These are the only omissions from the original book.


The New England Primer

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Created 4 June 1996.
Comments to [email protected].
Copyright © 1996 by Jay Johansen.