At the Fifth Provincial Congress of 1776, the Forty-first Article of the first State Constitution was added, which required the legislature to establish "a School or Schools," with at least some public support as well as one or more universities. As a result of this provision, before 1800 forty-two (42) academies were chartered by the General Assembly and granted exemption from taxes. Their charters frequently stipulated that a number of poor children be admitted for free. Such schools were generally offered the vague hope of a state subsidy when conditions permitted it, and they were often authorized to raise money through a lottery.
Means of higher education would also be necessary, as the Provincial Congress in Halifax recognized in November and December of 1776. The former Queen's College in Charlotte, which King George III had disallowed, was rechartered in 1777 by the first state legislature as Liberty Hall Academy.
The first school of higher education was the University of North Carolina, established by charter on December 11, 1789, largely through the leadership of William Richardson Davie. A week later the trustees met and made plans that culminated in 1783 with the admission of Hinton James as the first student. North Carolina alumni soon began to provide leadership for the state, as well as to hold high positions in other states and in the federal government.
By 1835, 135 more local academies had been chartered, bringing the total to 177, with at least one in every county except for Ashe, Columbus, and Person. The academy was primarily a boys institution, and out of the total in 1835, only thirteen (13) admitted girls. Few of these academies actually prospered because the legislature declined to extend state aid to enable the masters "to instruct at low Prices," as the first constitution directed.
An academy could only be established through local initiatives, just as local interest was necessary to maintain the buildings, the teachers, plan the programs, and in many cases provide convenient accommodations for students who lived too far away to walk to daily classes. Although each charter required free tuition for a limited number of poor scholars, many needy families were simply too proud to take advantage of this opportunity. This made the academy only available to those of at least moderate means.
In 1828, the chairman of the state Senate Committee on Education reported that "there is an average of nearly one-half in every family of the state who have received no education and who are as yet unprovided with the means of learning even to read or write." The federal census of 1840 revealed the humiliating fact that, after more than sixty years of independence, one-third of the adult white population of North Carolina could neither read or write.
From 1790 to 1802, not a single piece of legislature relating to public education was introduced in the General Assembly. In 1802, a plan for establishing a military school was rejected and the following year two bills for the creation of public academies were defeated. From 1804 to 1814, the subject was not even mentioned in the General Assembly. Despite the fact that every governor, except one, between 1800 and 1825 urged legislators to establish schools, committees on education were not appointed until 1815.
The attitudes of most North Carolina citizens in the early 1800s was strongly anti-taxation, and for the most part "individualism" was the philosophy adopted. A system of public schools would involve two compulsory measures - taxation and attendance. Both would regulate individual action, and this fact alone meant that such a system would be resisted. Hand in hand with individualism went the narrow-minded view of the proper function of government. Education was not for the government to solve, this was a private matter for all individuals to resolve as they deemed appropriate.
As an agricultural state, North Carolina had little industry, limited commerce, and completely inadequate banking as of the year of 1800. Most families were self-sufficient, but very few had disposable cash. Hard money was nearly impossible for the average citizen to get their hands on, and "barter" was how they got by. Who needed an education to do this?
A serious stumbling block to public education, or any other improvement program at that time, was the clear existence of slavery in the state. Not only did the slave owners strongly feel that their slaves did not need - or deserve - an education, they furthermore did not want their slaves to be "taxed" such that education could be provided for others. The more pervasive attitude among the general population at that time was even more crippling. These slave owners extended their feelings about education to their own offspring. Education would merely make "the working class" discontented with their position in life, and this was not the Lord's intent for them or their neighbors.
These attitudes and beliefs, which were similar in all Southern states at this time, would lead to the sad economic conditions throughout the South. The primary result was the lack of a "middle class" structure to ever actually evolve in the South prior to the American Civil War. Uneducated slave owners simply believed that they were at the top of the "class structure," and anyone below them were either slaves or trash. The small landowner with no slaves didn't care what the large landowners thought of them; at least they were self-sufficent, and they were free. The merchants did not consider themselves to be in a so-called "middle class," and they were certainly not slaves or trash, therefore they had to also be on the top of the "class structure" in the antebellum South.
In the first half of the nineteenth century, many energetic and entrepreneurial individuals were quickly reminded that there was no "middle class" in the "Rip Van Winkle State," when they attempted to build textile mills and other new industries that were blossoming all across the Northeast. There simply was no labor force to draw upon to launch these industrial endeavors. The really energetic entrepreneurs soon came up with a solution - build their new mills (or manufacturing plants, or whatever) along an energy sources, such as a large stream or river, and to build a town around the industry, offering attractive living conditions and/or wages. Yet, they continued to struggle - few, other than "the outcast or the totally dejected" left their farms to go to work for someone else. Most would rather head west and find new, cheaper (or free) lands and continue their "upper class" activities of being a landowner.
After the Panic of 1819, the already steady trickle of migrations out of the State began to pick up, to reach a climax in 1830. Between 1815 and 1850, one-third (1/3) of the state's population left North Carolina. Faced with a future so bleak, the maxim adopted at the time was "move, improve, or starve." It was estimated in 1815 that 200,000 had left North Carolina that year alone for Tennessee, Alabama, and Ohio. Between 1830 and 1840, thirty-two (32) of the sixty-eight (68) counties lost population. The federal census of 1850 indicated that 31% of all native North Carolinian then living in the United States resided in some other state.
North Carolina's indifference to education, neglect of resources, resistance to taxation for any purpose, and general backwardness had driven away over 400,000 citizens, two-thirds (2/3) of them white. Considered even worse at the time, this migration removed from the State thousands of valuable slaves with which to possibly do the work of the many improvements needed.
In 1825, education began the long uphill battle for improvement. Speaker of the House, Bartlett Yancey, a former law student of Archibald Murphey, presented a bill to the NC General Assembly to create a fund for the establishment of common schools. Known as the Literary Fund, it consisted of bank stock, receipts from a retail liquor tax, and income from the sale of swampland owned by the state. Authorized to invest these funds in certain specified securites, the Literary Board would eventually be expected to distribute the income to the counties in proportion to their free white population.
The Literary Fund strugged for years due to poor economic conditions, fraud by the State Treasurer, and the fact that the fund was used to pay legislative salaries. Having created the fund, the state's General Assembly claimed that it had done all it was going to do for education and proceeded to rest from its labors. Ten unfruitful years followed, with nothing done at the state level other than the newly-elected governors reminding them - respectfully - to continue the program.
An avid supporter of public education, President Joseph Caldwell of the University of North Carolina began publishing articles in various newspapers to rally additional support. He offered practical suggestions on such topics as organizing local school committees, schoolhouse construction, a floor plan for a typical one-room school, daily schedules for classes, and estimates of costs. Numerous clergymen and newspaper editors also spoke and wrote of their support. Together, they created a public sentiment that was able to make itself heard after the constitutional reforms of 1835 broke the grip of eastern politicians on the state government.
During the fifteen years of Whig political domination immediately after the Constitution Convention of 1835, the "Rip Van Winkle State" actually woke up. During this period, North Carolina rendered essential aid to the construction of railroads, to the opening of schools for the "deaf, dumb, and blind," and to the creation of an asylum for the insane. A statewide system of "common schools" was developed, and by 1860 it ranked as the best in the South and one of the best in the nation. Enrollment at the University of North Carolina grew from eighty-nine (89) in 1836 to over four hundred (400) by 1860, and many new academies and college were founded.
Early in 1837, the distribution of the surplus federal revenue brought an unexpected addition to the languishing Literary Fund, and late the next year the Literary Board prepared a plan for a system of public schools modeled on the 1817 proposals of Archibald Murphey. In January of 1839, the General Assembly passed the state's first public school law. It provided for the division of the state into school district and the establishment of a primary school in each district through county tax supplements and by allocations from the Literary Fund.
County and district school boards began to inaugurate the sytem in August in those counties that approved it. All but seven of the state's sixty-eight (68) counties accepted the bill's provisions. On January 20, 1840, the first public school in North Carolina opened in Rockingham County. By year's end, there were 632 primary schools across the state, and a decade later there were 2,657 "common" or public schools in the state.
In 1841, the legislature made federal population instead of white population the basis for distributing the Literary Fund. This clearly discriminated against the western counties, which had few slaves, and gave a disproportionate share of the money to the eastern counties. About the same time, however, the legislature determined that free blacks would not be required to pay taxes to support schools since they were not permitted to attend anyway.
Local converts were won slowly, but after 1840 the general population began to boast of their common schools, just as they had about their state's acclaimed university.
In the 1850-1851 session of the General Assembly, Calvin H. Wiley of Greensboro introduced a bill to create the office of superintendent of common schools, but it was rejected. The next year it was passed, requiring the superintendent to codify the educational laws of the state, to enforce these laws, to see that state funds were properly spent, to obtain annual reports from county school boards, to collect full information on the condition and operation of schools in each county, to find reasons why schools grew or shrank, to consult with and advise teachers, to instruct the examining committees as to the proper qualification of teachers, to attend meetings of the Literary Board, to deliver educational addresses, to make an annual report to the governor on the progress of the public school system, and otherwise to promote the cause of public education.
In 1852, when Wiley became the state's first superintendent, he found the school system "obscured in darkness." After spending most of his first year in traveling around the state, visiting schools, inquiring into conditions, and sounding out the public opinion, he noted in his first annual report, "I feel bound to say that money is not our greatest want... We want more efficient management - a constant embodiment and expression of public opinion - a watchful supervision - a liberal course of legislation, good officers, and patience and energy in all having an official position in the system." During the more than ten years that he headed the school system, he made the accomplishment of these goals the chief duty of the office.
Between 1853 and 1860, the number of school districts increased by nearly 500, the number of schools from 2,500 to 3,082, and the number of pupils from 95,000 to 118,852. Licensed teachers increased from 800 to 2,752 and expenditures from $150,000 (1854) to $278,000 (1860). However, the length of the school term did not increase prior to the Civil War, which remained at about four months on average per year.
Yet, although there was a marked increase in the literacy rate between 1840 and 1860, almost 70,000 whites over the age of twenty (20) in a population of nearly 630,000 still could not read nor write in 1860. At the same time, many private academies continued to serve those who could afford the cost, often operating on much longer schedules and providing courses not taught in the public schools, such as Latin and Greek, rhetoric, logic, moral and natural philosophy, and astronomy. It was these institutions that prepared young men for higher education.
A few prominent lawyers conducted law schools - among them William H. Battle, Leonard Henderson, James Iredell, Jr., Archibald Murphey, Richmond M. Pearson, and John Louis Taylor. Similar training was offered in the medical profession, however, quite a few North Carolinians went to the North or to England, Ireland, or Scotland for medical education. There were military academies at Charlotte, Fayetteville, Hillsborough, and Smithfield.
In 1834, some Baptists opened a "manual labor school" in Wake County, combining manual labor and literary studies. But, this practice was very unpopular and enrollment dropped significantly in two years. In 1836, the legislature chartered the school as Wake Forest College, but the manual labor was abandoned, and the school was firmly established to serve not only Baptists but many others as well.
In 1837, the Presbyterians established Davidson College on the same manual labor principle. The next year it obtained a charter and in 1841 gave up the manual labor requirements. Their school, they announced, was a classical college modeled after the Presbyterian institution at Princeton, New Jersey (known at that time as the College of New Jersey).
In 1839, the Methodists opened a log school in the community of Trinity in Randolph County. In 1841, it was chartered as the Union Institute and the next year it began to train Methodist ministers. It was rechartered a the Normal College in 1851 and given the privelege of certifying teachers for public schools. Falling on hard times, it was turned over to the Methodist Conference and in 1859 its charter was amended, this time named as Trinity College.
New Garden Boarding School, established by the Quakers in 1835 as the state's first co-educational institution, became Guilford College in 1836. The German Reformed Church established Catawba College at Newton in 1851, and, with the assistance of the Methodist church, an earlier school at Louisburg became Louisburg College for Females in 1857. Salem Female Academy, opened in 1772 by the Moravians as the Little Girls School, added college courses and won recognition as one of the best schools for women in the South. Greensboro Female College was chartered in 1838 by the Methodists. St. Mary's College in Raleigh was chartered in 1842 by the Episcopalians. Chowan Baptist Female Institute in Murfreesboro was chartered in 1856. Two Presbyterian schools, Statesville Female College was chartered in 1856, and Peace Female Institute was chartered in 1857. Several other schools for women no longer exist, most closing during or soon after the Civil War.
In 1860, North Carolina Governor John W. Ellis reported that over 900 men and 1,500 women were attending college.