A Look at Education in the Southern Colonies

A Look at Education in the Southern Colonies: In the 1600s and early 1700s, most schools in the southern colonies were small private schools taught by a tutor in a family’s home.

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The Three Southern Colonies

Education in the Southern Colonies was very different from the other colonies in British America. The Southern Colonies were Virginia, Maryland, and South Carolina. In the Southern Colonies, education was not free. There were no public schools like in the Northern Colonies. The only people who could afford to go to school were the children of wealthy families.


The first colonists in Maryland were very interested in establishing a good educational system. In 1638, just twelve years after the colony was founded, the first law requiring that every county have a free school was passed. A second law, passed in 1649, made attendance at these schools mandatory for all children between the ages of six and sixteen.

As in other colonies, education in Maryland was primarily religious in nature. The goal was to teach children to read so that they could read the Bible for themselves. However, there were also a few secular subjects taught, including arithmetic and writing.

Most of the early schools in Maryland were private, meaning that they were not run by the government but by churches or religious organizations. In fact, it wasn’t until 1692 that the colony established its first public (or government-run) school. This school was located in Annapolis and only boys from wealthy families were allowed to attend.

It wasn’t until the middle of the eighteenth century that education became more widespread in Maryland. In 1748, Baltimore Town became the first town in the colony to offer free public schooling to all children, regardless of their social class. By 1755, there were eleven public schools operating in Baltimore Town alone.

The number of public schools continued to grow throughout the rest of the colonial period and into the early years of American independence. In 1784, just eight years after the United States was founded, Maryland had eighty-four public schools serving more than 10,000 students.


Virginia, the oldest and most populous colony, was founded in 1607. The Virginia Company of London, a joint stock company looking for gold and a route to the Orient, established the Jamestown Settlement on theJames River. The company’s charter provided for “the enlightening of the savage people” in addition to profit. In 1619, the Virginia Company instituted a representative legislative body, the House of Burgesses, making Virginia one of the first colonies to be governed democratically. Because early efforts to establish schools in Virginia were not successful, Virginians looked to England for their educational needs. private tutors educated most wealthy Virginians in their homes. By the 18th century, some families sent their sons to England or Scotland for formal education at grammar (primary) and secondary schools or at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

South Carolina

South Carolina was founded in 1663 as a proprietary colony. A proprietor was an individual, such as a king or queen, who was given ownership of a colony by the English government. The first proprietor of South Carolina was Lord John Berkeley. He, along with Sir George Carteret, had been given the land grant to settle the area now known as New Jersey. In 1669, Berkeley sold his half of New Jersey to two English Quakers, Edward Byllynge and John Fenwick. In doing so, he effectively took over sole proprietorship of South Carolina. Like the other southern colonies, South Carolina’s economy depended heavily on the production of cash crops like tobacco and rice.

Unlike the other southern colonies however, South Carolina also developed a strong manufacturing sector. This was due in part to the fact that the colony had an abundance of natural resources like timber and iron ore. These resources allowed for the development of industries like shipbuilding and textiles.

South Carolina also differed from the other southern colonies in its system of education. While most colonies placed primary responsibility for education on individual families or local churches, South Carolina established a system of publicly-funded schools in 1670. This system continued until Reconstruction following the Civil War.

The Education Systems in the Southern Colonies

The Southern Colonies were unique in their approach to education. In the 1600s, the Puritans who had settled in the Northern Colonies believed that every child had a God-given right to an education. They established public schools and required that every town have a schoolmaster to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. However, the Southern Colonies were not as invested in public education.


In 1649, Maryland became the first colony to require that all children be educated. This law, however, applied only to Protestant English-speaking children between the ages of six and sixteen. Catholics and non-English speakers were disenfranchised. In practice, many Maryland children did not attend school. Those who did were taught at “dame schools” run by women in their homes. A few wealthy families hired private tutors for their children.

In 1702, the College of William and Mary was established in Virginia. It was the first college in the Southern colonies and one of the first in America. The college educated both men and women, although most students were male.

Courses at William and Mary emphasized Classics, but students could also study History, Philosophy, Mathematics, Science, Languages, and Politics. The college had a good reputation and attracted students from other colonies as well as England. Notable alumni include George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Marshall, John Tyler, and 28 other signers of the Declaration of Independence or United States Constitution.


Virginia was the first colony to establish a formal education system. In 1619, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law requiring every parish in Virginia to have a school. The law also required parents to send their sons to school until they were 16 years old and their daughters until they were 18.

The schools in Virginia were very small, with only one or two teachers. Most of the teachers were ministers who taught reading, writing, and religion. Some of the wealthier families could afford to send their children to private schools, where they could learn Latin and other subjects.

In 1705, the College of William & Mary was established in Virginia. It was the first college in the Southern colonies and one of the first colleges in America. William & Mary was originally an Indian school, but it later became a college for white students.

In 1779, Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia. Jefferson believed that all people had a right to an education, regardless of social class or gender. The University of Virginia was open to men and women of all races and classes. It remains one of the leading public universities in America today.

South Carolina

In the colony of South Carolina, education was not as important as in the New England colonies. There were no colleges or universities in South Carolina, and most people did not receive a formal education. Many children were taught at home by their parents or by tutors. Boys usually learned trades such as farming, carpentry, or blacksmithing while girls were taught homemaking skills. A few wealthy children were able to attend private schools in England or the northern colonies.

Commonalities in the Southern Colonies’ Education Systems

The Role of the Church

In the Southern Colonies, the education systems were greatly influenced by the Church. Many of the early schools in Virginia, for example, were established by the Church. The purpose of these schools was to teach young boys how to read the Bible. In addition, the Church played a significant role in providing financial support for education in the Southern Colonies.

The Role of the Family

The family was the primary source of education in the Southern Colonies. Parents taught their children the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Boys were usually educated at home until they were old enough to be sent to grammar school, while girls were educated at home their entire lives. Grammar schools were rare in the Southern Colonies; most boys attended private academies run by clergymen. These academies offered classes in Latin, Greek, literature, and philosophy in addition to the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. A small number of boys attended college; the majority of those who did attended one of the two colleges in Virginia-the College of William and Mary or the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University). Fewer than 10 percent of colonial children received any formal education beyond grammar school.

The Role of the State

One of the most fascinating aspects of studying the history of education in the Southern Colonies is observing how the role of the state changed over time. In the early years of settlement, education was seen as a purely private responsibility, with parents and churches taking on the main burden of providing instruction for young people. However, as the colonies began to grow and prosper, there was an increasing recognition of the importance of educating all citizens in order to create a strong and stable society. As a result, the state began to play a more active role in funding and regulating education.

In 1642, the Virginia House of Burgesses passed a law requiring all parents to ensure that their children were taught to read and write. This was followed by similar laws in other colonies, such as Maryland in 1648 and South Carolina in 1695. By the early 1700s, most Southern Colonies had some form of compulsory education laws on their books.

Although state involvement in education increased during this period, it was still very limited compared to what we see today. The primary focus was on ensuring that children learned basic literacy skills; there was little attention paid to other aspects of education such as science, history, or art. Moreover, these laws were often only weakly enforced, and many parents continued to educate their children at home or through private tutors rather than sending them to school.

It wasn’t until the late 1600s and early 1700s that education began to be seen as a public service that should be provided by the government for all citizens. This shift in thinking led to a dramatic increase in state funding for public schools, as well as stricter regulation of private schools and homeschooling. By the mid-1700s, most Southern Colonies had established comprehensive public school systems that provided free education for all children regardless of social class or family income.

While state involvement in education has fluctuated over time since then, this early period laid the foundation for modern public schooling in America.

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