Homepage of Daniel S. Brogan

Daniel S. Brogan

Fisher Ames: Use of the Bible in Public Schools

Fisher Ames was the primary author of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America and the one who provided this amendment's final wording[1].  As such, his writings concerning the freedoms described therein are of interest.  The focus here is the freedom of religion, and, more specifically, the so called "separation of church and state."  In the article reprinted in its entirety below[2], Fisher Ames addresses the use of the Bible in the public education system.  



It has been the custom of late years to put a number of little books into the hands of children, containing fables and moral lessons.  This is very well, because it is right, first to raise curiosity and then to guide it.  Many books for children are, however, injudiciously compiled; The language is too much raised above the ideas of that tender age - the moral is drawn from the fable they know not why; and when they gain wisdom from experience, they will see the restrictions and exceptions which are necessary, to the rules of conduct laid down in their books, but which such books do not give.  Some of the most admired works of this kind abound with a frothy sort of sentiment, as the readers of novels are pleased to call it, the chief merit of which consists in shedding tears and giving away money.  Is it right, or agreeable to good sense, to try to make the tender age more tender?  Pity and generosity, though amiable impulses, are blind ones, and as we grow older are to be managed by rules and restrained by wisdom.

It is not clear that the heart at thirty is any the softer for weeping at ten over one of Berquin's fables, the point of which turns on a beggar boy's being ragged and a rich man's son being well clad.  Some persons, indeed, appear to have shed all their tears of sympathy before they reach the period of mature age.  Most young hearts are tender - and tender enough - the object of education is rather to direct these emotions, however amiable, then to augment them.

Why then, if these books for children must be retained, as they will be, should not the bible regain the place it once held as a school-book? Its morals are pure, its examples captivating and noble.  The reverence for the sacred book, that is thus early impressed, lasts long - and probably, if not impressed in infancy never takes firm hold of the mind.  One consideration more is important: In no book is there so good english, so pure and so elegant - and by teaching all the same book they will speak alike, and the bible will justly remain the standard of language as well as of faith.  A barbarous provincial jargon will be banished, and taste, corrupted by pompous Johnsonian affectation, will be restored.

  1. H.R. 4922 -- First Amendment Restoration Act (Introduced in the House of Represent0atives June 12, 2002).
  2. This article was published in The Mercury and New England Palladium, Vol.XVII, No.2, January 27, 1801.  It is from this newspaper that the article has been obtained, with the exception of a few unreadable words, which have been obtained from the reprint in The Works of Fisher Ames - compiled by a number of his friends - to which are prefixed notices of his life and character, T. B. Wait & Co., Boston, 1809, p.134-135.  The latter changes some of the punctuation and capitalization, but not the contents, of the former.
  3. Alexander Young and Thomas Minns were the authors / editors of The Mercury and New England Palladium.