Wabash professor helped build state school system

Indiana’s 1816 Constitution called for a statewide system of free public schools, but it didn’t happen until the 1850s — after education reformers demanded it.

The chief lobbyist for taxpayer-funded schools was Caleb Mills, who used the power of the pen to persuade lawmakers that illiteracy was a threat to Indiana’s future. He’s been called the father of the Indiana public school system ever since.

Born in New Hampshire in 1806 and educated at Dartmouth College, Mills came to Indiana in 1833 as the first faculty member of Wabash College in Crawfordsville. He was one of many reform-minded educators frustrated that Indiana’s constitution gave only lip service to the goal of free education for its children.

To the extent schools existed in Indiana at that time, they were locally operated, poorly funded, charged tuition and were open only a few months a year — not what the 1816 constitution envisioned.

Starting in 1846, Mills wrote policy briefs to the State Senate and House of Representatives urging statewide organization and funding of schools. He signed his missives with a pseudonym, “One of the People,” disclosing his real name only before writing his sixth and final message.

“They are the most important documents ever prepared on the subject of education in Indiana,” state historian James Madison said.

Mills used statistics from the 1840 U.S. Census to make his point: One in seven adults could not read or write, an illiteracy rate that exceeded that of all other Northern states and three slave states. His proposed solution was a statewide tax and a centralized school system under a superintendent of public instruction.

The Indiana General Assembly responded by calling a special convention to consider the issue in 1847. Prominent reformers attended, including Ovid Butler, founder of what would become Butler University; Presbyterian pastor and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher; and Calvin Fletcher, a state senator with interests in farming, banking and railroads.

A committee appointed by the Common School Convention reported back that only 37 percent of 129,500 school-age children attended common schools and that “those who attend school at all generally do it for only a small part of the year.”

Lawmakers made modest attempts to improve the situation during the next few years. When the state constitution was rewritten in 1850-51, the education language — deemed visionary albeit unenforced in 1816 — was strengthened. It declared:

“Knowledge and learning, generally diffused throughout a community, being essential to the preservation of a free government; it shall be the duty of the General Assembly to encourage, by all suitable means, moral, intellectual, scientific, and agricultural improvement; and to provide, by law, for a general and uniform system of Common Schools, wherein tuition shall be without charge, and equally open to all.”

In 1852, the General Assembly brought the constitutional language to life by passing the School Law of 1852. This established a common school fund, a centralized system of school organization and a superintendent of public instruction, all ideas Mills had advocated in his writings. Mills himself served as the state’s second superintendent from 1854-57 and then returned to Crawfordsville, where he lived until his death in 1879.

The Civil War and adverse rulings from the Indiana Supreme Court slowed the momentum of school reformers for a period, but after the war Indiana’s public school system took off. The average length of the school term doubled from 68 days in 1866 to 136 days in 1879. Enrollment grew from 390,714 in 1866 to 511,283 in 1880.

If you go


The Caleb Mills House is adjacent to the Lilly Library on the Wabash College green. From Interstate 74, go four miles into downtown Crawfordsville. Turn south on U.S. 231 and continue three blocks to Wabash Avenue.