New York Free School Society

  • Education
  • 1805

In early nineteenth-century New York City, free primary education was largely the province of church-run charity schools. For families of means there was also the option of private schools maintained by individual teachers. While these two poles covered most of the city’s children, some worried that certain poor youngsters were falling through the cracks. Thus in 1805 a group of residents led by Mayor DeWitt Clinton formed the New York Free School Society to establish schools open to all at no charge. The Society aimed both to educate and “to inculcate the sublime truths of religion and morality contained in the Holy Scriptures” in an ecumenical way. The New York legislature incorporated the group but did not provide funding, so the Society depended on subscriptions by individual members. Mayor Clinton provided an inaugural gift of $200, but most donations did not exceed $25. In this way the society raised $6,501 in its initial year and opened its first Free School. Gifts from Colonel Henry Rutgers, a member of the State Board of Regents, allowed a second school to open. In exchange for educating the children of the city almshouse, the group was given another building and money for its repair. By 1814, the combination of private philanthropy and public cooperation sustained almost 800 students in free schools established by the society, and the growth continued in subsequent decades.

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