Live to the Truth: Cyrus Peirce -Winter 2013

by: Barbara Ann White

The only public school on Nantucket named in honor of someone is the CYRUS PEIRCE SCHOOL. Most people mispronounce “Peirce,” which should be pronounced “purse,” and few know who he was or why a school is named for him.

Peirce arrived on Nantucket in 1810, at age 20, to teach at a private school. He had just graduated from Harvard where he studied for the ministry. Peirce probably came to Nantucket because of his friendship with classmate Seth Swift, the Second Congregational Church’s first ordained minister.

“Every patriot, every friend of virtue and well regulated society, must therefore, be the friend of education, and of the system of free schools.”
Peirce regarded teaching as a temporary job, and after two years, returned to Harvard to study divinity. The Divinity Department was firmly in the hands of Unitarian thinkers, although the Unitarians did not officially cede from the Congregational Church until 1825. Unlike Congregationalists who regarded God as angry, Unitarians viewed Him as benevolent. Congregationalists viewed mankind as corrupt with only a select few chosen for salvation. Unitarians were more optimistic that God would save many. Unitarian principles guided Peirce’s life.

After three years at Harvard, Peirce accepted a job at his previous school on Nantucket, probably because he had fallen in love with Harriet Coffin, with whose family he had boarded. They married in 1816; she was 22 and he was 26. The school now included girls and he was immediately impressed by their ability to learn as well as the boys. This began Peirce’s lifelong commitment to equal education for women.

Still not committed to the life of a teacher, Peirce accepted as job as an assistant minister in Reading, Massachusetts in 1818. He stayed there for nine years, soon becoming the principal minister. In 1824 he delivered a Christmas Day sermon that made his increasingly radical thinking clear to the conservative congregation. Peirce preached to abolish slavery, seven years before the formation of the Anti-Slavery Society. He also expressed his views on women’s rights as well as his support of pacifism, both extreme for the time. Increasingly out of step with his parishioners, the elders asked for his resignation. Peirce never went back to the ministry, choosing to dedicate the rest of his life to improving education. He believed social reform would happen if Americans were well-educated.

Peirce’s first teaching position after his decision to leave the ministry was at Franklin Academy in Andover. Harvard classmate Simeon Putnam recruited him and put Peirce in charge of girls’ education. But the two men soon clashed over classroom management. An authoritarian, Putnam made liberal use of corporal punishment. Peirce fiercely opposed corporal punishment and believed students would behave in classrooms where they had a trusting relationship with their teachers. After four years, he tendered his resignation and returned to Nantucket with his wife.

During their 11-year absence, Nantucket had become a prosperous whaling community. Cyrus
and Harriet opened a successful private school on Orange Street where boys and girls were educated side by side. They hired assistants, one of whom was 16-year-old Maria Mitchell, later acclaimed as the first woman astronomer. Peirce also offered night classes in penmanship, navigation, Greek, Latin and Spanish.

The Atheneum, opened in 1834 “to promote the cultivation of Literature, the Sciences and the Arts,” become the intellectual heart of Nantucket. Peirce was asked to lecture about scientific subjects such as pneumatics and hydrostatics, on educational topics such as “the art of reading,” and on social causes of the day such as temperance. (He was a life-long tee-totaler).

But it was the issue of public education with which he became most associated. For 11 years, Nantucket flaunted the state law that mandated a town-supported high school. Peirce joined the Nantucket Education Society to pressure the town to comply with the law.

In 1838, Peirce and three members wrote a 24-page booklet, Address to the Inhabitants of Nantucket on Education and Free Schools. They emphasized the importance of public education to the survival of America’s democracy. “Every patriot, every friend of virtue and well regulated society, must therefore, be the friend of education, and of the system of free schools.” Their pressure paid off, and at the next annual Town Meeting, the town voted to create a high-school class on the second floor of the North Grammar School. Peirce was selected as its first principal.

Unfortunately for Nantucket, he left the job after less than two years. Horace Mann, the first secretary of education in Massachusetts (and in the country), asked Peirce to be the principal of the first public teacher-training college in the United States, to be located in Lexington, Massachusetts. The Lexington Normal School evolved into what is now the University of Massachusetts system. Passionate in his belief that public education depended on professionally-trained teachers, it was an opportunity he could not turn down.
Peirce left the island as the controversy over whether to admit a black student to the high school was heating up. Eunice Ross, age 17, had passed the required examination, but was denied admission by a vote of Town Meeting because of her skin color. From 1840-1847, Nantucket’s Annual Town Meetings were dominated by rancorous debate over school integration. Only two years later, however, the Peirces returned and joined the battle. The effort to single-handedly design and direct the Normal School had exhausted Peirce. But if he thought that his return would be restful, he was sorely mistaken. He arrived weeks after a convention of the Anti-Slavery Society had been disrupted by riots after Stephen Foster delivered his inflammatory “Brotherhood of Thieves” speech. Foster shocked listeners with his accusation that Northern ministers were complicit in maintaining slavery because of their affiliation with Southern churches. Rioters broke windows at the Atheneum while the abolitionists were speaking and bricks hit the home of at least one local abolitionist. The convention was forced to close early.

In addition to joining the movement to integrate the schools, Peirce co-chaired the Nantucket chapter of the Free Latimer Society. George Latimer, a fugitive slave who had fled to Boston with his wife, was arrested and jailed under the fugitive-slave law. Abolitionists across the state mobilized to prevent the couple from being sent back to slavery. Eventually, the abolitionists bought their freedom and the petition on their behalf altered Massachusetts law. The Personal Liberty Act forbade all state officers from aiding in the arrest of a fugitive slave.

Recognizing that the new law affected only fugitives who made it to Massachusetts, abolitionists organized a second petition drive, this one directed to the House of Representatives. Peirce led the signature campaign on Nantucket and was chosen by the statewide organization to deliver the huge petition of at least 51,000 names. The petition was enclosed in “a large cylindrical” box which Peirce transported by train. He wrote that he enjoyed keeping his fellow passengers guessing, refusing to divulge its contents. He wrote that they speculated he was carrying a marvelous new invention to the patent office.
In Washington he had the long petition wound on a cylinder, which he said stretched “about half a mile.” He met with former President John Quincy Adams to strategize how to present the petition to the House of Representatives because the “gag rule” forbade all abolitionist petitions from being submitted. For four days, Adams and Peirce unsuccessfully tried to present the petition. The large contraption on his desk hid Adams from view and infuriated the Southerners, according to Peirce. “How the sight of that big roll did make those Philistines of the South rage and foam and stamp and gnash their teeth!,” he wrote. (My husband and I found everal pieces of it, including one with Peirce’s large signature, among unfiled material in the National Archive).

Early the next year, Peirce was elected to the School Committee. Despite instructions from the Town Meeting to the contrary, the largely abolitionist committee ordered the schools integrated. Black students were assigned to various schools and white students were assigned to the African School on York Street. Peirce was appointed principal of the newly-created integrated West Grammar School. (Grammar schools were a step below high-school level).

School integration lasted less than a year. At the 1844 Town Meeting, the abolitionists were voted out of office. Peirce begged voters not to re-segregate the schools, to no avail. Rather than witness the expulsion of the black students in his school, Peirce resigned. (As a result of the controversy on Nantucket and the continued agitation of Nantucket abolitionists, Massachusetts eventually passed a law ensuring equal educational opportunity, something of which Nantucket should be justly proud).
Peirce was out of a job once again. Fortunately, he was called back to head the Normal School again and oversaw its move to West Newton, having outgrown its Lexington facility. He bought a house in Newton next to his close friend Horace Mann. Peirce would never again live on the island.

Peirce could not have foreseen that the integration battle he had fought and lost on Nantucket would pale in comparison to the battle he would wage in West Newton. A conservative minister, Matthew Hale Smith, attacked Peirce personally and repeatedly for three years, catapulting Peirce’s name into headlines in Boston. The publicity forced the legislature to investigate Peirce’s conduct. He was unanimously exonerated and Matthew Hale Smith humiliated. The Normal School had been saved and the curriculum that Peirce designed became the model for teacher training in many schools in the United States. Peirce continued as the principal in Newton until the school moved to Framingham, once again outgrowing its facility. He and Harriet lived in Newton until his death in 1860, at which point she moved back to the island.

Peirce’s Normal School students erected a monolith for his grave on Nantucket, engraved with the saying with which he had ended every lesson: “Live to the Truth,” still the motto of Framingham State.

Peirce accomplished many things in his life, yet he has somehow been forgotten both on Nantucket and in the history of education. More than anyone else, he is responsible for professionalizing teaching. He fought for equal pay for women and he fought for studentcentered classrooms. Next year, when Framingham State celebrates its 175th anniversary, it plans to honor Peirce’s place in history. ///

Barbara Ann White is an author, NHA research fellow and a lifelong educator. Her book “A Line in the Sand: The Battle to Integrate the Nantucket Public Schools 1825-1847” was published in 2009. She is currently looking for a publisher for her book on Cyrus Peirce.

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