Abraham Lincoln in Illinois
A Selection of Documents from the Illinois State Archives

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December 2, 1840

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Abraham Lincoln once said that he had at best attended one year of school in his life. He started attending school as a child in Kentucky and attended approximately five schools in Kentucky and Indiana by the age of fifteen.

In the book Lincoln by David Donald, the author notes that Lincoln was scornful of the types of schools he attended, stating, "No qualifications were ever required of a teacher, beyond readin', writin', and cipherin' to the Rule of Three."

Perhaps it was with his own education in mind that Lincoln sponsored the attached document, which calls for the Committee on Education to look into requiring teachers to pass a qualifying examination before being allowed to teach in a public school.

Taking Lincoln's resolution to heart, the General Assembly that year passed legislation requiring local school authorities to examine any person who proposed to teach in their area. The legislation said no public school teacher was to be paid without first being examined by and receiving a certificate of qualification from the local school authority. The legislation did not specify what the examination was to consist of, giving a lot of flexibility to the local authorities.

In 1825 Illinois passed the Free School Law that allowed counties to create school districts and levy taxes to support them. The state promised only a very small amount of money toward supporting education at that time. It wasn't until 1855 that the state mandated a free public school system and 1883 when it became compulsory for children ages eight through fourteen to attend school.

Today, schoolteachers must be college graduates and undergo rigorous examination and take continuous coursework as part of their profession.

Points to Consider

Why would Lincoln have an interest in making sure teachers were qualified?

What are some reasons that not everyone in Lincoln's time favored tax-supported public schools and compulsory student attendance?

Before 1940, most children who lived in rural areas attended one-room schools. How did these differ from your elementary school?

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