The Massachusetts Law of 1642


When our founding fathers set sail from Britain, their main concern was the establishment of a society unburdened by religious oppression. They soon learned that education was necessary to achieve this goal, as both secular and religious laws were codified. This need ultimately led to the Massachusetts Law of 1642, the first in a series of three legislative acts, known as the Massachusetts School Laws, which laid the foundation for mandatory education in America.

In a nutshell, the Massachusetts Law of 1642 provided that all parents, masters (of children apprenticed to them or of servants), and guardians were responsible for insuring that their dependents were competent enough in reading and writing to understand the basic religious principles and secular laws of the commonwealth. The law further required that all parents and masters expose their children and apprentices to “some honest lawful calling, labor or employment”. Finally, the law stipulated that if the selectmen found parents or masters negligent in these duties they could remove children from their home or apprenticeship and place them elsewhere for the purposes of adequate education.

The Law of 1642 was remarkable in several regards. It was the first time in the English-speaking world that a legislative body dictated that all children be taught to read. In transferring the responsibility for supervision of education from religious to secular authorities (i.e., from the clergy to the selectmen of the colony), the law was also a departure from tradition. And, its emphasis on education rather than schooling was notably different from the later Massachusetts School Laws.

It is generally accepted that enforcement of the Massachusetts Law of 1642 was difficult, and that the subsequent School Laws, of 1647 and 1648, were enacted as a result, shifting the emphasis from education to schooling. The Massachusetts Law of 1647 obliged the towns of the colony to found, operate and fund schools. Citing ignorance as a satanic ill to be avoided, the law required every town with more than 50 families to hire a teacher, and every town with more than 100 families to create a “grammar school”. The Massachusetts Law of 1648 basically addressed and expanded upon the requirements set forth in the Law of 1642.

While the 1647 Law (also called the General School Law) is widely considered the most famous of the three School Laws, as it led to the establishment of public educational institutions, the Massachusetts Law of 1642 paved the path for mandatory education in America.