Robert Lewis Dabney, White Supremacy, and Public Schools

Robert Lewis Dabney

There is a strain of conservative reformed Christians who admire the 19th century Presbyterian Confederate Robert Lewis Dabney. In particular, some have looked to his writings on education as inspiration for their opposition to public schools, and in favor of private Christian schools or homeschooling. From R. J. Rushdoony and the Reconstruction movement (see “A “Man of Faith and Courage”: Robert Lewis Dabney in the Journal of Christian Reconstruction, 1974–1999), to Douglas Wilson (see “Douglas Wilson and the Association of Christian Classical Schools“), to more recent figures like Zachary Garris (see his website “Teach Diligently”), Dabney is viewed as almost “prophetic” in his vision of what would happen to public schools in America.

Rushdoony, Wilson, Garris

Probably the most cited piece by Dabney is “Secularized Education” (1879), which has been reprinted by Douglas Wilson’s Canon Press, and was recently included as a chapter in Zachary Garris’s Dabney on Fire: A Theology of Parenting, Education, Feminism, and Government. Occasionally, other works on education by Dabney will also be cited, but almost never do any of these admirers acknowledge the white supremacy embedded at the heart of Dabney’s view of education and his opposition to public schools. Rarely, too, do they consider any of the counter arguments in existence in Dabney’s own time, counter arguments made by fellow Christians, and even fellow Presbyterians. In order to better understand Dabney’s views on education, it is necessary to situate them in context and consider all the sources.

“Civis” in the Richmond Religious Herald (1875)

Dabney’s first article on education was titled “The Negro and the Common School” and on the very first page, he says this:

You may conceive, therefore, the satisfaction with which I saw “Civis” take up the cause of truth in the columns of the Religious Herald, and subsequently in the Planter and Farmer, and my admiration for his moral courage, eloquence and invincible logic. 

Bennet Puryear / “Civis”

“Civis” was the pen-name for a Baptist professor from Richmond, Bennet Puryear. In 1875, Puryear wrote “a much-discussed series of articles opposing mass education on principle” (Maddex, The Virginia Conservatives, 211). I have not been able to locate these articles (yet!) but they seem to have appeared in the following issues:

Objections to Public Schools Considered” (1875)

Barnas Sears

Barnas Sears was one of the most influential Baptists of the nineteenth century. After serving as a professor at the Newton Theological Institution, he took over for Horace Mann as Massachusetts Secretary of Education, and during Reconstruction, was General Agent of the Peabody Fund. In 1875, in response to “Civis”’s attack on public schools, Sears delivered an address defending public schools at the Annual Meeting of the Trustees of the Peabody Fund. This piece is important for demonstrating another way to approach Church/State relations and public schools from a Baptist perspective:

Objections to Public Schools Considered (October 7, 1875)

“The Public School in its Relations to the Negro” (1875–76)

Bennet Puryear followed up on his earlier articles, which had opposed public schools “on principle,” with three more articles in the Planter and Farmer opposing the education of Black people. The articles are filled with Puryear’s white-supremacist views, and it is not surprising that Dabney expressed his “satisfaction” and “admiration” for them. They originally appeared December 1875, January 1876, and February 1876, and were collected and printed in a pamphlet:

The Public School in its Relations to the Negro (1877)

Rev. Dr. John Miller (1875–76)

In “The Negro and the Common School,” Dabney also references another set of articles by fellow Presbyterian John Miller. Miller was born in Virginia, the son of Princeton professor Samuel Miller. Like Dabney, Miller too had served in the Confederacy, before moving back to the north to pastor in Princeton, NJ. Here’s what Dabney said:

With equal satisfaction I have seen the Rev. Dr. John Miller, long an honored citizen of Virginia, and a gallant soldier in her army, arguing the same truth in the Tribune, with even more than his wonted terseness, boldness and condensed logic. 

James G. Blaine

John Miller had written two articles to the New York Tribune opposing public schools. He was responding to a letter by ex-Speaker of the House James G. Blaine that had been published in the Tribune December 3, 1875 advocating for a Constitutional amendment (“The Blaine Amendment”) requiring “non-sectarian schools”:

“The Negro and the Common School” (1876)

In February 1876, Dabney finally joined the fray directly and wrote a letter for the Planter and Farmer which was published in April 1876:

“The Negro and the Common School” (1876)

The piece contains Dabney’s characteristic venomous white supremacy, but goes further and attacks the “satanic” effort to establish public schools to teach Black people in Virginia. Zachary Garris has claimed that William Ruffner, superintendent of public schools in Virginia, “attacked” Dabney after he published this piece. In fact, Dabney was the one who attacked Ruffner, in bitter and vehement terms, as we can see in Ruffner’s response.

“Dr. Dabney Answered by Mr. Ruffner” (1876)

William Henry Ruffner

William Henry Ruffner was a fellow Presbyterian minister, and after the Civil War, he “was the designer and first superintendent of Virginia’s public school system,” and served as state superintendent for twelve years (“William Henry Ruffner (1824–1908)“). After Dabney’s attack in “The Negro and the Common School,” Ruffner wrote a four-part series in the Richmond Enquirer and the Dispatch in April 1876, responding to Dabney’s article point by point.

  1. “Dr. Dabney and Dr. Ruffner” (April 5, 1876)
  2. “Public Schools and the Public Debt” (April 8, 1876)
  3. “Dr. Ruffner and Dr. Dabney. Educated Labor” (April 12, 1876)
  4. “Dr. Ruffner and Dr. Dabney. IV. The Negro” (April 13, 1876)

The series was later reprinted in a slightly revised and condensed version in The Educational Journal of Virginia:

“The Public Free School System: Dr. Dabney Answered by Mr. Ruffner”

Ruffner also took to the pages of the Central Presbyterian to issue an open letter to his “Dear Brother” in a more “in house” setting among fellow Presbyterians:

“Letter from Dr. Wm. H. Ruffner” (April 5, 1876)

In these letters, Ruffner references a number of articles that had been published in previous years. The first was an article he had written anonymously in The Presbyterial Critic in 1855 criticizing public schools, but he claimed he had given up those views after a rejoinder was published the following year:

In his reply to Dabney, Ruffner also references a section of his “First Annual Report of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, for the year ending August 1, 1871,” addressing Black education:

Ruffner, “Emancipation and its Historical Consequences”: 92–131

Ruffner had also delivered an address in 1874 at the Grace Street Church, which was reprinted in The Educational Journal of Virginia:

Ruffner, “Religion in the Public Schools,” (April 1874)

Last, in his article addressing the cost of public schools, Ruffner referenced a recent article that had been printed in the Richmond Enquirer, and had been reprinted in The Educational Journal of Virginia

Southall, “The Cost of the Free School System in Virginia” (1876)

Dabney’s Rejoinder (1876)

Dabney, never one to walk away from a good fight, responded in kind. He published another volley of articles in the Richmond Enquirer, April 18, April 22, April 25, and May 4, 1876:

“The State Free School System Imposed Upon Virginia by the Underwood Constitution” (1876)

Ruffner’s Surrejoinder (1876)

Ruffner responded again to Dabney’s articles with a seven-part series, also in the Richmond Enquirer, throughout May 1876. These were also reprinted in The Educational Journal of Virginia. The seventh article “failed to appear in the Enquirer, because the MS. was lost in the office of that paper; and now, after an interval of three weeks, I must hurriedly reproduce it for the Journal”:

  1. Virginia School Doctrines
  2. Virginia Doctrines (continued)
  3. Illiteracy
  4. Religion in Schools
  5. The Bible in Public Schools
  6. Education and Crime
  7. Miscellaneous Points

Commissioner of Education (1877)

The Dabney/Ruffner exchange was high profile enough, that the Federal Commissioner of Education referenced it in his 1877 Report (page xxxiii):

“Education of the Colored Race”

Additionally, The Educational Journal of Virginia also carried an article addressing the controversy in general:

T. M. Logan, “The Opposition in the South to the Free School System” (1877)

More Dabney Articles (1879–80)

Virginia proceeded with their public school system, and thus Dabney “lost” that particular battle, but he would not give up the war. He continued to publish additional articles in the Princeton Review and the Southern Planter repeating many of his arguments against state involvement in education, though his Princeton Review articles (perhaps because he was publishing in a northern journal?) he left out his tirades against “the negro.” His (now) popular “Secularized Education” is largely a reprint of Letter 4 to Ruffner from 1876. His “Free Schools” article, written for a southern audience in the Southern Planter, again contains a section explicitly opposing educating Black people.

More Responses (1879–80)

In the 1879 volume of The Educational Journal of Virginia, William N. Nelson responded directly to Dabney’s article on “Free Schools,” and an unknown author responded to his “Secularized Education” in “Christianity in Public Schools.”

The next year there was a meeting of the Department of Superintendents belonging to the National Educational Association in Washington, February 18-20, 1880. In his address, Ruffner made reference to the way the old “defenders of slavery” now denied “the power of common school education” to improve the lives of laborers, especially Black people.

Dabney on State Education in Texas (1884)

It is interesting to compare Dabney’s views on State involvement in public schools for children, versus his views on State education at the college level. In 1883 Dabney moved to Texas and took a position at the University of Texas. In a letter to E. M. Palmer which was published in the Southwestern Presbyterian in 1884, Dabney defends the State’s involvement with education as not inconsistent with Christianity at all. This directly contradicts some of his earlier positions expressed in Virginia — perhaps the difference here is that State sponsored education is acceptable for well-bred white men, but not for Black children:

R. L. Dabney, “Letter to Dr. E. P. Palmer” (1884)

Conclusion

A few brief observations in conclusion. 

First, anyone who wishes to praise Dabney’s insights in education needs to reckon with the white supremacy that was at the heart of his objections to public schools. It is telling that most have not even acknowledged this.

Second, those who think Dabney was “uniquely prophetic” in his stance against public schools, should realize that Dabney was not unique, in fact, this was just one more aspect of Southern resistance to reconstruction. As the Blaine Amendment was being debated in congress in 1875, the whole country was intensely debating these questions. Dabney was just one of many, especially in the south, who opposed public schools in the midst of this debate. 

Third, before you swallow Dabney’s “insights” whole, you really need to read Barnas Sear’s perspective, and the various rebuttals, especiall William Ruffner’s. There is not one single “Christian” perspective on public schools, whatever certain very confident voices would have you believe.

Finally, as with every historical inquiry, there is always far more below the surface than you initially realize. When one sees an isolated quote, or a high-profile endorsement of Dabney’s views of “Secularized Education,” it can initially sound compelling until you dig below the surface and see what else is there. As usual, there is quite a bit of context to be reckoned with.

For Further Reading:

6 thoughts on “Robert Lewis Dabney, White Supremacy, and Public Schools”

  1. How does all this vitriol against Blacks by Darby go unnoticed by those who continue to cite him in their theological writings for decades? Maybe the same way Doug Wilson is still not called out by men like Piper!

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  2. Hi. Thanks for all your hard work in digging this depressing stuff out. I am very familiar with 19th century language and literature, and I deplore the modern tendency to find one thing a historical figure wrote that isn’t quite what we’d say nowadays and then condemn them. However this Dabney’s stuff is just beyond horrendous. Its so appallingly unloving – even if every single dreadful thing he said about black people (lazy, criminal, etc) was factually correct, where is the compassion? where is the gospel!?!?! I just had one minor comment, not particularly to this post but his stuff in general. You refer to his attitude several times as “venomous hatred”. I could be missing something, but it doesn’t quite read to me precisely as hatred, more a sort of overwhelming contemptious arrogance. Hatred to me seems more personal – there’s a sort of total dismissive casting-aside of black people that seems to me if anything worse than hatred. I’ve been studying Isaiah recently and there is a lot about the Babylonian and Assyrians being haughty, prideful, arrogant. Dabney’s attitude strikes me more that way. Wondered if you had any thoughts about that.

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    1. Hi Katharine,

      That’s a good point. I usually use the phrase “venomous white-supremacy” but I have said “venomous hatred before.” I think you’re right about Dabney. To be more precise, I would say Dabney *despised* Black people, and *hated* Yankees, and of course, the two were related. Thanks for reading 🙂

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