The Columbia Spy
February 19, 1870
BRIEF BIOGRAPHY OF JAMES PYLE WICKERSHAM, STATE SUPERINTENDENT OF PUBLIC SCHOOLS OF PENNSYLVANIA
At two or three different times during the past year, have we essayed, through personal application to the friends of Hon. J. P. Wickersham, to get data for a sketch of his life for our series, and, through persistent efforts, we have at last succeeded. That our labors will be appreciated, we do not doubt. A life-history of one so closely allied with the interests if not the destinies, of the rising generation, cannot but prove interesting to both parents and children. Mr. Wickersham is descended from the first settlers of Pennsylvania, co-equal with William Penn. Thomas Wickersham, together with other of his Quaker brethren, emigrated from Cheshire, England, nearly two hundred years ago, and settled in the then wilderness of Chester county, and, although five generations have come and gone since, our subject was born and raised within two miles of the house built and occupied by Thomas Wickersham, his lineal progenitor in 1705. On the mother’s side he also descends from the early settlers, being the grandson of James Pyle, a "Friend."
Caleb Wickersham, the father of James P., our subject, still lives, and until recently, owned and conducted the farm from the products of which he raised and educated his family. He is a man or marked character-a sound thinker, close and careful reader, and possessed of clear judgment and deep-seated integrity.
His mother receives a boarding-school education, and was a successful teacher before her marriage. She, too, still lives, and is noted for her benevolence and complacency and strength of character.
James P. entered school when about seven years old, and made rapid progress. He led all his competitors, always standing head in his classes. At home he had frequently to be driven from his books to bed, so determined was he to excel his classmates. When about twelve years of age, being the oldest of a large family of children, he had to assist his father on the farm and his mother in the house, during the summer months, getting to school only in the winter; but even then he found much time to devote to his studies.
In 1834, when he was only eleven years old, the question of a free school system came up, and James, boy as he was, took a lively interest in its adoption, and stood up manfully, with creditable arguments, against its opposers, predicting its great benefits with almost prophetic foresight; and he has lived to see its manifold blessings, and the hope, of which the wish was father, realized, and in no small degree through his own instrumentality. As years advanced, he became a great reader. His father’s small but well chosen library, as well as those of all his neighbors, was eagerly read and rehearsed in private. His great desire to become a scholar pleased his mother, and she often screened him from his companions at play, that he might "thumb" some new book. Nor did his love of reading incapacitate him fro manual labor. At sixteen he could do more work on the farm than any man his father could hire, and at the rustic sports of the day and locality he was quite an expert. Even now, there are few armature ball-players whom he would not excel.
He spent some six sessions at the Unionville Academy, Chester county, where he mastered mathematics, natural sciences, history, and the English, French, and Latin languages. This constituted his theoretical or methodical education. The literary degrees he has since received are all honorary. At sixteen he informed his father that he wanted to choose and study a profession. This his father objected to, not because he was opposed to the course, but because he needed his assistance on the farm. He gave him, however, his choice of remaining with home on the farm, or throwing himself upon his own resources. The plucky boy chose the latter, and since that day has made his way in the world, without pecuniary assistance from any one -emphatically "the architect of his own fortune." A few days after this interview he engaged himself as an assistant teacher in the Academy where he had been a student, but with no other compensation than the instruction he should receive. The following winter, 1841-42, he taught a common country school. At twenty dollars per month, and then returned to school himself; and so continued, alternately teaching and going to school, until the year 1845, when he became principal of the Marietta Academy, located at Marietta, Lancaster county, Pa.
Mr. Wickersham’s success as a teacher was marked from the beginning. While teaching his first school, in Brandywine district, Chester county, the board of directors passed a resolution, stating that his was the best taught school under their charge. In another district he received a premium of four dollars per month, for the best teaching, and in still another he was paid five dollars per month more than any other teacher in the district. Years afterwards, while principal of the Academy at Marietta, and of the State Normal school at Millersville, although fifty or sixty miles distance, nearly all the young people of the neighborhood where he had taught, who went from home to school. Followed the teacher who had given so much satisfaction to their older brothers and sisters. It should be stated, however, that his intention was to study law, and he had made arrangements to enter a lawyer’s office for that purpose; but the fact coming to the knowledge of his Quaker grandfather, provoked so much opposition on his part, that the design was postponed and finally abandoned.
Mr. Wickersham was just twenty years of age when he became principal of the Academy at Marietta. Three years afterwards he was married to Emerine I. Taylor, of Chester county, daughter of Dr. Isaac Taylor, deceased. The institution of which he now had charge, continued to flourish all the time he remained at its head, which was nine years. The school was strictly a private one, but there never was a time when the names of several non-paying students could not have been found on its roll. Poor, deserving young men and women were sought out, invited to attend the school, and told that their expenses in so doing would be provided for; and there are those thus favored, who do not know today that it was their kind-hearted principal to whom they were indebted. In 1845 he was elected the first county Superintendent of Schools, in Lancaster county; and, because he declined serving for a less sum, he was paid a salary five hundred dollars larger than any other Superintendent in the State. In 1855, he founded and temporarily presided over the Lancaster county Normal Institute at Millersville, an institution which, at first designed to prepare teachers for the schools of a single county eventually, under his management, developed into the first State Normal School of Pennsylvania, and thus practically pioneered the whole work of Normal instruction in the State. In 1865, he resigned the office of County Superintendent, to accept that of principal of the institution he had established, cared for it as a father cares for his child, and at last, after a long and hard struggle, he had the proud satisfaction of seeing it become, not only a State Normal School, but one of the largest and most flourishing institutions of the kind in the country. He continued as principal of the Normal School, until 1866, when he resigned that position with the intention of visiting Europe, and on his return completing a series of works on the Science of Teaching, which he had commenced; but an unexpected circumstance of a domestic character which occurred at this time, completed him to change his intention; and, being offered, by Governor Curtin, the State Superintendency of Common Schools, he accepted the position, served one term, and was reappointed by Governor Geary. His confirmation by the Senate the second time was unanimous, everyone of the thirty three Senators voting for it. The vigor of his administration as the head of our State school system, is shown by facts like the following: Eleven cities and large boroughs have been induced to elect Superintendents of Schools; five thousand children have been brought into schools, from districts which had previously rejected the Common School system; the State appropriation to schools has been largely increased; the attendance at Teachers’ Institute has increased nearly four-fold; the expenditures for school purposes in the State have nearly doubled those for building and repairing school houses being now more than five time as great as in any other year prior 1866. Hundreds of schools have been graded; our new State Normal School has been put in operation, and several others are in a good state of forwardness; offices have been secured for County Superintendents in some thirty-five counties, and the Superintendency itself has been made much more effective, by the refusal to commission incompetent persons elected to the office. A higher grade of qualification has been adopted for teachers, and the salaries of those who are competent have been largely advanced; and by means of addresses delivered in all the principal cities and towns of the State, the annual reports, the matter published in the official department of the School Journal, and visitations to schools the people have been awakened to a higher sense of their duty to Common Schools.
Space forbids a discussion here of Mr. Wickersham’s merits, as a teacher and as a Superintendent of Schools. The full story of his professional life would require a volume.
Few among her citizens have been able to do as much for Pennsylvania andoutside of his own State he is placed in the very front rank of Americans educators. This
is seen in the fact that he has been offered, again and again, high positions in other States, and His excellency, President Sarmiento, of the Argentine Republic, before leaving New York in 1868, to enter upon the duties of his office, tried to induce him by the offer of a very high salary, and a position in his Cabinet, to accompany him to South America, and take charge of the education interests of the county over which he had been called to preside.
Mr. Wickersham has written many articles for magazines and newspapers, mostly of an educational character, and few in the country have visited more schools, attended more Teachers’ Institutes and Associations, or been present at more educational meetings. He assisted in establishing the Lancaster County Teachers’ Association and was elected its second President in 1853; he assisted in establishing the Pennsylvania State Teachers’ Association, and was elected its fourth President in 1855; he assisted in establishing the National Teachers’ Association and was elected its seventh President in 1865; he is now President of the National Superintendents’ Association, a body composed of the leading educators of the nation. An address of his read before the National Teachers’ Association, at its meeting in Harrisburg, in 1865, on "Education as an element in the reconstruction of the Union", was published by some liberal and patriotic gentlemen of Boston, in pamphlet form, and many thousands of copies were gratuitously distributed over the country. His inaugural address at Indianapolis, before the same body, on "An American Education for the American People," besides being widely published in this country, was translated into several foreign languages, and largely circulated, both in Europe and South America. Professor Laboulaye, of the University of France, the well known friend of America, who translated it into French, pronounces it "the best exposition of the American idea of popular education that has ever been written."
Mr. Wickersham is the author of two volumes - "School Economy," and "Methods of Instruction," - both prepared while at the Normal School, and published by Messrs Lippincott & Co., of Phila. These books have sold more largely than any other books of the sort published in this country, and they are now used as text books in nearly all our State Normal Schools, and in many other institutions where teachers are prepared. Sale has also been found for them in Europe, especially in England and Germany. They are recognized as standard works by the entire profession, and as the first successful attempt made in this country to place teaching on a philosophical basis they have received the highest commendations from its leading members.
This sketch would be incomplete without referring to Mr. Wickersham’s record during our late civil war. Soon after the breaking out of hostilities, he proposed to Governor Curtin to raise a regiment, to be composed mainly of young teachers; but he was dissuaded from making the attempt by the Governor, the trustees of the Normal School, and other friends. The Governor said "he could get ten Colonels to one Principal of a State Normal School." Not feeling at liberty under these circumstances to go himself, he did what he could to aid others in going. He raised a considerable sum of money to assist in equipping a Lancaster county company, which became company B., of the First Pennsylvania Reserves. He spent both time and money in helping to raise company E of the 79th regiment, which was commanded by his brother, and being composed in good part of young men who had been students at Millersville, was called the "Normal Guards." He did even more for company E, of the 122nd regiment, whose officers and men were nearly all Millersville students; and in recognition of his services, the company received the name of he Wickersham Guards" He assisted one of the Trustees of the School in raising another company, offering a bounty to those who enlisted, but regiment of which it was to form a part was never organized, and the company was disbanded. Valuable assistance was also rendered to the officers who recruited company C, of the 185 regiment, and company B, of the 214 regiment. And when Lee, beating the army of the Potomac, triumphantly marched his forces into the state, in the dark days of June, 1863 on that solemn Sunday afternoon when a detachment of the rebel army reached the Susquehanna, at Columbia, while the smoke of the burning bridge obscured with its black masses the western sky, Mr. Wickersham. Called a meeting of trustees and students in the Chapel of the school, and said:
The rebels are almost in sight! You can now hear the sound of their cannon and see their work of destruction! By this time tomorrow they may be here ! It is the duty of every one who is able, to fight them. I intend to do it. All the students should go to their homes as soon as possible. If any of the young men present choose to return within a day or two, or if any have brothers or fathers who would sooner fight than run away, they will find me ready to lead them to assist, as best we can our brave boys already, in driving back the enemy.
Within a week from that day, the 47th regiment P.V.M. was organized at Camp Curtin equipped and ready to march. Twenty-two companies offered to join Colonel Wickersham’s command, but he declines to receive more than a sufficient number to complete his regiment. The regiment joined the right wing of the army of the Potomac, near Greencastle, Pa., July 13th, and expected to participate in the contemplated attack upon Lee’s army, which was then entrenched for some, miles on the Maryland side of the Potomac river; but the hasty retreat of the rebels, on the night of July 13th preventing it. The 47th regiment had no fighting to do, but it had some hard marching, and did much guard and picket duty. It was mustered out at Reading, August 14th.
Mr. Wickersham is a somewhat rare example of a man who has mastered his profession, without allowing it to master him. He has always taken a deep interest in public affairs outside of it. A few facts will be narrated, showing with what results this has been done.
The idea of educating, and schools and "homes" provided by the state for the purpose, the orphan children of our deceased soldiers and sailors left in indigent circumstances; originated with Hon. A. G. Curtin, then Governor of the Commonwealth; but the plan of carrying this idea into effect "in its main features" that now in operation, was prepared by Mr. Wickersham, in the winter of 1864, at the Governor‘s request.
In his school report of 1866, Mr. Wickersham says in reference to our state charitable institutions, that "The Legislature has provided no regular agents for visiting or inspecting them, or looking closely after the interest the state has in them and no central authority whose duty is to receive report, tabulate results and looking over the whole field suggest improvements"
In the same report he strongly urges the establishment of a "Central Office", to meet the wants declared to exist. He deemed the matter of so much importance that he took frequent occasion to press it personally upon the attention of leading Senators, until, in 1868, Dr. Wilmer Worthington, the noble hearted Senator from the Chester district offered a resolution providing for the appointment of two Senators, who in conjunction with the Superintendent of Common Schools were directed to inquire into the propriety of established a Board of State Charities. This commission spent considerable time in visiting the charitable institutions of the State, and their report, which was written by Mr. Wickersham, was so favorably received, that an act was passed, almost unanimously, providing for the establishment of such a board. The board has now been organized, and unless the hopes of many far-seeing men shall be disappointed, it will be productive of more good than anything done by the Legislature of Pennsylvania for years.
Mr. Wickersham has never been confined to his bed, by sickness, a day in his life; he never drank a glass of strong liquor, nor does he use tobacco in any of its forms. From 1841 to 1853 he was a very active temperance man, taking a leading part in several organizations intended to check the use of strong drink, and reform drunkards. Convinced at last, by long experience, that the most effective way to overcome the evils of intemperance, as well as other social evils, is to educate the rising generation in the proper manner, and thus prevent the formation of bad habits, he has, for the last fifteen years, thrown his entire energies into the work of lifting up the whole people, by educating them, leaving to others the management of reformatory agencies which he considers narrower and less radical: With this view he has taken much interest in the cause of Sabbath-schools, giving it the advantage of his official as well as private influence. His desire is to see the instruction, imparted in the common schools, supplemented by a common schools, supplemented by a system which will furnish more positive religious instruction than such schools admit of.
As much time as his active professional life has permitted, Mr. Wickersham has devoted to scientific pursuits. He has made numerous journeys through our own and other states, for the purpose of studying Geology in the field. He is a member of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and President of the Linnaean Society, of Lancaster. He is especially fond of Metaphysics, and has read extensively on the subject.
Though not an active politician, Mr. Wickersham has always taken a deep interest in political affairs. When quite a boy he was accustomed to attend conventions and make speeches on slavery, the tariff, and other live issues of the day. He is well versed in all that appertains to the nature and history of governments, and the science of politics. Though careful not to exhibit any partisan feelings in the discharge of his duties of the non-political positions he has held, his convictions on the great questions that have come up before the American people in the last twenty years, are of the most decided character. His general political views will be made plain by stating that starting out in his career as an abolitionist, he gave his first vote for President, in 1848, to the Free Soil candidate, although this ticket received by a single vote besides his own, in the town where he then resided, out of a poll of five hundred, and he did the same thing in 1852. In 1856 he voted for Fremont; in 1860, for Lincoln; in 1864, again for Lincoln; and in 1868 for Grant.
If the past of a life betokens its future, Mr. Wickersham has still before him years of usefulness. That he may long live to serve his fellow-men, in his present position, or in some other equally high and honorable, is the wish of thousands.
Efforts like his, directed always to promote the public good, well deserve the grateful acknowledgment of the people. - Leisure Hours.