Locke Amsden, or The Schoolmaster
Daniel Pierce Thompson

by Daniel Pierce Thompson

In Thompson's novel, a brilliant farm boy frustrates his schoolmasters with questions they can't answer, gets a chance to further his education and decides to become a schoolmaster himself. His successes and failures as student and teacher illustrate the changing nature of the country's common schools from the beginning to the middle of the 19th century.  Go to the tale

   B a c k g r o u n d

  • Story Setting: Vermont
  • Story Date: 1810-1830
  • Publication Date: 1847
  • Daniel Pierce Thompson: 1795-1868

  •    E x c e r p t     O n e
    (The links bookmark excerpt one.)

  • The beginning of excerpt one
  • Locke advised to get a good education
  • A box of books arrive
  • Locke is a problem for schoolmaster
  • Good and bad habits of thought
  • Friendship with a self-taught surveyor
  • New school term, no schoolmaster
  • A good schoolmaster is found

  •    E x c e r p t     T w o
    (The links bookmark excerpt two.)

  • The beginning of excerpt two
  • Locke looks for a teaching job
  • Locke's teaching skills are tested
  • Locke treats students with respect
  • A student becomes defiant
  • Locke's administers punishment
  • Students discuss the punishment

  •    E x c e r p t     T h r e e
    (The links bookmark excerpt three.)

  • The beginning of excerpt three
  • Locke begins his second teaching job
  • Locke decides to get parents involved
  • Unexpected competition
  • A condemnation of uninvolved parents
  • Parents and pupils improve

  •    T h e    T h e m e s
    (The links bookmark theme-related passages in the color-coded version of the tale.)

  • The Schoolmaster: 1, 2, 3, 4
  • Students at Work: 1, 2
  • School & Community: 1, 2, 3
  • Punishment: 1

  •    R e l a t e d    S i t e s

  • "Locke Amsden" text (optical scan with errors and original pages)

  • Daniel Pierce Thompson -- 1856 Biography

  • Daniel Pierce Thompson

  • Collection of Daniel Pierce Thompson papers

  •    I n t r o d u c t i o n

       "Locke Amsden, or The Schoolmaster" is as much a tract about the importance of quality education to the continuing growth of the United States as it is a novel. As we follow the educational journey of Locke Amsden, the novel's hero, we learn the author's view of the problems with common school education in the first half of the 19th century as well as the solutions he proposes.

       When the novel opens, Locke Amsden is an uncommonly bright, curious 16 year old growing up in a farming community in Vermont where books are rare and respect for the importance of education is minimal. His probable fate is to continue attending the local common school each winter until he is twenty, then work his father's farm or take up a trade in the area. However, fate intervenes in the form of a traveler who appreciates Locke's brilliance, encourages his parents to allow him to continue his education, and gives the young man a box full of college texts to study. With a few more fortunate intercessions in his favor, Locke attends an academy and college, and he decides his calling is to become a schoolmaster.

       Along the way, we get a picture of the common schools dotting the United States in the first half of the 19th century. The schools were poorly built, the schoolmasters were poorly educated and worse paid, and the style of education leaned heavily on rote learning. Locke Amsden sets out to change all that. By the end of the book, we get glimpses of what education can and should be in the United States, with better built schoolhouses, well educated and decently paid teachers, and education based on mastery of basic principles together with the encouragement of thought and reason.

       Daniel Pierce Thompson can be satirical and cynical in this novel, but his clear intention is to use his book to engage its readers in a dialogue about common schooling in the United States and encourage them to support and strengthen the institutions of popular education. Thompson is a firm believer in the idea that a well educated nation is a strong nation, and his concept of education goes beyond literacy, numeracy, and the accumulation of random facts. Again and again, we see the personal and practical importance of having a nation of problem solvers who have been taught how to take basic principles and use them to arrive at logical, valuable conclusions.

       Thompson wrote "Locke Amsden" from his personal experiences and his philosophical convictions. Like the book's hero, Thompson was raised in a sparsely settled area of Vermont. One story about Thompson's youth says that, when he was about 16, a watersoaked volume of English poetry floated by during a spring thaw; he carefully dried the book, read it and decided he must further his education. He studied on his own, found tutors, and eventually went to college. During this time, he supplemented his income by working as a schoolmaster at various district schools in the area. After graduating from college, he went into law and was a probate judge as well as Clerk of the County and the Supreme Court. Just before writing "Locke Amsden," he was secretary of the State Education Society, which helps to account for his proselytizing fervor in the novel. He was also Secretary of State of Vermont. From college onward he wrote and published numerous stories, novels, and articles.

       I've chosen excerpts from "Locke Amsden" that shed the most light on the state of the district schools in the first half of the 19th century and on Thompson's suggestions for their improvement. Many more passages from the book could be included. The book is currently out of print, but the complete novel can be found on the Making of America site. You can read scanned images of pages from the book or the optically scanned text, though the scanned text contains many errors.