The New England Primer Essay

The New England Primer was the first textbook published in the American colonies, and the most popular elementary textbook for generations of American schoolchildren in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The book is believed to have been the work of the English printer Benjamin Harris, author of the anti-Catholic Protestant Tutor (1679), who left England for Boston after the accession of the Catholic monarch, James II, in 1685. In Boston, he opened a bookstore and coffeehouse, and published the first newspaper printed in the Colonies, Publick Occurrences, Both Foreign and Domestick, which was suppressed after a single issue of September 25, 1690.

The first notice of The New England Primer was in an advertisement placed by Harris in 1690. The earliest extant copy of the book, in the collection of the American Antiquarian Society, dates from 1727. The book itself is roughly eighty-pages long and measures approximately 4½ x 3 inches. It begins with an alphabet, a syllabary, and lists of easy words for children to learn. One of its most famous features is an illustrated alphabet in which each letter is accompanied by a woodcut and a brief religious verse:

A In Adam’s Fall, We sinned all.

B Thy Life to mend, This Book attend.

The alphabet sets the Puritan tone of the entire primer, which is focused on religious instruction and informed with a Puritan emphasis on sin, obedience, and the inevitability of death.

The New England Primer is not an original work but a compendium of selections from other sources, including the illustrated alphabet (copied from an anonymous English text published in 1667), hymns by Isaac Watts, a poem by the sixteenth-century Protestant martyr John Rogers (taken from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs), the Westminster Catechism, and John Cotton’s shorter catechism, Spiritual Milk for Boston Babes. The primer also contains the first known printing of the famous children’s bedtime prayer that begins, “Now I lay me down to sleep. . . .” The book concludes with a lengthy dialog between Christ, Youth, and the Devil.

Eighteenth-century children were expected not only to read The New England Primer, but also to recite and to memorize its contents. The emphasis was on instilling Christian discipline along with the fundamentals of literacy. In the 1727 edition, the illustrated alphabet is followed by the injunction: “Now the Child being entered in his Letters and Spelling, let him learn these and such like Sentences by Heart, whereby he will be both intrusted in his Duty, and encouraged in his Learning.”

Bibliography:

  1. Avery, G. (1998). Origins and English predecessors of The New England Primer. Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, 108, 33–61.
  2. Crain, P. (2000). The story of A: The alphabetization of America from The New England Primer to The Scarlet Letter. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  3. Ford, P. L. (1897). The New England Primer: A history of its origin and development. New York: Dodd, Mead.
  4. Newman, A. (2002). The Common School: Literacy then and now. Common-Place 2.3. Retrieved from http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/cp/vol-02/no-03/school

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