In the current issue of The Cato Journal, Neal McCluskey takes aim at "the factually dubious assertion that education -- especially government-run education -- has always been understood as essential to the survival of a free, American republic."
From the early colonial period well into the 19th century -- when the nation was formed and its foundational principles established -- there was little "public schooling," as we would define it today, with no states having compulsory schooling laws and education primarily conducted in private or voluntary community settings. Moreover, most early Americans simply did not envision a major government role in education, nor did they see schooling as critical to a free society. Indeed, in his lifetime Jefferson never got even the rudimentary public schooling system he wanted for Virginia because too few Virginians supported it.
This is not to say that the education that occurred -- and there was much of it -- did not teach children a common, American culture. Look no further than sales of the famous, intentionally "American" spellers of Noah Webster. By 1829, 20 million copies of the spellers were in circulation, though the entire population of the United States was less than 13 million. And they were ubiquitous because people freely bought them.