Bronson Alcott

Bronson Alcott

[awl-kuht, -kot]
Alcott, Bronson, 1799-1888, American educational and social reformer, b. near Wolcott, Conn., as Amos Bronson Alcox. His meager formal education was supplemented by omnivorous reading while he gained a living from farming, working in a clock factory, and as a peddler in the South. He was master of several schools before opening (1834) his Temple School in Boston. Strongly influenced by the ideas of Johann Pestalozzi, he advocated the development of each child's unique intellectual abilities and eschewed the corporal punishment generally favored at the time. Alcott's own records, as well as those made by his illustrious assistants, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody and Margaret Fuller, show his concern with the full and integrated mental, physical, and spiritual development of the child. Unfavorable reactions to his advanced and liberal theories forced him to close (1839) his school. However, his disappointment was lessened when he learned of the success of Alcott House, a school founded by his disciples in England.

A leading exponent of transcendentalism, as were his friends Emerson and Thoreau, Alcott wrote for the periodical Dial (the "Orphic Sayings" was his most famous contribution) and was a nonresident member of Brook Farm. He was one of the founders (1843) of a cooperative vegetarian community, "Fruitlands," near Harvard, Mass., but it proved unsuccessful and was abandoned in 1844. Poverty continually plagued the life of the Alcotts until the writings of his daughter, Louisa May Alcott, relieved the family of financial worry. He became (1859) superintendent of the Concord public schools, whose reformation he described in his Reports. From 1879 he was dean of the Concord School of Philosophy, which annually gathered disciples to hear him and many other speakers. Among his writings are Observations on the Principles and Methods of Infant Instruction (1830), Conversations with Children on the Gospel (1836, repr. 1989), Record of a School (1835, repr. 1969), and Ralph Waldo Emerson (1882, repr. 1968).

See his Journals, ed. by O. Shepard (1938, repr. 1966) and Letters, ed. by R. L. Herrinstadt (1969); K. W. Cameron, Transcendental Curriculum, or Bronson Alcott's Library (1984); biographies by F. B. Sanborn (1893, repr. 1965, 1974), O. Shepard (1937, repr. 1967), D. McCuskey (1940, repr. 1969), and F. C. Dahlstrand (1982); biograpy of his wife, Abigail May Alcott, by C. H. Barton (1996); studies by G. E. Haefner (1937, repr. 1970), and L. James (1994).

Amos Bronson Alcott (November 29, 1799 – March 4, 1888) was an American teacher and writer. He is remembered for founding a short-lived and unconventional school as well as a utopian community known as "Fruitlands", and for his association with Transcendentalism. His daughter was Louisa May Alcott.

Life and work

Early life

Alcott was born on Spindle Hill in the town of Wolcott, New Haven County, Connecticut on November 29, 1799. His father, Joseph Chatfield Alcox, was a farmer and mechanic whose ancestors, then bearing the name of Alcocke, had settled in eastern Massachusetts in colonial days. The son adopted the spelling "Alcott" in his early youth.

Self-educated and thrown early upon his own resources, he began in 1814 to earn his living by working in a clock factory in Plymouth, Connecticut, and for many years after 1815 he peddled books and merchandise, chiefly in the southern states. He began teaching in Bristol, Connecticut in 1823, and subsequently conducted schools in Cheshire, Connecticut, in 1825-1827, again in Bristol in 1827-1828, in Boston, Massachusetts in 1828-1830, in Germantown, now part of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1831-1833, and in Philadelphia in 1833. As a young teacher he was most convinced by the educational philosophy of the Swiss pedagogue Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi.

In the spring of 1830 he married Abigail May, the sister of Samuel J. May, the reformer and abolitionist. Alcott himself was a Garrisonian abolitionist, and pioneered the strategy of tax resistance to slavery which Henry David Thoreau made famous in Civil Disobedience. Alcott publicly debated with Thoreau the use of force and passive resistance to slavery; along with Thoreau he was among the financial and moral supporters of John Brown and occasionally helped fugitive slaves escape on the Underground Railroad.


In 1834 he opened the "Temple School" in Boston, so called because it was located in a Masonic Temple building. The school was briefly famous, and then infamous, because of his original methods. Alcott's plan was to develop self-instruction on the basis of self-analysis, with an emphasis on conversation and questioning rather than the lecture and drill which were prevalent in U.S. classrooms of the time. Alongside writing and reading, he gave lessons in "spiritual culture" which often involved the Gospels. Reformers like Bronson Alcott advocate for object teaching in writing instruction. Before 1830, writing (except in higher education) equated to rote drills in the rules of grammar, spelling, vocabulary, penmanship, and transcription of adult texts. However, in the 1830s, progressive reformers like Bronson Alcott, influenced by Froebel, Herbart, and Pestalozzi, began to advocate writing about objects from students’ personal experiences. Reformers debated against beginning instruction with rules and were in favor of helping students learn to write by writing.

Alcott sometimes refused corporal punishment as a means of disciplining his students; instead, he offered his own hand for an offending student to strike, saying that any failing was the teacher's responsibility. The shame and guilt this method induced, he believed, was far superior to the fear instilled by corporal punishment; when he used physical "correction" he required that the students be unanimously in support of its application, even including the student to be punished.

As assistants in the Temple School, Alcott had two of nineteenth-century America's most talented women writers, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (who published A Record of Mr. Alcott's School in 1835) and more briefly Margaret Fuller; as students he had the children of the Boston intellectual classes, including Josiah Quincy, grandson of the president of Harvard University. Alcott's methods were not well received; many readers found his conversations on the Gospels close to blasphemous, a few brief but frank discussions of birth and circumcision with the children were considered obscene, and many in the public found his ideas ridiculous. (For instance, the influential conservative Unitarian Andrews Norton derided the book as one-third blasphemy, one-third obscenity, and the rest nonsense.) The school was widely denounced in the press, with only a few scattered supporters, and Alcott was rejected by most public opinion. After the school closed Alcott was increasingly financially desperate as the controversy caused many parents to remove their students. In a later "parlor school," Alcott alienated many parents by admitting an African American child to the class, whom he then refused to expel in the face of protests. Alcott's pedagogy was a forerunner of progressive and democratic schooling.


In 1840 Alcott removed to Concord, Massachusetts. After a visit to England, in 1842, he started with two English associates, Charles Lane and Henry C. Wright, at "Fruitlands", in the town of Harvard, Massachusetts, a utopian socialist experiment in farm living and nature meditation as tending to develop the best powers of body and soul. The experiment quickly collapsed, and Alcott moved his family to Still River, a village within Harvard, in January 1844. In November, the family returned their Concord home "Hillside (later renamed "The Wayside" by Nathaniel Hawthorne) near that of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Alcott removed to Boston four years later, and again back to Concord after 1857, where he and his family lived in the Orchard House until 1877. While there, Alcott served as Superintendent to the Concord Public Schools in 1860-1861.

He spoke, as opportunity offered, before the "lyceums" then common in various parts of the United States, or addressed groups of hearers as they invited him. These "conversations" as he called them, were more or less informal talks on a great range of topics, spiritual, aesthetic and practical, in which he emphasized the ideas of the school of American Transcendentalists led by Emerson, who was always his supporter and discreet admirer. He often discussed Platonic philosophy, the illumination of the mind and soul by direct communion with Spirit; upon the spiritual and poetic monitions of external nature; and upon the benefit to man of a serene mood and a simple way of life. His teachings greatly influenced the growing New Thought movement of the mid 1800s.

Later life

In his last years, his daughter, the writer Louisa May Alcott, provided for him. He was the founder of the "Concord School of Philosophy and Literature", which had its first session in 1879 in Alcott's study in the Orchard House. In 1880 the school moved to the building next to the house, called the Hillside Chapel, where he held conversations and invited others to give lectures during a part of several successive summers on many themes in philosophy, religion and letters. This school is considered to be one of the first formal adult education centers in America, and was attended by scholars from several countries. The school ran for nine years, closing after its last session in 1888 after Alcott passed away. The school was reopened in the 1970s, and still runs today with a Summer Conversational Series in its original building at Orchard House, now run by the Louisa May Alcott Memorial Association.

Alcott's published books, all from late in his life, included New Connecticut, Tablets (1868), Concord Days (1872), and Sonnets and Canzonets (1882). Earlier he had written a series of Orphic Sayings which were published in The Dial as examples of Transcendentalist thought. The sayings, though called oracular, were considered sloppy or vague by contemporary commentators as well as twentieth-century ones. He left a large collection of journals and memorabilia, most of which remain unpublished. He died in Boston on March 4, 1888. Just two days later, his daughter, Louisa May Alcott, died of aftereffects of mercury poisoning.

Criticism and legacy

Alcott's philosophical teachings have been criticized as inconsistent, hazy or abrupt. He formulated no system of philosophy, and shows the influence of Plato, German mysticism, and Kant as filtered through Coleridge. Like Emerson, Alcott was always optimistic, idealistic, and individualistic in thinking. The teachings of Dr. William Ellery Channing a few years before had laid the groundwork for the work of most of the Concord Transcendentalists, also. Of the contributors to The Dial, Alcott was by far the most widely mocked in the press, chiefly for the high-flown rhetoric of his "Orphic Sayings." Alcott has also been widely criticized for his inability to support his family above poverty level.

Margaret Fuller referred to Alcott as "a philosopher of the balmy times of ancient Greece—a man whom the worldings of Boston hold in as much horror as the worldings of Athens held Socrates.

From the other perspective, Alcott's unique teaching ideas created an environment which produced two famous daughters in different fields, in a time when women were not commonly encouraged to have independent careers. His ideas also helped to found one of the first adult education centers in America, and provide the foundation for future generations of liberal education. Many of Alcott's educational principles are still used in classrooms today, including "teach by encouragement," art education, music education, acting exercises, learning through experience, risk-taking in the classroom, tolerance in schools, physical education/recess, and early childhood education.

While many of Alcott's ideas are still on the liberal/radical edge today, they are still common themes in society, including vegetarian/veganism, sustainable living, and temperance/self control.




  • Alcott, Amos Bronson. Conversations with Children on the Gospels.
  • Geraldine Brooks. "Orpheus at the Plough." The New Yorker, January 10, 2005, pp. 58-65. (The New Yorker article is reproduced on author's website)
  • Russell, D. R. (2006). Historical studies of composition. In P. Smagorinsky (Ed), Research on composition: Multiple perspectives on two decades of change (pp. 243-275). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
  • Alcott, Amos Bronson. Letters of Amos Bronson Alcott.

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