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Sesquicentennial Memories

The General Assembly Votes to Re-Establish the Rhode Island Normal School

By Michael Smith

image: Thomas W. BicknellOn Tuesday, February 28, 1871, State Education Commissioner Thomas W. Bicknell ventured to the Old State House on Benefit Street to hear the State Senate debate a measure to re-establish the Rhode Island Normal School, which had ceased operations in July of 1865. What Bicknell did not know was that he would be called upon to lead the debate on the floor of the Senate, then, as in the years since, an extraordinarily rare occurrence.

In a third-person narrative, Bicknell himself describes this event in his 1911 book, The Story of the Rhode Island Normal School:

"At 11 a.m., Commissioner Bicknell left his office for the Senate chamber in the old State House on Benefit street, to listen to the debate on the bill. Taking his seat in the lobby, he waited the hour of debate.

At 11 a.m., Governor Padelford announced that the bill for a Normal School was the special order of the day, and called on the secretary of state, Joshua M. Addeman, to read the bill.

After its reading, Sidney M. Dean, Senator from Warren, arose and said: ‘Mr. President and Senators, we have come to the hour for consideration and action on one of the most important measures of the session; a measure of vital interest to all the people of Rhode Island, in that it has to do with the education of teachers, who are to aid in the education of our children. There is a gentleman in the Senate chamber, who is the leader in the movement for a State Normal School, and who is familiar with the arguments in its favor far beyond the members of this body. I refer to Hon. Thomas W. Bicknell, our Commissioner of Public Schools. I move, Mr. President, that the Honorable Commissioner be invited to address the Senate on the bill now before this body, and to that end, that the Senate now take a recess, to reconvene after his address.'

Senator Dean's motion was seconded and passed and the Senators, in the recess, kept their seats, and Governor Padelford invited Mr. Bicknell to address the Senate from the president's platform.

The Commissioner was surprised by this most unusual, unprecedented and most unexpected turn of affairs, while the high compliment overcame the surprise, and decision and action were immediate.

Mr. Bicknell spoke over an hour, setting forth in the strongest arguments at his command, the reason for establishing a Normal School in Rhode Island. At the close of his address, questions were asked by several Senators as to the features of the bill, among which were the amount of the appropriation, the location of the school, the number of teachers, probable number of pupils, etc.Senator Powell, of Newport, while questioning took occasion to state his position, and his early objections to a Normal School in Rhode Island, as intimated in the quotation from his letter.

image: Governor PadelfordIt was one o'clock when Governor Padelford called the Senate to resume its session, and without debate, Senator Dean, of Warren, moved the passage of the bill, which was seconded by several Senators, and on a viva voce vote, no Senator voting against the bill, the Governor declared the bill passed by unanimous vote.

At this point, Senator Nathaniel Peckham, of South Kingstown, stated that he wished to make some remarks on the bill, and would like to have it laid on the table until the next morning.

In courtesy to the Senator, the bill was so disposed of, and at the next session, the Senator said he had decided not to speak upon the bill, and on motion of Senator Dean it was passed by the Rhode Island Senate, by an unanimous vote, March 1, 1871."

The measure would be transmitted to the Rhode Island House of Representatives, where it would be unanimously recommended by the Committee on Education and subsequently passed unanimously by the full House, becoming law on March 15, 1871, along with an appropriation of $10,000 for the first year of operations.

On March 16, 1871, The Providence Journal editorialized thusly:

"The friends of common schools will rejoice to see that the project of establishing a State Normal School has been received with so much favor, and will watch its further progress with profound interest. Its successful finality must be regarded a signal triumph of the cause of popular education in our State, and the assured precursor of better teachers and better schools."

In each edition of What’s News at Rhode Island College during the course of the College’s Sesquicentennial observance, Michael Smith, Assistant to the President, presents a brief glimpse of an historic College event that occurred at some point in the institution’s history corresponding to the publication date of that particular edition of What’s News. This is the twelfth installment.

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