The General Assembly Votes to Re-Establish the Rhode Island Normal School
By Michael Smith
On 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
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
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
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
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.
It 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.
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
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.