Horace Mann’s adherence to and understanding of phrenology begins and ends with Britain’s greatest phrenologist, George Combe (1788-1858). Originally a lawyer by training, Combe had wide ranging interests typical of the virtuoso intellectualism of his day. Though not initially impressed by the tenets of phrenology, in 1816 he observed a dissection of the human brain by noted phrenologist Dr. Johann Spurzheim, and became a convert soon after. A founding member of the Edinburgh Phrenological Society (est. 1820), in 1824 Combe published his first work on the subject, Elements of Phrenology. His magnum opus was The Constitution of Man Considered in Relation to External Objects, released in 1828. Popularly known as Constitution of Man, it sold over 350,000 copies in the UK alone, seven times the number of Darwin’s Origin of the Species, and was as influential on Victorian age thought as any other book printed in the 19th century.
In 1838 Combe visited the United States for the first of several lecture tours, which is when he and Mann met for the first time. In his Horace Mann and the Public School in the U.S. (1907), French education scholar Gabriel Compayré wrote that “Mann heard him and was won over at once to his views. Combe said of Mann, ‘He was a delightful companion and friend; of all the men I met in Boston, he was the best.’” At that moment Mann was still fairly new at the job for which he became most famous, Secretary to the Board of Education for the State of Massachusetts, and Combe’s philosophy came along at precisely the right time for him. Mann needed a framework for a healthy school system, and was especially attracted to the possibilities for behavior modification phrenology afforded. Essentially, Mann saw that the faculties of the brain, as determined by the phrenologist, could be exercised and therefore improved through some appropriate in-class activity.
As if naming his first born son George Combe Mann were not expression enough, in a letter to Combe, whom Mann saw “…on the whole [as] the completest philosopher [he had] ever known…,” Mann articulated his debt to his friend directly:
There is no man of whom I think so often; there is no man of whom I write so often; there is no man who has done me so much good as you have. I see many of the most valuable truths as I never should have seen them if not for you, and all truths better as I otherwise should have done.
The principles of Phrenology like at the bottom of all sound mental philosophy, and all sciences depending on the science of Mind; and all of sound theology too. (“Letter from Hon. Horace Mann,” American Phrenological Journal, 1853, 17, 99)
Constitution of Man quickly became Horace Mann’s favorite reading recommendation. In the following letter to his younger sister Lydia Bishop Mann (1798-1888), he urges her to take leave of her work as a teacher and use the time wisely by getting on his phrenological bandwagon. After all, he was forming the most modern education system to date, and it was in her best interest to get up to speed with such methods if she was going to remain an educator herself. It is not known from their correspondence if she took his advice or not.
Horace Mann, Boston, to Lydia Bishop Mann,
Franklin, Massachusetts, Nov 1838
(Mann Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, quoted from Hubbell, George, Horace Mann, Educator, Patriot and Reformer; A Study In Leadership.)
I am glad you are going to give up your school this winter, After a campaign of so many years you certainly require a furlough. Do spend it in improving your health and in reading.
I intend to send you Combe’s book, “On the Constitution of Man,” also some phrenological works, with a marked bust. I want you to read something on phrenology, not that you may become a believer in that part of it which treats of the correspondence between the powers of the mind and the external developments of the head, but that you may study thoroughly and become complete master of that system of mental philosophy which is maintained by the phrenologists. No study can be so useful to you, after knowing how to take care of your health. I know of no book written for hundreds of years which does so much to ‘vindicate the ways of God to man,’ as the ‘Constitution of Man,’ above referred to. Its philosophy is the only practical basis of education. If you once master it, it will be of invaluable service to you, should you ever be engaged in school again. To learn with what various and different endowments heaven has blest us, to discover or perceive the exquisite manner in which we have been fitted for the world in which we have been placed, and that the calamities and sufferings of men come either from not knowing or not obeying the laws impressed upon our being by our Creator, this is wisdom. You will discover from this enquiry that our misfortune is not the possession of any faculty or power which in itself is an evil, but the abuse or misuse of those which were given for beneficent purposes.
Mr. Combe, the author of that work, is now in this city. He is just closing a course of lectures on Phrenology which I have attended. He is truly a great man, not so much from having any splendid natural endowments as from having for many years pursued enquiries into the character and constitution and foundation of the human being, with an impartial view to the discovery of truth. This is the greatest of human attainments—an impartial mind; he has it, and owes his eminence to it.