Horace Mann was born in Franklin, Massachusetts, on May 4, 1796. Growing up on his family's farm, Mann faced a childhood of poverty and hardship. He had little formal schooling, receiving only about three months of instruction annually. He read volumes, though, from the Franklin town library as a form of self-education. After working briefly with a tutor, Mann entered and was educated at Brown University. He then went on to study at the Litchfield Law School. In 1823, Mann was admitted to the bar.
Mann had a thriving law practice in Massachusetts. He became a representative in the Massachusetts state legislature from 1827 to 1833. He was a state senator from 1833 to 1837. He played an important role in enacting laws that forbade the sale of alcohol and lottery tickets. He also helped to establish state hospitals for the mentally ill. Mann became majority leader of the senate in 1835. He was instrumental in creating the first state board of education in the United States.
In 1837, Mann stopped practicing law and was appointed as the first secretary of the State Board of Education in Massachusetts. In this role, he influenced education in his state and then the whole country. He campaigned for changes to poor teaching, below standard materials, pupil absences, and the serious need to improve teacher training. With his efforts, in 1839 the first Normal School for teachers opened in Massachusetts. He also helped the Massachusetts legislature begin a six month minimum school year. Most famously, he led the campaign to ensure that every child received basic schooling paid for by local taxes.