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After delivering a series of lectures at the Andersonian University in Glasgow in 1800–1801, George Birkbeck (1776–1841) helped to establish the London Institution for the Diffusion of Science, Literature, and Arts. In the early 1820s a group of mechanics in attendance at Birkbeck's lectures formed the Glasgow Mechanics' Institute. Within a decade the British mechanics' institute movement had gathered momentum via courses of lectures on chemistry, geometry, and hydrostatics with practical applications to the arts, astronomy, and electricity. In France, Baron Charles Dupin attempted to adapt the British movement to the needs of his country. The founders of these European institutions worked to procure lecture rooms and scientific apparatus, but the central feature of this new form of education was the public lecture, which would become a hallmark of nineteenth-century American culture. Experiments and demonstrations often accompanied public lectures, but the main purpose of these presentations was the scientific education of workers, which became the central objective of the American lyceum movement when it began in 1826.


Josiah Holbrook (1788–1854), a Connecticut native and a graduate of Yale College, published his manifesto for a Society for Mutual Education in the American Journal of Education in 1826. Holbrook's first goal was to offer practical and useful information to young workingmen. A secondary objective was to apply the sciences to the domestic sphere or, more generally, to the common purposes of life. Holbrook suspected that he had a receptive audience for his plan in Worcester County, Massachusetts, where a mixed economy of manufacturing and agriculture furnished jobs for a population of mill workers, mechanics, tradesmen, clerks, and farmers. Shortly after submitting his article to the American Journal of Education, the first branch of the American Lyceum had begun in Millbury, Massachusetts. Within a few years, the lyceum had spread to the towns and cities of New England and then to other parts of the country.

The early lyceums seemed to come at a time of relative consensus about the need to improve education, to offer a context for learning, and to provide a setting for public debate. The growth of local lyceums coincided with the proliferation of a range of voluntary groups: agricultural societies, charitable organizations, corporations, library associations, and committees for the promotion of the arts. The lyceum may have stimulated reform of the country's common or district schools with its practices of assembling and distributing books and accumulating scientific apparatus. The simple requirements of a lyceum program included a small amount of money for start-up operations, a convenient public venue, and a series of small admission fees for a course of lectures. Despite such modest features, the lyceum movement also established an atmosphere for subsequent forms of adult learning as well as tax-supported public education. In Massachusetts, Horace Mann (1796–1859), secretary of the Board of Education, traveled throughout the state in the 1830s and 1840s to promote the cause of popular education.

Many proponents of the lyceum professed that it was open to all classes and social groups. As did other speakers, the popular travel writer and lecturer Bayard Taylor (1825–1878) counted merchants, stable keepers, mechanics, and day laborers among the members of his audiences. When he lectured in the West, miners in his audience took regular breaks to consume the alcoholic beverages they had brought for the occasion. In the West, Taylor also observed a greater social diversity in audiences representative of new immigrant groups, including Scandinavians and Germans. In marked contrast, when the young lawyer Emory Washburn (1800–1877) delivered his "Lecture, Read before the Worcester Lyceum" on 30 March 1831, he could not be persuaded of any foundation for discussing distinctions in ranks and classifications of people. Among other institutions, Washburn argued, the lyceum could be a force for social cohesion that discouraged reformers and workingmen from creating jealousies or tensions among classes. The lyceum system could serve to develop a harmonious society in which leaders could gather to discuss and to advance matters of public interest.


In its first phase, the lyceum movement stressed mutual instruction and random lectures. By its second phase in the 1840s and 1850s, citizens in large cities might be able to choose from dozens of different courses of lectures, paid for via individual presentation or subscription. Local lectures had expanded so significantly that nearly four thousand communities contained organizations sponsoring public lectures. Aided by the growth of railroads and newspapers, the lyceum grew regionally and on such a scale that an intricate national circuit had developed that extended to the Midwest, the Middle Atlantic States, and the South. The popular lecture itself remained the centerpiece of this system, and many itinerant speakers achieved the status of national celebrities for their presentations. For those with speaking skills, the lyceum was a source of steady or supplementary income. Some lecturers charged for the individual appearance—typically $25 or $50 for a presentation. The lecturer Thomas Starr King (1824–1864) articulated his primary reason for performing: "fame—Fifty and My Expenses." King's lecture "Substance and Show," which distinguished the force of ideas from the value of material things, became a staple of the lyceum circuit. Taylor styled himself essentially a poet and novelist, but he could not resist the income from speaking, and he sometimes gave over two hundred lectures per season, which would last from the fall to early spring. He might also take pains to arrange a full-scale lecture tour that might net him as much as $5,000 for three months' work. To meet the demands of such a regimen, lecturers might have to endure uncertain train schedules, inclement weather, constant movement, poor accommodations, bad food, and lack of sleep. Taylor resolved to give up the lyceum several times, but despite such unwelcome conditions, lecturing remained a mainstay of his income.

The public lecturer, with obligations to a local lyceum, committee, or other official body, fulfilled a socially defined and carefully bounded role, which precluded partisan or sectarian discourse. In "American Audiences" (1905), Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823–1911) describes the lyceum lecturer as being under "strict surveillance" and likely to be "tested by an audience altogether hospitable, but merciless in its criticism" (pp. 77–78). The conventions of the lyceum were designed to immunize lecturers from the commercial marketplace, although several commentators distinguished the respectable public lecturer from the itinerant humbug or charlatan who peddled his stores of knowledge. Lecturers were discouraged from dealing with controversial topics, although Frances Wright (1795–1852) delivered her views on women's rights, free education, birth control, and so-called free union, which were presented in New York and were contained in her Course of Popular Lectures (1829).

Lecturers typically gravitated toward safer subjects: travel, history, biography, foreign affairs, and the art of living. Dressed in Oriental garb, Bayard Taylor might deliver a lecture on "The Arabs." For purposes of contrast, he would then speak in the same city on "Life in the Polar Zone," ultimately completing his lecture course with a more general offering on "The Philosophy of Travel." Even more popular than Starr King's "Substance and Show," Wendell Phillips's (1811–1884) "The Lost Arts," first delivered in 1838, challenged the notion that nineteenth-century developments in the practical sciences had outshone the wisdom of the ancients. Higginson's lecture on "Physical Education," also called "Physical Training for Americans," reflected his notion that fitness was an important aspect of human development as well as the lyceum's emphasis on personal improvement. Other recurrent topics were natural history, individual education, religious sentiment, and the cultivation and uses of the imagination.

As the Civil War approached, more controversial topics alternated with popular topics. Antislavery views were prominently displayed, and in 1845 Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau challenged conservative town officials by inviting the fiery Phillips to speak before the Concord Lyceum. Mann, Edward Everett Hale (1822–1909), William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879), Theodore Parker (1810–1860), and Horace Greeley (1811–1872) also mounted the lecture platform to denounce laws that sanctioned slavery. These lecturers sought to promote specific social values and to effect social reform, although the general thrust of the lyceum was alteration of people's attitudes rather than enactment of new laws.

Scientific lecturers tended to eschew complicated technical terminology and abstruse theoretical issues in favor of providing Americans with tangible practical information. Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel (1809–1862), a professor from Cincinnati, attempted, in language members of his audience could understand, to enlighten them about astronomy. His objective was to broaden popular understanding of science by exciting an eager interest in the subject of astronomy. Mitchel earmarked the income he derived from lecturing to fund the development of astronomical observatories in Ohio and elsewhere. In an attempt to advance primitive American farming practices so that they could compete with those of Europe, James Jay Mapes (1806–1866) lectured widely on agricultural science, primarily to farmers in the Northeast. Reflecting the fluidity of a an emerging professional world in which public intellectuals wore a number of different hats, Mapes turned from consulting work in analytical chemistry and activities as an expert witness in chemical patent cases to the promotion of new forms of agriculture on the lecture platform and in his periodical the Working Farmer. Working farmers turned to Mapes for possible answers to the problems of soil depletion. Although much of his scientific knowledge may have been derivative, Mapes is reported to have delivered more than 150 lectures in a five-year span in the 1850s.

If Mapes's lectures stressed the practical benefits of new practices for working farmers, other scientific lecturers turned to less-concrete topics. Orson Fowler (1809–1887) used the lecture platform to promote knowledge of phrenology, and his presentations often included professional delineations of the character of selected audience members. He also offered advice about health, raising children, and the institution of marriage. Fowler's promotion of the scientific study of phrenology was clearly consistent with the lyceum's goal of individual reform. Higginson took the subjects of religion and science in a speculative direction when he lectured on spiritualism in New York City in 1858 and 1859. Higginson believed that spiritualism rested on a set of facts that warranted verification, and the ideas from his lectures were eventually set forth in two pamphlets on the subject. Even those individuals who did not fashion themselves experts turned to more speculative aspects of science, as did Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) when he lectured in New York on "The Universe," eventually published as Eureka (1848).

Although Higginson recorded the advice of Wendell Phillips that "the two departments of literature and oratory were essentially distinct, and could not be well combined in the same person" ("On the Outskirts," p. 328), he and other literary figures did not slavishly follow such prescriptions. Many of Emerson's essays had their origins on the lecture platform, and the lyceum, his secular pulpit, afforded him and others a venue to try out ideas before they were refined and polished into published form. Works like Thoreau's "Life without Principle" and "A Plea for Captain John Brown" most often appear in standard anthologies, but a proper context for their genesis was their delivery as lectures to live audiences. As a lyceum performer Thoreau garnered mixed reviews, although some New England audiences savored the Yankee wit and clever wordplay in his lectures on "Cape Cod." Even the opening chapters of Walden (1854) take on greater resonance if one knows their origin as lectures in the late 1840s before local lyceums in Concord and other locations in New England.

The lyceum was not the most hospitable setting for the cause of belles lettres, although Henry Norman Hudson (1814–1886) championed Shakespeare's works to American audiences in a series of popular lectures. Nor was poetry the usual fare on the lecture circuit, as evidenced by the hostile reaction afforded Poe when he read his lengthy philosophical poem "Al Aaraaf" before the Boston Lyceum in 1845. John G. Saxe's (1816–1887) satirical verse fared better, and Park Benjamin (1809–1864) often recited his "Age of Gold," written in the wake of the California gold rush. Literary criticism fared more poorly than poetry, as evidenced by indifferent or hostile reactions to Poe. He was attacked in Boston for ridiculing didactic verse, and his lectures on "American Poetry" (1843), "The Poets and Poetry of America" (1848) and "The Poetic Principle" (1848–1849) stimulated mixed responses at best. He earned greater praise when he recited his popular poem "The Raven."

At the outset of the lyceum, most lecturers, predominantly male, came from the ranks of the clergy and the law. Higginson dates the financial high point of this phase of popular lecturing as the period soon after the Civil War, when Henry Ward Beecher (1813–1887) could command a speaking fee of $200 per appearance. The temperance advocate John B. Gough (1817–1886) and the Universalist clergyman E. H. Chapin (1814–1880) followed close behind. Charles Sumner (1811–1874), George William Curtis (1824–1892), Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809–1894), Anna Dickinson (1842–1932), Edwin P. Whipple (1819–1886), and Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) achieved slightly lower grades of popularity. In "A Plea for Culture" (1867; Atlantic Essays, 1871), however, Higginson noted an overall decline in the quality of public address. By the 1880s some veteran lecturers like Curtis, Higginson, and Josiah G. Holland (1819–1881) praised the antebellum lyceum but derided its postwar counterpart, which had devolved into a setting that stressed entertainment rather than education. The lecture system had become more commercialized, and managers from central booking agencies like those owned by James Redpath and Major J. B. Pond replaced the informal practices and modest speaking fees of local committees with a system that emphasized "Star Courses," lucrative contractual arrangements, and profits for promoters. Nevertheless, the lecture made somewhat of a comeback with its reemergence, albeit in altered form, in the Chautauqua tent. If the public lecture had once opened the doors to the pursuit of culture to a hungry population that wanted its benefits, the economic prosperity in cities and emerging manufacturing towns widened the gap between the populations in these growing centers and the poorer inhabitants in villages outside them. In Ethan Frome (1911) Edith Wharton's (1862–1937) title character sought refuge from his cultural impoverishment and intellectual starvation in rural western Massachusetts by traveling to bigger "towns, where there were lectures and big libraries and 'fellows doing things.'"

See alsoAbolitionist Writing; Education; Literacy; Oratory; Transcendentalism


Primary Works

Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. "American Audiences." In Part of a Man's Life, pp. 73–92. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1905.

Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. "On the Outskirts of Public Life." In Cheerful Yesterdays, pp. 326–361. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1898.

Taylor, Bayard. Selected Letters of Bayard Taylor. Edited by Paul C. Wermuth. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1997.

Secondary Works

Bode, Carl. The American Lyceum: Town Meeting of the Mind. New York: Oxford University Press, 1956.

Buell, Lawrence. "New England Oratory from Everett to Emerson." In New England Literary Culture: From Revolution through Renaissance, pp. 137–165. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Kett, Joseph F. The Pursuit of Knowledge under Difficulties:From Self-Improvement to Adult Education in America, 1750–1990. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1994.

Mead, David. Yankee Eloquence in the Middle West: The OhioLyceum, 1850–1870. East Lansing: Michigan State College Press, 1951.

Scott, Donald M. "The Popular Lecture and the Creation of the Public in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America." Journal of American History 66 (March 1980): 791–809.

Scott, Donald M. "The Professon That Vanished: Public Lecturing in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America." In Professions and Professional Ideologies in America, edited by Gerald L. Geison, pp. 12–28. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983.

Kent P. Ljungquist

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