Lyceum Lectures

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Lyceum Lectures

Established in the late 1820s the American lyceum was a diffuse circuit of public lectures, debates, and dramatic performances utilized to promote civic education and moral uplift. During its early years the lyceum movement was comprised of local mutual-education societies situated predominantly in the villages and towns of the Northeast. Affluent Anglo-American Protestant men met together to read scholarly works, hold debates, and present and hear lectures on topics of importance from the realms of science, art, and industry. By the start of the Civil War the lyceum movement had expanded into the Old Northwest and parts of the South with the public lecture emerging as its most prominent and profitable activity. Renowned orators prepared lectures and followed a well-traveled circuit across the country. The outbreak of sectional conflict, however, transformed the lyceum and its lecture circuit irrevocably as wartime realities resulted in altered cultural tastes. The antebellum lyceum's emphasis on scientific and literary pursuits was quickly supplanted by lectures addressing contemporary political affairs and light entertainment that offered solace from the tragedies of warfare.

The outbreak of the Civil War marked the demise of local lyceums across the country. Laboring under the dual pressures of mass enlistment and lack of resources, many local lyceums were forced to limit operations or close their doors entirely.. With increasing numbers of young men enlisted in the military, the ranks of Ohio's lyceum movement were depleted, leaving responsibility for the organzation's in the charge of older residents who lacked the energy and enthusiasm to maintain its formerly robust program. Newspaper editorials across the country lamented the dissolution of local lyceums and expressed considerable concern about the broader implications for American culture and society. An article published in the Dayton Journal on November 18, 1862, expressed concern that in the absence of the local lyceum residents might turn to the kind of "bar-room clubs, surprise parties, and political plotting and mutual criminations, which culminate in the murderous spirit of the mob, by which peace, morality and public reputation are destroyed" (Mead 1951, p. 201). Long understood to be a space for civic and moral instruction, the demise of the lyceum was received with considerable apprehension at the local level.

Lyceums that continued to operate during the war years altered their programs in accordance with the broader transformation of cultural tastes initiated by the war. In a significant departure from prewar traditions, many surviving lyceums offered comedy routines, musical acts, and other popular performances in the place of sci-eentific or literary pursuits. Comedic lecturer Charles Farrar Browne (1834–1867) entertained lyceum audiences across the country with performances like "Children in the Wood," which consisted of a series of satirical and humorous anecdotes. In a review of Browne's performance in Cleveland in February 1862, a correspondent for Plain Dealer contended: "[That] the affected seriousness, the pauses here and there to be followed by something immensely ridiculous and comical all combined to make it irresistible" (Mead 1951, p. 214). Performances like those delivered by Browne served as an important, albeit temporary, distraction from the painfultraumas of war.

Despite the widespread appreciation of comedy acts, it was the public lecture circuit that remained the lyceums' most popular activity. Before the war, lectures addressing explicitly political topics were widely believed to be inappropriate and improper. As broader cultural tastes were transformed by wartime realities, however, public lectures took on an increasingly political tenor. As early as 1854 the Ohio Mechanics Institute presented a course of lectures entitled "American Slavery," with speakers including the prominent abolitionists Frederick Douglass (1817–1895), William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1979), Theodore Parker (1810–1860), and Wendell Phillips (1811–1884). Similarly, the Young Men's Lyceum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, held a lecture in March 1861, on the unjust and immoral character of slavery. As the war began lyceums across the nation attempted to satisfy the heightened demand for political lectures by requesting the participation of reform-minded and patriotic orators. In Salem, Massachusetts, lectures such as Charles Sumner's (1811–1874) "The Rebellion," Charles C. Coffin's "Battle Scenes," and George William Curtis's (1824–1892) "Political Infidelity," provided important information about the war and helped consolidate support for the Union.

Not all contemporary observers understood the new political and reformist focus of the lecture circuit to be a positive one. Rather, political lectures were widely characterized as moneymaking ventures that tainted the original function of the lyceum as a site for the production of serious scholarship and moral improvement. Opponents argued that political lectures were in poor taste and rendered the lyceum little more than a lucrative public spectacle. An area of particular contestation was the behavior of figures like the staunch Tennessee unionist William G. Brownlow, whose provocative onstage performances challenged contemporary conventions of public speaking.

On January 1, 1863, Brownlow spoke before a full house in Cleveland, Ohio. According to historian David Mead, Brownlow referred to his lecture as a "stump speech" and launched into a bitter attack on the Confederacy during which he asserted that there were better men in the depths of hell than there were amongst the ranks of Southern leaders. Mead relays that, in a review of Brownlow's lecture, a correspondent for Plain Dealer declared in the January 2, 1863 edition that Brownlow's audience, while "intensely interested," was "disgusted and shocked at some of his low and vulgar expressions." According to the writer, it appeared doubtful that there was "another man in America who could make use of such vulgarities during a public address without being hissed down at once." (1951, p. 205) In this manner, the controversial style of political lecturers like Brownlow challenged the conventions of public speaking and raised concern in certain quarters.

While the Plain Dealer reporter took pains to distinguish between Brownlow and his more refined audience, however, press coverage of other political lectures complicates this characterization of audience responses. Addressing a lecture held in New Orleans on February 3, 1863, a journalist for the Vermont Chronicle reported that pro-Union speeches by military leaders were "loudly applauded" and that "the horrible tales they told of the intolerance and barbarism of the rebels toward them, roused the audience to a high pitch of enthusiasm and intense excitement." In similar lectures around the country, lyceum audiences responded to political and reformist lectures with an enthusiasm and revelry unmatched in the antebellum era.

Thus many of the tensions that emerged around the Civil War lyceum movement were tied both to the changing nature of the public lecture and the audiences that attended them. Indeed, while some historians have depicted the Civil War as having a destructive effect on the lyceum as a more holistic educational institution, others have pointed to the lecture circuit as an example of the lyceums' ongoing vitality and increasing inclusion. Political and social upheaval wrought by the Civil War opened up the lyceum movement not only to political and reformist discourse, but also to a wider variety of lecturers. During the Civil War, African American orators such as Frederick Douglass and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and white suffragists including Mary Ashton Livermore (1820–1905) and Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906) were able to take the stage alongside the affluent white men who had traditionally dominated the lyceum movement. Through the lyceum lecture circuit, speakers such as Douglass, Watkins Harper, Livermore, and Anthony issued powerful critiques of the status quo that were disseminated to a national audience.


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

Cameron, Kenneth Walter, comp. The Massachusetts Lyceum during the American Renaissance; Materials for the Study of the Oral Tradition in American Letters: Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Other New-England Lecturers. Hartford, CT: Transcendental Books, 1969.

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

Ray, Angela G. The Lyceum and Public Culture in the Nineteenth-century United States. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2005.

"Union Demonstrations." Vermont Chronicle 5, (February 3, 1863): 19, col. B.

"The Young Men's Lyceum." Milwaukee Daily Sentinel 65, (March 16, 1861): col. F.

"Young Men's Lyceum." Tri-weekly Miner's Register 59, (December 10, 1862): col. B.

Kerry L. Pimblott