The Complete Chautauquan

The Lyceum Movement

By Jeffrey Scott Maxwell

History of the Lyceum Movement

I.   Introduction.

      A.  Literature in 19th Century America.
What was the most important form of literature in America during the 19th Century? Some would say that the essay is the most important form of American literature from the 19th Century. That would proably be a good answer if the questions was "What was the most important form of literature from the 19th Century; but the question asked was "What was the most important form of literature during the 19th century. I would argue that the lecture was the most important form of American literature during the 1800s.

      B.  Ralph Waldo Emerson: Essayist and Lecturer.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was an essayist of renown, and many would say one of the greatest American essayists. However, it is quite possible that Emerson was better known in his day as a lecturer in the lyceum halls.  It has been said that Emerson was an essayist because he was a lecturer, not a lecturer because he was an essayist.  Emerson was also called the greatest "adornment" of the lyceum movement.  People like Emerson gave the movement attention and attracted a great many people to programs and lectures.  Lyceum was a new form of popular education for adults that changed the way America thinks about education. Any study of the Chautauqua Movement must include at least a peripheral look at the lyceum.  

II.  The Start of the Lyceum.
The Lyceum started in the 19th Century in the Tradition of the Town Hall Meetings of the previous decade. People were used to coming together to when important decisions were to be made, or sometimes to share news. But with the Lyceum, people would come together to share in opportunities of self improvement and community development.

      A. Origin of the name "Lyceum."
The word "Lyceum" is in reference to the garden of the Temple of Apollo Lyceus where Aristotle taught young Athenians.  If you were a boy in Greece in about 300-something B.C., the Lyceum was the place to be.  A couple of thousand years or so later in America the recycled word would assume another meaning of significance which would develop into an important form of adult education.  

      B. Josiah Holbrook, educator.
Josiah Holbrook was an educator who brought lectures in science and mechanics to the Mechanics Institutes. The programs were used to train New England textile workers in areas that would improve their abilities on the job.  In 1826 the Lyceum was begun by Holbrook in Milbury, Massachussetts, as an attempt to organize these lectures and demonstrations.

      C.  The First Lyceum in Milbury, Mass., in 1826.

III. 1826-1840: The Developments in the Lyceum Movement.

      A. The Erie Canal and other factors in the growth aand spread of Lyceums.

      B. The move from primary focus on topics of mechanics and science to topics of literature and culture.

      C. The change in motivation of adult education from one of economics to one of self improvement.

IV. 1840-1857: Growth in the Lyceum Movement.

      A. Expansion into the West and South.
Although lyceum had spread across New England states rather rapidly, the movement of lyceum to the West was limited only by transportation. As the railroads moved westward, so did lyceum. Ohio and Illinois were states in the Western United States that saw great growth in lyceums after 1840. There was a great demand for ideas and personalities from the East, and lecturers that were willing to travel the distance could make a decent living, although it was not the type of money that later stars of the chautauqua platform would make. In the south, there was not much interest among the community leaders to promote lyceums. The slave-based economy relied upon preventing adult education among poor whites and slaves.

      B. Pre-Civil War platform performers..
There were a number of people who appeared on the lyceum stage that added great interest, which helped to promote the growth of the Lyceum Movement. As mentioned before, Emerson is possibly the most important one, but other lyceum lecturers and performers made significant contributions to its success.

            1. Abraham Lincoln.
Abraham Lincoln was 28 years old when he gave a speech "The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions: Address Before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois January 27, 1838." This was one of the earliest published speeches of Lincoln, and one that has been highly scrutinized for the themes that found their way into later important speeches.

            2. Henry Ward Beecher.
Henry Ward Beecher was among the most prominent public figures in American History.  He could be compared to Billy Graham in his name recognition and popularity.  He began his life of public speaking behind the pulpit, and he came into prominence beginning in 1847 when he bacame the first pastor of Plymouth Congregational Church of Brooklyn, New York. He had a forceful, emotional preaching style, and he used the pulpit and the lyceum platform to promote temperence, abolition and woman suffrage.  In later years he was followed by the shadow of a scandal that he was accused of having an affair, although he was acquited of an adultery charge after a sensational trial in 1874. Beecher's sister Harriet Beecher Stowe was quite famous in the Lyceum, as well as all other American circles, for her book Uncle Tom's Cabin, which was made into a play and brought to life on many lyceum theater stages.

            3. Other Platform Lecturers.
Other noteable lecturers in the lyceum before the Civil War were Bronson Alcott, DeWitt Clinton, Horace Greeley, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, Theodore Parker, Wendell Phillips, Henry David Thoreau, and Emma Hart Willard.

      C. The depression and Civil War.

V. The Post Civil War Era of Lyceum

      A. Performers of the second lyceum era.
Many famous people came out of the lyceum in the post-Civil War era.  A lot of whom would later become involved in vaudeville and chautauqua, and sometimes all three at the same time.  Some later lyceum lecturers and performers would even become part of motion pictures or radio.  Edwin Brush, John Bunny, Ruth Gordon, Bill Nye were all part of this group.

      B. Individual Lyceum committees and contracts with platform performers.

      C. James Redpath and the Lyceum Bureaus.

      D. The addition of the Chicago district office and sale of the Redpath Bureau.


The importance of lyceum to the development of Chautauqua has already been stated.  However, it might be tempting for some to say that chautauqua was just lyceum with a different name.  The problem with that thought is that with as many comparisons as one can make between the two, there are as many distinctive factors.  One can no more say that chautauqua is a camp meeting with a different name.  And while there are elements of both the lyceum and the camp meeting in chautauquas of the late 19th Century, chautauquas quickly developed into something quite unique, something that collectively changed the course of adult education and the arts and sciences.  And, as did the lyceum and the camp meeting, chautauqua made a major contribution to the development of "community" thought.

Notable People of the Lyceum Movement: Pre-Civil War:
  • Bronson Alcott (1799-1888) Educator and philosopher; founder of Temple School in Boston; abolitionist and leading proponent of transcendentalism; father of Louisa May Alcott.
  • Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887) Clergyman, temperance and abolition proponent.  Beecher came to prominence in the pulpit and on the lyceum platform beginning in 1847.  He wrote a book called Evolution and Religion in which he supported the theory of evolution.  He
  • DeWitt Clinton (1769-1828) Governor of New York; supported public education and education for women; supported the construction of the Erie Canal.
  • Horace Greeley
  • Oliver Wendell Holmes
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • James Russell Lowell (1819-) Poet; minister to England.
  • Theodore Parker
  • Wendell Phillips
  • Henry David Thoreau
  • Emma Hart Willard (1787-1870), educator, founder of the Troy Academy; proponent of education for women..

Notable People of the Lyceum Movement: Post-Civil War:

  • Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) Reformer and women's suffrage leader; organizer of Daughters of Temperance; co-organizer of Women's Loyal League; president (1892-1900) of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.
  • William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878) poet and journalist; lawyer; editor of New York Review and Atheneum Magazine; part owner and editor New York Evening Post; leader of anti-slavery Free Soil movement; a founder of the Republican Party.
  • George William Curtis (1824-92) journalist and writer; published widely in Harper's Monthly; editor-in-chief of Harper's Weekly Magazine; "one of the most polished and popular of platform-orators in America" according to Thos. W. Herringshaw in 1888.[1]
  • Douglas
  • Edward Everett
  • Relph Waldo Emerson
  • William Lloyd Garrison
  • Edward Everett Hale (1822-1909), clergyman, writer, publisher; Overseer of Harvard University; Chaplain of the Senate; American historian; author of "A Man Without a Country."
  • Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) anti-slavery and womens rights activist; founder (1874) of "Mother's Day"; author of "Battle Hymn of the Republic"; journalist and essayist; contributor to Boston Commonwealth; editor of Woman's Journal; a founder of New England Women's Club; president of the Association for the Advancement of Women; president Boston Author's Club; delegate to World's Prison Reform Congress; founder The Women's Peace Association.
  • Bill Nye, born Edgar Wilson Nye (1850-96), humorist, jounalist.
  • James Whitcomb Riley
  • Sumner
  • Mark Twain (?-1910), writer, humorist, journalist, and lecturer.

Links for Lyceum History:

Links for Josiah Holbrook:

Links for Modern Lyceum Events (Please note that I am aware of children's education programs that call themselves lyceums, but this listing is focussed on the original idea of "continuing adult education," and lists programs that fall into that category):


Page Created 11/10/00
Copyright © 2000
By Jeffrey Scott Maxwell
Last Updated 11/19/00