The American Lyceum Movement originated with Josiah Holbrook, a teacher and amateur scientist who became a passionate advocate for volunteer educational institutions in towns and villages. The name lyceum came from the Greek word for the public meeting space where Aristotle lectured.
Holbrook began a lyceum in Millbury, Massachusetts in 1826. The organization would host educational lectures and programs, and with Holbrook’s encouragement the movement spread to other towns in New England. Within two years approximately 100 lyceums had been started in New England and in the Middle Atlantic states.
In 1829, Holbrook published a book, American Lyceum, which described his vision of a lyceum and gave practical advice for organizing and maintaining one.
The opening of Holbrook's book stated: “A Town Lyceum is a voluntary association of individuals disposed to improve each other in useful knowledge, and to advance the interests of their schools. To gain the first object, they hold weekly or other stated meetings, for reading, conversation, discussion, illustrating the sciences, or other exercises designed for their mutual benefit; and, as it is found convenient, they collect a cabinet, consisting of apparatus for illustrating the sciences, books, minerals, plants, or other natural or artificial productions.”
Holbrook listed some of the “advantages which have already arisen from the Lyceums,” which included:
- The improvement of conversation. Holbrook wrote: “Subjects of science, or other topics of useful knowledge, take the place of frivolous conversation, or petty scandal, frequently indulged, and uniformly deplored, in our country villages.”
- Directing amusements for children. In other words, providing activities that would be useful or educational.
- Calling into use neglected libraries. Holbrook noted that libraries in small communities often fell into disuse, and he believed the educational activity of a lyceum would encourage people to patronize libraries.
- Increasing the advantages, and raising the character of, district schools. At a time when public education was often haphazard and disorganized, Holbrook believed that community members involved in a lyceum would be a useful adjunct to local classrooms.
In his book, Holbrook also advocated for a “National Society for the improvement of popular education.” In 1831 a National Lyceum organization was started and it specified a constitution for lyceums to follow.
The Lyceum Movement Spread Widely in 19th Century America
Holbrook’s book and his ideas proved to be extremely popular. By the mid-1830s the Lyceum Movement had developed, and more than 3,000 lyceums were operating in the United States, a remarkable number considering the small size of the young nation.
The most prominent lyceum was one organized in Boston, which was led by Daniel Webster, renowned lawyer, orator, and political figure.
A particularly memorable lyceum was the one at Concord, Massachusetts, as it was regularly attended by authors Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Both men were known to deliver addresses at the lyceum that would later be published as essays. For instance, the Thoreau essay later titled “Civil Disobedience” was presented in its earliest form as a lecture at the Concord Lyceum in January 1848.
Lyceums Were Influential in American Life
The lyceums scattered throughout the nation were gathering places of local leaders, and many political figures of the day got their start by addressing a local lyceum. Abraham Lincoln, at the age of 28, gave a speech to the lyceum in Springfield, Illinois in 1838, ten years before he would be elected to Congress and 22 years before he would be elected president.
And in addition to homegrown speakers, lyceums were also known to host traveling speakers. The records of the Concord Lyceum indicate that visiting speakers included the newspaper editor Horace Greeley, the minister Henry Ward Beecher, and the abolitionist Wendell Phillips. Ralph Waldo Emerson was in demand as a lyceum speaker, and made a living traveling and giving lectures at lyceums.
Attending lyceum programs were a very popular form in entertainment in many communities, especially during winter nights.
The Lyceum Movement peaked in the years before the Civil War, though it did have a revival in the decades after the war. Later Lyceum speakers included the author Mark Twain, and the great showman Phineas T. Barnum, who would give lectures on temperance.