“The Lyceum Committeeman’s Dream"

November 15, 1873

Charles S. Reinhart

“The Lyceum Committeeman’s Dream"

Arts and Entertainment;

Anthony, Susan B.; Beecher, Henry Ward; Stanton, Elizabeth Cady; Twain, Mark;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

No caption.

During much of the nineteenth century, American communities, large and small, organized committees to select public figures who delivered a series of lectures during the fall and winter months.  The lectures were called the “lyceum” after the public building where Aristotle taught his students in ancient Athens.  That designation attests both to the symbolic importance of classical Greece in nineteenth-century America and to the sponsors’ democratic aim of providing an elevating educational experience for the entire community.  The featured cartoon portrays nineteen popular speakers (circa 1873) who would truly be any “lyceum committeeman’s dream” of the ideal lecture season.

The lyceum reached full flower in the mid-1840s when committees could charge admission fees (by the lecture or series) for lecturers with national reputations.  Every evening during the lecture season of November through April, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in public halls from Maine to California to listen to lyceum orators.  New York City averaged 150 public lectures per year between 1840 and 1860, while Boston residents in 1846 could choose from 26 different lecture series.  The lyceum was a phenomenon of the small town as well as the large city, and before the Civil War, most northern towns with a population of at least 1000 had one or more sponsoring associations. 

What was most important about the lyceum was its public nature.  The opportunity to lecture was by invitation only, with a committee carefully choosing, in the interest of the community, speakers who possessed “useful knowledge.”  To that end, the lecture was to have certain characteristics:  to be earnest and moral, non-partisan and non-sectarian, and to aim at and embrace the entire community regardless of wealth, status, occupation, sex, religion, or political affiliation.  To help ensure its openness to the entire community, the lecture was delivered in a shared public space, such as the town hall.  Local publicity for an upcoming lyceum season announced and emphasized its public character, and audiences did tend to represent a broad spectrum of the communities.

Thus, the lyceum was considered to be quintessentially democratic.  The only speakers and lyceum associations that could survive were those that offered lectures popular enough for people to pay to hear them.  It was the general public who, ultimately, controlled the system.  People seemed to assume that a speaker who gave his lecture for free was not worth hearing, and that the top quality lecturers were those who could charge the highest fees.  Those speakers had passed the stringent test of delivering the same speech before various audiences throughout the country.  In fact, some argued that the lyceum created and reflected general opinion more so than did the press, political parties, clergy, or college professors.  Writing in Harper’s Monthly (1870), George William Curtis asserted of the lyceum, “there was no such opportunity ever offered in any country for touching the very springs of public opinion, and thereby affecting the policy of the country.”

For some, lecturing was a full-time profession, while for others, it was a sideline—although one taken very seriously.  In the 1850s, Curtis became one of the most popular lecturers in the United States, and remained so for twenty years.  His schedule was hectic during the lyceum season.  For two months in 1858, for example, he traveled over 3000 miles to 17 states and Canada.  After the 1860-1861 season, Curtis limited his lecturing to New York and New England before retiring in 1873.  Public lecturing brought income, prestige, and a reputation as a public intellectual.  Curtis did not exaggerate when he claimed in his Harper’s Weekly column (1861), “Probably the chief Lyceum lecturers are personally more widely known than any other class of public men in the country.”

The presentation of a public lecture was very important.  A lyceum orator not only had to instruct, but to inspire and uplift.  The lecture also had to entertain, since the audience could get much of the same information from reading materials.  The range of subject matter covered in lecture series was encyclopedic:  science, art, drama, history, travel, foreign cultures, health, memory retention, myths and legends, and contemporary political and social issues.  The committees attempted to address the interests of their communities by being comprehensive and flexible; if a new issue arose, lecturers were scheduled to discuss it. 

That wide range of lyceum topics and speakers is reflected in the lecturers caricatured in the featured cartoon.  We invite any viewer/reader of the Cartoon of the Day to contact HarpWeek if you can identify the unidentified figures in the cartoon.

In the top row are (left to right):  William Henry Harrison Murray, author of Adventures in the Wilderness (1869), and nicknamed “Adirondack” Murray; perhaps Goldwin Smith, English-born anti-imperialist and advocate of democracy; James Parton, historical biographer of Aaron Burr, Andrew Jackson, Horace Greeley, and other public figures; Bayard Taylor, poet and author of travel and adventure books; unknown; Senator George Boutwell of Massachusetts, former secretary of the treasury; and David Ross Locke, a writer who satirized Confederate views under the pseudonym Petroleum V. Nasby. 

In the middle row are (left to right):  Professor Louis Agassiz of Harvard, the influential paleontologist; John Gough, a noted temperance lecturer; the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, the nation’s most popular evangelist; unknown; Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a leading women’s rights speaker; William Lloyd Garrison, promoter of numerous reforms; and Susan B. Anthony, another famous women’s rights advocate. 

In the bottom row are (left to right):  Italo Campanini, an Italian opera tenor who made his American debut in 1873, and is in costume for his role as Manrico, the title character in Verdi’s “Il Trovotore” (“The Troubadour”); Thomas Nast, Harper’s Weekly's political cartoonist; Mark Twain, humorist and author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and other works; Wilkie Collins, the renowned British novelist (most famously of Woman in White) who traveled the American lyceum circuit in 1873; and perhaps humorist "Josh Billings" (Henry Wheeler Shaw).

Robert C. Kennedy

“The Lyceum Committeeman’s Dream"
May 29, 2024

Home | About | Contact || Access | Features 

Website design © 2001-2008 HarpWeek, LLC
All Content © 1998-2008 HarpWeek, LLC
Please submit questions to