Monday, January 28, 2008

But What Exactly was a Lyceum?

Abraham Lincoln, 1846

Yesterday marked the anniversary of one of the most curious speeches of Abraham Lincoln’s public life.

On January 27, 1838, the 28 year old lawyer addressed The Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield. The title of his lecture was curiously titled “The Perpetuation of our Political Institutions.” It was published a few days later in the local paper.

The Young Men’s Lyceum had only been around for a few years. Founded in 1833 by a group of especially ambitious Whigs, including Simeon Francis, John Todd Stuart, and Daniel Stone, the lyceum was only beginning to take off a few months before Lincoln’s lecture.

But what exactly was a lyceum?

The term itself comes from the ancient Greeks. Aristotle founded a school in Athens around 335 B. C. that met in a gymnasium that had been dedicated to Apollo Lyceus. The school soon became known as the Lyceum.

The American experiment in popular government owes a significant debt to the ancient Greeks. Think, just for a moment, about that great experiment. No longer would the colonists consent to the decrees of a king; instead, America would be governed by the common people. The new president, representatives, senators, and members of the Supreme Court would come from the masses! Not only was it a revolutionary political concept, but it absolutely changed the way American society would develop. Take, for example, the role education needed to play in the new nation. The new nation depended on an educated polity—not just to make informed decisions on Election Day, but the elected leaders themselves needed to be competent too.

Therefore, hundreds of nineteenth century communities throughout the American Northeast and Midwest emulated the Greek tradition and formed organizations called lyceums, which were really forums for adult education. Typically, organizers would invite speakers who were especially well-versed on a particular subject. Men of voting age would attend the talks; they might learn something about the topic, exchange a few ideas, and socialize with their neighbors.

By presenting a lecture at a lyceum, Lincoln joined many of his most prominent contemporaries, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, William Lloyd Garrison, and Mark Twain.

Why not take a few moments and read through Lincoln’s lecture? As you read, keep in mind who Lincoln was in 1838. He was a young lawyer who had only recently joined John Todd Stuart’s law firm. The importance of law and order is a major theme in his lecture.

Second, Lincoln was also an incredibly ambitious politician, even in January 1838. He had been a member of the state legislature since 1834 and his tenure would continue until 1841. He was an intensely loyal Whig, as well as a staunch opponent of the Democrats and their leader, Stephen A. Douglas. See if partisan issues factor into his lecture.

Last, Lincoln fears the new direction society seems to be heading in. Just three months before he delivered this lecture, proslavery forces in Alton, Illinois had murdered outspoken abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy. The new nation faced tremendous challenges in 1838, just as the coming decades would further complicate matters. However, Lincoln cautions his neighbors against taking matters into their own hands. It was one thing to disagree on things, but it was never acceptable to flagrantly ignore the law and commit atrocious acts of violence. If the new nation was to survive, its citizens must submit to the rule of law.

If you would like to read Lincoln's Lyceum Address, click here.

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