By Jeanne Schultz Angel
Safely preserved in the collections at Naper Settlement await thousands of artifacts, documents, and photographs ready to tell stories of the past. One such item is the 1836 journal of the proceedings of the Naperville Debating Society, a Lyceum formed in the earliest years of Naperville. In exploring this fascinating piece of history, what relevant lessons can be learned for today?
The American Lyceum movement, named in honor of the place Aristotle lectured students in Greece, began in Vermont in the 1820s and spread to over 3,000 chapters by 1834. Undoubtedly, newcomers to Illinois at this time arrived intending to replicate Lyceums from the east in their new communities. Lyceums formed as voluntary associations of individuals gathering regularly (usually weekly) to share knowledge through discussions and lectures or engage in civil discourse through debates or conversation.
The goals of a Lyceum included the advancement of learning and the improvement of conversation. Many Lyceums would eventually host traveling speakers and evolve by the later 19th century into the Chautauqua movement. Prohibited from most public speaking opportunities in the early 1800s, women were generally excluded from Lyceums. However, speakers like Susan B. Anthony were occasionally invited to lecture as subject matter experts. The women’s movement that began in 1848 also produced their own clubs and societies, many of which had similar goals to Lyceums including ongoing education, a social component, and advocacy for specific causes.
Naperville’s Lyceum specifically formed for the “mutual improvement in science, learning, and public speaking.” Acknowledging the benefits of civil discourse as a cornerstone of improving American society, the Lyceum in Naperville set out to offer a place, time, and topic for debate and discussion, allowing for at least two perspectives on any given question and recording the names of the participants in agreement with each viewpoint.
The 1836 preamble stated:
As man is a social being, and formed for the society of his fellow man, and as it is by association and comparing himself his manners and customs with the manners and customs with whom he associates…so by associating with his fellow men for the purpose of intellectual improvement and comparing his ideas with theirs and reasoning, there from, the mind is enabled to take a more general and correct view of matters and questions presented for its decision than it otherwise would and is the better enabled to imbibe truth and reject error. -Naperville Lyceum
The Lyceum members followed strict rules laid out in the constitution of the Society including the civility of responses and the respectful nature of formal debates. Membership was likely exclusive as the group included just fifteen men, most of whom were leaders in the newly established community. No women were recorded as members of the Naperville Lyceum; however, women and students were asked to contribute occasional essays to be read to the Lyceum members.
One of the more fascinating aspects of the Lyceum is the variety of questions debated at the meetings. Small matters were rarely discussed as members challenged themselves over complex, philosophical ideologies, and thought-provoking debates:
“Are the political publications of the present day more beneficial than injurious to community?”
“Are the intellectual faculties of the male susceptible of a higher degree of improvement than those of the female?”
“Was the displacing of the aborigines right?”
“Are the principles advocated by the Whig-party at the present day, the same as those advocated by the Whigs of 1776?”
Some of the questions posed centered around human rights and ethical topics that may shock people today. Others are vaguely similar to today’s conversations, reminding us that there are unanswerable questions throughout human history.
When taken in context of national and local events at the time, these questions provide a keen insight into the public conversations of the day and remind us that residents of Naperville in the 1830s worried, planned, and considered the future just as we do today.
Naper Settlement offers visitors a chance to learn more about the Lyceum and practice the art of the debate at the updated permanent exhibit “Building Naperville: Tallgrass Prairie to Today” opening this month. In addition, programming centered around civil discourse and public conversations will begin this summer. Watch out for a new-style Lyceum for the 21st century!
Acquired by the Naperville Heritage Society in 2006, The Proceedings of the Naperville Lyceum, a journal of weekly meetings held by Naperville’s earliest citizen’s from 1836 to 1843, is available online.
In cooperation with the Naperville Public Library, the manuscript is available electronically through the Illinois Digital Archives at http://www.idaillinois.org. Included in the roster are recognizable citizens such as Naperville’s founder Joseph Naper and early pioneers Stephen Scott, Lewis Ellsworth, E.G. Wright, and Nelson Murray.
523 S Webster