Abolitionist Lectures Held at Smithsonian




Date: December 1861-April 1862


Usage Conditions Apply
The Smithsonian Institution Archives welcomes personal and educational use of its collections unless otherwise noted. For commercial uses, please contact photos@si.edu.
Download IIIF Manifest Request permissions Download image Print

Narrow Your Results


Filter Your Results

Smithsonian Secretaries Information

Close Browse records and papers of the Smithsonian Secretaries, from 1846 until today. Pre-set filters help narrow searches by individuals who have held that office.

Expeditions Information

Close Browse records and papers documenting scientific and collecting expeditions either affiliated with the Smithsonian, or with which Smithsonian researchers participated. Pre-set filters help narrow searches by geographic regions predominantly represented in expedition records.

Professional Societies Information

Close Browse records of professional societies closely associated with the Smithsonian, that focus on areas of scientific research and museum studies. Pre-set filters help narrow searches by major topics and disciplines.


The Washington Lecture Association receives permission to hold a lecture series at the Smithsonian after agreeing their purpose was "consistent with the character of the Institution," and that they would exclude "any subject connected with sectarianism, discussions in Congress and the political questions of the day." The lecture series soon reveals itself to be a forum on abolition of slavery, perhaps the most explosive issue of the day, with leading abolitionists booked as lecturers. Vain attempts are made to quell the ensuing controversy by stating that the Institution is not responsible for the political character of these lectures. After the lecture series ends, Henry and the Smithsonian's executive committee decide to refuse all applications for use of the lecture hall except those from public school principals, who use the hall for student award ceremonies. Henry concludes that he must otherwise restrict use of the lecture room to events directly under the auspices of the Institution, provoking complaints of unfairness from an association that had hoped to sponsor lectures opposing abolitionism. Henry decides to make up for dissatisfaction by arranging, under Institution auspices, a more extended series of lectures for the winter of 1862-63, on a variety of scientific and educational subjects.


  • Henry, Joseph 1797-1878
  • Abolitionist
  • Smithsonian Institution Building Lecture Hall


Chronology of Smithsonian History


  • For Smithsonian Annual Report references to Joseph Henry's lecture policy and to this lecture series, see http://biodiversitylibrary.org/page/7921174, http://biodiversitylibrary.org/page/8893183, http://biodiversitylibrary.org/page/9990607, and http://biodiversitylibrary.org/page/8889755.
  • For further discussion, see Dorman's "'Interruptions and Embarrassments': The Smithsonian Institution during the Civil War" on Henry web site http://siarchives.si.edu/sites/default/files/pdfs/jhpp/JHP_Interruptions_and_Embarrassments_-_The_Smithsonian_during_the_Civil_War.pdf or Alyssa DesRochers, "Controversy in the 'Castle" http://siarchives.si.edu/blog/controversy-%E2%80%9Ccastle%E2%80%9D. Citations here are pulled from noted 21 and 22 of Dorman's paper.
  • Rothenberg, Marc, et al, eds. The Papers of Joseph Henry, Volume 10, January 1858-December 1865: The Smithsonian Years. Washington, D.C.: Science History Publications, 2004, pp. 249-51, 274-76.
  • Michael Conlin, "The Smithsonian Abolition Lecture Controversy: The Clash of Antislavery Politics With American Science in Wartime Washington," Civil War History - A Journal of the Middle Period, Vol. 46, No. 4 (December 2000), pp. 301-23.
  • Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, 4 vols. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1939, 1:400.
  • Smithsonian Annual Report for 1857, p. 36; 1861, pp. 47-48; 1862, pp. 43-45; 1863, pp. 41-43.
  • National Intelligencer, December 12, 1861; New York Daily Tribune, January 17, 1862.
  • James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988, pp. 494-496.
  • Thomas Coulson, Joseph Henry: His Life and Work. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950, p. 242.

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20024-2520, SIHistory@si.edu


  • December 1861-April 1862
  • Civil War, 1861-1865


  • Slavery
  • Policies
  • Lectures and lecturing
  • Wartime Activities
  • Secretaries
  • Controversies
  • History
  • Antislavery movements


United States

Full Record

View Full Record