The Smithsonian Abolition Lecture Controversy: The Clash of Antislavery Politics With American Science in Wartime Washington

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  • This article concerns the background and controversy surrounding a series of abolition lectures given at the Smithsonian by the Washington Lecture Association (WLA) from December 1861 to April 1862. The author reviews how such a series of lectures came about by examining the Smithsonian's history and its lecture policy as developed by first Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry, who wanted to concentrate the work of the Smithsonian in the area of scientific research. As a part of this research program, Henry established an annual course of lectures in 1846, as much for public relations value as for a way to spread scientific knowledge. Although criticized by some, the lectures proved to be extremely popular and necessitated expansion of lecture hall space in the Smithsonian Castle. As caretaker of the largest public meeting room in the District of Columbia, Henry received vast numbers of requests for its use from various organizations and associations.
  • Always conscious of separating scientific matters from politics, especially after the outbreak of the Civil War, Henry decided to cancel the Smithsonian lectures for the 1861-1862 session; however, several abolitionists offered to sponsor a lecture series under the auspices of the WLA. Henry refused their request on the ground that the lectures would address political subjects, but was forced to relent after great pressure from the WLA's political allies. Twenty famous abolitionists of the day participated in the WLA lectures. The author contends that the lectures pressured President Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation; that they were instrumental in bringing about the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia; and that they encouraged a vigorous war against the South. After the WLA's lecture series ended, Secretary Henry rejected almost all applications for use of the lecture hall in an attempt to keep American science above politics.


  • Lincoln, Abraham 1809-1865
  • Henry, Joseph 1797-1878
  • Washington Lecture Association (WLA)
  • United States Congress
  • Smithsonian Institution Building (Washington, D.C.)


Smithsonian Institution History Bibliography


Forty-seven footnotes accompany the article.

Contained within

Civil War History - A Journal of the Middle Period Vol. 46, No. 4 (Journal)

Contact information

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


  • December 2000
  • Civil War, 1861-1865


  • Slavery
  • Smithsonian influence
  • Abolitionists
  • Lectures and lecturing
  • Controversies
  • Secretaries
  • SI, Early History
  • History


United States

Physical description

pps. 301-323

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