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Civil War History 46.4 (2000) 301-323

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

Michael F. Conlin

IMAGE LINK= The abolition lectures given at the Smithsonian Institution by the Washington Lecture Association (WLA) from December 1861 to April 1862 offer a case study of radical antislavery Christian political activity in wartime Washington and its clash with American science. Abolitionists appropriated the annual lecture course of the Smithsonian Institution, the leading lectern in the city of Washington, to push the president to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and to conduct a vigorous war against the Southern people. The spectacle of Horace Greeley, Wendell Phillips, George B. Cheever, and other abolitionists delivering antislavery lectures critical of the Lincoln administration's prosecution of the war sparked controversy in Washington and across the Union. The lectures aroused fears of mob violence and distracted the Institution from its scientific mission by roiling it in political disputes. At the same time, the WLA shaped popular opinion and mustered political votes, helping to pave the way for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. No less important than the radical antislavery Christians' political activities were the reactions they provoked from District conservatives. The most important opponent of the WLA was Joseph Henry, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, who closed the course by asserting the existing Smithsonian policy that forbade lectures on partisan topics. Henry believed that this controversy distracted the Institution, the leading patron of American science, from its mission of research and publication. 1 [End Page 301]

Although several historians have identified the importance of the WLA in shaping popular opinion and prompting political action, no sustained account of its activities exists. In his classic study of abolitionists during the Civil War, James McPherson ranks the WLA as "one of the most effective emancipation organizations." In a recent work on the Radical Republicans, Victor Howard agrees, asserting that the WLA "influenced the civil government considerably." But both McPherson and Howard devote less than five pages to the WLA. The only other scholarly treatment of the WLA is an anecdote in Robert Bruce's sweeping survey of American science in the Civil War era. All three of these scholars neglect important sources and, consequently, give incomplete accounts or make errors--the most egregious being Bruce's charge that Henry ended the WLA's course because of his "racism." A detailed examination of the Smithsonian abolition lecture controversy would remedy these deficiencies and would contribute to Stanley Harrold's assessment of abolitionists' "interaction with proslavery forces on slavery's home ground." 2

To determine the full extent of the WLA's lecture course and its resultant controversy first requires a consideration of the Smithsonian's history, the Institution's lecture policy, and Henry's political beliefs. Although the abolition lecture controversy was the most serious dispute that faced the Smithsonian, the Institution had been embroiled in political battles ever since James Smithson, an eccentric English chemist, had bequeathed a handsome fortune to the United States to establish an institution in Washington for the "increase & diffusion of knowledge among men." 3 In 1846, Joseph Henry, the leading American physicist of his generation, was selected to lead the Smithsonian Institution. While Henry and many other American scientists viewed Smithson's legacy as a unique opportunity to support scientific research in the United States, others advocated founding a library or a national museum. Instead of resolving the dispute in the bill that established the Smithsonian, Congress had offered a compromise, providing for a library, a museum, and a research center. Henry moved to upset the congressional compromise in favor of a research program of investigation and publication, but factions on the board of regents, which was charged by Congress to administer the Smithsonian, resisted his efforts. The board, which consisted of the vice president, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, the mayor of Washington, three representatives, three senators, and six private citizens (the last twelve regents to be chosen by Congress), approved expenditures...


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