Throughout the 1840s, members of the commercial and professional classes of New York’s Capital Region cities established “Young Men’s Associations,” loosely based upon the Young Men’s Christian Association recently founded in England. In Schenectady, ten prominent men formed their own Young Men’s Association in an attempt to bring culture to their growing city of 10,000.
Although the Association required an annual fee of $2, members and ladies were allowed to attend the lectures for free. The entrance fee for men who were not members was 25 cents. “The association is the only place in our city, aside from the pulpits, where you are able to find any discoursing,” announced its founders in the Schenectady Reflector. “It is the only place where an amusement of a miscellaneous nature is to be found…It is the only place where the clerk, the mechanic, or lawyer, can spend an hour (profitably) out of his store, workshop, or office.”
The Schenectady Association was one of hundreds of informal organizations that appeared throughout America after the creation of the Lyceum by Massachusetts teacher Josiah Holbrook. The Lyceum Movement, as it came to be called, presented lectures, debates, scientific experiments, and dramatic and musical performances as a way of encouraging education, appreciation for books, and civil discourse at a time when compulsory education was not required. Daniel Webster, Henry David Thoreau, and Mark Twain all lectured on the Lyceum circuit. Lincoln made his first public appearance at a Lyceum in his adopted hometown of Springfield, Illinois.
Locally, the Schenectady Association managed to attract a wide variety of academics, clergymen, and ex-governors to its podium. These lecturers included Union College President Eliphalet Nott, nearby speakers from Albany, Catskill, Poughkeepsie and the city of New York, and speakers from out of state. Lecture topics included “Phrenology,” “Shakespeare,” “Temperance,” “The Arabs,” “The Past, Present and Future of the Human Race,” “The Six Days of Creation,” and “Modern Notions of Practical Education.” But by 1850 the Association’s membership had only 60 paying subscribers.
Its advertisements in the Reflector regularly announced a long-term goal of 400 regular subscribers and 100 honorary members and its leaders noted that “while most of the members work hard for the $1 to pay the fee, some of our wealthiest citizens contribute nothing.”
This state of affairs began to change when Samuel Thurston Freeman (1831-1892) became chair of the Association’s Lecture Committee. Freeman, a Union College graduate whose family owned the property now occupied by the Water’s Edge Lighthouse, was Schenectady County’s District Attorney and later practiced law in New York City. Under his proactive guidance, the Association’s membership and reputation improved dramatically.
Horace Greeley, Frederick Douglass, abolitionist Gerrit Smith, and diplomat-poet-travel writer Bayard Taylor were among those who spoke before the Schenectady Association. Henry James came to expound on the topic of “Woman;” Herman Melville was invited but unable to come. The high point of the Association’s lecture series came in November, 1852, with the appearance of what historian Carl Bode called “the phenomenon of Ralph Waldo Emerson – outstanding lecturer of his age.” Emerson was indeed the most popular and successful lecturer in America.
From 1833 to 1881, he delivered 1,489 lectures in 22 states across America, as well as lectures in England and Canada. These lecture tours were lucrative for Emerson, earning him up to $2,000 per six-month season. The contemporary equivalent of that is $70,000.
Emerson was considered the premier American essayist, philosopher, and poet, as well as the leader of the Transcendentalism movement of the 19th century. With such a dignified reputation and influence, one historian named him “the voice of intellectual culture in the United States.”
Emerson’s writings, such as his book Nature, and essays “Self-Reliance” and “The Over-Soul,” encouraged people to find connections with their inner selves while warning them to avoid society’s stress on mindless conformity. “I have taught one doctrine,” he stated, “namely the infinitude of the private man. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” His “Concord Hymn” poem, which dedicated the monument marking the Battle of Concord, was a staple July 4th recitation for decades.
A listing of his friends and correspondents is a Who’s Who of influential 19th century characters, including Thoreau, Hawthorne, Alcott, Agassiz, Wordsworth, Carlyle, Coleridge, Whitman, Emily Dickenson, John Brown, Francis Parkman, William James, John Muir, Margaret Fuller, and Emma Lazarus. Emerson was also instrumental in introducing Hindu and Buddhist philosophy and Persian poetry into America, he influenced German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and he conversed with President Lincoln at the White House.
As successful and popular as he was, Emerson was also a controversial figure for much of his career. He had been a practicing minister before leaving the pulpit, and in July 1838, he was invited to deliver the annual address at his alma mater, the Harvard Divinity School. In his speech, he discounted Biblical miracles, stated his belief that while Jesus was a great man he was not God, and suggested to the newly minted ministers that they should try to live by Christian tenets rather than simply preach about them. Emerson was denounced as an atheist and was not invited back to Harvard for 30 years.
He was often criticized as a Pantheist, charlatan, narcissist, a selfish, egotistical, critic of all organized religion, a “worshiper of Nature,” and a mere “word juggler” who practiced “the supernatural cunning of an insane man.” Over time, people gradually overcame their preconceptions about Emerson and came to appreciate his humanity, creative genius, and “keenness and subtlety of intellect” as “a source of power and inspiration.” One reviewer reported that Emerson “dives deeper, stays down longer, and comes up drier than any other explorer of modern times.” At the time of his death in 1882 at age 79, one obituary compared Emerson to both George Washington and Charles Darwin, who had died just a few days earlier.
Stephen Dewey Bingham, the Superintendent of Schools in Bennington, Vermont, wrote to Emerson asking him to speak there on November 26, 1852. Emerson informed him that he would be speaking in Schenectady on that same evening, but added that he hoped to lecture there “sometime during the winter.” In a letter to his brother William, Emerson outlined the itinerary for his upcoming Western Lecture Tour. His first stop would be at Troy, and “thence to Schenectady, Rochester, Buffalo, Sandusky, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and St. Louis on the 25th to be there probably a fortnight.” As often happened on these tours, Emerson added more lectures along the way, including stops at Palmyra, Genesee College, Elmira, and Canandaigua before continuing on his way to Cincinnati.
As he had planned, Emerson spoke on November 25th at Troy on “The Traits and Genius of the Anglo-Saxon Race.” The Troy Daily Times of the 26th was not impressed, stating on the day of Emerson’s Schenectady appearance that his lecture “exhibited deep thought, but not sufficient care in its arrangement.”
Nevertheless, the Association was anxious to attract a large audience for “the Sage of Concord” and placed this announcement in the November 26th Reflector: “Ralph Waldo Emerson opens this lecture-season of this institution this evening in the Presbyterian Church. No man in America stands higher as a thinker and writer. He is emphatically a ‘word painter,’ to whom no description can ever do justice. Our citizens will do well not to let this opportunity pass of hearing him. The ladies, especially, need now feel no scruples about going alone or in bevies without an accompanying masculine, and it is hoped they will turn out largely to welcome Mr. Emerson.”
Emerson never lectured without a prepared text and tried out his essays multiple times before audiences before publishing them, which might partially explain the critique of his Troy lecture. He thus decided instead to read his essay “Wealth” at Schenectady. This piece contained observations he had made about England during his trips there in 1833 and 1847-48. He had Thoreau proofread it, included it in his book “English Traits,” and it eventually became a chapter in Emerson’s 1860 book, Conduct of Life. Emerson admired many things about England, but was critical of its overemphasis on wealth.
“There is no country in which so absolute an homage is paid to wealth,” he told his Schenectady audience that night. “An Englishman who had lost his fortune is said to have died of a broken heart.” He also observed that the Industrial Revolution was dehumanizing England’s rural population anywhere from $10 to $100, depending upon the size of the town, village or city, the resources of the organization that booked him, and the size of the audience. According to his surviving account books, he earned $25 for the Schenectady lecture.
Emerson stopped only briefly at Schenectady on January 16, 1860, to purchase a 75-cent train ticket on his way from a Saratoga engagement to another in Utica, but came close to lecturing here once again in 1866. In February of that year, Emerson was invited to return to lecture here by Schenectady Locomotive Works President Charles G. Ellis, but was unable to do so.
Emerson continued to write, travel and lecture until just a few years before his death. His works, including the essay he shared with his small but “select” Schenectady audience on that snowy night in 1852, remain permanent fixtures in the canon of Western literature.
Photos, from above: Ralph Waldo Emerson courtesy the Library of Congress; and First Presbyterian Church interior courtesy the John Papp Collection, Grems-Doolittle Library.
Neil Yetwin wrote this essay for the Schenectady County Historical Society Newsletter, Volume 66. Become a member of the Society online at schenectadyhistorical.org.