Historical Perspective: Edgartown Lyceum provided a home for spirited debate

This page from the first volume of records kept by the Lyceum shows the signatures of its founding members. It is in the archive of the Martha's Vineyard Museum. — Photo courtesy of Martha's Vineyard Museum

Martha’s Vineyard’s history is a rich narrative of people and events. In a regularly appearing series, The Times has invited the Martha’s Vineyard Museum to draw on its unique cache of contemporary photos and first-person accounts to describe interesting but often unfamiliar moments in Island history called to mind sometimes, but not always, by present dates.

On the corner of Davis Lane and School Street stands a home not far out of the historic Edgartown fold. However, in the mid-19th century this classic New England dwelling would not have been out of place in Athens in circa 300 B.C. While maintaining the aesthetic of historic Edgartown’s architecture, in the mid-1800s this building was home to and on the forefront of the emerging Lyceum debate movement.

These debates were structured after Aristotle’s own teaching model, which was developed in the Lyceum, a gymnasium and classroom in ancient Athens. Josiah Holbrook was the first to develop the American form of this method of continued, shared education in Millbury, Massachusetts, in 1826. The Lyceum movement quickly gained support from famous American writers and philosophers like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Within ten years this intellectual movement had spread to Martha’s Vineyard, finding its home and audience on Davis Lane.

Thanks to transcripts housed in the archives at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, we know that these debates covered a multitude of topics, from the philosophy of man, to the rights of women, to the building of a new schoolhouse for the town of Edgartown. The Lyceum debates illuminate many of the issues faced by people in the 1800s, but they also demonstrate a desire for continued education and discussion over troubling and controversial subjects. While the history of these debates is historically relevant and noteworthy, a greater lesson can be learned in regards to our modern approach to news and discussion.

The building that now stands at 46 Davis Lane was built in 1836, as the second incarnation of a structure that had burnt down the year before. The original building at that address had served as the Davis Academy, run by well-respected headmaster David Davis. Following the burning down of the schoolhouse, local friends and family pitched in to help Davis rebuild his school and home. Unfortunately, Davis found himself too ill to continue teaching, but he discovered a new way to use the large, old teaching room on the first floor. Davis continued living on the upper floors of his house, but he would rent out this room to other teachers and in the evenings he began hosting lecturers and the Lyceum debates.

The Lyceum debates at the old Davis Academy began in December 1836, though there are no recorded debates until 1837. This year and the following saw the largest growth in membership for the Lyceum, with 16 members and 18 members added each year, respectively. There were also a number of honorary members, who may not have participated as frequently.

Members of the Lyceum would gather in the meeting room of the Davis Academy with a previously established debate topic, hear presentations on each side, entertain arguments, and count a vote to determine the winner. It was expected that debates would be carried out in a level-headed and composed fashion with a reliance on fact instead of logical fallacies and emotion. However, on a few occasions attendees found themselves so incensed by the argument on the floor that they were unable to remain in the room for the duration of the debate. Occasionally debates were entertained, but no vote taken due to delay or lack of quorum.

The Lyceum also brought in lecturers on topics as diverse as “The peculiar dangers to your free institutions resulting from popular ignorance” and “On Conchology,” demonstrating the eclectic interests of this group of debaters. The lectures at the Lyceum display its dedication to the education of its members. The Lyceum strived to spread news and knowledge rather than allow for the entrenchment of preexisting opinions and fallacies.

The topics debated at the Lyceum display the overall dedication to the complete education of its members, as well as the concerns and contradictions of the time. For instance, the Lyceum determined that it was best for society when women were given equality and access to education; however, a motion to allow women to vote in the Lyceum was struck down.

Timely political issues, like the annexation of Texas, the measures taken by the temperance movement, the problems of party spirit, and the future of the United States were addressed. Politics, though, were far from the main point of discussion for the Lyceum in Davis Academy.

Topics of philosophy were often debated. For example, the Lyceum determined that the study of physiology was more important than that of theology, that intellectual enlightenment is a source of happiness, and that over the course of history religion has caused more bloodshed than politics. Debates were not limited to any one subject, and the emphasis of the debate was on factual knowledge. Because news sources were limited at the time, the Lyceum even acted as a way for people to gain information on current events beyond simply dealing in platitudes and abstraction.

The legacy of the Davis Academy Lyceum reaches far beyond illuminating historical context. The transcripts of the Lyceum debates offer an understanding of how useful these debates were and how important they still could be today. Some of the topics debated have implications that ring through history. For instance, the Lyceum determined that the current banking system was not beneficial to the community; that there should be a connection between the government and banking institutions; and that paying higher taxes should not translate to more privileges in voting.

These topics are easily translated to today’s issues, but the Lyceum offers an even greater lesson than this. The Lyceum was a place where members of the community could gather to have rational, if occasionally heated, discussions about pertinent issues in equality, politics, economics, philosophy, art, and local affairs.

Today there is a growing sense of polarization, American anti-intellectualism, and perceived news bias. A similar Lyceum might help remedy such issues. By evaluating the worth of beliefs and their roots and implications, the Lyceum movement helped promote a more educated populace, an overall benefit for our democracy.

“It was a vehicle through which people discovered democracy, where people saw themselves not as subjects of a king, but as citizens who can make decisions for their country,” Richard A. Katula of Northeastern University has said about the Lyceum debates.

The Lyceum debates once hosted at 46 Davis Lane provide a very useful look into the lives and issues of the mid-1900s, but they also teach a worthwhile lesson in open discussion and debate and the continued education of adults and the role it plays in the formation and survival of democracy.

Jesse Landy, an intern in the museum’s library and archives section last summer, is currently in his junior year at NYU. The Museum on School Street in Edgartown is open Monday through Saturday. Go to mvmuseum.org or call 508-627-4441 for more information on tours and exhibits.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Bonnie Stacy, museum curator, as the author.