Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Him President
Three months before the Republican national convention scheduled for May 1860, Abraham Lincoln of Illinois did not make anyone’s list of potential presidential nominees. At best he could hope to receive his state’s first-ballot support as a favorite son. Newspaper editors in the East knew so little about him that they spelled his first name “Abram.” Lincoln had won favorable notices for his Senate campaign against the incumbent Stephen A. Douglas in 1858—but he lost that election. Except for a single term in Congress more than a decade earlier, Lincoln was a stranger to the national political scene. The presumptive favorite for the Republican nomination was Senator William H. Seward of New York. And if his candidacy faltered, several other prominent Republicans were waiting in the wings, headed by Governor Salmon P. Chase of Ohio.
In a long political career, however, Seward had made enemies, including some in his own state. In October 1859 a committee of anti-Seward New York Republicans invited Lincoln to give one of a series of political “lectures” in Brooklyn (later changed to Cooper Union in New York City, of which Brooklyn was not then a part). The New Yorkers’ purpose was to stop Seward’s triumphant march to the nomination by providing a public forum to other Republicans, including Lincoln, who had never before spoken in the Empire State. The committee that invited him supported Chase for the nomination. Whether Lincoln was aware that he was being used as a stalking horse for Chase is uncertain. In any event, he eagerly accepted the invitation, and the date for his speech was finally set for February 27, 1860.
With this single speech the stalking horse became a serious contestant. Two recent books with identical titles and almost identical subtitles make a persuasive case that Lincoln’s Cooper Union address “made him president.” A retired lawyer and author of previous books on the eventful year 1898 and on Theodore Roosevelt’s election as governor of New York, John Corry successfully entered the crowded field of Lincoln scholarship with Lincoln at Cooper Union, published in the fall of 2003. Completed before Corry’s book appeared, Harold Holzer’s study was published in May 2004. With many books about Lincoln to his credit, Holzer’s reputation carries more authority. On the few minor matters about which the two books disagree, Holzer may have the better case, as when he maintains that the editors of the Chicago Tribune did not vet Lincoln’s speech beforehand and that it did not snow in New York on the evening that Lincoln spoke. But on important matters, Corry and Holzer are in full agreement that this speech and a subsequent two-week speaking tour of New England, in response to invitations that poured in after the Cooper Union address, did indeed give a huge boost to Lincoln’s national stature and made him a serious presidential candidate.
Corry and Holzer are not the first historians to maintain that a single Lincoln speech changed history. Garry Wills devoted an entire book…
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