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 to the Gettysburg Address, “the words that remade America.” More recently Ronald C. White published Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural Address.1 Other Lincoln speeches have also been the subject of special analyses—particularly his Peoria speech of 1854 and his debates with Douglas in 1858. But these antebellum speeches gave Lincoln regional prominence; it was the Cooper Union address that projected him onto the national scene.
How did this happen? Part of the answer lies in the contrast between expectations and performance. Apart from his unusual height (6‘4”), Lincoln’s personal appearance did not inspire confidence—especially before he grew a beard after his election as president. With his disheveled hair, craggy face with oversize projecting ears, arms and legs too long for his ill-fitting clothes, flat-footed gait, and nasal tenor voice, he gave a negative first impression. Lincoln bought a new suit for his New York visit, but unfortunately it fit poorly and was wrinkled by travel as well. Dozens of people who saw and heard him for the first time in New York—then as now the capital of the nation’s press—commented on their initial dismay when Lincoln uncurled himself from his chair and shambled to the lectern to begin speaking in a Southern-Midwestern twang. “The first impression of the man from the West did nothing to contradict the expectation of something weird, rough, and uncultivated,” later wrote one listener:
The long ungainly figure upon which hung clothes that…were evidently the work of an unskilled tailor, the large feet and clumsy hands…the long gaunt head, capped by a shock of hair that seemed not to have been thoroughly brushed out, made a picture which did not fit in with New York’s conception of a finished statesman.
Another member of the audience also recalled that he initially felt “pity for so ungainly a man,” and thought: “Old fellow, you won’t do; it’s all very well for the Wild West, but this will never go down in New York!”
But according to everybody who later commented on Lincoln’s speech, as soon as he warmed to his subject members of the audience forgot all of these things. Lincoln soon had them “in the hollow of his hand,” recalled another listener. He “was transformed before us. His eye kindled, his voice rang, his face shone and seemed to light up the whole assembly as by an electric flash.” With few of the oratorical flourishes or gestures common at the time, Lincoln held his audience enthralled for an hour and a half. “His manner was to a New York audience a very strange one, but it was captivating,” later wrote a member of the committee that had invited Lincoln:
He held the vast meeting spellbound, and as one by one his oddly expressed but trenchant and convincing arguments confirmed the accuracy…of his political conclusions, the house broke out in wild and prolonged enthusiasm. I think I never saw an audience more carried away by an orator.
That so many accounts agree on the contrast between negative first impressions and subsequent enthusiasm raises suspicions that such recollections were filtered through memories of Lincoln as the great war president and murdered martyr who had sprung from humble frontier origins. Yet many contemporary comments testify to the impact that Lincoln’s speech made at the time. The five major New York newspapers printed the speech in full. The Republican New York Tribune praised it as one of the
most convincing political arguments ever made in this City…. The vast assemblage frequently rang with cheers and shouts of applause…. No man ever before made such an impression on his first appeal to a New-York audience.
The son of a prominent New York Republican, a Harvard College graduate and a student at Harvard Law School, told his father next morning that “it was the best speech I ever heard.” Even the unfriendly Democratic New York Herald grudgingly acknowledged
the loud and uproarious applause of his hearers—nearly every man rising spontaneously, and cheering with the full power of their lungs.
The content of the speech rather than its oratorical style was mainly responsible for such enthusiasm. Lincoln had prepared this address more thoroughly than any of the estimated 175 speeches he had delivered since reentering politics in 1854. The Kansas-Nebraska Act sponsored by Douglas and passed by a Democratic Congress that year had repealed the earlier restriction, legislated in the Missouri Compromise, on slavery in territories north of 36°30’ and had provoked a determined and violent effort by proslavery elements to force slavery into the Kansas Territory. In response, an antislavery coalition founded the Republican Party, which carried most Northern states in the election of 1856 on a platform calling for exclusion of slavery from all territories. Every one of Lincoln’s 175 speeches addressed this matter in some fashion. Douglas wanted to leave the question of whether to have slavery up to voters in each territory, a policy he called “popular sovereignty.” In 1857 the Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott decision that neither Congress nor voters could exclude slavery from any territory.
This issue dominated and polarized American politics during the 1850s as no other issue has ever done. The central theme of Lincoln’s Cooper Union address was a challenge to the reasoning of the Dred Scott decision as well as to Douglas’s conception of popular sovereignty. Lincoln maintained that the Founding Fathers had given Congress the power to prohibit slavery in the territories as a means of limiting the growth of an institution so embarrassing to American rhetoric about liberty and equality. To Lincoln and his contemporaries, the Founding Fathers were the “greatest generation.” If they could be enlisted on behalf of a cause, it would prevail. In his debates with Douglas, Lincoln had repeatedly insisted that the Founders were opposed to the expansion of slavery. Douglas denied it, citing the awkward fact that most of them had slaves.
Lincoln intended to put this question to rest once and for all in his Cooper Union address. For weeks he pored over the debates at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the legislation of early Congresses, and other historical evidence. Perhaps no political speech has ever been so exhaustively researched. Lincoln discovered that of the thirty-nine signers of the Constitution, twenty-three either subsequently voted as members of Congress on the question of excluding slavery from the territories or had otherwise taken a position on this question. Of these twenty-three, all but two had supported Congress’s power to ban slavery. In addition, several of the remaining sixteen had expressed antislavery positions in principle. Anyone who today compares Lincoln’s Cooper Union address with Chief Justice Roger Taney’s decision in the Dred Scott case will agree that Lincoln vanquished Taney on this issue.
By 1860, however, Southern political leaders were threatening to take their states out of the Union if a Republican president was elected on a platform restricting slavery. “I would address a few words to the Southern people,” said Lincoln, “if they would listen—as I suppose they will not.” Republicans did not intend to attack slavery in the states where it existed. But like the Founders, they wanted to contain its expansion as the first step toward bringing it eventually to an end:
But you will not abide the election of a Republican president! In that supposed event, you say, you will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! [Laughter] That is cool. [Great laughter] A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, “Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!” [Continued laughter]
Lincoln’s peroration urged Republicans to remain true to their principles despite Southern threats. His concluding sentence brought the audience to their feet with an ovation that went on and on: “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.” Lincoln’s phrase “right makes might” became a Republican slogan in the presidential campaign of 1860 and a rallying cry for the North in the terrible war that followed.
Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America (Simon and Schuster, 1992); Ronald C. White, Jr., Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural (Simon and Schuster, 2002).↩
Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America (Simon and Schuster, 1992); Ronald C. White, Jr., Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural (Simon and Schuster, 2002).↩