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.


In addition to the hundreds of thousands of newspaper copies in which the speech was printed, several pamphlet editions appeared in 1860 and these reached hundreds of thousands of additional readers. The Cooper Union address transformed Lincoln from just another western politician with a country-bumpkin image into an eloquent national leader with what modern political pundits term the “gravitas” to be president. If he had not come to New York, or if his speech there had been a failure, the Lincoln of history would not have existed. “Without Cooper Union,” writes Holzer, “Lincoln might have ended up, at best, as a historical footnote.”

It is altogether fitting, therefore, that a prominent New York politician, Mario Cuomo (to whom Harold Holzer was an aide during Cuomo’s governorship), should write Why Lincoln Matters Today More Than Ever, a book for which Holzer is listed as “historical consultant.” Cuomo is a Lincoln scholar in his own right. Fifteen years ago, as the restive Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe was beginning to break up, he took the lead in putting together a book of Lincoln’s writings, with introductions by leading historians, titled Lincoln on Democracy, which was translated into Polish and other languages to encourage the rise of democracy in those countries. If Lincoln mattered then, and if his words and ideas helped end the cold war, Cuomo thinks he matters today more than ever.

Why Lincoln Matters is the latest in a long line of efforts to use Lincoln as a sounding board or foil for current political and social issues. Some of these efforts are specious, as in the case of Ronald Reagan’s quotation of Lincoln maxims in a speech to the 1992 Republican convention—maxims that were written by an obscure Pennsylvania clergyman in 1916 and attributed to Lincoln. This was not an isolated incident. Lincoln has been quoted as saying things he never said more often than perhaps any other person in history. Cuomo does not make up any Lincoln sayings. But he goes further in speculating about what Lincoln might do or say today than a cautious historian who limited himself to the evidence would do.

In 1955 the Lincoln biographer David Herbert Donald wrote a clever essay, “Getting Right with Lincoln,” which analyzed the compulsion of American public figures to find a Lincoln quotation (real or spurious) or attribute to Lincoln a position that agreed with their own policies on some issue.2 I have had my own experience with this practice. Twenty years ago I gave a lecture to the Lincoln Group of Delaware on Lincoln’s leadership during the Civil War. After the talk I agreed to an interview with a Wil-mington radio station. The first question the interviewer asked was: “If Lincoln were alive today, what would he do about abortion and the budget deficit?” I was tempted to reply, as Senator George Norris did when asked in the 1930s what Lincoln would do about the Depression, that “Lincoln would be just like me. He wouldn’t know what the hell to do.”3

Cuomo’s speculations on “What would Lincoln do?” are more sophisticated than these questions—but not by much in some cases. The author’s unhidden purpose is to contrast Lincoln’s values and policies with those of the current president—always to the latter’s disadvantage. On the matter of preemptive war and invasion of a foreign country, Cuomo’s comparison of Lincoln and George W. Bush is sound. Even though Lincoln never heard of Iraq—which did not exist in his time—he would probably have opposed Operation Iraqi Freedom. As a member of Congress in 1847–1848, he opposed the Polk administration’s war against Mexico. Cuomo quotes a particularly apt letter from Lincoln to his law partner William Herndon that rejected Herndon’s support for a preemptive invasion of Mexico to forestall that country’s invasion of the United States. “Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion…and you allow him to make war at pleasure,” Lincoln wrote:

If, to-day, he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada, to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him, “I see no probability of the British invading us” but he will say to you “be silent; I see it, if you don’t.”

Many readers will agree with Cuomo’s central theme: the current administration has given Americans “no uplifting cause, no inspiring rationale,” no “vision worthy of the world’s greatest nation,” in contrast to Lincoln, who “labored to make the words of the Declaration of Independence a way of life. Equality and opportunity for all—truly for all.” Lincoln

would have known that we cannot end terror in the world just by having the world’s most powerful weapons and best fighting force any more than we can end crime in America by having the best police and prisons. We have to add to this force whatever is needed to provide the realistic hope for opportunity and dignity that quiets rage and produces peace.

Lincoln might well have agreed. But Cuomo perhaps pushes anachronism too far when he suggests that Lincoln surely “would have signed” a bill to authorize embryonic stem cell research and “certainly would not have felt obliged to push for legislation or court rulings that would have prohibited all abortions.” On the question of civil liberties, Cuomo criticizes Lincoln for imprisoning allegedly disloyal civilians and both Bush and Lincoln for imprisoning alleged terrorists without access to the courts to answer charges against them. Cuomo acknowledges that the threat to the nation’s very survival was greater in the 1860s than today and therefore Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus and his use of military tribunals to try civilians was not as egregious as “the transgressions of the Bush administration that threaten to set a new record for flagrant disregard of the Constitution.”

Cuomo’s historical consultant should have saved him from errors in his discussion of Lincoln and civil liberties. It is not true that

Lincoln took it upon himself to authorize suspending the writ [of habeas corpus] in contradiction of the Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court.

Nor did he allow “a military tribunal to convict civilian John Merryman.” What happened was this: in the first days of the war John Merryman led a pro-secession guerrilla force that cut Washington off from the North by tearing down telegraph wires and burning railroad bridges in Maryland. Arrested and imprisoned, Merryman appealed for release on a writ of habeas corpus issued by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in his capacity as senior judge for the circuit court with jurisdiction in Maryland. Having suspended the writ, Lincoln refused to release Merryman. Taney denied the president’s power to suspend the writ—but in so doing he was acting as a judge of the circuit court. The issue never came before the Supreme Court itself. Nor was Merryman convicted by a military tribunal—he was released after seven weeks and indicted in a civil court, but the trial never occurred.

In a curiously passive voice, the Constitution stipulates that the writ of habeas corpus “shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.” This provision appears in Article I, which otherwise specifies the powers of Congress (executive powers are laid out in Article II), so Taney ruled that only Congress could suspend the writ. Lincoln insisted that suspension was an emergency power intended to be exercised by the commander in chief in time of war. Several legal authorities wrote essays endorsing Lincoln’s position, while Taney, as the author of the Dred Scott decision, commanded little respect in the North.

Later in the war, military tribunals in Ohio and Indiana did indeed convict several Northern civilians, among them Lambdin Milligan, of aiding and abetting Confederate agents operating behind Union lines. After the war the Supreme Court, in Ex parte Milligan, voided the Indiana convictions on the ground that military courts could not try civilians when civil courts were open and functioning, as they were in Indiana during the war. This issue of military tribunals remained contentious during Reconstruction, as Elizabeth Leonard makes clear in Lincoln’s Avengers. This book combines a much-needed biographical portrait of the federal prosecutor Joseph Holt with analyses of the seven men and one woman charged with taking part in the conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln, as well as other postwar prosecutions.

A pre-war Kentucky Democrat, Holt was a staunch Unionist during the secessionist crisis and helped keep his native state in the Union. Like his friend Edwin M. Stanton, who became Lincoln’s secretary of war, Holt moved to the Republican Party and in 1862 was appointed judge advocate general and head of the Bureau of Military Justice. As the senior legal officer in the War Department, he set policy for court-martial trials of military personnel during the war. He also gave the orders for the military trials of Lambdin Milligan and other civilians that the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in 1866. Because he prosecuted antiwar Northern Democrats with ruthless zeal, Holt’s reputation has suffered at the hands of historians who claim that he was much too ready to use dubious and even perjured testimony against those he considered traitors in league with Confederates.

Leonard does much to rehabilitate Holt’s character. Her analysis is by no means a whitewash, however. She concedes the hard edge of his zealotry and the lack of “the highest degree of discernment and good judgment” in the prosecution of those he considered public enemies. His excesses, however, stemmed from a devoted patriot-ism and a hatred of treason. He insisted on a military court to try the eight people charged with conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward (who recovered from his wounds). In this case a military court seemed justified even though the defendants were civilians. The victim was commander in chief, the war had not officially ended, Washington could be considered part of a war zone, and the conspirators were charged with acting on behalf of an enemy power, particularly in the plot to kidnap Lincoln, which preceded John Wilkes Booth’s decision to kill him.

As chief prosecutor, Holt tried to prove that the assassination conspirators were acting on the orders of Jefferson Davis, who was captured by Union troops as the trial began. With relentless persistence, Holt pursued his effort to link Davis to the assassination plot even after his leading witness turned out to be a perjurer (for which he was later convicted and imprisoned). Although Holt was much criticized at the time and subsequently ridiculed by historians, some modern studies of the assassination conclude that he may not have been so wrong after all in his belief that Davis and other Confederate offi-cials—especially Secretary of State Judah Benjamin, who escaped to England—had ties to the conspirators planning kidnapping, or assassination, or both.4

Holt was criticized for his determination to prosecute Dr. Samuel Mudd, who set Booth’s broken leg as he fled from Washington after killing Lincoln, and for seeking the death penalty for Mary Surratt, at whose boarding house the conspirators frequently met. But recent scholarship has also demonstrated that Mudd was more guilty than his defenders believe5 and that Holt presented the court’s recommendation for commutation of Mary Surratt’s sentence to life in prison to President Andrew Johnson, who refused to grant clemency.

Leonard maintains that the assassination trial and Holt’s continued pursuit of evidence for Confederate complicity in this matter must be understood in the context of Reconstruction. Just as Radical Republicans wanted to enact equal rights for freed slaves and to exclude former Confederate leaders from political power to assure a loyal and democratic political order in the South, so Holt tried to prosecute former Confederates as part of this process. Holt’s “vision of Reconstruction,” writes Leonard,

was predicated upon the vigorous punishment of the South’s social and political leadership along with the entire region’s submission to a national future that included… the extension of civil rights to the freedpeople.

For Holt, justice was a higher goal than reconciliation—especially when reconciliation with Southern whites meant subordination of Southern blacks. Holt lived until 1894—long enough to witness sadly the triumph of precisely this process of reconciliation and subordination. We owe Elizabeth Leonard a debt of gratitude for rescuing him from undeserved oblivion.

This Issue

August 12, 2004