Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln Presidentby Harold Holzer
Lincoln at Cooper Union explores Lincoln's most influential and widely reported pre-presidential address -- an extraordinary appeal by the western politician to the eastern elite that propelled him toward the Republican nomination for president. Delivered in New York in February 1860, the Cooper Union speech dispelled doubts about Lincoln's suitability for the presidency, and reassured conservatives of his moderation while reaffirming his opposition to slavery to Republican progressives. Award-winning Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer places Lincoln and his speech in the context of the times -- an era of racism, politicized journalism, and public oratory as entertainment -- and shows how the candidate framed the speech as an opportunity to continue his famous "debates" with his archrival Democrat Stephen A. Douglas on the question of slavery.
The Cooper Union speech, which was carefully researched by Lincoln and refers often to the Founders and authors of the Constitution, is an antislavery lecture, capped by a ringing warning to would-be secessionists in the South. It reaches its climax with the assurance that "right makes might." Long held, inaccurately, to be an appeal to the conservatives, Holzer presents Lincoln's speech as a masterly combination of scholarship, a brief for equality and democracy, and a rallying cry to the country and the Republican party. Holzer describes the enormous risk Lincoln took by appearing in New York, where he exposed himself to the country's most critical audience and took on Republican senator William Henry Seward of New York, the front-runner, in his own backyard. Then he recounts the brilliant and innovative public relations campaign, as Lincoln took the speech "on the road" in his successful quest for the presidency.
"Lincoln at Cooper Union is the most interesting and important book on the sixteenth president published in years. Its richly detailed account of Lincoln's visit to New York in 1860 is as absorbing as any novel, and its close analysis of Lincoln's Cooper Union address adds significantly to our understanding of his political philosophy. I recommend it enthusiastically." David Herbert Donald, author of Lincoln
"It required someone with Harold Holzer's combination of knowledge, experience and talent to capture the speech's unique complexity and profundity. . . . All of this is brought to readers with meticulous historic precision, fascinating insight and charmingly facile prose." Mario Cuomo
- Simon & Schuster
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Read an Excerpt
Chapter One: "Abe Lincoln Must Come"
The train bearing a weary but exultant Abraham Lincoln home from nearby De Witt County lumbered into Springfield, Illinois, early on Saturday evening, October 15, 1859. No one was on hand there to greet him. Lincoln disembarked, strode past the brick depot, and commenced the brief, four-block walk along the gas-lit streets that led to his house. The weather was "fine and bracing," with a touch of frost biting the air.
The practicing attorney had spent the last five days at Clinton, a village some forty miles to the northwest, busily "attending court," as he innocuously put it. But ever the politician, he had kept one eye keenly fixed on fast-approaching state election contests in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, and perhaps most crucial of all, Ohio. Just a few weeks earlier, Lincoln had stumped tirelessly for Republican candidates there, delivering rousing addresses at both Columbus and Cincinnati, rebutting, one after another, earlier speeches by his perennial rival, the "Little Giant" of the Democratic party, Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas. The night before Lincoln's return home, voters across the country went to the polls, Republicans triumphed everywhere, and his admirers in Clinton gathered to toast "Long Abraham" the "Giant Killer." Convivial though it was, the party paled in comparison to the celebration awaiting him the next evening in Springfield.
Here, not long after he settled in at home, a surprised Lincoln was welcomed by a "vast multitude" of "several hundred" cheering Republicans. As a brass band serenaded Lincoln from the street, the crowd shouted for him to step outside and speak. Soon they would importune Lincoln to walk farther, and the procession would head boisterously over to the State House, for still more celebrations, speeches, and music.
Before greeting his supporters, however, Lincoln surely glanced at the incoming mail that had accumulated in the house since his departure. Among the pile of letters was a telegram. It had arrived three days earlier at the town's Illinois & Mississippi Telegraph Company office on the north side of the Public Square. Ordinarily, operators would have promptly dispatched it to Lincoln's nearby law office. But most residents knew that Springfield's most famous citizen was out of town. So office superintendent J. J. S. Wilson probably sent a boy to run it over to his residence. There, Lincoln found it three days later.
What Lincoln discovered when he tore open the envelope and read the telegram must have astonished and excited him. Here was another invitation to deliver yet another speech, but one that Lincoln, exhaustion notwithstanding, surely sensed immediately could advance his political ambitions on a grander stage than he had ever ascended. What the telegram brought was his first major invitation to speak in the East. And it marked the beginning of four months of negotiations, drama, and grueling work destined to lead him to the most pivotal public appearance of his career.
One can only imagine the satisfaction that Lincoln felt that night. A year earlier, through the summer and fall of 1858, he had debated Democratic incumbent Stephen A. Douglas face to face seven times in their bitter contest for the U.S. Senate. Lincoln had lost that race, sending him into a brief but profound depression. This autumn, at significant political risk, he had boldly followed the senator into Ohio to argue anew over the wrenching issue that divided not only them, but the rest of the country as well: the extension of slavery. As always, Douglas favored granting settlers the right to welcome or banish slaves from new territories. Just as vigorously, Lincoln opposed the spread of slavery anywhere, insisting that the institution be contained and allowed to die. Embracing Lincoln's arguments over Douglas's, Ohio, unlike Illinois the year before, had gone Republican by seventeen thousand votes. It was easy to believe that the tide was turning.
An ambitious, ingenious politician who hungered for a return to elective office, Lincoln knew that the biggest prize of all, the presidency of the United States, would be decided only a year down the road. He sensed that Senator Douglas would likely become the Democratic candidate for the White House in 1860. Now, amidst the excitement of this night of triumph in Springfield, it suddenly seemed possible that the infant Republicans might actually hope to beat Douglas next fall barely five years after organizing as a new national political party that is, if they nominated an electable candidate. Improbable as it seemed just a few hours before the state election results had filtered in from across the country on October 14, Lincoln now had reason to imagine himself that man. And here was an invitation to introduce himself where he was least known: in the heart of the vote-rich East.
All this surely raced through Lincoln's mind as he heard the music begin to swell outside his windows on the evening of October 15. What did he say to his politically savvy, equally ambitious wife, Mary herself once the object of an earlier Lincoln-Douglas rivalry, if local legends were to be believed? Did Lincoln share with her his mounting excitement over the party's triumphs and prospects? Did he dare speculate that while a major battle had been won, a larger one now loomed, with the presidency itself now in reach, and a major new forum to advance his ambitions suddenly, almost miraculously awaiting him in the East?
All we know for sure is that once inside his door and sometime before the brass band persuaded him across town to further cheer the Democrats' recent election day "Waterloo" Abraham Lincoln discovered the momentous telegram.
It had been sent on October 12 by a New York-based Republican activist named James A. Briggs, one of a growing number of easterners convinced that the only way the party could win the White House was by nominating a westerner who could attract votes from both sides of the country. The overwhelming favorite for the Republican presidential nomination was New York's own U. S. senator, William Henry Seward. But even as Seward's supporters worked with confident serenity to secure what seemed his destiny, a growing number of New Yorkers searched for alternatives. The anti-Seward forces remained fearfully certain that his nomination would ensure Douglas's election to the White House, and with it the unbridled spread of slavery nationwide.
Personally, Briggs, a onetime Cleveland attorney and businessman, now the head of the Ohio state agency in New York, counted himself a supporter of yet another rival aspirant for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination: Ohio governor Salmon P. Chase. But apparently he believed that to give Chase a chance at an 1860 convention victory Republicans must chip away at Seward's dominant strength by promoting a range of alternatives. The fall of 1859 found Briggs eagerly inviting several potential challengers from the West to declare their cases before eastern audiences and, of course, before the influential eastern press. In other words, the original invitation to Lincoln was for the hosts, above all, part of an elaborate ploy to stop Seward and help Chase.
Into this complex political web came the terse invitation: twenty-five words that nonetheless held the prospect of changing Lincoln's life, and perhaps the nation's life. Lincoln must have understood so instantly.
Hon. A. Lincoln.
will you speak in Mr Beechers church Broolyn [sic] on or about the twenty ninth (29) november on any subject you please pay two hundred (200) dollars.
For all his peripatetic stump speaking, Lincoln had never spoken in the New York area in his life. Now, though not yet a presidential candidate, he was being handed the chance to appear in one of the nation's shrines to abolitionism the so-called "Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad," Reverend Henry Ward Beecher's Plymouth Church in Brooklyn and there to strike a blow against slavery, and for his own political future. The chance to lecture inside a house of worship surely seemed particularly appealing. Back in 1838, Lincoln had delivered his first great speech to the Springfield Young Men's Lyceum from the pulpit of the local Episcopal church. For a man who had conceded more elections than he had won, but never lost his thirst for admiration and acclaim, here now was a chance at greater glory than even the most ardent hometown greeting could offer. The telegraph operator did not even know how to spell "Brooklyn" he left out the "k" but Lincoln certainly recognized the venue and the chance with no trouble at all. They represented, on the one hand, an extraordinary prospect for a national success, and on the other, a dangerous risk for failure.
As he prepared that night to head back outside his home to deliver an impromptu speech to his friends and then march with the local band over to the Capitol building, he likely sensed that his life had irreversibly changed. First, the clean Republican sweep on election day, in Ohio in particular. Now the invitation East: not just an invitation, but the opportunity of a lifetime.
In its next edition, Springfield's Republican paper would taunt the recently vanquished opposition with a tongue-in-cheek "apology" to local Democrats for keeping them awake on October 15 with the late-night hurrahs, music, speeches, and cannon fire. But the paper was dead serious when it added that the party's recent successes meant that Lincoln's "name was now inscribed high upon the roll of distinguished men spoken of in connection with the Presidency."
A few days earlier, a Pennsylvania Republican journal had boldly proposed an 1860 national slate of Chase for president and Lincoln for vice president. "We think this ticket would suit the Republicans of Illinois better," came the quick and earnest reply from Springfield, "if the names were transposed."
The man who invited Lincoln East, James A. Briggs, had written him once before, in the heat of the 1858 Illinois Senate race, and it is possible that Lincoln blessed with a politician's best weapon, a superb memory recalled the name. Concerned at that earlier date that Senator Douglas was, in his "campaign tirades," unfairly labeling Chase an outright abolitionist (the political kiss of death for mainstream Republicans), Briggs sent along the text of a speech that his hero had delivered as a senator back in 1850, clarifying his position. Briggs hoped that the next time Douglas misrepresented the Ohio leader, Lincoln would "have the kindness to correct him from Gov. Chase's own speech." Added the New Yorker: "There is a deep interest felt here in the Illinois contest. I hope you will win a great and a glorious victory." Now, more than a year later, Lincoln's defeat in that contest still smarting, came Briggs's exhilarating telegram.
Some Lincoln biographers have suggested that he was initially hesitant about the opportunity, but Lincoln was in fact elated about the invitation from the moment he received it, if for no other reason than that it offered the highest fee that he had ever earned as a public speaker. Two hundred dollars was a considerable amount of money in 1859. The potential political capital was of course even greater.
Vexingly, Lincoln's path to what would become the Cooper Union address was paved with confusion. Postponements, conflicting invitations, changing venues, and a revolving roster of hosts all complicated matters, week after anxious week, before Lincoln finally boarded the train toward New York in late February 1860.
In a way, such difficulties were to be expected. Lincoln's America was still sixteen long years away from the invention of the great communications boon of the century, the telephone. Long-distance contact was still confined to handwritten correspondence sent through the U.S. mails or dispatched via private telegraph companies.
Nor was transportation to be taken for granted in the prewar era. To travel from Illinois to New York, half the breadth of the continental United States, posed a formidable challenge. Early in his career, Lincoln had championed "internal improvements" economic development, as we call it today advocating government investment to build canals and railroads. By 1860, thanks to ever-expanding rail lines, the original colonies were linked to the American West more tightly than ever. But it still took a passenger several numbing days to get from the prairies to the ocean, traveling mostly in upright chairs on unheated, soot-filled cars that rocked and pitched their way at barely twenty miles an hour. Each state, sometimes each county, imposed its own "standard" track gauge, as a result of which cross-country passengers were forced to change trains, and railroad lines, constantly.
Lincoln had done his share of traveling. He had gone all the way to Washington eleven years earlier, his family in tow, to take his seat for his one term in Congress. As he knew, such a trip required major investments in time and discomfort. For the opportunity to seize a prestigious rostrum in the East, however, Lincoln proved willing to make both.
Lincoln's old Illinois friend Ward Hill Lamon recalled that the telegram from New York "enchanted him," adding: "No event of his life had given him more heartfelt pleasure."
The future president's longtime law partner William H. Herndon, so close to the senior attorney that the opposition press nicknamed him "Lincoln's man Friday," also testified to Lincoln's undisguised excitement on the Monday he returned to work, telegram in hand. Lincoln "looked much pleased...not to say tickled" when he rushed into the office around nine o'clock that morning. Over the years, Herndon would employ many a vivid word to describe Lincoln's topsy-turvy emotions. But only this once did he characterize his partner as "tickled."
Still, Lincoln could not help toying with his junior associate that day, coyly announcing: "Billy, I am invited or solicited to deliver a lecture in New York. Should I go?"
Herndon, who, whenever possible, liked to highlight his own influence on Lincoln, would recall that he helped to make history by replying: "By all means...and it is a good opening, too."
"If you were in my fix what subject would you choose?" Lincoln went on to inquire.
"Why a political one," answered Herndon, "that's your forte." As Herndon put it: "I advised Mr. Lincoln I thought it would help open the way to the Presidency thought I could see the meaning of the move by the New York men thought it was a move against Seward thought Greeley had something to do with it think so yet have no evidence. The result...was a profound one, as I think."
Herndon certainly sensed the dissident New Yorkers' "move against" pre-convention favorite Seward (although he did write his recollections with the benefit of nearly thirty years of hindsight). And he also detected the calculating hand of New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, whom he had been dispatched to visit only a year earlier to make sure his influential Republican newspaper did not waver in its support for Abraham Lincoln in his Senate race against Stephen A. Douglas (in fact, Greeley had been sorely tempted to break ranks and back Douglas).
By 1860, a number of Republicans in New York were indeed looking elsewhere for a national standard-bearer who could win not only their state that fall, but enough Northern states to win the presidency. Seward's controversial earlier statements about the nobility of the antislavery movement and the inevitability of sectional discord he had advocated a "higher law" than the Constitution and predicted an "irrepressible conflict" between North and South continued to haunt him. To some, he seemed vulnerable among Republican delegates in his quest for the nomination, and worse, beatable in a popular election if nominated. If Herndon is to be believed, Lincoln was thus encouraged to imagine from the very outset that a trip to New York could stoke the "little engine" of ambition that, as Herndon so vividly expressed it, "knew no rest." That engine barely needed such a spark for its owner to contemplate the highest political office in the country.
Many historians persistently contend that Lincoln went east the following February harboring only the vaguest notion that he might emerge from the trip as a viable national candidate. These scholars argue that, at most, Lincoln undertook his trip aspiring no higher than the vice presidency, an office for which he had received some unexpected, but flattering, delegate support at the Republican convention back in 1856 though nowhere near enough to secure the nomination. But the top job, the presidency, and the movement to deny Seward the nomination, was apparently on Herndon's mind from the first day Briggs's telegram arrived. If so, the prize could not have been far from Lincoln's thoughts, either.
As Herndon recalled it for publication in his Lincoln biography, published thirty years later, on the morning that Lincoln came to work with the Briggs telegram in hand, he asked his partner and "other friends" not if he should go east, but only about "the subject and character of his address," as if his acceptance was already a foregone conclusion.
The parameters of the invitation seemed almost boundless. Lincoln's talk was to be part of a series called the Plymouth Lecture Course. Briggs, who wired the initial feeler to Lincoln on behalf of an organizing committee composed of Joseph H. Richards of the New York newspaper the Independent, advertising agent J. M. Pettengill, and S. W. Tubbs, receiving teller of New York's Park Bank, had been asked by the three to take charge of inviting speakers for the lyceum-type appearances. Although they had never met, Plymouth Church minister Henry Ward Beecher was well known to Lincoln. The preacher was not only a prominent antislavery crusader, but also part of a famous family that boasted a sister who had written the most influential antislavery book of the age. Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, first published in 1852, was already well on its way to becoming the best-selling book of the nineteenth century.
"My acquaintance with Lincoln could hardly be called an acquaintance," Henry Ward Beecher later admitted. But he did consider himself "an observer" of Lincoln's career, explaining: "I followed him as I did every public character during the antislavery conflict." Beecher had already taken note of the "ability" Lincoln manifested in "his speeches parallel with Douglas in Illinois" in 1858. He no doubt looked forward to hearing him from his own pulpit by the time Briggs proposed that Lincoln lecture there in 1859.
To get the church series in motion, Richards, Pettengill, and Tubbs had called on Briggs in October at his William Street office in Manhattan and asked him to draft invitations not only to Lincoln, but also to a famous orator, Senator Thomas Corwin of Ohio. Each speaker would be offered two hundred dollars, Briggs remembered, to appear in "a course of lectures these young gentlemen proposed for the winter." Briggs further recalled that "the proposition to lecture was accepted" by both men. But only Senator Corwin, on his way through New York to Washington for the next session of Congress, found it convenient to deliver his talk at Beecher's Church as originally proposed.
Lincoln, on the other hand, managed to postpone his own lecture by nearly three months, while his hosts, without his knowledge, moved its location from Brooklyn across the East River to Manhattan. The changes would give Lincoln more time to prepare his speech, and offer him an even grander stage.
Pettengill seems to have understood from the first that Lincoln would be the more difficult speaker to pin down. The same day Briggs forwarded the original telegram October 12 Pettengill wrote to William H. Bailhache, editor of the Illinois State Journal, to describe the lecture series at Beecher's Church, and lobby Lincoln's home-town supporter about the November 29 invitation. "Abe Lincoln...must come," Pettengill pleaded. "We want to hear a speech from him, such a one as he delivered in Cincinnati [a month earlier] would be perfectly satisfactory. He may speak on any subject...the utmost latitude may be observed."
But much as Lincoln was enthused by the prospect of securing a forum in the East not to mention the hefty two-hundred-dollar honorarium he was from the first reluctant to commit to the proposed date. The text of his reply to the October 12 telegram has never been found, but it is apparent from Briggs's response to it less than three weeks later that Lincoln agreed to come east providing he could have more time to prepare his talk ideally until the end of February 1860.
Time to prepare may have been only one of the factors behind Lincoln's request for a postponement. Ever the shrewd politician, Lincoln likely calculated, too, that a later appearance would make more of a splash in the Republican newspapers, if it could be scheduled as close as possible to the presidential nominating convention. As Lincoln undoubtedly saw it, an early 1860 lecture would have far more impact than one calculated to fit into an 1859 lyceum series. So Lincoln asked for a postponement. Instead, he got an offer to make a second speech a portent of the invitation that would finally evolve.
Responding to Lincoln's counter-proposal, the obliging Briggs advised on November 1, 1859:
I handed it over to the Committee, & they will accept your Compromise. And you may Lecture the time you mention, & will pay you $200. I think they will arrange for a lecture in N.Y. also. And will pay you $200 for that, with your consent. Then you may kill two birds with one stone.
I understand the time between the 20th and last of February. Let me know about the week or so before the day fixed upon for the first Lecture.
If there was any doubt remaining that the summons had been inspired by anti-Seward forces within the Republican party, Briggs helpfully added a dig at his own senator. New York's "political coalition" was hard at work on its own local election campaigns, he reported to Lincoln, and he had "no doubt of the success of Republicans in this State." But Seward was thus far absent from the fray, and Briggs hastened to complain: "I think it is a mistake that Senator Seward is not on his own battlefield." Piling it on, Briggs wistfully told Lincoln: "Would that we would have the pleasure of listening to you, before the campaign closes."
The campaign was over, and Lincoln was again on the road, when Briggs's new letter caught up with him. He had gone to Mechanicsburg, Illinois, to deliver a speech on November 4, traveled to Chicago on the tenth, and by the thirteenth arrived in Danville to help prosecute a murder case. Among all the nearby towns that he visited regularly to practice law, Danville always made Lincoln feel particularly welcome. Not long before, the town had named its new theater "Lincoln Opera Hall." Lincoln was reportedly "a little embarrassed by the honor," lamely joking that the last time someone had named a dog for him, the dog went on to lose every fight he subsequently undertook.
Jokes aside, Lincoln knew all too well that after his painful 1858 defeat at the hands of Douglas he could not afford to lose more fights himself. The revised East Coast invitation must be answered, the opportunity seized. So there in Danville, he sat down to reply to Briggs on the stationery of the M'Cormack House hotel. His letter suggests that he was pleased about the postponement, but understandably confused about the unexpected new offer to deliver what would amount to a second two-hundred-dollar lecture in Manhattan.
Yours of the 1st. closing with my proposition for compromise, was duly received. I will be on hand; and in due time, will notify you of the exact day. I believe, after all, I shall make a political speech of it. You have no objection?
I would like to know, in advance, whether I am also to speak, or lecture, in New-York.
Very very glad your election went right.
Whether he took Herndon's advice or reached the same conclusion by following his own instincts, Lincoln made clear in this acceptance letter that his East Coast debut would be a "political speech," or more precisely, a political lecture.
He was no stranger to that medium. By the 1850s, Lincoln had evolved into a peripatetic, if inconsistent, figure on the Illinois lecture circuit. Lectures offered Lincoln the opportunity to speak on a wide variety of topics, demonstrate intellectual breadth, attract new audiences, travel to places where he could enlist new political allies, and earn additional money in the bargain. In a way, lecturing was Lincoln's third career after politics and the law.
Reformer Josiah Holbrook is credited with founding the American lyceum movement in 1826. Within a few years, lecture halls sprang up in cities and towns around the country, all vying to attract educated speakers to impart knowledge on a variety of subjects that might foster social unity through self-improvement.
By the time Lincoln took the platform at the Young Men's Lyceum for his first major lecture in Springfield twelve years later, the country boasted more than three thousand local lyceums. Lincoln's 1838 effort was a grandiloquent but compelling discourse entitled "The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions." Appalled by a recent wave of antiabolitionist violence in Illinois, Lincoln pleaded for "cold calculating reason" and "reverence for the laws." It was a theme to which he was destined to return.
Over the years, Lincoln lectured on subjects as varied as temperance and agriculture. But his favorite effort, given on several occasions in 1858 and 1859, was a long, disjointed talk on discoveries and inventions. His dismay over its mixed reception may have actually fired his determination to accept the lecture challenge proffered by New York.
Lincoln hit on or maybe decided to borrow the idea for the discoveries and inventions talk while riding the Illinois judicial circuit in the fall of 1855. Attorneys took turns on that trip reading aloud from historian George Bancroft's recently published lecture on The Necessity, the Reality, and the Promise of the Progress of the Human Race. Impressed, Lincoln determined to tackle the same esoteric subject himself to "review man," as fellow lawyer Henry Clay Whitney recalled, "from his earliest primeval state to his present high development."
The result proved less than successful. A pro-Douglas Democrat who earlier saw, and admired, Lincoln during the 1858 debates now complained: "He is a 'Big Gun' in the political world but I think the people generally were disappointed in his lecture as it was on no particular subject and not well connected. He was, I thought, decidedly inferior to many a lecturer I have heard." The writer was quick to add, "but had he talked on his favorite theme that of Politics, I have no doubt he would have done justice to his subject." It was as if the observer were predicting Lincoln's response to his upcoming East Coast lecture opportunity.
Yet Lincoln persevered, delivering his flawed "discoveries and inventions" lecture several more times. As word spread that he remained willing to take his talk to new venues, however, he found himself besieged with invitations that he proved unable or unwilling to accept.
Lincoln turned down one such request with a rare display of frankness on the subject. "I am not a professional lecturer have never got up but one lecture; and that, I think, rather a poor one," he conceded. "Besides, what time I can spare from my own business this season, I shall be compelled to give to politics."
Within his inner circle, there were few regrets. As Henry Clay Whitney bluntly put it, Lincoln "made a sorry failure in his attempt to invade the lecture field." And Ward Hill Lamon harbored similarly negative memories of Lincoln's "discoveries and inventions" talk. In Lamon's view, "Part of the lecture was humorous; a very small part of it actually witty; and the rest of it so commonplace that it was a genuine mortification to his friends."
Billy Herndon did not disagree. The "discoveries and inventions" talk, he remembered, "was so poor that it was a failure utter failure." Herndon thought he knew why:
Mr. Lincoln had not the fire taste reading eloquence &c., which would make him a lecturer had no imagination no fancy no taste no emotion, and no readings in that particular line....He would, in the absence of a friend's opinion, as soon take up the Beautiful as any other subject for a lecture when he had no sense of it. Lincoln had poor judgments of the fitness and appropriateness of things.
Still, as Herndon readily conceded of his partner, Lincoln also had an unquenchable tenacity of purpose: "The man who thinks Lincoln calmly sat down and gathered his robes about him, waiting for the people to call him, has a very erroneous knowledge of Lincoln. He was always calculating, and always planning ahead." Lincoln hardly needed Billy Herndon to advise him of the wisdom of going off to lecture on politics in the East. But he did understand that he would have to craft the lecture of his life. And as both of the law partners knew, lecturing was not as easy as it appeared. (Herndon, too, tried his hand at the Springfield lecture circuit, but with no success.) Whatever the risk of similar failure, Lincoln regarded the lecture invitation to Brooklyn as a challenge he could not refuse.
Lincoln had yet another good reason to accept the summons to go east in 1860. His oldest son, Robert, was enrolled at the Phillips Academy in distant Exeter, New Hampshire, and his father had not seen him for several months. Earlier, Robert had failed his Harvard entrance examinations miserably, flunking fifteen of sixteen subjects. His parents decided to send him off to preparatory school for a year of formal education until he could take the college admission tests again.
Lincoln was eager for his son's success, determined that Bob, as his mother and father called him, should enjoy the educational opportunities he had lacked himself. Robert later told at least one person that his father desired him to go to Harvard, and went so far as to ask his opponent Stephen A. Douglas to write a recommendation, convinced correctly, as it turned out that no one at the college would recognize the name "Lincoln."
Abraham Lincoln painfully remembered his own meager education. The subject embarrassed him; he had been taught only "by littles" at primitive ABC schools on the prairie. Writing about himself in the third person, he later calculated that "the aggregate of all his schooling did not amount to one year," adding wistfully: "He was never in a college or Academy as a student; and never inside of a college or academy building since till he had a law-license. What he has in the way of education, he has picked up." Robert would be given the chance indeed, would be expected to do more than "pick up" an education.
But contrary to one of the most stubbornly enduring of Cooper Union legends, Lincoln did not seize the chance to speak in the East just to get a free cross-country trip to see his boy. The future publisher George Haven Putnam, who would witness the Cooper Union address, later fueled that myth in a 1909 Lincoln biography that pointed to Robert himself as the source of the story.
"I heard from Robert Lincoln," insisted Putnam, "that his father had in January been planning to make a trip Eastward to see the boy..." but had postponed it when a client failed to pay the fee he needed to pay for the trip. Then came further word: "'Some men in New York' he said, 'have asked me to come to speak to them and have sent me money for the trip. I can manage the rest of the way.'"
Robert Lincoln was alive and well when Putnam introduced this fantastic tale, and the fact that Robert did not move quickly to correct it, as he often did when writers misrepresented his father, suggests that he rather enjoyed believing it himself. However, it is not true. His father had already accepted and scheduled his trip east well before January. As for the money, as early as October, he had been assured that he would earn two hundred dollars for his speech, and the honorarium had been reconfirmed in November. Lincoln was hardly dependent on a legal fee to finance a trip to New York.
There is no doubt that Robert Lincoln's parents missed their son. Mary wrote such a long letter to the boy on August 28, 1859, that she had to apologize to one of her regular correspondents later that day for writing her but a short one. By October, Mary was already dreaming of joining Bob the following summer, predicting they would become "somewhat of travellers" and see New Hampshire's White Mountains together. Whether Lincoln, too, corresponded with the boy is not known for sure. Robert took pains later in life to destroy his father's correspondence to him, but it would come as no surprise if his father sent him endearing and encouraging letters of his own. Parents and child had never really been separated before.
Still, it strains credulity to imagine that Lincoln would have forgone "business," as he liked to call it legal as well as political to devote the time required for an eastern trip, merely to check up on his son, who had only been gone since late summer. By late 1859, several factors were indeed coalescing to beckon him east: his growing prospects for the presidency and the chance to introduce himself as a serious lecturer of the political kind in an area of the country where he had never before been seen or heard. Happily for father and son alike, they would enjoy a reunion in the bargain.
As 1859 wound down and the critical election year of 1860 began, arrangements for Lincoln's journey to the east bogged down in details as sticky as Springfield's notoriously muddy streets. "There was some confusion in the arrangements," conceded Richard C. McCormick, a member of the committee that ultimately took charge of the event. To say the least, this was something of an understatement.
First came Lincoln's way a perplexing October 26, 1859, invitation from the Republican Central Committee of New York, inviting him to speak there on November 3 "preparatory to our state election." Chairman D. D. T. Marshall and his committee wrote that they "would be much gratified if you could make it convenient to be with us."
Was this the promised invitation to deliver a second two-hundred-dollar lecture in New York City? No, but not until Lincoln wrote back to James A. Briggs a week later was the mystery solved. The Central Committee's unexpected invitation was entirely separate and uncoordinated. Lincoln learned that one had nothing to do with the other, and, after making sure he would not jeopardize the original Plymouth Church request by declining it, said no.
But his procrastination was meanwhile taking its toll on his Brooklyn hosts. By early 1860, James A. Briggs began feeling that it was growing "rather late in the season for a lecture, and the young gentlemen who were responsible were doubtful about its success, as the expenses were large." For reasons that can only be conjectured, the venue was moved. (Historians have occasionally suggested incorrectly that Lincoln's talk was moved because organizers needed a bigger hall, but in fact, the old Plymouth Church held more people than Cooper Union. Today's church docents suggest to modern visitors that organizers fretted that New Yorkers would have feared crossing the ice-filled East River to get to Brooklyn in the dark of a February night as reasonable a suggestion as any other that has ever been advanced. Probably the best explanation is that the church's revenue-generating lecture season had simply ended.)
In an inspiration, Briggs hit upon the idea of moving the talk to Cooper Union in Manhattan. Its auditorium was the largest in town (though, lacking a balcony, smaller than that at Plymouth Church). Other leading Republicans had scheduled speeches there, and a full house paying twenty-five cents apiece at Cooper Union would easily offset the honorarium and travel expenses Briggs had promised Lincoln. Initially, however, Briggs's skeptical associates did not endorse the idea.
Even with a large house at Cooper Union, the committee was "fearful it would not pay expenses $350" including travel costs. Briggs was more confident. "I thought it would," he insisted. So "in order to relieve Messrs. Richards, Pettingill [sic], and Tubbs of all responsibility," Briggs next called on "some of the officers" of the Young Men's Republican Union and "proposed that they should take Mr. Lincoln, and that the lecture should be delivered under their auspices." But "they respectfully declined" too. Lincoln learned nothing of these problems.
Now Briggs grew worried. The "Young Men's Republican Club of New York refused to have any thing to do with it," he asserted. In desperation, he asked Simeon Draper, head of "The Draper Republican Union Club of New York," if he would "take Mr. Lincoln and the lecture, and assume the responsibility of the expenses." But Draper also said no. Lincoln, as Briggs put it, was now "left in the hands of the 'original Jacobs.'"
With nowhere else to turn, Briggs told his Plymouth Church lyceum committee that it must take responsibility for finding a solution. After "considerable discussion," Briggs recounted, the four of them Briggs, Pettengill, Richards, and Tubbs agreed to assume the role of impresarios. They would personally underwrite Lincoln's trip, pay him the promised honorarium, take all the financial risks, and keep any and all profits for themselves. Not that they expected to profit much. In fact, Briggs had to pledge "to share one-fourth of the expenses, if the sale of the tickets (25 cents) for the lecture did not meet the outlay." The group even wooed the Young Men's Republican Union back into the sponsorship role once Briggs assured them that there would be no financial exposure.
Somehow, inexplicably, they failed to notify Lincoln in advance that his lecture would be relocated to Manhattan. This, amazingly, the speaker did not learn until he set foot in New York City in late February.
The group calling itself the Young Men's Central Republican Union had originally organized in June 1856 as the "Fremont & Dayton Central Union" to rally support for John C. Frémont and William L. Dayton, the candidates for president and vice president, respectively, on the first-ever Republican national ticket. Now renamed, the club, under the leadership of chairman Cephas Brainerd, and a roster of senior "advisors" that included William Cullen Bryant and Horace Greeley, was determined to play an active role in the upcoming 1860 presidential campaign. Within the complex tapestry of New York politics, the group was not to be confused with the similarly named Young Men's National Union Club, not to mention the Young Men's Republican Committee both of which now planned to hold meetings of their own around the same time Lincoln was destined to appear in the city: the last week of February 1860.
A precocious teenager on the scene, George Haven Putnam, remembered the decisive meeting of the Young Men's Republican Union in editor William Cullen Bryant's office at the Evening Post. Someone suggested "that a cheque for expenses had better be sent to Springfield" as a down payment to guarantee Lincoln's visit, since "lawyers in the West did not always have money in their pockets." There was a "row," recalled the young lawyer Charles C. Nott, a member of the executive committee of the Young Men's Republican Union. "Everybody except myself was opposed to such a precedent and said we paid much less to more able and eminent men."
The old poet Bryant spoke up in Lincoln's behalf. "I can but think," he declared, "that Mr. Lincoln has shown a better understanding of the policy and spirit of the Republican Party and of the conditions under which is to be made the coming Presidential fight, than has been shown by any other political leader in the country, not excepting even our own Seward." With this newest swipe at the New York senator, the mood of the gathering abruptly changed and the committee enthusiastically endorsed the invitation to the man from Illinois.
In support of their own event, the leaders of the Young Men's Central Republican Union now sprang into action. Cephas Brainerd became the "bill sticker," hanging posters around town promoting the lecture. Richard C. McCormick assumed responsibility for public relations; he would make sure that Republican newspapers such as the Tribune and Evening Post, and even the pro-Seward Times, reported the lecture in advance. Charles C. Nott, along with Benjamin F. Manierre, Charles H. Cooper, P. G. Degraw, James H. Welsh, E. C. Johnson, and Lewis M. Peck, all members of Brainerd's executive committee, no doubt pledged to work in their own ways to generate a crowd at Cooper Union.
Perhaps overwhelmed by its sudden new responsibilities, not until February 9, 1860 barely two weeks before Lincoln's scheduled departure for New York did the group dispatch a final, formal invitation out to Springfield over Charles C. Nott's signature. Now it was the committee, not the speaker, that wanted a delay. To "Abram" Lincoln (this time the writer failed to spell his guest's given name correctly!), the young Republican candidate for judge of common pleas proposed that Lincoln lecture in March as part of a new series featuring western Republicans. Neglecting only to report the change of venue, he wrote:
The "Young Mens Central Republican Union" of this city very earnestly desire that you should deliver what I may term a political lecture during the ensuing month. The peculiarities of the case are these A series of lectures has been determined upon. The first was delivered by Mr. Blair of St Louis a short time ago the second will be in a few days by Mr C M. Clay, and the third we would prefer to have from you, rather than from any other person. Of the audience I should add that it is not that of an ordinary political meeting. These lectures have been contrived to call out our better, but busier citizens, who never attend political meetings. A large part of the audience would also consist of ladies[.] The time we should prefer, would be about the middle of March, but if any earlier or later day will be more convenient for you we would alter our arrangements.
Allow me to hope that we shall have the pleasure of welcoming you to New York. You are, I believe an entire stranger to your Republican brethren here, but they have, for you, the highest esteem, and your celebrated contest with Judge Douglas, awoke their warmest sympathy & admiration. Those of us who are "in the ranks" would regard your presence as very material aid; and as an honor & pleasure which I cannot sufficiently express.
By this time, Lincoln had fixed on February 27 for his appearance. Probably he had promised his son a visit at Exeter. A mid-March lecture would not work. So he quickly wrote to New York to request that his own final choice of speaking date be honored. Not long thereafter, on February 15 three days after Lincoln's fifty-first birthday Briggs wrote him to confirm the schedule, adding a none-too-subtle alert about the orator who was scheduled to precede Lincoln to the rostrum in the Young Republicans' new lecture series:
Your letter was duly recd. The Committee will advertise you for the Evening of the 27th Inst. Hope you will be in good health & spirits, as you will meet here in this great Commercial Metropolis a right cordial welcome.
The noble Clay speaks here to-night. The good Cause goes on.
The group's message was clear: As Charles C. Nott had written a few days earlier, Lincoln was an "entire stranger" to the East, and this would be no "ordinary political meeting." Something more than an ordinary political speech would be required. Now Briggs reported that Francis Preston Blair had successfully opened the lecture series, and Cassius Marcellus Clay would likely be attracting another large crowd, and setting a high bar.
By this time, Abraham Lincoln was meticulously preparing his own lecture: reading, researching, making notes, drafting, and rewriting. As if not only "the Cause," but his own political life, depended on it.
Copyright © 2004 by Harold Holzer
Among the many tantalizing "what ifs" of the Civil War era what if Stonewall Jackson had survived past 1863; what if George G. Meade had pursued the shattered Confederate army after Gettysburg; what if Abraham Lincoln had eluded assassination is one question that must precede all the others. What if Lincoln the aspiring presidential candidate had failed his first, grueling, decisive test of political and oratorical skills in New York City?
In fact, it is entirely possible that had he not triumphed before the sophisticated and demanding audience he faced at New York's Cooper Union on February 27, 1860, Lincoln would never have been nominated, much less elected, to the presidency that November. And had Lincoln not won the White House in 1860, the United States or the fractured country or countries it might otherwise have become without his determined leadership might today be entirely different.
This is the story of that momentous speech: its impetus, preparation, delivery, reception, publication, calculated reiteration, and its enormous, perhaps decisive, impact on that year's presidential campaign. It seeks to ask and answer the question from which historians have long shied: Why did this voluminous, legalistic, tightly argued, fact-filled address prove so thrilling to its listeners, so irresistible to contemporary journalists, and such a boost to Lincoln's political career? How exactly did it transform its author from a relatively obscure Illinois favorite son into a viable national contender for his party's presidential nomination?
To find the answers required deep investigation into original reports and recollections and the shunning of the many, but fleeting, mentions of the speech in modern biographies, which have shed little light on the Cooper Union enigma.
For all of its universally acknowledged importance, Lincoln's Cooper Union address has for years enjoyed a peculiar reputation. It is widely understood to have somehow propelled Lincoln to the presidency. Yet it has been virtually ignored by generations of historians, most of whom have relegated it to the status of exalted footnote. Cooper Union remains, vexingly, the best known of Abraham Lincoln's speeches that no one seems to quote or cite; the most important of his addresses whose importance no one can quite explain beyond simply reiterating its importance; and the most famous of his speeches that almost no one today ever reads.
Myth and misunderstanding have conspired further to obscure Lincoln's accomplishment as thickly as the dense fog that enshrouded New York City only a few weeks before his arrival. Generally, when it has been mentioned at all, the Cooper Union speech has been celebrated for the wrong reasons, while its true virtues have oddly been ignored.
One thing may be said with certainty. Had Lincoln failed at his nerve-wracking, physically exhausting, do-or-die New York debut, history would long ago have relegated his name to the trash heap of obscurity. In the words of a twentieth-century song, had he not made it here, he might not have made it anywhere. He would never have won his party's presidential nomination three months later, or the bitter election that followed six months after the convention. He would never have confronted the agonizing choice between war and peace to accept secession or fight to preserve the Union. And he would never have enjoyed the opportunity to strike a fatal blow against slavery, or to refashion American democracy into the global example he believed to be its rightful destiny. He would, to twist his own, later words, have "escaped history" altogether.
As far as his subsequently earned, exalted place in political literature which Walt Whitman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Edmund Wilson, among others, have celebrated it is probably fair to say that without Cooper Union first, there would have been no Gettysburg Address, no Second Inaugural, no further grand opportunities.
Then why is Cooper Union so little known today?
Perhaps its intimidating length it is ten times longer than the Second Inaugural address, and some twenty-eight times the size of his masterpiece at Gettysburg has discouraged recollection and analysis. So, possibly, has the fact that, stylistically, it is so completely unlike anything that Lincoln produced either before or after his New York appearance. On the one hand, it is infinitely more restrained, intricate, and statesmanlike than the stem-winding oratory with which Lincoln earned his reputation as a public speaker in the West. Yet it is also far less elegiac than the monumental speeches that he delivered once he was elected to the presidency and the Civil War began. In the Lincoln canon, it represents an altogether unique rhetorical watershed, the transforming moment separating the prairie stump speaker and the presidential orator.
To further complicate matters, careful study reveals the complex Cooper Union address itself to be, in a sense, three distinct speeches in one, each ingeniously calculated to validate the antislavery platform of Lincoln's Republican party through completely different approaches: legal precedent, a hearty dose of ironic challenge, and a dazzling coda of inspiring political faith. For this reason, too, Cooper Union has resisted easy analysis. Remarkably, the speech has until now inspired only one brief book, now forty years old.
Modern readers consulting the few existing sources on the subject might reasonably conclude that Lincoln was simply invited to New York City, sat down and wrote out a fine speech, then went on to deliver it successfully. They might think that he did so unaware of political challenges confronting him at home and across the country from Democrats and fellow Republicans alike. They might suspect that Lincoln was ambivalent or indifferent about the presidency, and unschooled in the vast historical literature he was called upon to digest, explain, and rebut in New York. They would likely fail to take into account the frenzied, partisan press that Lincoln knew would simultaneously praise and pillory his performance, and to which he tailored his address as surely as he crafted it for his "hearing" audience. The truth is, the full history of Lincoln's Cooper Union experience its origins and its aftermath is far richer, the context of Lincoln's New York debut more nuanced, and the challenge he faced far more daunting than earlier books have acknowledged.
Yes, the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln boasted, was "short, short, short," while the Cooper Union address is long, long, long. But Cooper Union has long cried out for study.
To properly appreciate its impact in its time and place, however, requires a significant leap of imagination. It may be hard for modern Americans accustomed to today's political sound bites and carefully timed question-and-answer-style presidential debates which we view in the comfort of home on television to appreciate the frenzied, all-consuming, society-defining political culture of the Lincoln era. But understanding that culture is crucial to understanding the Cooper Union address.
Lincoln's zealous contemporaries virtually lived and breathed politics a passion manifested by the 80% voter turnout in the 1860 election. And they hungrily feasted on public oratory, flocking to hear candidates hold forth for hours at a time on the issues of the day.
In Lincoln's time, political speechmaking provoked the devotion of old-time religious revivalism and unleashed a level of community passion unequalled until the introduction of professional sports generations later. Citizens followed politics avidly, decorated their homes with pictures of their leaders, and took their families to political events as eagerly as they might visit church or the annual county fair.
Speeches and speakers might engulf entire towns, villages, and cities in waves of excitement. Crowds practically fought "a hand-to-hand conflict for even the meagerest...standing room" to hear politicians hold forth, as one journalist of the day observed with astonishment. Speeches and debates might inspire raucous parades, banner-waving, picnicking, drinking, brawling, and demonstrations bursting with fireworks, music, torchlights, and still more speeches. Hard as it is to conceive, during the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, one audience, though exhausted after hearing three long hours of political argumentation under a scorching midsummer sun, happily headed off afterward to hear yet another speech, as if it could simply not get its fill of such oratory.
Into this long-vanished political culture Lincoln emerged and thrived, developing into a shrewd crowd pleaser who even his lifelong political rival Stephen A. Douglas acknowledged to be "full of wit, facts, dates the best stump speaker, with his droll ways and dry jokes, in the West." Over time, Lincoln became wise not only in the ways of enthralling crowds, but in creating prose that could also be usefully reprinted in party-affiliated newspapers. For long before the introduction of newsreels, radio, and television, newspapers afforded information-hungry party loyalists scattered in rural isolation throughout the country their chief access to politicians and their unexpurgated ideas. Lincoln would want his Cooper Union speech to resound in print as effectively as it did in person, helping to magnify its impact and increase its influence.
The Cooper Union address tested whether Lincoln's appeal could extend from the podium to the page, and from the rollicking campaigns of the rural West to the urban East, where theaters, lecture halls, and museums vied with politics for public attention. Cooper Union held the promise of transforming Lincoln from a regional phenomenon to a national figure. Lincoln knew it, and rose to the occasion.
As if to illustrate his metamorphosis, the Cooper Union appearance also inspired the most important single visual record of Lincoln's, or perhaps any, American presidential campaign: an image-transfiguring Mathew Brady photograph. Its later proliferation and reproduction in prints, medallions, broadsides, and banners perhaps did as much to create a "new" Abraham Lincoln as did the Cooper Union address itself.
Supposedly, Lincoln volunteered when he encountered the famous photographer again a few months later: "Brady and the Cooper Institute made me President." There is no corroborating contemporary evidence that Lincoln ever said anything of the kind. But he might as well have. Make him president, they undoubtedly did. This book attempts to explain how that happened.
A note is offered to explain how Lincoln's speech is referred to in this book, and also how the text identifies Peter Cooper's academy, which still sits at Astor Place in Manhattan and continues to function as a free college for gifted students in the fields of engineering, architecture, and design.
Officially the school was and remains Cooper Union. But from the time its Great Hall began presenting speakers in 1859, a few months before the school even opened its doors to students, a so-called "People's Institute" established itself to organize public programs there for the further enlightenment of both its enrollees and the general public.
Thereafter, Lincoln and nearly all of his contemporaries, including journalists, began referring to the school itself as "Cooper Institute" or "Cooper's Institute." To most Americans of Lincoln's day, his 1860 speech thus became known as the "Cooper Institute" address. Readers will see on the pages that follow many references to the "Institute," not the "Union," from both Lincoln and his contemporaries.
Abraham Lincoln, however, lectured not for the "Institute" group, but for an independent political organization that rented the building's Great Hall for the evening. Therefore it is proper to say that he spoke at Cooper Union, not Cooper Institute. Besides, Cooper Union is the name by which the school ultimately came to be known, just as originally planned.
For the sake of accuracy and uniformity alike with apologies for the resulting, unavoidable inconsistency the narrative of this book employs "Cooper Union" throughout.
Copyright © 2004 by Harold Holzer
Meet the Author
Harold Holzer, a leading authority on Lincoln and the Civil War, is Chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation and a Roger Hertog Fellow at the New York Historical Society. Widely honored for his work, Holzer earned a second-place Lincoln Prize for Lincoln at Cooper Union in 2005 and in 2008 was awarded the National Humanities Medal. Holzer is Senior Vice President of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and lives in Rye, New York.
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Of all of Lincoln's pre-Presidential speeches, the one he gave at New York City's Cooper Union in February 1860 stands out as the most historically significant: it made him president; it compelled the South to secede; and it saved the Union. And, yet, as Professor Holzer points out, this speech, while mentioned in history books, is rarely given the recognition it deserves. His comprehensive and readable 'Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech that Made Abraham Lincoln President', rectifies this terrible oversight. This is not a step-by-step examination of Lincoln's references in, and the rhetorical craftsmanship of, the speech, although those are explored thoroughly. The book also explores the heretofore unacknowledged campaigning savvy that Lincoln possessed. He knew he had to come to Gotham to convince the Eastern Republicans of his credibility. He knew the importance of the local newspaper printers, like Bryant and Greeley. He understood the importance of having a visual aid, like a Matthew Brady photograph. But, most important, as Professor Holzer takes great pains to reveal, Lincoln did not want to appear to be an abolitionist. That would border on radicalism which would be a guarantee of defeat. As a bonus, 'Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech that Made Abraham Lincoln President', presents us with a unique view of 1860 New York: the thieves at the docks; the 'mass transit' of the age; the hunger for entertainment, of which political speeches were a significant part; the elegance and extravagance of the rich; and the desperation of the Five Points poor. 'Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President' is a wonderful book that will please anyone interested in American History, New York City, or oratory. And Professor Holzer deserves our thanks for making it so fascinating. It only reflects his own passion for the subject.
Another great book by the Lincoln-expert, Harold Holzer. This book provides further insight into the genius of Abraham Lincoln. His political skills and his communication skills seem to have had no limits. The more I read about Lincoln, the more I want to know. Holzer also gives the reader a feel for Lincoln, the man. Holzer's descriptions of Lincoln walking the streets of New York City, and meeting Matthew Brady at Brady's studio, help to bring Lincoln to life. Also, check out Sam Waterston's (of "Law and Order" fame) portrayal of Lincoln at Cooper Union on c-span.org's Video Library.
Gives a great break down of Lincoln's approach to a critical speech and lets the reader understand how smart Lincoln truely was. Anyone wanting to gain a more indepth understanding of our best President should read this book.