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Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President

Holzer, Harold

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"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 Lincolntook the speech "on the road" in his successful quest for the presidency.

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About the Author:

Harold Holzer has authored, coauthored, and edited twenty-two books on Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, including The Lincoln Image, Lincoln Seen and Heard, Dear Mr. Lincoln: Letters to the President, Lincoln as I Knew Him, and Lincoln on Democracy. Holzer, who is vice president for communications and marketing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, lives in Rye, New York. Visit his website at www.haroldholzer.com.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Preface to the Paperback Edition

More than nine hundred people filled the Great Hall of Cooper Union in New York to hear Abraham Lincoln's great speech that night, many waiting hours on a long line that circled the building. The speaker -- and the man assigned to introduce him -- were called on stage by the school's African-American president. The orator made careful use of the microphone, aware that the event was being taped for television. Audience members could not help but notice how frequently he gulped Poland Spring water as he held the hot, floodlit stage for nearly an hour and a half. Only one cell phone rang during the entire evening.

None of the above happened on February 27, 1860, of course -- the day Lincoln himself made history at Cooper Union in New York, albeit to a house only three-fourths filled. In Lincoln's time, electronic amplification, broadcasting, color-blind executive opportunities at major universities, and, for that matter, bottled water, were all unknown and unimaginable.

But it did happen just as described 140 years later, on May 5, 2000. That evening, to mark the publication of the clothbound edition of this book, actor Sam Waterston mesmerized a modern audience at Cooper Union in a re-creation of Lincoln's address.

I was privileged that night to sit on stage throughout the performance, having assumed the role of New York Evening Post editor William Cullen Bryant, who had introduced Lincoln on February 27, 1860. I will not soon forget the thrill of listening to those seven thousand words up close, just as Bryant had. What a spellbinding oration it remains, in the hands of a speaker capable of squeezing nuance from Lincoln's canny repetition of phrases, and passion from his dazzlingly intricate peroration.

Aired repeatedly on C-SPAN, the re-creation -- and the book -- not unexpectedly rattled some archives, shaking hitherto unknown, but important information to the surface. The bad news is that the material came to light too late for inclusion in the original; the good news is that the paperback edition provides this opportunity to recognize and discuss new discoveries.

Chief among them is a long-lost letter that Lincoln wrote to Ohio Senator Thomas Corwin on October 9, 1859 -- just a week before receiving the momentous telegram inviting him to speak in the East. (Unbeknownst to Lincoln, Corwin would be asked to participate in the very same lecture series. The Senator went to Brooklyn as requested; Lincoln demurred, ending up, fortuitously, at Cooper Union). Their correspondence began when Corwin wrote Lincoln that he was worried that their party's incessant focus on slavery would doom its chances to elect a president in 1860. Lincoln believed otherwise -- and in the newly unearthed, handwritten letter, emphatically so declared. Employing frank language to the man who came close to sharing the spotlight with him in New York, Lincoln insisted Republicans ought not to try attracting Democrats to their ranks by emphasizing irrelevancies like "tariff, extravagances, live oak contracts and the like -- the very old issues upon which the Whig party was beat out of existence." The issue of slavery, Lincoln argued, not only offered moral, but political resonance:

What brought these democrats with us? The Slavery issue. Drop that issue, and they have no motive to remain, and will not remain, with us. It is idiotic to think otherwise. Do you understand me as saying Illinois must have an extreme antislavery candidate? I do not so mean. We must have, though, a man who recognizes that Slavery issue as being the living issue of the day; who does not hesitate to declare slavery a wrong, nor to deal with it as such; who believes in the power, and duty of Congress to prevent the spread of it.

That we now have a letter in which Lincoln used the word "idiotic" -- for the first and only time -- to warn against abandoning antislavery ideals, sheds dramatic new light on his views on the eve of his New York trip. In a way, it is too bad that Lincoln did not speak so forthrightly there. His carefully modulated Cooper Union address instead encouraged generations of observers to conclude that it showed no real antislavery zeal, although this book contends otherwise. The newly discovered Corwin letter makes clearer what Lincoln had in mind when he wrote his first speech for the East: the twin goals of placing slavery "on the course of ultimate extinction," and of improving his party's -- and his own -- prospects in the 1860 presidential campaign.

Another issue, the controversy that erupted in 1860 over Lincoln's Cooper Union honorarium, continues to elicit interest -- perhaps because modern politicians so often earn enormous fees for their speeches, a practice that arouses as much debate now as it did then. A number of readers wrote to inquire precisely what his $200 payment was really worth back in 1860. Actually, the precise value of Lincoln's honorarium remains open to interpretation. According to Inflation Watch, a much-consulted Internet website, the $200 New York fee would be equal to some $4,000 today -- a sum far less than senators and governors earn nowadays for rotary club talks. But using other formulas that also take into account stock-market inflation, the $200 of 1860 might be worth tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars in the 21st century. That makes it easier to understand why the honorarium became a political issue. The last word on Lincoln's true value, however, properly belongs to one of those who paid for him to speak. And as co-host James A. Briggs wrote in the letter that accompanied his fee for lecturing at Cooper Union:

Enclosed please find "check" for $200. I would that it were $200,000. for you are worthy of it. You "hit the nail on the head" here; & long, very long will your speech be remembered in this City. It did great good, it was so weaved & linked with truth, that it convinced men.

Yet it apparently convinced more men in Manhattan than in Brooklyn -- the place Lincoln expected to deliver it -- reminding us how fortunate he was that his appearance was moved across the East River. On the day he was to appear at Cooper Union, in fact, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle lashed out with a querulous item, unknown and unpublished since, belittling the Republican party's recent, and popular, lecture series:

Under the guise of literary entertainments, such men as G. W. Curtis, Wendell Phillips, and others, have in our lecture rooms preached the doctrines of [New York Senator William H.] Seward and [antislavery chronicler of the South Hinton] Helper. Many who habitually attend lectures are generally attracted more by the desire to see some celebrity than by the subject of his discourse; and many go to see Phillips, Harrison, and Cassius M. Clay out of mere curiosity to see the men, as they would as soon go to see Barnum's mermaid. As a class, lecture-goers are a people who do not usually attend political meetings. Latterly the disguise of literary discourses has been thrown off, and the Republicans have openly announced their political lectures. But clinging to the claptrap of the lecture system, they have brought out only great guns from abroad, whose fame and notoriety had excited a curiosity to see them. A course of Republican lectures is now in progress at the Cooper Institute. Phillips, Giddings, and Clay have delivered themselves; to-night, Abraham Lincoln, Douglas's Republican competitor from Illinois, will hold forth.

And so Lincoln did -- unforgettably. In large part, he "held forth" by dramatically repeating the phrase "our fathers" no less than thirty times. Several readers wrote to point out that its use was not novel for "Barnum's mermaid" from Illinois. True enough. As Lincoln declared during the Lincoln-Douglas debates a year and a half earlier: "I say...there is no way of putting an end to the slavery agitation amongst us but to put it back upon the basis where our fathers placed it." But not until New York did Lincoln make the notion the central theme of a major speech. At Cooper Union, the phrase "our fathers" echoed so often that one can imagine Lincoln basing the volley on a scene from one of his favorite author's best-known plays. After all, the constant reminder that "our fathers understood this [slavery] question just as well, and even better, than we do now" reverberates with the same kind of impactful frequency with which Marc Antony reminded friends, Romans, and countrymen that "Caesar was an honorable man," in the funeral oration from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.

Finally, several readers wrote to ask if Lincoln invented the most famous line of his Cooper Union speech -- his declaration that "right makes might." Truth to say, it is hard to know for sure. Lincoln once described himself as a "retailer," not an inventor, of his funniest stories, and the same may be true about his serious writing. His "of the people, by the people, for the people" at Gettysburg, for example, owed much to a similar, earlier turn of phrase by Transcendentalist preacher Theodore Parker. As for "right makes might," the expression was certainly percolating in the national vocabulary at the time, particularly within the roiling debate over slavery.

Writing in Douglass' Monthly three months before Lincoln rose to speak at Cooper Union, ex-slave and abolition advocate Frederick Douglass observed: "Slavery...shields itself behind might, rather than right." Did Lincoln read the newspaper and commit the sentiment to his extraordinarily elastic memory? We do not know for certain, but if he ever did consult the publication, November 1859 would have been the most likely month for him to do so. At precisely that time, fretting over his upcoming East Coast lecture, Lincoln was grappling with the political fallout from John Brown's recent, bloody abolitionist raid at Harpers Ferry. Douglass's interesting turn of phrase could be found in that month's editorial, "Capt. John Brown Not Insane." As usual, if Lincoln indeed "retailed" the phrase "might, rather than rig...

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