The stakes were high for Abraham Lincoln's first political speech in New York City - and the first one in the East since he had left Congress more than a decade before. He had a reputation in the East for his seven Lincoln-Douglas debates but little exposure to Republican political leaders there. The subtitle of Harold Holzer's book suggests the Cooper Union speech on February 27, 1860 made him President. It might be more correct to say that it made it possible for him to President by presenting a coherent explanation of the country's history with slavery and a more coherent justification for the Republican Party's opposition to slavery's extension. Indeed, the New York Tribune pronounced the address "one of the happiest and most convincing political arguments ever made in this city."
Negotiations over Lincoln's appearance in New York stretched over three months in late 1859 and early 1860until "Lincoln had fixed on February 27 for his appearance. Probably he had promised his son a visit at Exeter," writes Holzer. "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 -- [pro-Chase Republican organizer James] 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.
Holzer contends: "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."
In the weeks after the initial invitation, Lincoln had been diligent in compiling research in the library at the State Capitol in Springfield. Holzer wrote: "Working to develop arguments that would connect this newly assembled mountain of facts into a coherent narrative, Lincoln hit upon a novel device. The best way to record the fruits of his research was to make the facts themselves the core of his speech. A political demagogue like Douglas, he believed, might try to convince the public that the federal government had no right to control slavery in the federal territories." 1
As delivered, the Illinois lawyer's speech was as much a work of scholarship as politics. Mr. Lincoln reviewed the attitudes towards slavery of all of the 39 signers of the Declaration - and then reviewed the history of slavery since 1776. As he had done through the previous six years, he used the Declaration as the touchstone for his opposition to any extension of slavery beyond its existing limits. "You say you are conservative - eminently conservatgive - while we are revolutionary, destructive, or something of the sort," Mr. Lincoln said to an imaginary southern audience. "What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried? We stick to, contend for, the identical old policy on the point in controversy which was adopted by 'our fathers who framed the Government under which we live'; while you with one accord reject, and scout, and spit upon that old policy, and insist upon substituting something new."
At the beginning of the book, Holzer asks "why is Cooper Union so little known today?" He suggests: "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." 2
Holzer writes: "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." 3
Contemporary biographer Noah Brooks knew Mr. Lincoln as a journalist in Illinois and Washington. He later wrote that Mr. Lincoln "had prepared a very different sort of speech from that which some before him had expected. This was not a crowd to be amused with queer stories, rough wit, and comical anecdotes. The speech was one of the most remarkable ever delivered in the city of New York. It was a masterly exposition of the history of the early days of the Republic, when our political institutions were in the process of formation, special reference being made to the slavery question as then considered. It was a scholarly, skillfully framed, and closely logical address. His style of delivery was so fresh and vigorous, his manner of illustration so clear and easily understood, that the audience drank in every work with delight." 4
Mr. Lincoln's trip East had a side benefit - he was to visit his son Robert who was studying to enter Harvard. After leaving New York City, Lincoln acceded to numerous requests that he give similar speeches across New England. His oratorical skills managed to impress even Robert's friends. A fellow student of Robert Lincoln, Marshall S. Snow, later recalled Mr. Lincoln's appearance in Exeter: "Mr. Lincoln wore no beard at that time. His hair was mussed up. It stood in all directions. As he sat there in the chair he looked as if he was ready to fall to pieces and didn't care if he did. Judge Underwood [of Virginia] spoke first, for about twenty minutes. We didn't pay much attention to him. We were looking at Mr. Lincoln. I remember I thought at the time he was the most melancholy man I had ever seen. When Mr. Lincoln was introduced he got up slowly until he stood there as straight as an arrow in that long black coat. He hadn't spoken ten minute until everybody was carried away. We forgot all about his looks. Exeter was full of people of culture. It was a place to which people moved when they retired from active life. The audience was one of educated, cultivated people. I never heard such applause in that hall as Mr. Lincoln received that night. He spoke nearly an hour. There was no coarseness, no uncouthness of speech or manner. Every part fitted into the whole argument perfectly. As I recall it, the Exeter speech followed closely the lines of the Cooper Union address, which was on slavery. I suppose it had been carefully prepared. I know it captured all of us. When the meeting closed we went up to the platform and shook hands with Mr. Lincoln, telling him how proud we were to have the honor of meting Bob's father." 5
Holzer writes, however, that "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."6 He contends that "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." 7
The trip East was helpful to Mr. Lincoln in other ways. One was that his photo was taken by the leading photographer of the day, Mathew Brady. And Brady's photo became the most famous image of Lincoln in 1860. Holzer notes: "To add classical grandeur and the accouterments of statesmanship to the composition Brady added carefully chosen background props. He moved a faux pillar into the scene, and situated it behind Lincoln's right shoulder. At his left he placed a table piled with books. These would suggest intellectuality, and in the bargain help the long-limbed subject reach down and touch the little table that sat so far beneath his hand. Lincoln would now be surrounded by symbols of both public service and learning. In art, the pillar also represented suffering, selflessness, and strength: Christ had been bound to a pillar for the flagellation, and Samson hauled down the pillars of Philistines' palace to punish them for their godlessness." 8
Holzer, an expert on Lincoln images, wrote that "it is not at all difficult to understand why it inspired so many copies in so many media. Brady succeed in making Lincoln look dignified, resolute, and powerful, all at the same time. None of physical shortcomings all too apparent in the work of earlier photographers plague the Brady image: The wiry neck is concealed, the leathery skin softened, the perennially 'disheveled' hair neat, the lantern jaws and elephantine ears minimized. What is left is not soft or fancy. It is the quintessential strong, self-made man." 9
The speech was quintessential Lincoln. Harold Holzer wrote that "the Cooper Union address was magnificent anomaly, both lawyerly and impassioned; empirical and scholarly; a moderation of Lincoln's style and tone, accompanied by a stiffening reiteration of moral purpose; no 'house divided' jeremiad, but instead a clear vision of national justice, animated by the confident expectation that it would prevail." 10