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Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Lincoln President


“Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. 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.”  Abraham Lincoln, Cooper Union, New York City, February 27, 1860

Harold Holzer presents an excellent unveiling and exposition of Lincoln’s address in Manhattan that set his course as the future president. In my opinion, it is Lincoln’s finest speech, his Second Inaugural Speech and the Gettysburg Address not withstanding, although it is hard to put paper between the three. Gettysburg and the second inaugural were perfect for their moment, Cooper Union for its purpose, precision, and power.

The book is well researched, written, and spoken (Audible.com version). Largely unknown outside academic circles, the Cooper Union speech is deserving of wider attention and is instructional to today in many ways, especially in its description of how seriously citizens took the national discourse in a troubled time.

Several other themes run through the book as well, including Lincoln’s preparation for the speech and the office it would lead to, his passion for truth and right, the contentious political times, and the humanity of the man.

We know that the times were contentious, and I dare say no more so than today. If we today were to be transported back to that time, the hatred, vitriol, polarization, and weaponization of the press would be all too familiar. About the only differences between now and then would be dress, language (and its thoughtful use), and the speed of communication.

The contentious climate also ruled inside the Republican establishment. William Henry Steward, the senator from NY, was the frontrunner and presumed winner of the party’s nomination. It is a measure of Lincoln’s strength, confidence, and seriousness that he stepped into Seward’s front yard to lay down his claim at a time when he was perceived as a country lawyer unable even to win an election among his own constituents (he lost the IL senate race in 1858). In doing this, he demonstrated his character with boldness and conviction of the sort that presaged later eventful decisions.

Most impressive to me is the degree of diligence the great man applied to his preparation for this moment, one he knew would likely make or break his campaign even before it existed in anything other than in his own self-belief. He did not shirk from this work, and it is this work that came through in exacting detail and force when he spoke, precisely because he knew that he knew that he knew – because he had done the work. This rigor and attention to words was not new to him. His own telling reveals the gift’s early claim upon him:

“I remember how as a mere child I used to get irritated when anybody talked to me in a way I could not understand. I don’t think I ever got angry at anything else in my life. I can remember going to my little bedroom after hearing the neighbors talk of an evening with my father, spending no small part of the night walking up and down trying to work out the exact meaning of some of their, what was to me, dark sayings. I could not sleep, though I often tried to when I got onto such a hunt for an idea, until I had caught it. When I thought I had got it, I was not satisfied until I repeated it over and over so I had put it in language plain enough, I thought, for any boy I knew to comprehend. This was a kind of passion with me and it has stuck by me, for I am never easy now when I am handling a thought until I have bounded it north and bounded it south, and bounded it east and bounded it west.”

Lincoln was a man of deep convictions and respect for the language that transmitted them. Reading his writing and speeches is like taking a course in the art of language. This speech, like all of his writing, is marked by its concise construction. There is no fluff, no flourish, only the power of facts and truth.

Despite his humility (another difference to today) amid the acclaim that followed the speech, he took great pains to preserve its veracity and quality as it was replicated in many forms and outlets succeeding its debut. It was his penultimate campaign piece and he treated it as such. After the affair at Cooper Union, Lincoln was compelled to make several other speeches across New England in short order as word and enthusiasm spread. In those days, presidential candidates did not go on the road as they do today. Cooper Union and the speeches that immediately followed were the only ones he made during the entire campaign. He returned to Springfield, IL to manage his law practice up close and his campaign from afar. Surrogates did the talking and cajoling, all based upon his speech and its stated positions and intents.

Lincoln was not at this time a pure abolitionist, one who defines such as requiring that all slaves be freed. His position during the campaign and early presidency was that the South would be allowed to retain slavery, owing only to the intractability of the issue. He did not like this position, preferring that slavery be phased out in favor of labor provided by free white men. This, of course, would have wrought its own mayhem. His heart and spirit were in the right place, but neither he nor anyone else had an answer that could please both sides. In that, he was in good company with the Founders.

The Founding Fathers were loudly present in this argument through the Constitution and their words. It was these, as if spoken from their own mouths in the moment, that were so powerful as Lincoln negated every proposition, lie, and confusion of the pro-slavery confederation. And powerful words they were, especially in the hands of a master craftsman such as Lincoln.

He understood the power these words held and devoted time and energy to shaping them as austere yet elegant blows. His writing in this instance was as tight, pointed, precise, and sometimes poetic as any. Yes, this was a very good speech, and Holzer’s illumination of the story behind it raises its profile in good fashion.

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