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Lincoln at Cooper Union and today

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Today is the 148th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 speech in New York at the Cooper Union, an address that at least one major Lincoln scholar calls the speech that made Lincoln president.

The Cooper Union address was devoted entirely to the slavery question. It powerfully expressed the Republican position which — although this still surprises many people when they are reminded of it — was that slavery should be left alone in the southern states where it existed, but should be banned in the western territories under federal control and that no new slave states should be admitted to the Union. The second half of the speech is directly addressed to the South, which was threatening to break up the union if a Republican was elected president.

In the first half, Lincoln took as his “text” a remark by his political rival, Stephen Douglas, who had said:

“Our fathers, when they framed the Government under which we live, understood this question just as well, and even better, than we do now.”

Douglas was arguing that the framers agreed with his own position, that Congress lacked constitutional authority to regulate slavery in the territories. In reply, Lincoln at Cooper Union recited, by my count, 23 versions of Douglas’ “our fathers” comment as he made the case that the overwhelming majority of the framers had the Republican position on the key question of federal authority over slavery in the territories.

Homely and ungainly giant

The speech itself (full text here) is a bit tough-sloggish to a modern reader. It lacks the brevity and the poetry of Lincoln’s most famous speeches (The Gettysburg address and the second inaugural) and the down-home humor of many of his legendary remarks.

But, by all accounts, the homely and ungainly giant from Illinois, making his first New York appearance, in an ill-fitting black suit and speaking in his surprising high-pitched voice, won over the audience with the power of his logic and — believe it or not — his historical research. It’s hard to imagine any contemporary politician daring to turn a major speech into a framer-by-framer history lesson.

Any telling of the tale of this speech includes many other jaw-dropping contrasts with the way things work in today’s presidential politics. For example:

Lincoln spoke for an hour and a half. (This was not a particularly long speech by 1860 standards. Barack Obama caused a bit of tut-tutting the night of the Wisconsin primary, when he spoke for 45 minutes. Of course the problem there was not that the people in the hall were bored, but that Obama was hogging too much television time.)

Lincoln, in the year he would be elected president, wrote the speech himself, based on historical research he did himself in libraries back in Springfield, Ill. He not only had no speechwriters and no spinners to work the media after the speech, he had no staff at all and had traveled by himself, by train, from Illinois to New York to give the speech.

Many Republican (and some Democratic) newspapers — starting with four New York dailies on the day after the speech and then dozens more across the country — printed the full text of the speech.

Various versions of it, generally running between 11 and 13 pages, were soon on sale as a best-selling pamphlet, typically priced at 25 cents for a dozen copies.

Late on the night of the speech itself, Lincoln stopped at the office of the first such newspaper himself, to proofread the galleys of his speech text.

Lincoln’s new status

The speech catapulted Lincoln — a former state legislator whose entire experience in national politics was one term in the U.S. House 14 years earlier and two subsequent unsuccessful bids for the Senate — into serious contention for the Republican presidential nomination.

The sensation caused by the speech and Lincoln’s new status as a contender for the ticket led to a hastily organized barnstorm, by train, in the two weeks after Cooper Union to give the speech 11 more times at stops in Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Hampshire. (No, the New Hampshire primary was not a factor; there were no primaries in the 19th century. Lincoln did want to visit his son Robert, at prep school in New Hampshire.)

After the speaking tour, although Lincoln actively corresponded with friends and supporters working to get him the nomination, he never declared his candidacy (no presidential candidate did any such thing in those days and were expected to wait modestly for the nomination to be offered to them) and engaged in no direct electioneering.

Even though the Republican convention was held in his own state (in Chicago), Lincoln did not attend and waited in Springfield to be apprised of the results. He was nominated on the third ballot and, after more months of no direct campaigning by the candidate, was elected in the fall without his name even being on the ballot in the southern states.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by David Dempsey on 02/27/2008 - 11:00 am.

    Thanks for this thoughtful reflection. Good political history — and another reason to enjoy MinnPost.

  2. Submitted by John E Iacono on 02/29/2008 - 12:12 pm.

    A momentous moment in the life of Lincoln and of this country.

    And it seems to me the country is holding its breath in hopes that we are seeing another such momentous moment this year.

    Thanks for compressing a whole book into this post.

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