A review of Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President, by Harold Holzer

Brady and the Cooper Union speech made me president," Abraham Lincoln joked just before his inauguration. Like much of Lincoln's humor, there was more than a grain of political truth in that quip. "Brady," of course, referred to the greatest American photographer of the era, Mathew Brady, who took one of the most memorable of all Lincoln photographs when the tall Illinoisan visited Brady's elegant New York City gallery in February 1860. 

But Lincoln was not in New York City in February 1860 simply to visit Mathew Brady. The photo-shoot was a by-product of a larger mission, which was to address the restless and divided Republicans of New York City in the Great Hall of the Cooper Union. The lecture Lincoln was to give on February 27, 1860, was part of a series the Young Men's Republican Union had organized in New York in the fall and winter of 1859 and 1860 to give western Republicans a platform for advising the eastern Republican establishment on issues and strategy in that year's national elections. Frank Blair of Missouri (son of the Washington power-broker Francis Preston Blair, and brother of Montgomery Blair, who had headed the defense team for Dred Scott in 1857) and Cassius M. Clay of Kentucky had already appeared in the series. Lincoln, who had won laurels of his own in his valiant senatorial campaign against Stephen A. Douglas in 1858, seemed a perfectly logical addition to the roster of invitees.

Running beneath the surface of these modest intentions was a darker current of political intrigue. In 1860, the Republican Party was only six years old, and it was still very much a ramshackle coalition of old Whigs, renegade Democrats, and a sprinkling of Know-Nothing nativists, all united around one burning-hot conviction—that legalized slavery in the United States should be permitted not one more square mile of ground upon which to sprout. Although the new party was bound to have no attraction to Southern slaveholders, and only limited appeal to suspicious Northern Democrats, the Republicans' first presidential candidate, John C. Fremont, had done surprisingly well in the 1856 national elections. Four years later, Northern public opinion had drifted closer to the Republicans' anti-extension platform, while the Democratic party was beginning the process of a crack-up which would see it divide that summer into three competing factions. The presidency was suddenly within reach of the Republicans—and that was what was giving second thoughts to the minds of the New York Republicans.

So long as the Republicans knew they had no real chance of winning a national election, they had no hesitations about putting up a playboy celebrity like Fremont as their presidential candidate. But as it became clear that 1860 was turning into a serious opportunity to capture the White House, electability suddenly became a worthwhile consideration. And in the winter of 1860, the acknowledged Republican front-runner, New York senator William H. Seward, was not the man many New York Republicans decided that they wanted to nominate, after all. Seward had made one-too-many inflammatory declarations against slavery for the taste of moderate Northern voters. Seward's powerful Albany-based promoter, Thurlow Weed, was mistrusted as an unprincipled political horse-swapper, and ardently disliked by the stiff-backed puritans of New York City Republicanism, Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune and William Cullen Bryant of the Evening Post. And so the Cooper Union lecture series would become, not a policy forum, but a presidential audition.

The point hammered home most relentlessly in Harold Holzer's elegant Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President is that Lincoln was fully aware that he was walking down a presidential midway at Cooper Union from the moment the invitation arrived in the fall of 1859. It bears repeating, for everyone who still thinks of Lincoln politically as a cross between Blake's lamb and Uriah Heep, that Abraham Lincoln was a practical and ambitious politician who served four terms in the Illinois state legislature and a term in Congress, and who labored mightily in 1855 and again in 1858 to win a seat in the U.S. Senate. "That 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," warned Lincoln's law partner, William Henry Herndon. "He was always calculating, and always planning ahead. His ambition was a little engine that knew no rest." That engine moved into high gear after the great campaign debates with Douglas lifted Lincoln to national notice, and as early as 1859, inquiries about Lincoln's interest in a presidential nomination were already coming through the mail-slot. When Lincoln took the stump for Republican candidates in Kansas in December, 1859, he was already being introduced as "our next president." 

Conscious that the invitation to speak in the Cooper Union series was his ultimate opportunity to grasp the brass ring, Lincoln fashioned, not so much a policy lecture, as "a subtle but unmistakable preconvention campaign speech, deftly crafted to thrust the speaker into the forefront of 1860 presidential politics." To succeed, Holzer shrewdly observes, Lincoln needed to do five things: demonstrate his intellectual and legal acumen in analyzing the slavery crisis, perform convincingly as a public speaker (and not like a county courthouse lawyer), distance himself from Seward, espouse reconciliation with the South without surrendering the principle of non-extension, and, above all, put a stake through the heart of Stephen Douglas's doctrine of "popular sovereignty" in the western territories, which promised more than anything else to guarantee the spread of slavery under the guise of local referendum. 

By all accounts, Lincoln pulled it all off superbly, just as Holzer does. To sit with Lincoln at Cooper Union is almost to sit on the stage with Lincoln in the Great Hall, watch him unfold those ungainly long legs and advance to the podium, and "hear the gentle sizzling of the gas burners." In the central chapter, Holzer lays out the rhetorical map of the Cooper Union speech in a dazzling analytical performance which makes you want to whoop with the same abandon as one member of the audience, "yelling like a wild Indian, cheering this wonderful man." (As a veteran public relations officer for the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a former speech-writer for Mario Cuomo, Holzer knows better than any other Lincolnite how to fillet a political speech.) The basic structure of the Cooper Union address falls into three loosely-connected sections. The first begins with Lincoln taking up the challenge of an essay published by Douglas in Harper's in 1859, in which Douglas claimed the authority of the founders for popular sovereignty. This Lincoln demolishes like eggshells in a vise. In the second section, like the "uses" which followed the "doctrine" of a Puritan sermon, Lincoln turns the testimony of the founders onto Southern slaveholders, and insists that they, and not the Republicans, are responsible for agitating the country over slavery and turning loose political novelty and mischief. The last section becomes the sermon's "applications," where Lincoln turns to his fellow Republicans, and asks what their response should be. Their "duty" was neither to provoke nor to compromise, but to stand firm in the conviction that slavery was a moral wrong, and to allow that conviction to guide their responses to any further demands for its extension. And in words that lifted the Great Hall to its feet, Lincoln declared, "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."

This was only half the story. The sponsors of the lecture series took Lincoln out to dinner afterward; but before he went back to his hotel room at the Astor House, Lincoln crossed City Hall Park to the offices of the New York Tribune to proofread the typeset version of the speech that Greeley had promised to publish the next day. Holzer suspects that Lincoln had lent his own reading copy to Greeley earlier in the afternoon—otherwise the typesetters would have had barely enough time after the Cooper Union event to set the type for the morning edition–which only underscores for Holzer how very cannily Lincoln was managing the impact he wanted to make. "Lincoln came to New York precisely to create a sensation in the national media," Holzer insists, and if visibility is any mark of sensation, Lincoln more than succeeded. The next day, 170,000 copies of the speech were in circulation through the newspapers; Greeley published it as a separate pamphlet (which went through five printings), and the Young Men's Central Republican Union reprinted it as a 32-page booklet, with extensive footnotes. "Cooper Union was not just a speech," Holzer says. "It was a conquest—a public relations triumph, a political coup d'etat within the Republican party, and an image transfiguration abetted by the press…."

Indeed it was. Lincoln was swamped with offers for speaking engagements all through New England. He ended up making eleven more speeches, mostly reprises of the Cooper Union lecture. By the time he returned to Illinois Lincoln had emerged "as an intriguing second choice for the White House, deftly positioned to triumph at the convention if the front runner stumbled—which he did."

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Three other aspects of Lincoln at Cooper Union—apart from the wonderful narrative elegance of Holzer's writing—are worth noting. The first is Holzer's scrupulous attention to the details of where Lincoln was, how he traveled, where he stayed, whom he met with, and all without the story flagging or slowing under the weight of detail. Along the way, he removes a number of hoary inaccuracies which have barnacled themselves onto the hull of the Cooper Union speech: 

  • Lincoln did not begin the speech in the manner described, with loving falsehood, by Noah Brooks and Carl Sandburg, using a greeting so twangy ("Mr. Cheermun") that it caused sophisticated New Yorkers to wince; the text of the speech, as Holzer simply points out, begins "Mr. President and Fellow-Citizens of New York." 
  • No snowstorm struck New York the night of the speech, as claimed by Sandburg, Benjamin P. Thomas, Bruce Catton, the late William Gienapp, Stephen B. Oates, and (alas!) myself; New Yorkers on February 27, 1860, enjoyed clear or partly cloudy skies and temperatures in the mid-40s.
  • Lincoln did not stay in New Hampshire with Republican activist Amos Tuck (who had cast a ballot for Lincoln for vice president at the 1856 Republican national convention); Tuck wrote to Lincoln in May to express his unhappiness at having been out of town at the time.

But Holzer is less persuasive on two other points. One is the actual cause-and-effect relationship between the Cooper Union speech and Lincoln's nomination at the Republican national convention less then ten weeks later. In the general election, as Holzer shows, Lincoln carried each of the states in which he spoke during the tour that brought him to Cooper Union: New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire. But as John Corry shows in his own Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Him President (2003), at the convention New Hampshire alone gave Lincoln any noticeable delegate support. Only two of Connecticut's twelve delegates supported Lincoln, and none of Rhode Island's. Cooper Union may have made Lincoln president, but this was more because the printed versions of the speech dramatically increased Lincoln's visibility across the North, and because his success at Cooper Union confirmed his Illinois partisans in the belief that a dark-horse movement for Lincoln at the convention would be worth the effort. 

The other question concerns the label we want to put on the Cooper Union address. Perhaps as befits a New York Democrat whose back-of-book acknowledgments include a tribute to Hillary Rodham Clinton, Holzer balks at the way the Cooper Union speech is "hailed" by "modern historians as a conservative speech." It was, Holzer insists, "not really conservative at all…. It was an ingenious attempt to make Republican principles appear unthreatening to moderate Northerners by identifying them with historical doctrine." 

It is not clear which "modern historians" Holzer has in view (Don Fehrenbacher, J.G. Randall, Allan Nevins, and the late William Gienapp all use the term "conservative" in discussing Cooper Union). But it is hard not to step back from the Cooper Union speech and see in it exactly a conservative's plea against reckless political innovation, whether in the form of Douglas's popular sovereignty doctrine or in the larger demand of the South that "every man in our midst…who does not boldly declare that he believes African slavery to be a social, moral, and political blessing" be marked as "an enemy to the institutions of the South." Lincoln's appeal, after all, is directly to the founders, as though he had invented "original intent" all by himself. No wonder that Lincoln, in the course of the Cooper Union speech, asked out loud: "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." If such an argument is not conservative, then I have lost all hope in language. 

But Holzer is right in at least this respect: Lincoln based his attack on popular sovereignty on the ground of moral right, and to the extent that conservatives and liberals alike strive to marginalize moral considerations and reduce political actors in a democracy to Michael Sandel's "unencumbered selves," then Lincoln at Cooper Union really is speaking beyond what we have come to accept as either conservative or liberal. Part of the celebrations surrounding the release of Holzer's book involved a re-enactment of the Cooper Union speech by Sam Waterston on the stage of the Great Hall. To Holzer's surprise, the Great Hall was packed beyond capacity with people eager to hear an hour-and-a-half oration on an issue, and from a man, dead for 139 years. Perhaps there is a message there, a message about what we really yearn for in our politics. Right makes might, not the other way around; in that faith, we still have a duty which we must dare to do.