- The Washington Times - Friday, May 7, 2004

LINCOLN AT COOPER UNION: THE SPEECH THAT MADE ABRAHAM LINCOLN PRESIDENT

By Harold Holzer

Simon & Schuster. 352 pages. $25

Until now, Harold Holzer has written or edited, alone and with others, 20 books on Abraham Lincoln and on the Civil War. He writes while also working full time as the vice president for communications and marketing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As he notes, he has several research assistants. Still, his is a feat reminiscent of Wallace Stevens, who produced five volumes of fine poetry while vice president of a Hartford, Conn., insurance company, or William Carlos Williams, who was both a major poet and a practicing physician in New Jersey.

One might wonder whether for his 21st volume Mr. Holzer was straining at straws, writing a book about a single Lincoln speech. The answer is, decidedly not. This is the story, well told and well documented, of how Abraham Lincoln took the train from Springfield, Ill., to New York in February 1860 (in fact, it was four trains, and a tiring three-day journey) and gave a speech in Manhattan that for the first time persuaded leading New Yorkers, and many others across the country, that this was a man to be viewed as a possible presidential candidate for the election that November.

Mr. Holzer makes clear that if Lincoln had failed rather than triumphed at Cooper Union on that February evening, he might very well have failed to receive the Republican Party’s nomination for president the following summer. And without Lincoln as president, the course of our history, the author says, might have taken a quite different path. (Indeed, Mr. Holzer, most readers will wish you had been more definite on this; without Lincoln we would not have a united republic today.)

Mr. Holzer knows Lincoln well, but this book does not idolize him. The author recalls the famous 1858 debates between Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas, which won a name for Lincoln but failed to win him the Senate seat he wanted. Mr. Holzer also tells us frankly how Lincoln, who in the 1850s had become, in the author’s words, a peripatetic, if inconsistent, figure on the Illinois lecture circuit, gained at best a mixed reception from his favorite speech, delivered several times in 1858 and 1859. This was a long and, Mr. Holzer says, disjointed talk about discoveries and inventions. Even Lincoln’s close comrade Ward Hill Lamon thought that much of it was so commonplace that it was a mortification to Lincoln’s friends.

One Sunday evening in October 1859, Lincoln returned to Springfield from a week at court in the Illinois hamlet of Clinton and found a telegram inviting him to speak, for the first time, in the East — at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, whose pastor was that famous abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher. Lamon, and Lincoln’s other law partner William H. Herndon, both recalled later how delighted Lincoln was by this invitation. He quickly accepted it.

As Mr. Holzer says, many historians believe that at this point Lincoln’s highest aspiration was the vice presidency, for which he had received some support four years earlier at the 1856 Republican convention. But the author argues persuasively that the presidency itself must have been on Lincoln’s mind from the day he was invited to speak at Beecher’s church.

The invitation was originally for Lincoln to speak the following month, at the end of November. Later the date was moved to Feb. 27, 1860. This gave the man four months to prepare. He knew that he must work hard on the speech, despite a busy legal schedule, to make it a success. It would take a lot of research, and in this field Abraham Lincoln was less fortunate than Harold Holzer; his only researcher was himself.

What Lincoln decided to do in New York was basically to take on Stephen Douglas again. The senator had recently published a long article in Harper’s magazine that argued that the federal government had no right to ban slavery in new territories — and this was the burning question of the day — because the Founding Fathers had believed that the question lay entirely in the hands of the people of an individual state or territory.

Lincoln decided to prove this was not so. Mr. Holzer lists all the books and records and newspapers that Lincoln pored through to document his case.

It was only when Lincoln arrived in Manhattan on Saturday, Feb. 25, that he learned that arrangements had been altered. He was to speak on Monday evening, not in the Brooklyn church, but in the largest hall in Manhattan, at the Cooper Union, the school that Peter Cooper had founded to offer working men and women tuition-free classes. Lincoln was distressed to hear of the new venue. His text was ready, but now he would have to alter it; what he had intended to say to an audience largely of churchgoers would not quite fit Manhattan’s political elite. By Monday, though, he was ready; he may even have taken time to stop by McSorley’s tavern (which, this reviewer recalls, still admitted only men half a century ago and charged a dime for a beer).

Lincoln faced his sophisticated audience that evening in a new but ill-fitting suit made for him by a Springfield tailor. He started out in a shrill and high-pitched voice, in a crude-sounding Midwest twang. But his first two words, Mr. Holzer tells us, were “The facts.” He wanted his listeners to know that he was appealing to their heads, not their hearts.

The fact is that any person who becomes proficient in public speaking may still start out shy, but then take a good look at the audience, clear the throat, and turn eloquent and effective. So Lincoln did, that night. Before long all crudeness was ignored by his audience; he captivated them. Douglas, said Lincoln, had cited the “Fathers.” That must mean the 39 men who signed the Constitution. Of these, Lincoln showed conclusively that a clear majority was convinced that slavery must be prohibited in the new territories. He discussed what Washington had believed, and Jefferson, and Franklin, and the others. It was a speech full of facts and fine in rhetoric:

“As those fathers marked it [slavery], so let it again be marked, as an evil not to be extended, but to be tolerated and protected only because of and so far as its actual presence among us makes that toleration and protection a necessity.”

Lincoln made it clear that if trouble came to the Union, it would come from the South, which would not be satisfied even if the territories were all opened to slavery: “You will rule or ruin in all events.” In contrast, he said, the Republicans took a moderate, moral position; for them “right makes might.”

When Lincoln ended, one of the audience members walked out of the hall and met a friend who asked him what he thought of Abe Lincoln. He answered, “I think he’s the greatest man since St. Paul.” Many apparently agreed. Next day, the papers were full of praise for him. Now everyone wanted to invite the gangly man to speak; in the next 11 days he spoke 11 times in New England, giving each time a variant of his speech at Cooper Union. The speech was published and republished across America.

That summer the Republicans met at Chicago, and on the third ballot Abraham Lincoln of Illinois won the nomination for president. He was elected that November. Six weeks later, South Carolina seceded from the Union, and the war was on its way.

The only fault that this reviewer finds in this good book is a failure to recount what Southern leaders and Southern newspapers thought of Lincoln’s speech at Cooper Union. To say the least, they were neither pleased nor appeased. If the speech helped make a president, did it also help make a war?

Peter Bridges, a former U.S. ambassador to Somalia, is the author most recently of “Pen of Fire: John Moncure Daniel.” He lives in Northern Virginia.

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