Why you should care
If luck is born of preparation and opportunity, then Lincoln’s 1860 address at Cooper Union may be the luckiest political moment in U.S. history.
“At first sight there was nothing impressive or imposing about him,” one eyewitness inside New York’s Cooper Union said of the ungainly, 6-foot-4 man approaching the podium on Feb. 27, 1860. Others were shocked by the speaker’s ill-fitting clothes, his “shrill … and unpleasant” Kentucky twang and disheveled hair that “stuck out like rooster’s feathers.”
Most of those assembled in the auditorium had heard of the Springfield, Illinois, lawyer, politician and orator who had made his name in a series of 1858 debates with his pro-slavery rival Stephen A. Douglas, but this was their first glimpse of Abraham Lincoln. They would soon discover that there was more to the towering figure than his dress or stature. The unorthodox political speech they were about to hear — a legalistic, fact-laden 7,715-word lecture — would not only enthrall them for the next 90 minutes, it also would change the course of a presidential campaign, and with it, American history.
As historian and Lincoln expert Harold Holzer chronicles in Lincoln at Cooper Union, when the 51-year-old was first invited to speak in New York, he knew it meant more than the highest speaking fee ($200) he had ever received. It was a big political break for a man who, despite his lauded debate performances, had lost his bid for the Senate to Douglas in 1858 and was on the edge of political irrelevancy. It was a chance to introduce himself to Eastern voters and influential New York Republicans looking for a candidate who could not only pry the state from the Democrats in the 1860 election but also carry enough Northern states to win the presidency for the young party.
For an hour and more he held his audience in the hollow of his hand.
For a speech weighted with his political fate, Lincoln alighted on an equally ponderous topic, one that would, as Holzer puts it, “prove historically what he had long argued politically: that the extension of slavery was wrong.” It was a daunting assignment, but fortunately Douglas himself would provide his old debating rival with just the catalyst that such a grand oratorical scheme required.
Speaking on the question of whether the federal government had the power to regulate slavery in America’s territories, Douglas had in a recent speech answered in the negative, boasting:
“Our fathers, when they framed the Government under which we live, understood this question just as well, and even better, than we do now.”
Believing that Douglas’ bold claim about the Founding Fathers’ views was inaccurate, Lincoln set to work for more than three months researching the question. His meticulous analysis confirmed his instincts and, according to Holzer, “armed with history, he was ready to answer Stephen A. Douglas one last time.”
On the big night, Lincoln began his address over the hissing of the 168 gas burners fueling the hall’s chandeliers and, following some initial awkward moments in which he stammered and lost his place, he rose to the occasion and, as one eyewitness observed, “For an hour and more he held his audience in the hollow of his hand.” In 1860, the public, as Holzer says, “hungrily feasted on political oratory” — such speeches were the NFL and Hollywood of their day all rolled into one. And what the crowd at the Cooper Union witnessed that night was no less than a lawyer’s systematic evisceration of an opponent’s argument. Playfully, and repeatedly, mocking Douglas’ claim about “our fathers, who framed the Government under which we live,” Lincoln illustrated the converse: that every one of the signatories to the U.S. Constitution who had expressed a view or voted on the issue (23 out of the original 39) had in fact endorsed the federal government’s authority to regulate slavery in its territories.
Lincoln went on to argue that it was the Southerners’ intractability on the issue — and not the Northern Republicans’ moral principles — that risked cleaving the country in two, concluding:
“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.”
Rapturous cheers greeted Lincoln, who was now a bona fide contender on the national political stage. More than that, “the legacy of the speech,” Holzer tells OZY, “is that serious argumentation is just as important as sound bites — ideas matter.” The press, including the influential New York media, praised and propagated Lincoln’s ideas, and the Republicans nominated him for president less than three months later. Cooper Union, says Holzer, “was the happy, history-making marriage of political genius, media power and perfect timing — and it made Lincoln president and changed the course of history.”