Harold Holzer: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President





[Harold Holzer, winner of the Lincoln Prize for his Lincoln at Cooper Union (Simon & Schuster 2004), recently completed Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860-1861 (Simon & Schuster 2008).]

On the frigid and stormy evening of February 27, 1860, so the newspapers reported, Abraham Lincoln climbed onto the stage of the cavernous Great Hall of New York’s newest college, Cooper Union, faced a room overflowing with people, and delivered the most important speech of his life.

Or so the myths maintained. In truth, a quarter of the hall’s 1,800 plush seats remained empty for the evening’s vigorously advertised political lecture. But not because of the weather—which was clear and balmy. Some eyewitnesses, and most historians since, would stubbornly report that a blizzard raged that night (“the profits were so small . . . because the night was so stormy,” insisted one organizer). But Lincoln supporters may have created that legend to explain away the empty seats. Chalk up the less-than-sold-out house to indifference and competition from other events and attractions...

This much is certain: Had Abraham Lincoln failed at his do-or-die debut in New York, he would never have won his party’s presidential nomination three months later, not to mention election to the White House that November. Such was the impact of a triumph in the nation’s media capital. Had he stumbled, none of the challenges that roiled his presidency would ever have tested his iron will. To paraphrase his own later words, he would likely have “escaped history” altogether.

Moreover, had Lincoln failed in New York, few might recognize today the nation he went on to defend and rededicate. It can be argued that without Cooper Union, hence without Lincoln at the helm, the United States might be remembered today as a failed experiment that fractured into a North American Balkans.

Instead, Abraham Lincoln did triumph in New York. He delivered a learned, witty, and exquisitely reasoned address that electrified his elite audience and, more important, reverberated in newspapers and pamphlets alike until it reached tens of thousands of Republican voters across the North. He had arrived at Cooper Union a politician with more defeats than victories, but he departed politically reborn....

As a bonus, Lincoln’s Cooper Union appearance also inspired the most important single visual record of his, or arguably any, American presidential campaign: the image-transfiguring Mathew Brady photograph made earlier that same day. Its subsequent reproduction and proliferation in prints, medallions, broadsides, and banners did as much to herald the “new” Abraham Lincoln as did reprints of the speech itself.

Supposedly, when Lincoln, now president-elect, encountered the photographer in Washington the following year, he volunteered: “Brady and Cooper Union made me president.” Honest Abe was not exaggerating. Make him president they undoubtedly did.


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