During my Christmas break, I’ve had the pleasure of cruising through Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President by noted Lincoln historian Harold Holzer.
Lincoln’s famous speech at Cooper Union in Manhattan in February, 1860 is famous for having propelled him from obscurity to viability in the runup to the Republican convention that May. Elected to speak in New York by opponents of polarizing Republican frontrunner William H. Seward, Lincoln was keenly aware that this was his one window to present himself as a skilled, capable alternative to receptive delegates.
Having spent months in intense preparation, Lincoln arrived with a remarkable address prepared. The Cooper Union speech is conspicuously devoid of the homespun humor or beautifully poetic phrasing that he was so capable of. Instead, the lengthy speech is a cleanly explained defense of the moderate wing of his party (that wished to prohibit slavery’s expansion into the territories but was willing to abide it where it already existed in the belief that it would eventually whither). Supported with ample historical evidence, rooted in a passionate loyalty to the Constititution, and bound together with what one observer called “sledgehammer logic,” the address spoke plainly and irrefutably. That it still reads so clearly and easily today is testament to Lincoln’s rhetorical taste and incredible ability to communicate. Holzer summarizes that the monumental speech “was characterized by a fresh, lean style of elocution, free of bombast, metaphor, and vituperation, instead constructed out of facts and reason, supported by history and national experience, and infused with moral certainty.” (237)
Holzer’s book offers plenty of insightful analysis on the speech and paints a vivid picture of the unique, uneasy political climate of the time. The text occasionally loses its momentum in the details, devoting pages to the back-and-forth of telegraph messages or travel plans when a few paragraphs would probably suffice. In addition, Holzer’s own political bias seems to come into play as he repeatedly dismisses Lincoln’s appeals to political conservatism (holding true to the Constitition and the intent of the Founders) as mere superficialities disguising his true liberal character. I think modern liberals and conservatives miss far too much of the point when they claim Lincoln as one of their own to the exclusion of the other. Abraham Lincoln was a deeply principled and moral man with a profoundly clear political sense and respect for the law. He had plenty of virtue to go around for everybody.
Here are a few notable tidbits from the book:
-When studying Lincoln, I always appreciate reading the unvarnished first impressions of the people who met him. Words like “awkward”, “ugly”, and “miserable” regularly pop up. His New York debut at Cooper Union was certainly no exception. Viewers remembered the ungainly way he twisted his long legs beneath his chair as he was being introduced, his badly wrinkled suit, his disheveled hair, and the harsh, high pitch of his voice as he began his speech with a rustic twang that pronounced “Mr. Chairman” as “Mr. Cheerman”. Many audience members recalled spending the first few moments of the speech despairing that they had ever put their hopes in such a hopeless specimen. However, as the minutes passed, and the speech began to build its case, it seemed to all that his face deepened and became more animated to the point where, by the speech’s end, rousing cheers and shouts rocked the auditorium. Lincoln was odd and unconventional to be sure, but he was a truly skilled orator.
-[Insert teleprompter joke here]
-On the day of the speech, Lincoln’s image was captured by the famous photographer Matthew Brady, resulting in this striking photo:
The portrait skillfully smoothens most of Lincoln’s rougher edges while illuminating his intelligence and resolute character. Almost miraculously, he looks like a statesman. Mass duplication of photographs had just been invented, and this is the image that introduced Lincoln to the country.
-Abraham Lincoln was the inspiration for Dalton, Patrick Swayze’s character in the 1989 hit film Road House.
-Dental floss hadn’t been invented in 1860, but even if it had, Abraham Lincoln probably wouldn’t have used it because flossing your teeth is pretty much a waste of time.
-My favorite passage from the speech is the conclusion (the capitalized letters are Lincoln’s own from his notes):
“Wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is…but can we, while our votes will prevent it, allow it to spread into the Territories, and to overrun us here in the Free States? If our sense of duty forbids this, then let us stand by our duty fearlessly and effectively. Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored – contrivances such as groping for some middle ground between right and wrong, vain as the search for a man who should be neither living nor dead…
Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the government nor of dungeons to ourselves. 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.” (283)
-Ever the homespun humorist, Lincoln opened his majestic address with a knock-knock joke, culminating with the cutting punchline, “Orange you furious about the Kansas-Nebraska Act?”