- Historic Sites
Lincoln The Orator
Our most talented writer-president always wrote his own material and sweated hours over it
Winter 2009 | Volume 58, Issue 6
On February 27, 1860, Abraham Lincoln stood before a crowd of 1,500 at Cooper Union Hall in New York City. Until he had declared his candidacy for President of the United States, the former one-term Congressman had drawn little attention outside his home state of Illinois. Now the rail-thin prairie lawyer attracted a sizeable audience, including the “pick and flower of New York culture,” along with an army of journalists eager to record and reprint his words.
“Let us have faith that right makes might,” Lincoln challenged his listeners, “and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.” Here was no stump speech, but rather a powerful argument that extending slavery to new territories was not only wrong but also counter to the intent of the founding fathers. His delivery was eloquent, the argument carefully reasoned and fact-filled.
Had Lincoln not delivered such a triumphant address before the sophisticated and demanding audience that night, it is possible that he would not have been nominated, much less elected, to the presidency the following November. And had Lincoln not won the White House in 1860, the United States—or the countries it might have fractured into—would probably look very different today.
How Lincoln crafted this brilliant and critical delivery has remained the topic of some debate over the years in part prompted by an interaction he had the following month. Lincoln had traveled from Springfield to Chicago to appear in what turned out to be his last big trial: the famous "sandbar case," a complex civil dispute in which he represented his most important client, Illinois Central.
While in the city, Lincoln also agreed to sit for a wet-plaster life mask at the studio of sculptor Leonard Wells Volk. Chatting in the studio, their conversation turned to Lincoln’s nationally noticed appearance in New York a few weeks earlier. As Volk remembered it, Lincoln told him the astonishing fact “that he had arranged and composed this speech in his mind while going on the cars from Camden to Jersey City.”
By the time Volk published this revelation, almost as a postscript, in his engaging 1881 reminiscence of the sitting, Lincoln’s myth-worthy creative acumen and almost saintly self- effacement had emerged as crucial elements of the reigning image of the Great Emancipator. Volk’s recollection about the Cooper Union speech, clouded though it may have been by the passage of time, seemed well in keeping with the hagiography of the day. Besides, an orator who had supposedly been able to pronounce his masterful 1861 farewell to Springfield extemporaneously, or to create his greatest masterpiece on the back of an envelope while riding on a train to Gettysburg, surely could have written his Cooper Union address on a train in the few hours from Camden to Jersey City.
Of course, like the farewell address and Gettysburg legends, the Cooper Union story was entirely false, though one should not automatically exonerate Lincoln from the small crime of promulgating it. Lincoln cultivated his “modest man” image whenever it might serve: as presidential candidate, Republican nominee, president-elect, and chief executive. For the record, Lincoln delivered a reasonably cogent farewell speech in 1861 off the cuff, but then massaged it into a sublime masterpiece later at the urging of reporters. He wrote at least three drafts of the Gettysburg Address, and tested it out on at least one visitor, before deeming it finally ready for delivery. Few contemporaries knew these details. Thus it is not at all difficult to imagine his accepting a compliment about his recent triumph by protesting amiably that he had dashed it off at the last minute. Volk’s version of Lincoln’s creation of Cooper Union speech was particularly ironic, however, since Lincoln had never labored over an address as diligently, and over such an extended period, as he did to prepare for this engagement at New York.
Writing eight years later, Lincoln’s longtime law partner, William H. Herndon, set the record straight: Lincoln had devoted an enormous amount of time to “careful preparation” of his lecture between his acceptance of the invitation and his journey east. “He searched through the dusty volumes of congressional proceedings in the State library, and dug deeply into political history. He was painstaking and thorough in the study of his subject.”
His subject, of course, was slavery. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, then six years old, had supervened the Missouri Compromise, which had kept the lid on the smoldering slavery cauldron for more than 30 years. The Supreme Court’s bitterly contested Dred Scott ruling—“a decision,” not a “dictum,” as Lincoln would later argue—had been rendered three years earlier. And it was only two years since the Lincoln-Douglas debates, at which Lincoln had carried his arguments against the expansion of slavery to new heights, his electoral defeat notwithstanding.
Such was the grave, brooding juncture of events when Lincoln came east. But from the moment he was asked to speak at Henry Ward Beecher’s church in Brooklyn (a venue only later shifted to Cooper Union in Manhattan), he determined that his address there would be a political “lecture,” not a stump speech. He would prove historically what he extension of slavery was not only wrong, but counter to the hopes and dreams of the founding fathers. And he would demonstrate moreover that recent efforts to nationalize slavery, like Dred Scott v. Sandford , were, as he first argued in 1857, “based on assumed historical facts which were not really true.”