The Speech That Made The Man

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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.

Certainly the venue did not lack for appeal. Cooper Union, a $600,000 brick wonder on Manhattan’s Astor Place, had opened only months earlier to rave reviews. The New York Times praised the college’s auditorium as “not equaled by any room of a similar nature in the city or the United States.” Dozens of gas-fed crystal chandeliers illuminated its mirrored walls and red-leather swivel chairs. The sole complaint (now, as then) was that cast-iron pillars obstructed clear views of the stage.

But was the orator of the evening worth seeing? The Republican politician from Illinois, veteran of the widely reported Senate campaign debates with Stephen A. Douglas two years earlier, was making his first speech in the big city. Could he withstand the scrutiny of the fastest-talking, best-dressed, and most demanding audience on the planet? Other politicians had declined invitations to speak in the lecture series Lincoln was now bravely concluding. His decision to accept—to painstakingly research a lawyerly brief defending federal authority to regulate slavery, then undertake an exhausting journey from Springfield to New York—proved the savviest move of his political life. And it arguably changed history. Most in the crowd applauded when he appeared onstage that night and took his seat shortly before 8 p.m. Others gasped at the ungainly giant. “At first sight there was nothing impressive or imposing about him,” admitted one eyewitness. “His clothes hung awkwardly on his gaunt and giant frame; his face was of a dark pallor, without the slightest tinge of color; his seamed and rugged features bore the furrows of hardship and struggle. His deep-set eyes looked sad and anxious.”

The evening’s master of ceremonies, erudite poet-editor William Cullen Bryant, worked hard to soothe the apprehension. “To secure your profoundest attention,” he pleaded, “I have only, my friends, to pronounce the name of”—and here he likely paused for full dramatic effect—“Abraham Lincoln of Illinois.”

With that, the speaker slowly unfolded himself from his chair, rose to his towering height, and shambled toward the lectern. To one alarmed onlooker, he appeared “rather unsteady in his gait.” Then, in that harsh, high-pitched trumpet tone with which he unavoidably launched his orations, he uttered his first public words in New York—in a discordant frontier twang that must have jolted every listener in the room: “ Mr. Cheerman . . .”

At least that was what some onlookers remembered hearing that night. The following morning, newspaper reprints insisted that he began with a more expansive salutation: “Mr. President and Fellow-Citizens of New York.” On this point, as with so many other details of the event, much remains in dispute. Myth and memory have long obscured the Cooper Union address as thickly as the fog that had shrouded the city a few days before. All we know for sure is that, for the next two hours, Lincoln skewered Stephen Douglas, deftly allied the Republicans with the Founding Fathers, promised the South he meant no threat to slavery where it existed, and then insisted that slavery itself was unmistakably evil. For two hours, he held the crowd in the palms of his massive hands—taunting slavery expansionists at one moment, invoking Washington and Jefferson the next—and finally concluding in a soaring peroration that “right makes might,” to an avalanche of cheers and flying hats.

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.