The Speech That Made The Man

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To be sure, the event did not inspire from Lincoln an oration on a rhetorical par with his Gettysburg Address or second inaugural address. Perhaps this is why the 7,700-word speech remains frequently mentioned yet seldom quoted. Nor did it actually persuade many local voters to join the Lincoln bandwagon. The truth is, Lincoln never won the hearts (or ballots) of overwhelmingly Democratic and intractably racist New York City. Yet the speech may have accomplished more than any other he ever gave. At the Cooper Union, Lincoln became more than a regional curiosity. He became a national leader.

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.