April/May 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 2
A student of the speech that changed Lincoln’s career visits the place where he gave it
I knew few details about this milestone speech when I made my own maiden pilgrimage. But even in the early 1960s—it was, after all, the era of the Civil War Centennial—I already knew that it had somehow helped make Lincoln President. Today, having just spent three years researching and writing a new book on this very subject (Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President), and after countless return visits, I can confirm that my infant impressions were pretty much on the mark.
Cooper Union was Lincoln’s watershed, the event that transformed him from a regional leader into a national phenomenon. Here the politician known as frontier debater and chronic jokester introduced a new oratorical style: informed by history, suffused with moral certainty, and marked by lawyerly precision.
My guide for my long-ago visit was my older first cousin, Gerald Ehrenstein, now a retired physicist, then a recent Cooper Union graduate eager to show me his alma mater. After a long subway ride downtown and a march through the quaint lobby and down a flight of stairs, here at last was the shrine: a cavernous yet somehow claustrophobic basement auditorium from whose stage Lincoln had aroused his audience with the cry “Right makes might.”
I never forgot the visit. But I didn’t see the Great Hall again until 1977, when I was the young, absurdly self-assured press secretary for Bella Abzug, then running for mayor of New York in a crowded field of men. That autumn a civic group hosted a mayoral debate there. Newspapers breathlessly reported that the eventual winner might well, like Lincoln, emerge from the Cooper Union test marked by destiny.
Before us that night sat eight candidates for City Hall: Bella, Rep. Ed Koch (who went on to win the election), state senator Roy Goodman, the future governor Mario Cuomo (for whom I would one day work as well), the harried incumbent, Abe Beame, the local leaders Percy Sutton and Herman Badillo, and a businessman named Joel Harnett.
The debate was in full swing when a young man suddenly came racing down the aisle, carrying an object in his right hand. In a flash, he reared back and hurled it toward the debaters. It turned out to be a harmless apple pie, which did nothing worse than splatter Beame and Abzug. Miraculously, almost simultaneously, Cuomo leaped off the stage and flew at the prankster, whom he knocked to the ground before startled police officers joined the tangle to hustle him away. Cuomo later modestly explained: “I thought he might have been throwing something more dangerous.” And another hero was born at Cooper Union.
Beame and Abzug are gone now, and both Cuomo’s three terms as governor and Koch’s three as mayor are behind them, but the old place has not changed much. The platform in Cooper Union’s Great Hall is still too high to make viewing from the front rows comfortable. Floor-to-ceiling iron pillars still obstruct many views. Generations ago the stage was relocated perpendicularly; once it stood on what is now the left side of the chamber (looking in from the rear doors) at the end of a long, vertical hall illuminated by hissing gaslights, and furnished with plush red chairs. But the painted iron rostrum with its fringed coverlet, said to have been used by Lincoln, still occupies the stage at special events. Those occasions, now few and far between, attract scant crowds these days. I confidently wrote in my book that nothing very important happens there any more.
It did not take long for me to be proved wrong. My book was still in galleys when the Democratic presidential aspirant Howard Dean chose Cooper Union to make a major speech of his own in November 2003. Dean used the occasion to talk about fundraising and to pass out ballots so the people in his campaign could choose if he should opt out of the federal campaign financing system. Dean was adept at fundraising and so could forgo federal money, but Lincoln was on shaky ground when he made his own Cooper Union address: Less than a month later, Lincoln wrote to the editor Mark Delahay “I can not enter the ring on the money basis—first, because, in the main, it is wrong; and secondly, I have not, and can not get the money.” Much to my amazement, the old venue was back at the epicenter of national politics.
Past and present converged at the Great Hall only a few weeks after Howard Dean left the stage. On November 22, 2003, New York marked the fortieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination inside the historic auditorium with a group reading of Jim Bishop’s book The Day Kennedy Was Shot. A number of celebrities, including Martha Stewart and Joel Grey, took turns reciting.
One of the famous readers that day was Kitty Carlisle Hart, the nonagenarian singer who is something of a historical landmark in her own right, having made her stage debut in 1932.1 spoke to Mrs. Hart a few hours after her performance. She joked that she was not quite old enough to have been at Cooper Union when Lincoln spoke there.
But had she felt the presence of Lincoln on the Cooper Union stage? “Oh, yes, darling,” she laughed. “Ever since Ford’s Theatre, no actor goes onstage at a theater without thinking about Lincoln.”
But only at the Great Hall of Cooper Union can audiences so easily inhale Lincoln’s presence too—there to imagine not the dying but the living man, not the bearded icon of myth but the clean-shaven, fresh-voiced political original who conquered all New York here on the way to the White House and immortality.