On the afternoon of February 27, 1860, Abraham Lincoln stepped into Matthew Brady's New York studio and had this portrait taken. That evening, Lincoln took the stage of the Cooper Union and delivered a speech that propelled him to the front of the race for the Republican Presidential nomination. The Cooper Union Address was the speech that brought the obscure, awkward-looking, former one-term Congressman from Illinois to national prominence. Great speeches still have the power to do that for a politician: to give him or her a national following. His keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention did that for Barack Obama—the once-obscure one-term Senator from Illinois. Obama's speech began by telling his personal story, introducing himself as the son of immigrants who found opportunity in America, and then continued to riff on the American dream. Its key words are "faith" (six times) and "belief" (four times)—it's an inspirational speech about the religion of American opportunity.
Lincoln's speech was a very different animal. It begins with a very specific purpose: to refute Stephen Douglas's claims that the Founders intended the Constitution to restrict the Federal government from limiting the spread of slavery to the Federal territories. In a clear, but lawyerly and repetitive style, Lincoln demolishes this claim. He then addresses the South, to refute its argument that the Republican Party was stirring up sectional strife over the slavery issue. Finally, he exhorts the Republican Party not to back down from its insistence that slavery should be excluded from the territories. The final exhortation, like Obama's speech, invokes faith: "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."
It is perhaps disappointing to those who think of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator to discover that, as a candidate, he was not calling for the abolition of slavery, but merely its limitation. He states his position quite clearly at the end of the speech: "Wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is, because that much is due to the necessity arising from its actual presence in the nation..." He accepts slavery as a fact of American life, but wants to confine it to the South. It was the belief of some of the Founders, like Jefferson, that if not allowed to spread, slavery would eventually die of natural causes. Fearing this, the slave owners and their Democratic political tools in the antebellum years were demanding that slavery be recognized as a national (rather than merely sectional) institution. Lincoln denied this, but he was not yet willing to call for the complete abolition of slavery. In 1860, the time wasn't yet ripe. Even many members of his own party were opposed to outright abolition.
As a result of the Cooper Union speech, Lincoln moved to the head of the pack of Republican candidates, a pack that included much more illustrious names, like William Henry Seward of New York, Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, and Edward Bates of Missouri. Seward was long considered the favorite, but at the convention in Chicago, Lincoln pulled out the nomination.
By far the best nonfiction book I read in 2006 was Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. It's often described as a group biography of the men who ran for the 1860 Republican nomination—bitter rivals whom Lincoln, surprisingly, invited to become members of his cabinet. His closest rival, Seward, became Secretary of State, and in that position served Lincoln well. The growing warmth of the relationship between Lincoln and Seward makes a wonderful and touching story. Likewise, former rival Edwin Stanton, Lincoln's Secretary of War, became a close adviser and friend. The most fraught relationship was with Salmon Chase, the treasury secretary and later Chief Justice, who never entirely warmed to Lincoln or set aside his rivalry. Chase thought he could be the power behind the throne—the Karl Rove or Dick Cheney figure–and discovered to his dismay that Lincoln had a mind and a will and a moral strength of his own.
Team of Rivals is a wonderful book. Not only do you get a sense of Lincoln's greatness, you also get a sense of the real love and loyalty that he inspired. When gruff, competent Edwin Stanton breaks down at Lincoln's death, I found tears springing to my eyes. Remarkable, for a book of nonfiction.
Lincoln's Cooper Union Address can be found in the Library of America volume Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, 1859-1865.
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