Late February 1860. Nearly two weeks before, Abraham Lincoln had turned 51 years old. He had been thinking back to the time of George Washington and the United States Constitution. On Saturday, February 25, 1860, Lincoln was staying at Astor House, at Vesey and Barclay Streets. He reckoned as how he had never worked harder in his life – with the exception of rail splitting – than on this upcoming speech at what was then better known as the Cooper Institute. Lincoln smiled thinking about Billy Herndon, his law partner back in Springfield – having to listen to its formulation, over and over again, too. Some parts added, some parts deleted, some amended, and practically all delivered verbally. Poor Billy had had to listen. ‘Well, DAD GUM IT, this HAS to be JUST RIGHT!’ Just before the speech, on Monday, February 27th, Mathew Brady would take what was to become the iconic photograph. Later still, after securing the Republican nomination and then the presidency, Lincoln would say: “Brady and the Cooper Institute made me President.”
In the first paragraph, above, I am channeling eminent scholars like Harold Holzer, author of Lincoln At Cooper Union / The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President.
An admirer of Abraham Lincoln from boyhood, I know more about Lincoln than about Washington. It is fitting and proper, however, that this article about Presidents Day – which falls on February 17th this year – should really begin with our first President. In this issue, WestView commemorates their visits to New York City, especially the Village.
Today, it may seem harder to believe that six year old George Washington said, “I cannot tell a lie, Father!” Whether it happened or did not happen, it is heart-warming for a hatchet story. Fast-forwarding through a remarkable life, we come to the time when he left his presidential riding carriage in then-uptown New-York City, mounted a horse, and rode downtown. Seeing the great man on horseback, city dwellers were, understandably, awed. So it came to pass that George Washington rode to where the Washington Square Arch is now situated. After gracing us with his presence, he continued on downtown. He visited historic Fraunces Tavern, a venue still to be highly recommended today. I suspect that when George Washington imbibed there back then, he did so responsibly. More troubling to us today is that Washington waited until he was comfortably dead to free his slaves by his Will. Still, that is really nothing surprisinge; he was, after all, a man of his time. Washington is seemingly always the stern father, hardly ever doling out approving smiles to us, his ‘children.’ Still, no one dares dispute the basic integrity of General, later President Washington. Like the twin statues on the Washington Square Arch, he will always be larger than life. And rightly so.
Discussing George Washington’s having had slaves logically leads to Abraham Lincoln – the other of the presidents associated with Presidents Day – who would come to free them. While Lincoln never took himself all that seriously, as Holzer’s book reminds us, he was very serious indeed preparing for his Cooper Union speech.
The Dred Scott Decision of 1857, The Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858, John Brown at Harper’s Ferry in 1859, — all had contributed immensely in fine-tuning his compelling oratorical style. This time around, however, he would address, for the very first time, the all-important audience in the East. Not only would he reaffirm his commitment to opposing the extension of slavery, he would be doing so in New York City, knowing full well that this particular presentation would be crucial. Back in Revolutionary times, New York City had been full of Tory, i.e. pro-British, sentiment. By 1860, NYC was an important commercial trading partner with Great Britain for the cotton produced in the South. “King Cotton” was, indeed, the number one export. At the time, the mindset of much of the entrepreneurial interests in the North was that slavery – unjust and distasteful though it undoubtedly was – seemed nevertheless integral to financial success. Lincoln, up to then widely seen as a backwoodsman who had once split rails – that story is definitely true – had his work cut out for him.
On Monday evening of the 27th, a full house of about 1,500 people, paying 25 cents each, had gathered at the Institute, despite rain and slush,
When Lincoln appeared at the podium, the eyewitnesses were momentarily stunned by his appearance. Lincoln was memorable, but not conventionally handsome. I suspect that, among other factors, his hard work on this speech and the stress of the occasion made him look especially haggard, with dark circles under his eyes. After momentary awkwardness settling into the new venue, Lincoln quickly secured both his tone and footing. In what would later be known as ‘a New York minute,’ he had the audience in the palm of his hand. He continued to engage his audience fully throughout the speech. Unlike the later Gettysburg Address, I defy anyone to memorize Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech! (On the subject of the Gettysburg Address speech, I urge readers to google “Gettysburg Address retold by students, via Ken Burns”.)
Far be it for me to sum up the highlights of such a fine speech, dealing with such momentous issues. The following excerpt is from the conclusion of his speech, which in our time would be considered far too long, but which in his era was appropriate: “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.” (Capitalization copied exactly as it is in the booklet containing the entire speech.)
Lincoln had won over the East.
When he visited McSorley’s Old Ale House, across the street from The Cooper Union, he met and greeted to the point where his hand was sore. He did not drink any alcohol. However, everybody knows that. But did you know that the chair in which he held court is still there, situated above the bar? It is blackened with age now, but still there. Did I mention that I love Abe Lincoln?
From everyone at WestView, a Happy Presidents Day to everyone.
Excerpts from The Cooper Union speech are from the booklet, The Cooper Union Address Given By Abraham Lincoln / In The Great Hall Of Cooper Union In New York February 27, 1860. Besides Mr. Holzer’s 2004 book, there is another book from 2003 with the same name, by John A. Corry.
The author would especially like to thank the following: Carol Salomon, Archives Librarian, The Cooper Union Library; Shane Buggy, McSorley’s Old Ale House; greeter at The Museum of the City of New York; Evanne Allen, Public Affairs Assistant, National Portrait Gallery | Smithsonian Institution;Jean Kates, Docent, and Brenna McCormick-Thompson, Print Room Reference Assistant, both at The New-York Historical Society; Miriam Patterson, and Jane Singer, WestView‘s editor.