Lincoln at Cooper Union explores Lincoln's most influential and widely reported pre-presidential address -- an extraordinary appeal by the western politician to the eastern elite that propelled him toward the Republican nomination for president. Delivered in New York in February 1860, the Cooper Union speech dispelled doubts about Lincoln's suitability for the presidency and reassured conservatives of his moderation while reaffirming his opposition to slavery to Republican progressives.
Award-winning Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer places Lincoln and his speech in the context of the times -- an era of racism, politicized journalism, and public oratory as entertainment -- and shows how the candidate framed the speech as an opportunity to continue his famous "debates" with his archrival Democrat Stephen A. Douglas on the question of slavery.
Holzer describes the enormous risk Lincoln took by appearing in New York, where he exposed himself to the country's most critical audience and took on Republican Senator William Henry Seward of New York, the front runner, in his own backyard. Then he recounts a brilliant and innovative public relations campaign, as Lincoln took the speech "on the road" in his successful quest for the presidency.
Few people know more about Abraham Lincoln than Holzer (editor of Lincoln the Writer; Lincoln Seen and Heard; etc.). This fine new work focuses on a widely known but little studied address that Lincoln delivered early in 1860 in New York City, which Holzer believes made Lincoln the Republican candidate and therefore president. While one has to credit other political and historical factors, Holzer is probably right. Surely no one will again overlook this masterful speech, even if it never rose to the eloquence of the Gettysburg Address. That's precisely one of Holzer's main arguments: that the speech was intended as a learned, historically grounded, legally powerful rebuttal to claims of Lincoln's great Democratic opponent, Stephen Douglas, about the constitutionality of slavery's spread into the territories. But how, Holzer asks, did a long speech hold its audience at Cooper Union and then infuse tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of newspaper readers with enthusiasm for the man? The answer lies in large part with the nature of American culture?"a highly politicized one of readers?"in the 1860s. But as Holzer also makes clear, Lincoln conceived of the speech as part of an astute strategy to win his party's nomination. While his political wizardry will surprise few readers, they'll learn again how it was combined with intellectual power and a fierce determination to clarify his moral convictions. It was on this visit to New York that Matthew Brady shot his most celebrated portrait of Lincoln (which appears on the book jacket). Holzer devotes a fascinating chapter to this episode.
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
-- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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Simon & Schuster
November 06, 2006
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Excerpt from Lincoln at Cooper Union by Harold Holzer
More than nine hundred people filled the Great Hall of Cooper Union in New York to hear Abraham Lincoln's great speech that night, many waiting hours on a long line that circled the building. The speaker -- and the man assigned to introduce him -- were called on stage by the school's African-American president. The orator made careful use of the microphone, aware that the event was being taped for television. Audience members could not help but notice how frequently he gulped Poland Spring water as he held the hot, floodlit stage for nearly an hour and a half. Only one cell phone rang during the entire evening.
None of the above happened on February 27, 1860, of course -- the day Lincoln himself made history at Cooper Union in New York, albeit to a house only three-fourths filled. In Lincoln's time, electronic amplification, broadcasting, color-blind executive opportunities at major universities, and, for that matter, bottled water, were all unknown and unimaginable.
But it did happen just as described 140 years later, on May 5, 2000. That evening, to mark the publication of the clothbound edition of this book, actor Sam Waterston mesmerized a modern audience at Cooper Union in a re-creation of Lincoln's address.
I was privileged that night to sit on stage throughout the performance, having assumed the role of New York Evening Post editor William Cullen Bryant, who had introduced Lincoln on February 27, 1860. I will not soon forget the thrill of listening to those seven thousand words up close, just as Bryant had. What a spellbinding oration it remains, in the hands of a speaker capable of squeezing nuance from Lincoln's canny repetition of phrases, and passion from his dazzlingly intricate peroration.
Aired repeatedly on C-SPAN, the re-creation -- and the book -- not unexpectedly rattled some archives, shaking hitherto unknown, but important information to the surface. The bad news is that the material came to light too late for inclusion in the original; the good news is that the paperback edition provides this opportunity to recognize and discuss new discoveries.
Chief among them is a long-lost letter that Lincoln wrote to Ohio Senator Thomas Corwin on October 9, 1859 -- just a week before receiving the momentous telegram inviting him to speak in the East. (Unbeknownst to Lincoln, Corwin would be asked to participate in the very same lecture series. The Senator went to Brooklyn as requested; Lincoln demurred, ending up, fortuitously, at Cooper Union). Their correspondence began when Corwin wrote Lincoln that he was worried that their party's incessant focus on slavery would doom its chances to elect a president in 1860. Lincoln believed otherwise -- and in the newly unearthed, handwritten letter, emphatically so declared. Employing frank language to the man who came close to sharing the spotlight with him in New York, Lincoln insisted Republicans ought not to try attracting Democrats to their ranks by emphasizing irrelevancies like "tariff, extravagances, live oak contracts and the like -- the very old issues upon which the Whig party was beat out of existence." The issue of slavery, Lincoln argued, not only offered moral, but political resonance:
What brought these democrats with us? The Slavery issue. Drop that issue, and they have no motive to remain, and will not remain, with us. It is idiotic to think otherwise. Do you understand me as saying Illinois must have an extreme antislavery candidate? I do not so mean. We must have, though, a man who recognizes that Slavery issue as being the living issue of the day; who does not hesitate to declare slavery a wrong, nor to deal with it as such; who believes in the power, and duty of Congress to prevent the spread of it.