Lincoln at Cooper Union
The Speech That Made
Abraham Lincoln President

by Harold Holzer

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Simon & Schuster: New York, 2004
338 pages

April 2010

The campaign of a speech

This is a fascinating book about a historic speech, a speech which is to history famous by name, but little known in intent and content compared to other addresses by Abraham Lincoln before and during the American Civil War. In Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President, Harold Holzer discusses as it were, the campaign of which this lecture is the volley of oratorical artillery. Thus in my analogy, we see Lincoln's far-seeing strategy, his careful assembling of well-researched data, the burst of physical travels required for this campaign in the East, the planning and surprises by his welcoming committee, Lincoln's tactically superb delivery on 27 February 1860, and the aftermath of echoes of the speech given by him in several New England states.

In the Lincoln canon, it represents an altogether unique rhetorical watershed, the transforming moment separating the prairie stump speaker and the presidential orator.

To further complicate matters, careful study reveals the complex Cooper Union address itself to be, in a sense, three distinct speeches in one, each ingeniously calculated to validate the antislavery platform of Lincoln's Republican party through completely different approaches: legal precedent, a hearty dose of ironic challenge, and a dazzling coda of inspiring political faith.

We might have been expecting simply an annotated edition of the speech, the innards of this "rhetorical watershed"; but Holzer embeds it in something far more interesting and enlightening, and thus more satisfying. Thanks to Lincoln's campaign of a speech, the persuasive quality of the "Cooper Union" address resounded throughout the Northern States, and, through widespread newspaper and pamphlet reprinting, was read by many thousands during this critical year of 1860.

Holzer devotes considerable attention to what Lincoln intended to accomplish by seizing the opportunity to speak at Cooper Union. We are led to appreciate the structure of the speech, its tripartite division into history, warning, and principle. The speech itself begins fairly drily with how the signers of the Constitution voted when they had before them various versions of denying the extension of slavery to the Northwest Territories, and whether the Federal Government could control and prohibit such extension.

Conscious of his "elite" audience in the New York auditorium, as well as the greater audience who would read his speech later in the press, Lincoln offered no customary, crowd-pleasing antislavery speech. Instead, in his long, ambitious lecture — some 7,715 words in all — he offered a laboriously researched, studiously legalistic, and dispassionately restrained antislavery treatise that hearkened back to the will of the founding fathers, preached political moderation and sectional harmony, yet at the same time bristled with barely contained indignation over the moral outrage of human slavery.

Lincoln believed that this unusual combination of approaches would not only play well in the Great Hall of Cooper Union, but impress newspaper readers around the country, and in the best of circumstances endure in campaign literature for the rest of this decisive year. At its core, the Cooper Union address was a subtle but unmistakable preconvention speech, deftly crafted to thrust the speaker into the forefront of 1860 presidential politics.

To accomplish that goal, Lincoln drew from a vast arsenal of historical data, legalistic argumentation, and rhetorical flourish to offer three distinct speeches in one: an appeal to history, a criticism of (disguised as an appeal to) the South, and a rallying cry aimed at his natural constituency: Northern Republicans.

Lincoln's goals were very ambitious, and it required genius to successfully navigate the awesomely complex political landscape of the years 1854 through 1860: while remaining true to principle; carrying the debate to his principal opponent — Senator Stephen A. Douglas, author of the disastrously divisive Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854; and reaching and persuading ever-larger numbers of his countrymen. It is illuminating to see the Cooper Union speech as a culmination of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858 in Illinois.

In the course of his narrative, Holzer sketches the variously difficult positions of a few other contemporaries: John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Horace Greeley, William H. Seward.

Lincoln at Cooper Union is not all legal analysis and politics and literary criticism; far from it. It's also a travelogue through the New York City and New England environs of 1860, from the tiring train travel to Lincoln walking alone at night in Manhattan. Holzer discusses how far Lincoln's New England repetitions of his speech helped make him increasingly known and respected in that region.

Holzer describes the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, and why this speech of Lincoln's was at first called by the name of "Cooper Institute", and later by "Cooper Union".

While in New York for his speech, Lincoln went for a formal portrait by the great photographer Mathew Brady. It was this Brady portrait that established Abraham Lincoln's likeness for people across America, and Lincoln later gave it substantial credit for helping him win the Republican nomination and the election. Holzer also discusses the amusing variants that this photo developed, as printers decided to improve his countenance, or (retroactively) add a beard, and so on.

Harold Holzer's Lincoln at Cooper Union is a superb account of a vital passage in Lincoln's progress, the campaign of a speech as I like to think of it. The book is as enlightening as it is enjoyable.

... the Cooper Union address was a magnificent anomaly, both lawyerly and impassioned; empirical and scholarly; a moderation of Lincoln's style and tone, accompanied by a stiffening reiteration of moral purpose; no "house divided" jeremiad, but instead a clear vision of national justice, animated by the confident expectation that it would prevail.


© 2010 Robert Wilfred Franson

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