Guest Essayist: James D. Best


The Making of the President 1860—Mathew Brady and the Cooper Union Address

Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 presidential campaign, yet on a national level, he had served only a single term in the House of Representatives. He had gained renown from his famed debates with Senator Douglas, but remained a minor political figure. How did he make himself a viable candidate? He pulled off this feat in a single day—Monday, February 27, 1860.

In the evening, he would address New York Republicans at Cooper Union. This was part of a debate series sponsored by the Young Men’s Republican Union. Instead of resting that afternoon, Lincoln made an appointment with Mathew Brady.

Lincoln wore a new black suit, new shoes, and a new top hat to the photography session. Brady still faced a challenge, however. People were taken aback by Lincoln’s appearance and irregular movements. He was tall and gangly. His face and body angular. He walked with a slouch and took each step with the flat of his foot instead of the heel. And he was perpetually disheveled.

For props, Brady used a painted Doric column and stacked books on the small table. He straightened Lincoln’s hair, raised his shirt collar, and snugged his suit with clothespins. He had Lincoln stand tall and touch the books with his fingertips. Then he took a full body shot that accented Lincoln’s height. He had taken a scrawny giant and used his features to their greatest advantage. The portrait made Lincoln appear stately and commanding.

That evening, Republicans paid twenty-five cents to hear Lincoln speak. Most expected homespun yarns from the bucolic West. Instead, Lincoln’s grammar and diction were flawless. Rather than using countrified stories, he artfully used repetition to drive his point and add levity. Lincoln made faces, threw his head, and modulated his voice to captivate the audience. When he mimicked the Douglas stentorian style, he not only succeeded in mocking the little giant, but caused his audience to laugh uproariously and stomp their feet with abandon.

He blamed the senator for raising the specter of slavery in the territories. In a  Harper’s Weekly article and speeches, Douglas claimed the Founding Fathers would have supported his side of the slavery issue. Lincoln presented a reasoned challenge to the Douglas assertion.  He showed that twenty-one of the thirty-nine signers of the Constitution had voted for bills that restricted slavery in territories and only two had recorded votes that showed opposition to restricting slavery.

Lincoln made a tight legal case with skills acquired as a highly successful lawyer, but he elevated the debate above the law. He made it an issue of right or wrong.

“We hear that you will not abide the election of a Republican president! In that supposed event, you say, you will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! That is cool. A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, ‘Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!

“To be sure, what the robber demanded of me—my money—was my own; and I had a clear right to keep it; but it was no more my own than my vote is my own; and the threat of death to me, to extort my money, and the threat of destruction to the Union, to extort my vote, can scarcely be distinguished in principle.

“What will convince slaveholders that we do not threaten their property? This, and this only: cease to call slavery wrong and join them in calling it right! Silence alone will not be tolerated—we must place ourselves avowedly with them. We must suppress all declarations that slavery is wrong, whether made in politics, in presses, in pulpits, or in private. We must arrest and return their fugitive slaves with greedy pleasure. The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us.

“… All they ask, we could grant, if we thought slavery right. All we ask, they could grant if they thought it wrong. Right and wrong is the precise fact upon which depends the whole controversy. Thinking it right, as they do, they are not to blame for desiring its full recognition. Thinking it wrong, as we do, can we yield? Can we cast our votes with their view and against our own? In view of our moral, social, and political responsibilities, can we do this?”

(The hall burst with repeated shouts of “No!”)

“Let us not grope for some middle ground between right and wrong. Let us not search in vain for a policy of don’t care on a question about which all true men do care. Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the government.

“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!”

Lincoln stepped back from the podium and the Cooper Union Great Hall exploded with noise and motion. Everybody stood. The staid New York audience cheered, clapped, stomped their feet, and many waved handkerchiefs and hats.

Lincoln claimed many times that the Brady photograph and Cooper Union speech made him president. It took more than that, but it certainly put him on the road.

I borrowed the title for this essay from Theodore White’s iconic book, The Making of the President 1960. In another book, In Search of History, he wrote, “Threading an idea into the slipstream of politics, then into government, then into history … is a craft which I have since come to consider the most important in the world.”

Abraham Lincoln achieved this lofty standard.

James D. Best, author of Tempest at Dawn, a novel about the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Principled Action, and the Steve Dancy Tales.


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