Guest Essayist: Val Crofts

Abraham Lincoln traveled East in February of 1860. He was asked to deliver an address at the Cooper Institute in New York City on the momentous topic of the era, slavery. Lincoln had been a popular orator and politician in Illinois, but had yet to solidify himself as a national politician. His sense of humor, frontier charm and folksy wit appealed to his political and debate audiences in the West, but if he was going to attract a national following and possibly earn the nomination from the fledgling Republican Party as their presidential candidate, he needed to appeal to voters in different areas of the country.

Before he gave his Cooper Institute speech, Lincoln made his way to the New York studio of photographer, Matthew Brady. He was going to sit for a portrait that was going to introduce him to the American people. Brady’s portrait of Lincoln shows a confident, 51 year old Lincoln staring into the camera with his left hand resting on two books. He pulled his collar up in the portrait to partially obscure his long neck. He looks distinguished, but his hair is a bit disheveled as he stands ready to make arguably the most important speech of his life in a few hours.

A crowd of around 1,500 people crowded into the Cooper Institute on the night of February 27, 1860 to hear this Republican orator from the West deliver a carefully researched and crafted speech to explain to the nation why they should not fear a Republican president and why the views of the Republicans on slavery mirrored those of the Founding Fathers. Lincoln was about to reinvent himself as an orator and to establish himself as a national politician and serious contender for the presidency.

Some eyewitnesses claimed disappointment when Lincoln first stood to address the crowd. His tall (so tall as someone said) appearance with his arms and legs created an awkward appearance and some in the crowd expressed pity for how Lincoln looked that night. But then, he began to speak.

Lincoln began by informing his audience that 21 of 39 Founding Fathers felt that the federal government should be able to control slavery in territories of the United States and that the Constitution verifies this. The Republican Party had pledged to stop slavery from spreading into the Western territories and Lincoln felt that the basis for this decision came from the basis for our legal cornerstone, the Constitution of the United States.

He then denied that the Republicans were a Northern political party intent on inciting slave rebellions. He talked about how John Brown, the abolitionist who attempted to start a slave rebellion in Virginia, was no Republican and he urged the South to understand the Republican Party was an American party and not a sectional one. He was attempting to explain to the South that Republicans were allies and not enemies. He further explained that for the South to threaten to secede if a Republican president was elected, was similar to an “armed robbery” of the Union.

He then addressed fellow Republicans to leave the South alone and to convince the South that they would continue to do so. Southern fears of Republican interference was fueling the flames of rebellion and Lincoln urged it to cease. Lincoln felt that if Republicans were not able to stop slavery where it existed, because the Constitution did not give them power to do so, then they must stop it from spreading into the Western territories. Then, he ended one of his longest public speeches by saying, “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 laid out what he perceived to be the fears of the South and had done his best to calm them. He had also given his opinions on what Republicans could do to stop the further escalation of the division between the two regions. The speech was a huge success.

To capitalize on the speech and its success, Matthew Brady began to circulate the photo in several sizes for people to purchase. Harper’s Weekly converted the photo into a full page drawing of Lincoln which accompanied their story of the Cooper Institute speech and Lincoln’s success there. The image became the public’s first encounter with this rising star in the Republican Party.

Lincoln’s Cooper Institute speech was considered one of his greatest successes. If he had failed to engage and impress his New York audience, he may not have received the nomination as president in 1860. Had that not happened, he may have returned to Illinois to live out his days as a lawyer in Springfield and the history of our nation would have been very different. Lincoln credited Brady and the Cooper Institute speech with helping him to secure his nomination as the Republican candidate for president and ultimately putting him in the White House. Those two very important events in New York City in February of 1860 may have ultimately helped to preserve the Union.

Val Crofts is as Social Studies teacher from Janesville, Wisconsin. He teaches as Milton High School in Milton, Wisconsin and has been there 16 years. He teaches AP U.S. Government and Politics, U.S. History and U.S. Military History. Val has also taught for the Wisconsin Virtual School for seven years, teaching several Social Studies courses for them. Val is also a member of the U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission celebrating the 250th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

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