“No former effort in the line of speech-making had cost Lincoln so much time and thought as this one.” Considering the nuances and rhetoric of Lincoln’s speeches in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, it is perhaps shocking that law partner William Herndon was referring to the Cooper Union Address. Lincoln meticulously poured over dusty parchment for several months in preparation for this speech. His painstaking research included the examination of six volumes of Debates on the Federal Constitution by Elliott, the official records of the proceedings of Congress, the Congressional Globe, American history books, and other sources. He traced the actual legislative votes of thirty-nine of the Constitution’s signers to determine how they later acted on the question of slavery to prove that the Founders did indeed intend for slavery to become extinct.
Such research had a deliberate purpose. Abraham Lincoln, ever the adapt statesman, sought to teach young citizens something about republican principles and the Constitution. Rather than concentrating on the Declaration of Independence and the maxim “all men are created equal,” as Lincoln traditionally did in his speeches, at Cooper Union he talked about the Constitution, its principles, and the duties citizens owed to the document. Such a tone was perhaps more appropriate, as it was a speech given to the Young Men’s Republican Union and served to propel him into the presidency.
In one of the most revealing fragments of Lincoln’s political philosophy on the Constitution, he wrote, “‘Liberty to all’…The assertion of that principle, at that time, was the word, ‘fitly spoken’ which has proved an ‘apple of gold’ to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple–not the apple for the picture.” The Union and the Constitution protect the principles espoused in the Declaration. Such principles are the soul of America; they are more sacred, for they are the very essence of the country. Yet the Constitution and the Union are the body, and though not as lofty in value, the soul cannot exist without the body.
While less abstract than the Declaration, the Constitution is not simply procedural. It too has underlying principles. As, “neither the word ‘slave’ nor ‘slavery’ is to be found in the Constitution, nor the word ‘property’ even, in any connection with language alluding to the things slave, or slavery…this mode of alluding to slaves and slavery, instead of speaking of them, was employed on purpose to exclude from the Constitution the idea that there could be property in a man.” Though the Founding Fathers were forced to allow slavery to continue to preserve the Union, referring to men as property would be to deny the notion that “all men are created equal.” For it would be to say that there are some who are naturally born to be masters and others their property. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, “the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.” No man is naturally born with the right to rule another. For this reason, the Founding Fathers consciously refused to characterize a slave as property and instead referred to him as a person. They preserved his status as nothing less than a human being, with the understanding that one day his rights as such would be fully recognized.
America would eventually have to make an ultimate decision on the question of slavery, and it was the duty of citizens to ensure that “right would make might” and morality would prevail. Since “If slavery is right, all words, acts, laws, and constitutions against it, are themselves wrong, and should be silenced, and swept away. If it is right, we cannot justly object to its nationality- its universality; if it is wrong, they cannot justly insist upon its extension- its enlargement.” In order to ensure that slavery would not expand and become legal, those in the north were to exert political pressure on others: “When this obvious mistake of the judges shall be brought to their notice, is it not reasonable to expect that they will withdraw the mistaken statement, and reconsider the conclusion based upon it?” It is the duty of the citizen to ensure the law becomes a better reflection of true justice. Rather than using violence and encouraging insurrections, Lincoln implored the young men of the Republican Union to converse with their fellow citizens and persuade them of slavery’s abhorrence.
For any other means of extinguishing slavery besides persuasion would undermine the Constitution and the principles upon which it was founded. The Constitution is the supreme law of the land, ratified by the people of the United States. It is the tangible expression of the will of the majority. Such a will cannot simply be ignored, because it is given its force by nature, by the principle “all men are created equal.” Though not perfect, the law of the land must be respected, and violent actions and insurrections to force others to change their opinions jeopardizes the Union and the Constitution: “It is exceedingly desirable that all parts of this great Confederacy shall be at peace, and in harmony, one with another. Let us Republicans do our part to have it so. Even though the southern people will not so much as listen to us, let us calmly consider their demands, and yield to them if, in our deliberate view of our duty, we possibly can.” To save the Union and respect the Constitution, Lincoln would tolerate the evil of slavery, provided it was marked “as an evil not to be extended” and not as a positive good.
Such a compromise could only be made for something as fundamental as the Constitution. The Cooper Union Address is the speech in which Lincoln gives homage to that document. Though the Declaration eloquently frames the principles of the American regime, the Constitution is just as essential and principled in its own way. It is the guardian of America, protecting the idea that “all men are created equal.”
May 13, 2013 – Essay #61
Read Lincoln’s Address at Cooper Institute Here: https://constitutingamerica.org/?p=4315
Brenda Hafera is the Finance and Events Co-Ordinator at the Matthew J. Ryan Center For the Study of Free Institutions and the Public Good at Villanova University, where she is currently pursuing her Masters in Political Science.