It is said that there are more books about Abraham Lincoln than there are about any other historical figure except for Jesus Christ. That is probably one of those ‘statistics’ it is impossible to check, but I certainly have an exorbitant number of them on my shelves, and on increasingly esoteric topics. After Garry Wills’s superb book about the Gettysburg Address, there is now an equally fascinating work on another of his speeches: Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech that made Abraham Lincoln President by Harold Holzer (Simon & Schuster, 2004). As the subtitle makes clear, the speech, delivered by Lincoln at the Cooper Institute in New York in February 1860, plays an important part in the mythology of Lincoln. The story that has become lodged in the popular version of Lincoln’s presidency is that he was surprised to have come from nowhere to be acclaimed as Republican presidential candidate as a result of the popular response to his Cooper Union speech. Holzer’s fascinating analysis of the situation dispenses with this and other myths. Lincoln was a canny politician who was already being named as a potential Republican president, and though the tradition of the time was that candidates for high office did not campaign and pretended a reticence on the issue, he saw the opportunity to speak at Cooper Union as a chance to make a claim for the nomination. Far and away the leading candidate for the Republican nomination was William H. Seward of New York; in fact months before the party convention in Chicago he seemed to have it sewn up. But he was a divisive candidate, and a group of young Republicans in New York, who favoured Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, were openly seeking other candidates who might open up the race and let their man through. Lincoln was the last of the group they approached to speak, initially at Henry Ward Beecher’s church in Brooklyn. Lincoln cannily put off the speech until February 1860, so it might have the maximum impact on the convention, and worked up the most atypical speech of his career, an academic historical analysis designed to show that the Founding Fathers had been predominantly opposed to the expansion of slavery (the main political issue of the day was the extension of slavery to new states such as Kansas and Nebraska). At a time when speeches were a massive popular entertainment, his Cooper Union address was an immediate success, and he then embarked on an ad-hoc tour of New Hampshire, Connecticut and Rhode Island, delivering variations on the speech twelve times in two weeks in some of the key states that any presidential candidate had to win. He also supervised the reprinting of his speech in at least one New York paper, (Republican papers across the country ran the speech in full), and was also closely involved in the issue of the speech as a pamphlet which appeared in time for the Chicago convention. He didn’t have to campaign for the nomination: his speech did that for him. He wasn’t surprised by the nomination, he didn’t come from nowhere, and he wasn’t reluctant to take on the task. And there is one other point which Holzer makes but doesn’t fully expand on. On the day that Lincoln delivered his Cooper Union address he stopped in at the studios of Matthew Brady for a photograph. Though there were earlier photographs of him, this was the first carefully prepared, manicured and designed portrait of his career. It is the famous picture that shows him standing against a pillar with his hand resting lightly on a pile of books, beardless still and staring resolutely out at the viewer. The technology had only just become available to allow photographs to be reproduced in newspapers, and this portrait was at least as important as the speech in making Lincoln known across America. Holzer’s is, I suspect, a book for buffs only, but if you are at all interested in the politics of the immediate pre-war period this is full of vivid insights.
First published at Livejournal, 9 January 2005.