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Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President (Simon & Schuster Lincoln Library) Paperback – 7 Nov. 2006
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"This book is a must for anyone fascinated by Abraham Lincoln." -- Civil War Times
"It required someone with Harold Holzer's combination of knowledge, experience and talent to capture the speech's unique complexity and profundity. . . . All of this is brought to readers with meticulous historic precision, fascinating insight and charmingly facile prose." -- Mario Cuomo
About the Author
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Harold Holzer is an independent scholar who, in the midst of a busy career at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has written or edited over twenty books about Lincoln. His most recent book: "Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech that made Abraham Lincoln President" (2004) is a comprehensive account of the "momentous" Cooper Union Address, including (p. 1) "its impetus, preparation, delivery, reception, publication, calculated reiteration, and its enormous, perhaps decisive impact on that year's presidential campaign." It is one of a number or recent books that examine in detail a specific Lincoln speech or proclamation, (such at the Gettysburg Address, Second Inaugural Address, Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln-Douglas debates.) But the book does more. It helps the reader understand Lincoln and the issues that lead to the Civil War.
The Cooper Union speech was lengthy, scholarly, and factual and endeavored to show that a majority of the founders -- those that signed the Constitution -- believed that Congress had the right to regulate and prevent the spread of slavery into the territories. This issue was central to the dispute between North and South and to Lincoln's debates with his great opponent, Senator Douglas. Holzer's book begins with a discussion of how Lincoln, the self-educated backwoods lawyer and stump speaker carefully researched this issue in an attempt to present a dispassionate yet morally committed approach to the issue of slavery.
The book includes excellent accounts of the difficult and tiring nature of train travel during Lincoln's time, especially for an aspiring presidential candidate travelling to make a major address. It includes fascinating discussions of the New York City of 1860 --Walt Whitman's New York -- and its docks, piers, hotels, and Broadway. There is a wonderful account of Lincoln's visit while in the City to Five Points -- a notorious slum -- and a letter he subsequently received in the presidency from young men in a charitable school that he visited at the time.
While in New York, Lincoln had a famous photograph taken by Matthew Brady. Brady's artistry made Lincoln look distinguished and presidential rather than like a tall, gangling shabbily dressed backwoodsman. The Brady photo together with the speech helped bring Lincoln to public attention.
In the heart of the book, Holzer offers a detailed analysis of the Cooper Union speech (the text is given in an appendix) and of Lincoln's delivery that fateful evening. Although his audience was initially taken aback by the rough-hewn Lincoln, the substance of the speech and Lincoln's style of his delivery captivated the audience and made an astonishing impression. Lincoln helped shepherd his text into print, and made a hectic speaking tour of New England while visiting his son Robert at Exeter, thus furthering his position as a statesman of vision, integrity, and prudence.
An interesting feature of the book is how Holzer reminds the reader of the fragile nature of historical accounts, including alleged eye-witness accounts. Many times, Holzer points out a received account of the Cooper Union speech and shows in detail how the account is questionably supported or is inconsistent with other sources. (For example, there is a story that Erastus Corning, Director of the New York Central Railroad offered Lincoln the position as corporate counsel following the speech for the large salary of $10,000. Holzer shows that this account lacks foundation.) The book shows how historical sources need to be approached, used, and interpreted with caution.
This book is an outstanding account of Lincoln in his complexity as a pragmatic, opportunistic and yet highly principled leader. It gives a vivid picture of our country and its political life in 1860. It considers issues about the nature of the Union and of human freedom that Lincoln addressed eloquently. These issues remain with us today.
Top international reviews
It's a complicated city, that has both within its spiritual and material resources, something to please any and everyone. There is nothing that cannot be found in New York. It can be a compassionate place and it can be a downright mean place—both realities exist. For a newcomer, New York can be especially brutal. In the mid-1970's, singer George Benson released a song called “On Broadway,” about a poor aspiring guitarist who shows up in The City seeking fame and fortune. The song is about a lot of things, but its main theme is the narrator's confidence in his guitar-playing ability, a belief of supreme talent, and it is that talent that the singer feels will allow him to make it big “On Broadway.” This confidence is expressed in the lyric, “'Cause I can play this here guitar!” The song feeds into the precept and legend of New York, the idea “That if you can make it here (in New York), you can make it anywhere.”
With “On Broadway” as a backdrop, consider one Abraham Lincoln, arriving in the city in February of 1860, a time when New York was just as much a legend then, as it is now, then containing about 800.000 residents. Mr. Lincoln had spent months and months before that in serious research, marshaling all of the resources of his lawyerly and prodigious mind, to do the research on the Founding Fathers, and what their official votes were, across time, on the issue of slavery. It is said that Mr. Lincoln spent more time researching on the particular speech that he would give in New York, than any other in his life. At the time, Lincoln was a fairly obscure lawyer and politician from The West. He had somewhat made a name for himself several years prior in his heated debates with Stephen A. Douglass, but he was not, in any sense, a household name. His New York speech would change this.
Lincoln knew that he could change his fortunes in New York, if the speech that he had prepared as a result of his research was a Big Hit. He knew this primarily because New York was the media capital of the World, and a good, solid political speech would resonate, through all of the national newspapers, like waves resonating out from a rock that has been thrown into a pond. Lincoln wanted to be meticulously prepared. So, late in February of 1860, Lincoln took the stage at Cooper Union in New York to give the most important speech of his life. On first impression, the audience was rather nonplussed at his slovenly appearance, an uncouth, homely and tall man, standing before them in a wrinkled suit. Lincoln's six-foot-four stature was pronounced by a head full of black hair, that seemed to be all over the place, leaving many to wonder why the speaker had not bothered to comb his hair. The audience sat before him rather dumbfounded.
But, then the speaker opened his mouth, letting the results of his research flow freely in abundant supply. The presentation of his words were so perspicacious that all sat in rapt attention, quickly forgetting the physical appearance of the man before them, and being taken in by the power of the crystal clear logic and sincerity of what he had to say. At the end of the speech, the crowd exploded with a standing ovation, thus laying the groundwork for the newspapers over the next few days to make Abraham Lincoln a national name.
In sum I have just summed up Harold Holzer's book about Lincoln and Cooper Union. For anyone who truly wants to understand the power, intensity and genius of Abraham Lincoln as a powerful intellect, this book might be one of the best. Lincoln knew all that was at stake for his speech at Cooper Union. He prepared for it like no other chore that he had prepared for in his life, and ultimately, the speech that he made reflected his efforts. This book is the story of that, and a damn good one. It is excellent in showing the work ethic and intense efforts that Lincoln put into making his speech a success. It's also a most lucid portrayal of the effect of that speech. As George Benson would say, Lincoln, “Can play that there guitar!” since his effort in New York was a rousing success.
This is a well written account of an influential speech by a great man.
While dispelling many myths about the speech and Lincoln's trip, Holzer also shows the brillance of Lincoln and the time and effort that he spent in preparation for this speech. He also shows how this speech became Lincoln's stump speech. Once nominated, Lincoln followed the tradition of the time and did not campaign but used the Cooper Union Speech as essentially his platform.
For the person just beginning their interest in Lincoln or the seasoned scholar, this book is well worth the read. To add to that it is a quick and enjoyable read.
never did return to NY City after that speech. I get the impression that he didn't really care for the city. We get a look into his personal life, various travels and other speeches he made in New England during this specific trip. His photo, taken by Matthew Brady, and on the cover of the book gets lots of well deserved attention. There a many fun anecdotal facts for the reader. I enjoyed this book immensely.
Lincoln's Cooper Union speech is one of the great speeches in U.S. history.
the highest office in the land. I will definitely read other works by the author, Harold Holzer.
written a magnificently researched and synthesized work that is almost spellbinding in its ability to bring the reader into Lincoln's world and perhaps mind as he delivers one of the most important speeches of his life just prior to the Republican National Convention of May 1860 and his election to the presidency in November 1860. In the Cooper Union speech, Lincoln masterfully presents his views on the extension of slavery into U.S. Territories in relation to the U.S. Constitution and the intention of the original 39 signers of the Constitution, his views on the "peculiar institution" so fiercely defended by the South, and the position of the Republican Party regarding slavery as of early 1860. A tour de force by Lincoln, a speech that no doubt made him president, and a tour de force by Harold Holzer. Importantly, the book includes as an appendix the complete Nott-Brainerd version of the speech as it was published in September 1860, with their footnotes.
The author convinces beyond doubt, especially how critical Cooper Union was in Lincoln's testing whether he should pursue the president elect for his party. There is something almost miraculous in his life and development as a leader. There is also something "miraculous" in the survival of the Union. Both developed in tandem: the free society provided the conditions for the emergence of gifted, timely, and skilled leadership in trying times.
What is lacking is placing this speech in the context of the political climate in the winter of 1859-60. Later, in 1865, Fredrick Douglass was to say something to the effect that: Lincoln never went as far or as fast as he wanted him to go but never failed to go as far as the country would allow at the moment. The success of Cooper Union is strong evidence that Lincoln knew almost precisely where the sentiments of the "swing" voters lay on the question of slavery on February 27, 1860 and this speech is aimed directly at them.
Lincoln won the election of 1860 with a plurality of 39.8% in a field of four candidates. The Republican base voters were the "black" Abolitionists and free soil Democrats. They would have preferred Seward. The "swing" voters were the "compromise" Whigs who would have allowed slavery where it existed but who also hoped that the federal government would ban slavery forever in the territories that eventually became 16 additional states.
Following the failure of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854 and the Dred Scott decision of 1857, the national debate had been reduced to the question of whether new states should be admitted to the Union as slave or free based either on popular sovereignty or the will of the federal government.
If the ultimate goal was abolition of slavery, which Lincoln clearly said it was, then there were huge constitutional problems with this formulation. Lincoln certainly knew what these problems were but he chose to ignore them after 1858. On the abolitionist side, these problems were fully developed and taken to their logical extreme by William Lloyd Garrison before 1840. Chief Justice Roger Taney's decision in Scott v. Sanford (1857) represents the extreme position of the slavers. It should be noted that both Garrison and Taney would have agreed that the Constitution protected slavery. Therefore, Lincoln's position, "let the federal government decide now as the founders would have decided," allows for the possibility that Scott v Sanford was correctly decided. Lincoln said he thought the decision wrong but he did not say what he planned to do about it.
Cooper Union reads like an appellate brief and Holzer correctly identifies the point Lincoln was advocating in the court of public opinion in New York was: We shall now decide the issue of slavery as we understand the founders would have decided it. While this elides over the compromises made between 1820 and 1854 it does not address the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 or the Dread Scott decision of 1857, both of which rest squarely on Art. IV § 2 and the "supremacy" clause of Art. VI, § 2 in the Constitution of 1789.
Cooper Union was aimed directly at the "compromise" Whigs Lincoln needed to bring into the Republican Party to make it a national party that could win the election of 1860 with a plurality of the votes and with himself as its candidate for president. The sad fact is that Union and economic prosperity were more important than liberty and the rights of man to the "compromise" Whigs.
This book begs to be expanded upon by contrasting Cooper Union with the abolitionist position of Garrison (the Constitution stands for the proposition that while any state can enslave a man, no other state than then set that man free and that the supremacy clause in the Constitution made slave catchers of us all) and Taney (the state may decided that some men are not persons within the meaning of the Constitution and that the federal government can not prevent a state from enslaving anybody it may chose and must also prevent another state from setting that man free).
A second question is: How did it come to pass that a political and economic union became infinitely more important than the idea that all men are created equal in the US between 1775 and 1860?