Book Review: Lincoln At Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President

Lincoln At Cooper Union:  The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President, by Harold Holzer

This book corrects what is a curious and unfortunate lacuna in the historical record about Abraham Lincoln’s speeches, and that is the absence of a substantial work on the Cooper Union Address, one of the most famous speeches hardly anyone has ever read.  It is curious that given the huge attention the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln commands that this is the first full-length book ever that deals with the first and only major speech given by Abraham Lincoln during the entire 1860 presidential campaign.  For that alone this book is essential for anyone who wishes to understand the real Lincoln and his development of a mature fact-based style of speaking that proved him to be a reputable political historian of the highest order.

The book is organized well and persuasively to bring Lincoln’s neglected Cooper Union speech (about which I have written before, in “Let Us Have Faith That Right Makes Might:  The Enduring Relevance of Lincoln’s Cooper Union Speech[1]”) to the forefront of attention for students of Lincoln’s oratory.  The introduction of the book shows the forgotten nature of Lincoln’s speech and the place this book serves in filling the gap in the historiography of Lincoln’s career.  Then Holzer examines the tangled negotiations and political skullduggery that led a group of New York Republicans to invite mostly obscure western Republican stump speakers (including Lincoln) to give a series of political speeches to help draw votes away from Seward and for their favored candidate, Chase.  After this Holzer examines the difficult historical labor that Lincoln spent in researching thoroughly the positions of the Founding Fathers (those 39 men who signed the US Constitution) in actual votes to allow or deny federal authority to regulate slavery in the territories, finding that 21 of the founders had explicitly voted in favor of such Congressional limitations either under the Articles of Confederation or Constitution, and that only 2 voted against such restrictions.  Additionally, some of the other sixteen who had no official vote on record were known to be among the most noted antislavery men in the United States at the time of the Founding (Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin, for example).

At this point the book continues its very detailed and fact-based narrative and examines Lincoln’s trip to New York City (a harrowing one full of late-night transfers and dreadful conditions) as well as the ramshackle state of New York’s streets from primary source documentation.  The book demonstrates Lincoln’s savvy about dealing with newspaper editors (in order to have his speeches published with the best formatting and to his advantage as a politician) as well as his desire to finally have a good campaign photo, which is provided in this case by the incomparable Matthew Brady.  More than 100 pages of the book are complete by the time the book shows an awkward and rough looking Abraham Lincoln standing on the stage at Cooper Union on a chilly February evening beginning his speech and making a bad first impression (but a marvelous following one) on the sophisticated New York audience.

The longest chapter of the book, which is a close analysis of the Cooper Union speech and its fact-based approach, follows.  Holzer demonstrates that Lincoln’s rhetoric, while not using triads (by the people, for the people, of the people) as he would so eloquently in later speeches, was itself a sophisticated example of parallelism that showed considerable elegance.  Likewise, the Cooper Union was three speeches in one:  the first, and longest, a masterpiece of political history, examining in detail the positions of the Founding Fathers on the issue of Congressional authority to regulate slavery in the territories in refutation of Stephen Douglas’ spurious Popular Sovereignty doctrine [2], the second a subtle attack on the South, and the third a stirring call to action for Republicans to remain true to their principles in the face of the pressure to compromise for the sake of a hollow peace.

After this most excellent summary of the speech itself (the entire speech is, including historical footnotes from a pamphlet whose publication was supervised by Lincoln, included in an Appendix which demonstrates Lincoln’s historical brilliance in vivid detail), Holzer focuses on the immensely positive impression Lincoln made on his audience.  Additionally, Holzer examines in detail the often neglected follow-up speeches made in the Northeast (including one in Exeter, New Hampshire, where his eldest son Robert was attending a prep school to prepare for Harvard) that showed Lincoln’s rising position as a hopeful for the presidency as a direct result of the Cooper Union speech.  The book closes with an examination of Lincoln’s subdued behavior through the rest of the 1860 campaign, which was according to the Victorian customs of reserve and silence, and an Epilogue which shows some of the later fate of the principals of the speech (showing that Lincoln rewarded most of the men who invited him to speak in New York, and demonstrating his recognition of the importance of the speech in winning him the Republican nomination).

The book as a whole is a gripping historical narrative, full of intriguing footnotes and showing the care and diligent historical research of a master historian.  Anyone who wishes to see Lincoln’s savvy dealings with the press and his own careful attention to historical work and speech preparation ought to read this rewarding book.  The fact that the book includes a great many quotations from Lincoln’s letters and those other letters and statements about him from his contemporaries makes the book a treasure trove of useful quotations and useful sources for the Lincoln scholar.  I highly recommend this book, which is a definitive work on the importance and rhetorical excellence of Abraham Lincoln’s Cooper Union Address, fully meeting the ambitious goals set out by its able author to provide new and useful research about Abraham Lincoln and the pivotal importance of his most significant pre-presidential speech.

[1] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2010/11/18/let-us-have-faith-that-right-makes-might-the-enduring-relevance-of-the-cooper-union-address/

[2] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2010/12/09/at-what-price-reconciliation-lessons-from-stephen-douglas/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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32 Responses to Book Review: Lincoln At Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President

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