Cooper Union Address: The Speech that Made Abraham Lincoln President
On Monday, February 27, 1860, Abraham Lincoln stood before an audience composed of some of the most influential Republicans in the United States at Cooper Union, a free school for the working class in New York City. On the horizon was the pivotal 1860 Republican Convention. Before this moment in the Great Hall at Cooper Union, Lincoln was not projected as the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, but after his speech, he was destined to be his party’s candidate for the presidency and for America’s ultimate position of responsibility.
Although originally invited to deliver his speech at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, Lincoln’s sponsors moved the event to Cooper Union in Manhattan at the last minute, where around 1,500 people ultimately gathered to listen to him. Although some were unimpressed by this gangly midwesterner with ill-fitting clothes, once Lincoln spoke, his greatness became undeniable.
This photo of Lincoln was taken by photographer Mathew Brady on the day of his Cooper Union Address. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
“No former effort in the line of speech-making had cost Lincoln so much time and thought as this one,” said Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon. At more than 7,000 words, Lincoln’s Cooper Union Address was one of his longest and most thoroughly prepared speeches. He spoke for over an hour, drawing on historical research to show how America’s Founding Fathers set policy to limit the expansion of slavery and desired to put that unjust insitution on the path to extinction. Following “the old policy of the fathers,” Lincoln warned Southerners that the Republicans would not back down from their commitment to restricting the spread of slavery. In his concluding sentence, Lincoln famously said, “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.”
Abraham Lincoln emphatically won the room. After his powerful closing line, Lincoln biographer Richard Brookhiser reports, “The crowd gave him a long, hat-waving standing ovation.” “He held the vast meeting spellbound,” wrote one person in attendance. “I think I never saw an audience more carried away by an orator.” Another wrote, “No man ever before made such an impression on his first appeal to a New York audience.” When asked what he thought of the speaker at Cooper Union, a New York Tribune reporter replied, “He’s the greatest man since St. Paul.”
Lincoln gained tremendous momentum from his success in the media capital of the United States and further invitations to speak in the east quickly followed. Approximately 82 days after his Cooper Union speech, Lincoln was chosen as the Republican party’s candidate for the Presidency on May 18, 1860. Nearly six months after that, he won one of the most fateful elections in American history and was elected the 16th President of the United States on November 6.
Abraham Lincoln’s Cooper Union Address is truly the speech that propelled him to the White House. Without it, the United States might never have found the man who gave our nation “a new birth of freedom” and ensured that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Read Lincoln's full Cooper Union Address here.
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Founders' Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln by Richard Brookhiser.
Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech that Made Abraham Lincoln President by Harold Holzer.
National Park Service: The Cooper Union Address.
Thoughtco.com: Abraham Lincoln's Cooper Union Address.