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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Cooper Union Speech, February 27, 1860

Most of history's great moments can only be imagined. There are no photos of Roman legions in battle or of Gutenberg as he perfected movable type. Even though photography has been with us for nearly 200 years, many events have nonetheless been lost to us and only remain as the recorded memories of eyewitnesses.

But every once in a while the camera is present at a moment in history. February 27, 1860 saw one such moment, for on that day in New York City, a tall, rail-thin lawyer from Illinois sat for a picture, one of the few three-quarters length portraits of him ever produced. The photographer was Matthew Brady, who would soon be known the world over for the pictures that he and his employees took on the battlefields of the US Civil War. We can only wonder what Brady thought of his subject. Fifteen years earlier a Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army named Robert E. Lee had sat for Brady; he would sit for him again in 1865 as a man broken by war. One wonders if he saw the same fierce determination in both men.

The lawyer was due to speak at The Cooper Union in lower Manhattan later in the day. The Cooper Union was a college that had only opened the previous year. It's main offerings were night classes for adults with subjects like applied sciences and architectural drawing. Anyone could attend the school regardless of race, religion or sex, a policy that was almost unheard of in mid-19th century America. The school's founder, Peter Cooper, was a self-taught inventor and businessman. If you enjoy Jello, you have Cooper to thank----he invented instant gelatin and his wife, Sarah, came up with the idea of adding fruit to it.

The Illinois lawyer was, of course, Abraham Lincoln. He had accepted an invitation sent to him in October, 1859 by Henry Ward Beecher to speak at Beecher's church in Brooklyn. By the time Lincoln arrived in New York in February of 1860, however, the venue had changed and the Young Men's Republican Union had taken over sponsorship of the speech. The Republican Union opposed William Seward, a strong contender for the Republican Presidential nomination. It was hoped that Lincoln, who had still not announced his candidacy, would move to the front runner's position in the party.

The Cooper Union's Grand Hall was packed with a capacity crowd of 1,500 that evening. Lincoln was to speak on the topic of slavery, but more specifically, whether or not the federal government should control slavery in the nation's territories and not allow the institution to expand. Lincoln and his party believed that the federal government had the right to enforce slave-free settlement of new territories. For weeks before the speech, Lincoln had researched the 39 signers of the Constitution. 21 of them believed as Lincoln did on the issue of expansion of slavery. Thus, according to him, following the path of the Founders should not alarms Southerners.

To the 21st century mind, the logic of Lincoln's argument seems clear. But the United States was a nation bitterly divided over the question of slavery in 1860, so much so that Lincoln spent a part of his speech addressing the people of the South directly. He spoke of how members of the Republican Party, which supported abolition, were considered outlaws south of the Mason-Dixon line. He called for logical examination of the issue, and then proceeded to discuss every instance in which the federal government had somehow limited slavery in a new state or territory. He also accused Southerners of being willing to break up the Union instead of submitting to a denial of what they considered to be their Constitutional right.

He then addressed the Republicans gathered there, stressing how important it was to keep the Union together. But, almost as a contradiction, he clearly stated his belief that the South would not be satisfied until the North not only recognized the right to own slaves, but fully embraced the practice.

Lincoln finished:

"Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. 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."

The crowd was electrified. Abraham Lincoln, the humble man born in a Kentucky log cabin, walked out of The Cooper Union as the man to beat for the Republican nomination for President. His speech was printed in local papers and was later circulated in the form of campaign pamphlets.

And so we look back at the picture taken by Matthew Brady earlier that day. Abraham Lincoln, a man who had turned 51 just two weeks before, is beardless and stoic. His eyes, though deep set, seem intense. His hair is still dark. Although he is not smiling (it was not customary to smile in photographs), he is not frowning. He is confident.

The last picture taken of Lincoln while he was alive was taken a little over five years after his Cooper Union speech. Although he has that same steady gaze, he has tremendous bags under his eyes. He is now grey at the temples. His face is more weathered and lined. He is only 56, but could pass for a man 15 years older.

One can not but help wonder if Lincoln ever considered how much his life and the course of his nation changed on February 27, 1860. If he had known in advance what his election would cost the country and that it would ultimately cost him his life, we have to ask if he would still have made the speech that winter evening in lower Manhattan. If you believe, as I do, that great men rise during troubled times, then the answer must be yes.

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