Having lost Illinois’s election for the US senate in 1858, Abraham Lincoln was a longshot for the presidency in 1860. But his fortunes changed after New York party leaders invited him to give a speech to Republican power brokers on February 27, 1860 at Cooper Union. Lincoln seized the moment.
For two hours, the clean-shaven, gaunt, and ungainly “pioneer lawyer,” who underwhelmed many audiences at first glance, delivered an attack against proslavery expansionism that was both cogent and rousing. He skewered Stephen Douglas, deftly made the case that the Dred Scott decision was constitutionally and historically ungrounded, and forcefully articulated the Republican party’s moral opposition to slavery.
The audience, which included powerful Republicans and media elite, was galvanized by Lincoln’s oration. The city’s newspapers ran the text of the Cooper Union speech the next day; The New York Times published it on the front page. Horace Greeley, editor of the antislavery New York Tribune, was in attendance for the speech, and his paper said of Lincoln at Cooper Union: “No man ever before made such an impression on his first appeal to a New York audience.”
Scholars consider the Cooper Union speech the most important of Lincoln’s political life. If it had not been as stunningly effective as it was, he would not have gone on, as he did months later, to win the Republican nomination for the president, and then the White House. Harold Holzer, author of Lincoln at Cooper Union, plays out the implications:
[H]ad Lincoln failed in New York, few might recognize today the nation he went on to defend and rededicate. It can be argued that without Cooper Union, hence without Lincoln at the helm, the United States might be remembered today as a failed experiment that fractured into a North American Balkans.
Instead, Abraham Lincoln did triumph in New York. He delivered a learned, witty, and exquisitely reasoned address that electrified his elite audience and, more important, reverberated in newspapers and pamphlets alike until it reached tens of thousands of Republican voters across the North. He had arrived at Cooper Union a politician with more defeats than victories, but he departed politically reborn.
“At the Cooper Union,” in Holzer’s words, “Lincoln became more than a regional curiosity. He became a national leader.”