The man, whose 201st birthday we are celebrating this weekend, made a speech here at Cooper Union in February, 1860 that, in effect, launched his successful campaign for President. Yet, many New Yorkers didn’t like him.
When he came to New York for that epic speech, he first posed for a photograph at Matthew Brady’s studio that would be seen in months to come by people all over America. He bought a silk top-hat. And then went to Cooper Union, where, despite a snowstorm, an elite audience of about 1,500 was waiting. The great newspaper editor Horace Greeley called it “the intellect and moral culture” of the city. There were young men, too, followers of the newly formed Republican Party. Many were abolitionists. They were curious about what this awkward looking Midwesterner would say about slavery and other pressing issues.
He gave a presentation that demonstrated his thoughtful, lawyerly approach to public issues but, in the course of that speech, made a firm case for not allowing slavery to spread to new territories. “Let us have the faith,” he declared, “that right makes might, and in that faith let us to the end dare to do our duty as we understand it.”
At the end, there were prolonged cheers. The audience was deeply impressed. Reports on the speech were published in newspapers across the country.
As Lincoln later said: “Brady and the Cooper Institute made me President.”
I spoke to historian Harold Holzer who has written more than 30 books about Lincoln. Holzer said that Lincoln had “tough going in New York.” He pointed out that the Mayor, Fernando Wood, was a Democrat in a Democratic city, and that, in both 1860 and 1864, New Yorkers voted against Lincoln by a margin of roughly 2 to 1. Wood sympathized with the Confederacy and believed New York’s commercial future depended on trade with the south.
New York was torn by the draft riots in 1863, the bloodiest episode in the Civil War outside the battlefields. Those riots resulted in more than 140 deaths, mostly African-Americans.
So New York, despite Cooper Union, was hardly the place that admired Lincoln most. And yet, after he was assassinated in 1865, this city was profoundly moved. More than 150,000 people turned out on Broadway to see Lincoln lying in state at City Hall. His martyrdom brought a deep emotional response.
New York can’t claim we made him president. But we can take pride in the fact that his “right makes might” speech was made here. And, on his birthday, every February 12th, we can honor his courage and remember his enduring achievements: freeing the slaves and saving the union.