Lincoln and New York: A Love-Hate Relationship

New exhibition at Historical Society offers deeper look at the relationship between Railsplitter and the city

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
    Abraham Lincoln, by Mathew Brady

    We New Yorkers take great pride in our history. But our record on Abraham Lincoln is mixed. Some New Yorkers loved him. Many hated him. And, only when he was assassinated, did New Yorkers unite -- in grief.

    The New York Historical Society has just opened an exhibition that relates the story of Abe Lincoln and New York. Looking at the old photographs gives you a sense of the turbulence of the 1860s and the life and death of our 16th President. It all happened about 150 years ago but seeing New Yorkers of that day gathering on familiar streets, attending rallies, mustering for the Army brings it all home today.

    Historian Harold Holzer, and other Lincoln scholars believe that Lincoln’s political career really took off when he spoke at Cooper Union here in Manhattan on February 27, 1860, as host of Republican leaders filled the hall.

    In a carefully researched speech, Lincoln pleaded for controlling the spread of slavery.

    "Let us have faith," he said, “that right makes might and in that faith let us to the end dare to do our duty as we understand it.”

    This address, printed and distributed throughout the nation, convinced key leaders of the young Republican Party in the west and east that Lincoln should be their candidate for President in a bitterly divided nation.

    Among New York Democrats were many southern sympathizers. While notable Republican supporters of Lincoln included Horace Greeley, editor of the influential Tribune. In the crucial presidential election of 1860 and, four years later, when Lincoln ran for re-election, New York City voted for the Democrats but the state as a whole supported Lincoln.

    Yet New York City, as the Historical Society exhibition makes abundantly clear, was instrumental in Lincoln’s rise to the presidency. Not the least of this city’s contributions to his success was the picture of him taken by Mathew Brady, the prominent photographer of that day. The Brady picture was viewed by millions throughout the nation and Lincoln himself said: "Brady and the Cooper Union speech made me President."

    Of the Cooper Union address Holzer says: "In no other city but New York could a single appearance have stimulated such a powerful, widespread, and long-lasting impact."

    And New York mirrored the triumphs and failures of the Lincoln administration. The Confederate attack on Fort Sumter rallied New Yorkers -- and especially the Irish community -- to the Union cause. But, after the northern defeat at Bull Run, many New Yorkers became disillusioned. Cartoonists drew caricatures of Lincoln as a homely, ineffective leader. There were more defeats in the field and in New York. 

    The worst moments for Lincoln and the Republican leadership came in the riots here against the draft in 1863, when 120 lives were lost. It was the same year the Emancipation Proclamation was hailed by abolitionists and black New Yorkers. One section of the exhibition shows the evolution of Lincoln’s image from Railsplitter to Jokester to Tyrant to Gentle Father. 

    But Bitter feelings against Lincoln lasted until the final victory against the south. Then a united New York celebrated. But the mood would suddenly turn to sorrow -- after Lincoln was assassinated.

    His body laid in state at City Hall, and thousands came to mourn his passing.

    Lincoln and New York -- a relationship that truly reflected the nation’s divisions.

    The Historical Society invites you to come see the exhibition "Lincoln and New York" running October 9 through March 25, 2010, at Central Park West and 77th Street. For those who love this city it’s well worth a visit.