Cooper Union’s Place in Presidential History

Obama returns to the Great Hall where Lincoln made history

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When Abraham Lincoln stepped onto the stage of the Great Hall at the Cooper Union, he was to give the biggest speech of his life. Facing a skeptical New York audience, Lincoln delivered a speech that changed the course of history.

President Obama’s speech today at Cooper Union to promote major financial regulatory reform legislation followed in this tradition. For a 150 years after  Lincoln's famous "right makes might" speech, Cooper Union has been a place where presidential candidates, sitting presidents, dignitaries, and political activists have come to express their beliefs.

"It's good to be back in the Great Hall at Cooper Union, where generations of leaders and citizens have come to defend their ideas and contest their difference,"  Obama said today, acknowledging Cooper Union’s rich history and influence. Some have said Obama's speech was a defense of the most sweeping regulatory plan since President Franklin Roosevelt’s "New Deal."

Cooper Union was created in 1859 by Peter Cooper. Cooper, who had less than a year of formal schooling, would later build America’s first steam railroad engine. Cooper Union is where Thomas Edison was a student, where the Red Cross and NAACP were organized and where Susan B. Anthony had her office, according to Cooper Union.

A year after the school’s inception, Lincoln gave a speech there that, according to scholar Harold Holzer "made Lincoln President." At the time of the speech Lincoln was largely unknown nationally. To make matters worse for Lincoln, the leading candidate for the Republican nomination was New York’s own Senator and former Governor Henry Seward.

"The Cooper Union address tested whether Lincoln’s appeal could extend…from the rollicking campaigns of the rural West to the urban East," Holzer wrote in his book "Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech that Made Abraham Lincoln President." "Cooper Union held the promise of transforming Lincoln from a regional phenomenon to a national figure. Lincoln knew it, and rose to the occasion."

New York knew it too. The New York Tribune wrote the next day, "No man ever made such an impression on his first appeal to a New York audience."

Ever since, presidential candidates and sitting Presidents have tried to capture the Cooper Union magic. In 1993, President Bill Clinton went to Cooper Union to give his first major economic speech that would set the course for his presidency.

"What produced [the deficits]? Tax cuts and spending increases," Clinton said. "So I have asked in Washington that we begin with significant spending cuts below the budget that was adopted last year to reduce the deficit." What followed a few years later was one of the greatest economic booms of the 20th century.

The man who became president at the beginning of that century, Theodore Roosevelt, also stormed through Cooper Union while he was running for President. Roosevelt rose to national prominence in 1895 as the president of the New York City Police Commissioners where he radically transformed the agency by gutting out corruption. Roosevelt was so popular among New Yorkers that Cooper Union couldn’t hold all who wanted to see him speak. In the speech, Roosevelt received a thunderous applause when he promised to end corruption by "sifting the evil to the bottom, irrespective of political influence."

According to The New York Times, a man in the audience then stood up and shouted, "Keep right on to Albany, Teddy!"


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