How good writing made Lincoln president

Lincoln at Cooper Union: the Speech that Made Abraham Lincoln President, by Harold Holzer

Harold Holzer’s book, Lincoln at Cooper Union: the Speech that Made Abraham Lincoln President, places Lincoln’s most lawyerly and politically successful speech in the context of Lincoln’s life. The book does a passable job placing the Cooper Union speech in the context of Lincoln’s political thinking. Holzer also offers some help in piecing together how Lincoln develops the Cooper Union speech’s arguments, but he offers almost no help with analyzing Lincoln’s rhetorical style. However, Holzer has a keen ear for how the speech’s arguments play to the audience that winter evening in New York in 1860, and he has a keen eye for how the reprints of the speech play to the North as a whole that year.

Holzer emphasizes Lincoln’s ambition and political acumen, not out of any malice toward Lincoln, but because of the limited focus of his book: how Lincoln won his first term as president. The Lincoln of Lincoln at Cooper Union is calculating and, on two occasions at least, “disingenuous.” But 1860 is an election year, Lincoln is successful, and the reader expects tactics. The story of how a single speech and a single photograph (the widely-circulated Brady photograph taken the day of the Cooper Union speech) secure Lincoln’s implausible presidential nomination in 1860 is fascinating.

The political success of Lincoln’s speech – the last speech in a series sponsored by the Young Men’s Central Republican Union of New York that winter – has something to do with timing and luck. A sizable number of Republican leaders are worried that the front-running candidate, New York Senator William Henry Seward, is perceived by the Northern electorate as too close to the unpopular abolitionist movement. They are worried also that Seward has little appeal in the West (Illinois, Ohio, etc.). The Young Republicans ostensibly plan the speech series to introduce alternative candidates to Seward, but the real motivation of the group’s leader, James A. Briggs, is to damage Seward enough to promote his favorite alternative, Ohio governor Salmon P. Chase.

Chase foolishly turns down his invitation to speak during the series, though, and Lincoln shrewdly accepts his invitation to speak before the Republican Party’s eastern elite – an audience entirely unfamiliar with Lincoln except by his reputation.

Of course, the role of political timing and luck in the Cooper Union speech’s success is nothing compared to the role of Lincoln’s meticulous preparation and his gifts as a writer and a speaker. Think of it: one of our country’s greatest presidents (I think our greatest) is also one of our country’s greatest writers.

At Cooper Union, Lincoln plays his strong suit: his famous rivalry with Sen. Stephen A. Douglas. The first third of his speech is a kind of third Lincoln-Douglas debate series. The first series – the real one – was the main feature of Lincoln’s unsuccessful campaign to unseat Douglas in Illinois two years earlier. Despite his loss, Lincoln was credited within the Republican Party with drawing a bright line between Republicanism and Douglas’s “popular sovereignty” doctrine, right at the time when Douglas threatened to swallow up the Republican Party’s raison d’être as a by-product of Douglas’s spirited prosecution of Kansas’s pro-slavery government.

In 1859, the year following his Illinois debate series with Douglas, Lincoln chased Douglas around the West, giving speeches in cities and towns just after “the Little Giant” gave his own speeches. Now at Cooper Union, Lincoln quickly sets up as a straw man Douglas’s recent statement alleging the Founders’ support of “states rights” on the issue of slavery, and Lincoln attacks Douglas’s position with meticulous detail.

Cooper Union may be said to be Lincoln’s most lawyerly speech. Lincoln sets out the doctrine of moderate Republicanism in three phases: a detailed historical lesson on the Founders’ support for the notion of federal oversight of slavery in federal territories, then an address to the South concerning their arguments against “Black Republicanism,” and finally a challenge to the Republican faithful. Holzer does not mention it, but the three phases of the Cooper Union speech read like a trial lawyer’s closing argument: a review of the evidence, a rebuttal of the other side’s contentions, and an appeal to the jury to take a particular action. Consider the speech’s famous last line, which Lincoln shrewdly has newspapers publish in all caps:


At Cooper Union, Lincoln asks Republicans to operate and respond from their political center: slavery is evil and should be restricted. Lincoln argues that, while the Constitution does not permit active steps to eradicate slavery in the original Southern states, the Founders – almost to a man – either said or did things consistent with their belief that the federal government could, and should, restrict slavery in federal territories.

As magnificent a writer as Lincoln is, the success of Cooper Union also has something to do with a mid-Nineteenth Century American culture that enjoys speechifying. It is difficult for us to understand an American electorate that travels for miles to hear political debates lasting three hours or more, or an American electorate that accurately sizes up a man by his speech and elects him president. Consider America’s appetite for printed speeches back then: Lincoln’s campaign is not expensive because newspapers print Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech without his prodding, and they sell it for their own profit. Imagine such a campaign strategy today! Still, it is interesting to think of what the effect of a single well-timed speech on a single subject – a speech as good as Lincoln’s at Cooper Union – might be today.

Of course, it is difficult for us to appreciate another element of the speech’s success: Lincoln’s delivery. We have only Lincoln’s meticulously edited transcript published in newspapers. However, Holzer provides us with many firsthand accounts of Lincoln’s delivery at Cooper Union. Most audience members comment on both the shock of their first impression of Lincoln (unkempt, ungainly, shrill) as well as the transfixing passion of Lincoln’s delivery after he warms to his task.

Cooper Union is a successful part of Lincoln’s political calculation, but it also is the outgrowth of several nights Lincoln spent in 1854 staring at his hearth in Springfield as he absorbed the implications of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The South’s overreaching in the matter of slavery that year disturbed the nation’s delicate equilibrium on that issue, an equilibrium already threatened by the Compromise of 1850. The South’s political success also got Lincoln interested again in politics, and arresting the South’s success became the focus of the rest of his life.

Lincoln’s combination of heart and wits makes him the patron saint of lawyers and politicians, if those professions may be associated with saints of any kind. What drove Abraham Lincoln: idealism or ambition? Lincoln admitted to his share of the latter, saying that he would look “ridiculous” if he denied it. His long-standing junior law partner, William Herndon, famously called Lincoln’s ambition “a little engine that knew no rest.” However,irrespective of Lincoln’s ambition, Lincoln’s writings – even his most lawyerly – offer a glimpse of a heart on fire. Cooper Union is tightly argued with just enough words to get each point across. The speech is devoid of all but perhaps one rhetorical flourish (Lincoln’s call at the speech’s end for Republicans not to be frightened by menaces “of dungeons to ourselves”). Shorn of ornament and heavy on repetition and juxtaposition, Lincoln’s writing style permits us to feel the heat of Lincoln’s arguments and somehow to weigh the character of the speaker. The speech, and Lincoln’s subsequent election, proves that it is possible to know a man by his words.

Lincoln biographies and period histories easily show their colors along the spectrum defined by Lincoln’s idealism and ambition. Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln is the famous gold standard of Lincoln’s idealism, and, at the other end of the spectrum, there is still a market today for the kind of revisionist history put out by Willmoore Kendall and James McClellan. (McClellan believes that “the armies of Lee and Jackson were the real defenders of the Constitution…”)

Less extreme ends of the spectrum may be Stephen B. Oates’s With Malice Toward None (idealism) and David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln (ambition), both excellent biographies written in the past twenty years. The finest recent biography of all may be Allen C. Guelzo’s little-publicized Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President. Guelzo’s book falls squarely in the middle of the idealism-ambition spectrum, and it does a fine job of explaining the political and religious context of Lincoln’s philosophy. As far as the actual content of Lincoln’s philosophy, a reader would be best served with Harry Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided and A New Birth of Freedom.

Lincoln at Cooper Union comes with a version of Lincoln’s speech that includes the extensive historical annotations provided by the members of the Young Republicans in 1860.