It was 148 years ago today: February 27, 1860.
Abraham Lincoln was in New York City. He would deliver the most important speech of his career to date.
Cooper Union was the venue. It had a remarkable history. Founded just a year earlier by wealthy industrialist Peter Cooper, the Cooper Union began as an institute for adult education. Everyone, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or religion, was invited to take free courses on diverse topics such as applied sciences, architecture, photography, typewriting, and shorthand. The school’s Great Hall was even large enough to host a public lecture.
His celebrated debates with Stephen A. Douglas in 1858 had led to the invitation. New York wanted to see the man who had taken on the “Little Giant” for themselves. They offered Lincoln $200 to come to the east. He could even speak about anything he wanted.
When Lincoln took the podium, the audience was not sure what to expect. George Haven Putnam was in the crowd. He had a good view of the speaker and recorded his initial thoughts:
The first impression of the man from the West did nothing to contradict the expectation of something weird, rough, and uncultivated. The long, ungainly figure upon which hung clothes that, while new for this trip, were evidently the work of an unskillful tailor; the large feet, and clumsy hands of which, at the outset, at least, the orator seemed to be unduly conscious; the long, gaunt head, capped by a shock of hair that seemed not to have been thoroughly brushed out, made a picture which did not fit in with New York's conception of a finished statesman.
When he started to speak, Putnam thought his voice “was not pleasant to the ear, the tone being harsh and the key, too high.”
A reporter for the New York Herald echoed his assessment:
Mr. Lincoln is a tall, thin man, dark complexioned and apparently quick in his perceptions. He is rather unsteady on his feet, and there is an involuntary comical awkwardness which marks his movements while speaking. His voice, though sharp and powerful at times, has a frequent tendency to dwindle into a shrill and unpleasant sound. His enunciation is slow and emphatic and a peculiar characteristic of his delivery was a remarkable mobility of his features, the frequent contortion of which excited the merriment which his words alone could not well have produced.
But as Lincoln’s speech progressed, the awkwardness gradually washed away. He had captured their attention; he knew what to do with it.
This was no tired stump speech. He had crafted a very special address.
Using the memory of the founding fathers, a wide assortment of documents from the Constitution to the Northwest Ordinance, as well as a surprisingly effective assortment of statistics, Lincoln demonstrated that the upstart Republican Party was not a radical or revolutionary party intent on destroying the institution of slavery. Instead, its policies were perfectly consistent with those of the founding fathers.
It was not simply a well-argued, logical, or sensible speech, but it was surprisingly eloquent.
The New York Tribune reported on Lincoln’s transformation throughout the speech, as well as his effect on the audience:
He was tall, tall — oh, how tall, and so angular and awkward that I had, for an instant, a feeling of pity for so ungainly a man. His clothes were black and ill-fitting, badly wrinkled — as if they had been jammed carelessly into a small trunk. His bushy head, with the stiff black hair thrown back, was balanced on a long and lean stock, and when he raised his hands in an opening gesture I noticed that they were very large.
He began in a very low tone of voice as if he were used to speaking out of doors and was afraid of speaking too loud. He said, 'Mr. Cheerman" instead of 'Mr. Chairman,' and employed many other words with an old-fashioned pronunciation. I said to myself: "Old fellow, you won't do. It is all very well for the wild west, but this will never go down in New York."
But pretty soon, he began to get into his subject: he straightened up and made regular and graceful gestures. His face lighted as with an inward fire; the whole man was transfigured. I forgot his clothes, his personal appearance, and his individual peculiarities. Presently, forgetting myself, I was on my feet with the rest, yelling like a wild Indian, cheering this wonderful man. In the close [sic] parts of his arguments, you could hear the gentle sizzing of the gas burners. When he reached a climax, the thunders of applause were terrific.
It was a great speech. When I came out of the hall, my face glowing with excitement and my frame all aquiver, a friend, with his eyes aglow, asked me what I thought of Abe Lincoln, the rail-splitter. I said, 'He's the greatest man since St. Paul!' And I think so yet.
You can read the entire text of the Cooper Union speech here.
If you would like to learn more about the speech that made Lincoln president, I highly recommend Harold Holzer’s book. I have included a link to the book from amazon.com at the top of this post. Not only is it a good read, but it is also very reasonably priced.