The Speech That Cleared Lincoln's Route to the White House

By Sally Jenkins
The Washington Post


The candidate stood uneasily on the rostrum, his black suit still creased from the valise he had carried on the three-day train trip from Springfield, Ill. As Abraham Lincoln began the speech intended to launch his presidential campaign, his voice was strained and piercing, his accent backwoods. "Mister Cheerman," he said, in a scratchy high timbre. It sounded like a chair leg being dragged across the floor.

Many of the 1,500 members of Northern elite who packed the Cooper Union in New York on Feb. 27, 1860, were shocked by the "involuntary comical awkwardness" of the speaker, as the New York Herald put it. Was this the political phenomenon they had heard so much about? He was a shambling figure of 6-foot-4 with a concave chest and thin neck. His sleeves were too short, one leg of his trousers rode up, and the left side of his collar had a tendency to flap. His black hair was disheveled, his gray eyes melancholy.

Lincoln was visibly nervous under the gas chandeliers. This was his crucial test as a presidential aspirant. In the glittering audience was every important Republican "wire puller" and political operative in the Northeast, including William Cullen Bryant, editor of the New York Evening Post, and Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune and a founder of the young party, which was barely five years old. The Republican nominating convention would be held in Chicago in just 10 weeks, and Lincoln's ability to challenge the polished front-runner, William H. Seward, depended on the impression he made.

First, Lincoln had to convince his listeners that he was "a finished statesman" like the New Yorker Seward, despite what publisher George H. Putnam called Lincoln's "weird, rough and uncultivated" appearance. That proved the easiest challenge. As Lincoln warmed to his subject, it was apparent he was no rube. He might be informal, and say "reckon," but any man who mistook him for simple "would very soon wake up with his back in a ditch," said Lincoln's friend Leonard Swett. Lincoln had given his powerful Illinois rival Stephen A. Douglas the political fight of his life in the 1858 Senate election. Douglas won, but their debates over slavery had vaulted Lincoln to national prominence and brought about his invitation to New York. Whoever won the Republican nomination would have to face Douglas, known as the Little Giant because he combined diminutive stature with great political clout and oratorical ability. Douglas was the author of the nation's most controversial compromises on slavery and the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate.

Slavery was the "living issue of the day," as Lincoln put it, and the political landscape was splintering because of it. Every current event seemed to further fracture political parties and push men to one side or another; the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision appalled slavery's opponents, while John Brown's 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, Va., incensed its supporters and frightened its apologists.

The new Republican Party had been founded on antislavery principles in 1854 as a direct response to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Devised by Douglas that same year, the act allowed settlers in the new territories to vote whether to permit slavery within their borders. Now some Republicans wondered if the party should de-emphasize its antislavery values in an effort to attract voters. Not Lincoln. Though he was a comparative moderate who would not abolish slavery where it already existed, Lincoln believed the Republicans must have a man "who does not hesitate to declare slavery a wrong; nor to deal with it as such; who believes in the power and duty of Congress to prevent the spread of it."

The stakes were high. Slaves constituted a larger piece of the American economy in terms of capital than even the railroads or manufacturing. The richest town per capita in the nation was Natchez, Miss. There were 4 million American slaves, the vast majority of them in the South, and a single field hand was worth anywhere from $1,100 to $1,500 — roughly $75,000 to $135,000 in today's money. Small wonder Southern barons were so vociferous in defense of the "peculiar institution."

Northerners, on the other hand, were proud to be free laborers, and mass producers. The two cultures were so different that the Charleston Mercury said in 1858 that "the North and South ... are not only two peoples, but they are rival, hostile Peoples."

For Lincoln, the issue was not cultural or economic but constitutional. He ticked off facts to his Cooper Union audience: 23 of the 39 men who signed the Constitution registered votes reflecting their belief that slavery should be federally regulated, and eventually extinct. George Washington himself said, "There is no man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it." In seeking to contain the spread of slavery, Lincoln implied, he was simply following the path laid down by the Founders.

His voice mellowed and his eyes brightened. When he made an important point, he jabbed a long finger in the air, as if to "dot his ideas on the minds of his hearers." He mocked Douglas and rebuked those Southerners who would "rule or ruin" through their threats to secede. In a soaring conclusion, Lincoln contended that if slavery was wrong, no expediency could justify its spread. "Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it!"

Applause broke over him. New York's largest papers all carried the full text of his words — Lincoln made sure they had copies. In just 90 minutes, he had made himself a formidable candidate.

A month later, the Democratic convention was held in Charleston, S.C. It proved to be an unfortunate site for Douglas, who was struggling to hold together a badly riven party. The Little Giant was doomed by the location. The Deep South saw his compromises as too weak in protecting of slavery. Alabama delegates called him "a dodger, double tongued," and derided him as a "bob-tailed pony from Illinois." Delegates from seven Southern states walked out when they lost a bid to have the party platform include federal protection of slavery.

With the party impossibly split, Northern Democrats reconvened in Baltimore in June and nominated Douglas. The Southern bolters convened a "rump" convention in Richmond. They adopted a "Southern rights" platform and nominated John Breckinridge of Kentucky, the handsome young sitting vice president. Breckinridge, a reluctant candidate pushed forward by the fire-eaters, understood he was strictly a sectional choice. "I trust I have the courage to lead a forlorn hope," he wrote.

In contrast, the Republicans presented a united front when they convened in Chicago on May 16. On the floor of the Wigwam, an immense convention center built for the occasion, thousands of black stovepipe hats waved, making "a black, mighty swarm — flying with the velocity of hornets over a mass of human heads," wrote a correspondent. Though the silken-mannered Seward remained the favorite to win the nomination, he was not invincible. He had denounced the South as backward, claimed there was a "higher law" than the Constitution that justified slavery's removal, and warned of an "irrepressible conflict." He thus came off as both radical and negative.

Lincoln's handlers, led by Illinois Judge David Davis, steadily undermined Seward. They conducted a brilliant propaganda campaign, the emblem of which was the split rail paraded by supporters, which Lincoln purportedly had hewn himself. Lincoln didn't have Seward's reputation as an extremist, or other flaws either. He seemed to personify the new Republican platform, which emphasized self-making and upward mobility. It called for protective tariffs, the opening of federal land for homesteads, and federal sponsorship of a transcontinental railroad. The platform opposed the extension of slavery but left existing slave owners alone, and condemned Brown's Harpers Ferry raid. For Republicans, Lincoln emerged as the voice of the middle.

Lincoln's operatives labored all night persuading delegates and striking deals. "Make no contracts that will bind me," Lincoln had instructed. Davis ignored the directive. "Lincoln ain't here," he said.

Seward gained a plurality on the first ballot but lacked the 233 votes needed to be nominated. On the second ballot, Lincoln gained New Hampshire, then all of Vermont. There was a sudden stricken quiet in the Seward camp. Then several Pennsylvania delegates went for Lincoln. On the third ballot, the wave crested. A delegate from Ohio rose and cleared his throat, and for a moment the Wigwam lapsed into near silence. "I rise, Mr. Chairman, to announce the change of four votes of Ohio from Mr. (Salmon) Chase to Mr. Lincoln." As Lincoln went over the top, bedlam broke out.

The general election would be anticlimactic. Joining the fragmented field was another third-party candidate, the impeccably conservative John Bell of Tennessee. Electoral math all but predetermined the outcome: Lincoln would win. His victory seemed so safe, in fact, that he did not deliver a single speech; his Cooper Union address remained his most significant words of the campaign.

By October, even the indefatigable Douglas conceded defeat. "Lincoln is the next President," he said. "We must try to save the Union. I will go South." The Little Giant spent the last months of 1860 traveling across the South, giving two or three speeches a day against the breakup of the government. He was slurred, pelted with eggs and threatened with death.

On Election Day, Lincoln sank into an armchair in the Springfield State House to await the results. About 9 p.m., he walked to the telegraph office as the decisive returns spat out rapidly. Lincoln carried just 39.8 percent of the popular vote and did not gain a single elector in the South. But he carried 18 of 33 states, all of the free states except New Jersey, for an overwhelming margin in the electoral college, with 180 of 303 possible votes, to just 72 for Breckinridge. Douglas carried only Missouri.

Fifty-four days later, on Dec. 20, 1860, South Carolina seceded.


The information and quotations in this article were taken from: "Battle Cry of Freedom," by James McPherson; "Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President," by Harold Holzer; "The Emergence of Lincoln: Prologue to Civil War, 1859-1861," by Allan C. Nevins; "The Civil War Archive, The History of the Civil War in Documents," edited by Henry Steele Commager; "Three Against Lincoln: Murat Halstead Reports the Caucuses of 1860," edited by William B. Hesseltine; and "Herndon's Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life," by William H. Herndon and Jesse William Weik.


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