This Saturday, February 27, marks the 156th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's famous Cooper Union Address, also known as his "Right makes Might" speech, which is widely credited with earning him the Republican nomination in 1860.
As we write in the Abraham Lincoln chapter in Footprints in New York:
On Monday, February 27, Lincoln woke [in Manhattan] to find the Republican-controlled newspapers stirring up anticipation for his speech. Some of his hosts, members of the Young Men’s Central Republic Union, called on Lincoln at the Astor Hotel, where they were embarrassed to find him disheveled, dressed in “a suit of black [that was] much wrinkled. . . . His form and manner were indeed very odd, and we thought him the most unprepossessing public man we had ever met.”
Later that day, Lincoln headed up Broadway to Mathew Brady’s photography studio.... Brady and his assistants posed Lincoln standing, his right hand resting on a stack of books to show his erudition; behind him sits a classical pillar, a similar trope found in many formal portraits and statuary.
After the photo was taken, Brady retouched it in the darkroom, including fixing Lincoln’s wandering left eye. He couldn’t, however, do anything to make his jacket fit any better—Lincoln’s right shirt cuff sticks out far beyond his sleeve—nor could he do anything to smooth out the future president’s wrinkled suit.
That evening, Lincoln addressed a huge audience at Cooper Union. Industrialist and inventor Peter Cooper had built the school just a year earlier as a free institution of higher learning. The Great Hall remains one of the largest lecture halls in New York, and, as anticipated, Lincoln drew a standing-room crowd.
The speech, today most commonly known as the Cooper Union Address, was divided into three sections. In the first, Lincoln laid out a lawyerly argument that the thirty-nine signers of the Constitution—“our fathers who framed the Government under which we live,” he called them (quoting his antagonist, Senator Stephen Douglas)—were against the expansion of slavery. In the second section, Lincoln addressed Southerners directly, admonishing them for being the ones stirring up dissent:
"Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please. . . . You will rule or ruin in all events."
Lastly, speaking to the Republicans in the hall, Lincoln tried to hold to a moderate line. He was against slavery, but argued that “wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is” without allowing it to spread to the territories.
Lincoln closed with the stirring lines that would soon be repeated in newspapers across the country—in all capital letters, as if he were shouting: 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.
While Cooper Union is still going strong, Mathew Brady's portrait studio where he shot the Lincoln portrait is long gone. However, if you find yourself in Tribeca, a building that housed another Brady studio still stands at 369 Broadway. There's no sign or marker, but it's worth taking a look next time you're in the neighborhood.
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