Earlier this week, February 27, was the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's famed "Right Makes Might" speech at the Cooper Union. We've blogged about this event before
(reprinted below) and the speech -- and Mathew Brady's famous photo of Lincoln -- are crucial parts of our Abraham Lincoln chapter in Footprints in New York
Another image we talk about in that chapter is the one above that shows the moment of the president's death. (And is not reproduced in the book, alas.) As we write, the image
shows the president in repose at the lodging house across the street from Ford’s Theatre. The Lincolns and their friends, Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris, had gone to the theater on the night of his assassination to see Laura Keene—who Mary Todd Lincoln had enjoyed seeing in New York—in Our American Cousin.
In the print, Robert and Mary Todd Lincoln bury their faces in hand- kerchiefs; young Tad Lincoln clings to his mother’s skirts. To one side, many members of Lincoln’s Cabinet look on. The demand for these prints—as well as scenes of Booth’s attack in the Lincolns’ box at Ford’s Theatre—was massive, and Currier & Ives went into overtime production... [and the images] was available for purchase a mere nine days after Lincoln’s death, an unheard of production schedule in 1865.
Rewind the story five years and we find a very different Abraham Lincoln--a small-town lawyer and sometime congressman trying to make a name for himself.
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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