At the Cooper Union, Lincoln became more than a regional curiosity. He became a national leader. -Harold Holzer

This is pretty much the historical consensus. I've read the speech, and I get that Lincoln had a perfectly-tailored message for his audience (i.e. a bunch of skeptical New York elites, many of whom were more antagonistic towards the abolitionist movement than they were to Southern slaveholders). But I'm not clear on the mechanics of how the speech's printing and dissemination to the general public created such a groundswell of Northern support for Lincoln's nomination and eventual presidential victory.

Can the answer be found by looking more closely at the major influencers in the nominating process for the Republican Party in the 1860 campaign? What about by digging through the primary-source evidence demonstrating just how concerned the Northern public was about the spread of slavery in that season? Or was Lincoln's reputation and stature already great enough at the time of the speech that sheer social momentum was enough to carry his campaign through (kind of like how Trump's built-in name recognition has been a big part of his success in our current election cycle)? Any thoughtful leads are appreciated.

  • It is a bit silly to think you need to do any digging to see if the population of the US was concerned about slavery and its spread in 1860. The issue had been convulsing the nation at frequent intervals for a generation by that time. Cooper Union let the East see Lincoln for the first time which boosted his chances as an alternative to the more entrenched candidates for the presidential nomination.
    – Oldcat
    Sep 16, 2015 at 18:41
  • @Oldcat after reflecting on the way I've worded the question, I think you're probably right. The nut of what I'm looking for is "how does one piddly speech by an anonymous Midwesterner campaigning for president suddenly blow up into a national political phenomenon?" Does that sound more appropriate? I'm curious because Lincoln was hardly the only Northern politician in 1860 proclaiming the views espoused at Cooper Union.
    – Kanapolis
    Sep 16, 2015 at 18:52
  • 1
    It wasn't quite that way - in those days nominations were done by deals at the convention, which was held in Lincoln's home state. What CU did was show that here was a fresh face that everyone could see as a good second choice to their own favorite. The Republicans, as a new party, had leaders that were liked but also had enemies and reputations that could be a negative. Lincoln showed at CU that he had traits everyone liked, and no past to drive people off. So when the current leaders deadlocked, it was easy to switch to Lincoln than to someone else.
    – Oldcat
    Sep 16, 2015 at 18:58

2 Answers 2


The classic source for an answer to your question is probably Carl Sandberg's "Abraham Lincoln The Prairie Years Volume 2 page 210-216; but in answering that question, certain predicates must be explained 1st. Then, as now, New Yorkers considered the rest of the country "flyover country" populated only by ignoramuses, farmers and hicks with a few second-rate men of substance thrown in to keep the whole mess from flying apart. Of the listeners in Cooper Union, Sandberg reports "Some had heard vaguely that this Lincoln person at once fought a duel and killed a man out in Illinois; at any rate, he came from a region of corn fed farmers, steamboat explosions, camp meeting revivals, political barbecues, boom towns and repudiated state canal bonds. Also, they knew this Lincoln had been the 1st man to grapple and get stiff handling to the dramatic and powerful Stephen a Douglas".
Thus, if Lincoln were to have any chance of becoming president, he would need to convince what we would today call the East Coast establishment that he was more than the equal of any New York Republicans. There were those who thought it was a fool's errand.… He was speaking to the elite of New York society, not "since the days of Clay and Webster had [there] been a larger assembly of the intellect and moral culture of the city of New York. It included people who had heard Jenny Lind and Adelina Patti warble, who had seen French and Spanish dancers, who had spoken with PT Barnum and studied his freaks and monstrosities, read the newspapers edited by Greely, Bennett and, and Raymond who believed the undersea cable for instant communication from New York to be to London would be soon repaired.The pick and flower of the New York culture was there."

However they had never heard anyone like Lincoln speak before. But we should return to that point later. In that era, unless spoken by an abolitionist, the word "abolitionist" was almost universally preceded by taking of the Lord's name in vain-a G-- D--- abolitionist. Abolitionists were crazy people who wish to upset the entire standing order the United States. Even though slavery was not permitted in New York, most New York banks held mortgages on slaves which would become worthless upon abolition. Accordingly Lincoln's talk was largely limited to establishing that the federal government had the right and power to restrict the spread of slavery to the territories. His beginning point for his speech was a quote from an acknowledged giant, Stephen A Douglas, “our fathers when they framed this government under which we live, understood this question [of slavery] just as well and even better than we do now.” Lincoln demolished this statement with a meticulously researched speech he had put vast effort into back in Springfield " going to the state library nearly every day, searching the Congressional Globe, tracking down details of fact in history, reading clippings he and Herndon had made since 1848 from the Charleston Mercury, Richmond Enquirer, Louisville Journal, going back to numbers of the Southern Literary Messenger. He wore out the patience of Herndon with writing and rewriting some parts of the speech" defining these fathers as "39 framers the original Constitution and the 76 members of the Congress who framed the amendments" then proceeded to present a "crisscross of roll calls, quotations, documents an established history connected with the sacred names of early bygone times, to prove the fathers were with the Republican Party view of slavery and against the Democratic position." At this point I must refer you to the speech where you will see the absolute obliteration of Douglas's argument. If you are unduly softhearted, you might almost feel sorry for Douglas. Lincoln conclusively demonstrated that Douglas's argument was not only wrong but was provably, clearly, conclusively completely unfounded. However, this much could've been established by a pamphlet written by Lincoln, circulated to New York and reprinted in the news papers. There was much more involved in the impact of the speech upon the cream of New York society.

Lincoln was an extraordinary speaker. As described by a Democrat, a hostile listener, Lincoln's delivery was that of "a dangerous man, I tell you a dangerous man! And he makes you believe what he says in spite of yourself.” Even though Lincoln was not only '"slow getting started"… and "There were Republicans who weren't sure they should laugh at him or feel sorry for him.

As he got into his speech there came a change. He was telling them something. It was what they wanted said… His loose hung, dangling sleeves were by now forgotten, by himself and by his listeners. At moments he seemed to have drifted out of mind that there was an audience before him; he was sort of speaking to himself. In the quiet of some moments, the only competing sound was the steady sizzle of the gas lights burning.… His face lights with an inward fire,… “His voice was soft and sympathetic as that of girl’… Not lifted above a tone of average conversation… A peculiar naïveté in his manner and voice produced a strange effect on his audience… Hushed for a moment to a silence like that of the dead.”… “He’s the greatest man since St. Paul”… “The tones, the gestures, the kindling eye, and member of the provoking look defy the reporter’s skill. The vast assembly frequently rang with cheers and sharp applause. No man ever before made such an impression on his 1st appeal to a New York audience.”"

Lincoln was a magnetic, almost hypnotic speaker.

Thus the short answer to your question is that Lincoln's speech was a meticulously researched rebuttal of Stephen A Douglas's argument delivered with such a presentation as very few men in history have ever been capable of, delivered to, and overwhelming, the cream of New York society with its brilliance.


Dorris Kerns Goodwin had a great chapter on the 1860 nomination in her book Team of Rivals.

First off, you should realize that party nominations in that era were decided by party delegates at their convention, not by the general public. These delegates in turn were generally either appointed by local elected officials, or were themselves elected officials (sort of like modern "superdelagates") So what effect any published speech may have had amongst the general public was simply not a consideration. Or at least not a direct one.

What got Lincoln the nomination on the party convention floor was simply that he was a better politician than his rivals. At the time, these were William H. Seward of New York, Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, and Edward Bates of Missouri. He outmaneuvered them all.

The important thing about the Cooper Union address was that Lincoln was being portrayed by his rivals for the nomination as a backwoods simpleton. Many of them actually may have believed this. The address showed he had the mental wherewithal to be a viable option. New York was mostly Seward territory of course, but in a multi-candidate nomination with a lot of strong personalities (who likely all come with enemies as well as allies), it often pays to be everyone's second choice.

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