On Feb. 27, 1860, a dark horse candidate little known outside his home state of Illinois delivered a speech in New York City and proved that if you can make it there, you can make it all the way to the White House.
That speaker, of course, was Abraham Lincoln.
One of his longest speeches (more than 7,000 words) and among his least quoted (best-known sound bite: "right makes might"), Lincoln's discourse at the Great Hall of Cooper Union was nonetheless the pivotal one of his career. As Harold Holzer, author of Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President and cochair of the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, sums it up: "He never would have been nominated for the presidency had he not made the speech, and had it not been a triumph he would not have been elected, either."
With New York even then the media capital of the country, the appearance provided Lincoln the opportunity to present himself on a national stage to opinion leaders who included the leading antislavery newspaperman, New York Tribune Editor Horace Greeley. New York sophisticates may have gawked at the ungainly looking westerner as he walked on stage in his wrinkled, ill-fitting suit, but the more he spoke (and he spoke for close to two hours), the more enthusiastically the crowd cheered. The next morning, Lincoln's forcefully argued speech—reprinted in full—filled the front pages, leading to a flood of requests for additional appearances.
Moderate antislavery. The speech's timing was also serendipitous. As the election year of 1860 opened, the front-running presidential candidate for the still young Republican Party was New York Sen. William Henry Seward, whom many in the South had labeled a radical abolitionist. With the pro-slavery southern states lost regardless of their candidate, many Republicans believed that their only chance to win resided with a more moderate antislavery candidate.
That desire for an alternative had led to Lincoln's invitation to come east by a group of New York politicos who were less interested in giving Lincoln a platform than in undercutting Seward. At the same time, Lincoln was trying to position himself to remain in contention should Seward falter. "This speech scrapes away all the extraneous stuff and says: This is the line that divides us—whether you think slavery is right or wrong," says Douglas L. Wilson, codirector of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College and author of Lincoln's Sword.
At once substantive and shrewd, the speech "on its face was a historical analysis, but it was really a campaign speech" that served several purposes, says David Zarefsky, Northwestern University communication studies professor and author of a book about the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Lincoln portrayed his position as more centrist than Seward's, and he crafted a triumphant rebuttal to Sen. Stephen Douglas, leading contender for the 1860 Democratic presidential nomination.
The famous Lincoln-Douglas debates were two years in the past, and the Illinois Senate race that occasioned them had gone against Lincoln and in favor of Douglas. But their irreconcilable points of view over allowing slavery in the territories remained unchanged. Lincoln said no, Douglas said yes, and each claimed his view reflected the intentions of the Founding Fathers.
It was Lincoln's genius to begin his speech by agreeing with Douglas that yes, the Founding Fathers did know best—and from there proceed to systematically prove that, contrary to Douglas's assertion, the majority of the 39 signers of the Constitution did not favor the spread of slavery. Therefore, it was the Southern stance that deviated from the Constitution, and the Republican Party wore the mantle of the Founding Fathers.
Lincoln persuasively argued that "we cannot agree with the South that slavery is right. We have to stand by what we believe, do our duty, and not give in," says Wilson. The message resonated, and its impact grew exponentially with the distribution of thousands of copies of the speech in pamphlet form. In an era long before political commercials, speeches were more powerful, says Zarefsky. "There weren't as many of them, and they carried a lot more weight." Comparable, he adds, to winning the Iowa caucuses.