Let us have faith that right makes might

This month, just like every fourth February of the past half century, has seen any number of would-be Presidents slogging their way through Iowa, New Hampshire and a handful of other states at the beginning of the road to the nomination. It is a deeply-engrained part of the modern American political tradition, but one that is just that: modern.

For most of American history, those seeking the Presidency stayed quiet in February. The modern system of primaries did not emerge until the mid-20th century and before then tradition dictated that those who desired to sit in the highest office in the land did not seek it overtly.

But 160 years ago an aspiring Commander in Chief broke from tradition; only slightly as he was not yet an official candidate for the Presidency. On February 27, 1860, Abraham Lincoln visited New York’s Cooper Union and delivered what is considered by some to be the speech that made him President.

Lincoln’s prospects for attaining the Presidency looked bleak as the calendar turned to 1860.

“I now sink out of view, and shall be forgotten,” he wrote to his friend Dr. Anson G. Henry after losing to Stephen Douglas in the 1858 Senate race. However, having achieved notoriety as the debater who went toe-to-toe with the most famed orator in the nation, Lincoln was in demand as a speaker throughout the Midwest.

While Lincoln was popular in the Midwest, kingmakers in the east considered him an uncouth westerner not worthy of consideration for the presidency. Two eastern publishers came out with books listing as many as 20 likely choices to become the 16th president. Lincoln was not among them. New York Governor William Seward was generally thought to be the leading contender.

But Seward’s home state was not unified behind him, and that winter the Young Men’s Central Republican Union of New York invited Lincoln to address them to offer a contrast to what many at the time saw as Seward’s radical abolitionism. Lincoln, they thought, would offer a more moderate approach to the dominant question of the day. Perhaps his moderation might inspire the party to select someone more likely to prevail in the fall than the bombastic Seward.

Lincoln accepted the invitation to address a crowd of nearly 1500 spectators gathered at Cooper Union, a newly-established institute of higher learning in Manhattan. Lincoln would deliver his remarks in the basement-level Great Hall of the school’s Foundation Building.

Introduced by the poet William Cullen Bryant, Lincoln took the stage and went straight to the subject of slavery. He had been preparing his speech for months, studying the debates in the Constitutional convention of 1787 and the early days of the Congress.

At issue was the question of whether Congress had the Constitutional right to ban slavery in territories which were not yet admitted as states. While each state had sovereign powers to make its own laws, territories were under the jurisdiction of Congress. In 1854, Douglas had pushed through the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which implemented “popular sovereignty,” through which residents of each territory would decide whether or not to permit slavery. The direct result of this law was the explosion of violence in “Bleeding Kansas” between pro- and anti-slavery factions seeking to win control of the territory.

It was believed by many in the north that if slavery were permitted to gain a legal foothold in a territory, it would be impossible to extinguish once the territory became a state. This would in turn result in more pro-slavery legislators in Congress, and the prospects for ever ending slavery in America would grow dimmer with each passing year.

Lincoln had three goals for his speech. He wanted to challenge Douglas’ belief that the Constitution did not permit Congress to regulate or interfere with slavery in the territories. He also sought to present a moderate image by convincing southerners that he offered no threat to slavery where it existed. But his third goal was to rally northerners to the fight against expanding slavery. In 1860 Lincoln believed that the road to ending the evil of slavery began with quarantining its spread.

Douglas had claimed that the Founders, “when they framed the government under which we live, understood this question just as well, and even better than we do now.”

Lincoln agreed that the Founders had a better understanding of Constitutional law than his generation. Then he delved into his extensive research and proceeded to demonstrate that a majority of the signers of the Constitution, 21 of the 39, had voted at some point to regulate slavery in a U.S. territory. Lincoln explained each vote and which of the Founders had gone on record favoring regulation.

“This shows that, in their understanding, no line dividing local from federal authority, nor anything in the Constitution, properly forbade Congress to prohibit slavery in the federal territory; else both their fidelity to correct principle, and their oath to support the Constitution, would have constrained them to oppose the prohibition,” he summarized, dispatching Douglas’ claim.

Lincoln now moved on to his second goal, reassuring southerners that they had nothing to fear from him. He specifically sought to distance himself and other Republicans from the abolitionist John Brown, who had been executed just a few weeks earlier for trying to ignite a violent uprising to end slavery in Virginia. Pro-slavery speakers sought to scare Americans away from abolitionists by tying them all to Brown’s violent tactics.

“John Brown was no Republican; and you have failed to implicate a single Republican in his Harpers Ferry enterprise,” Lincoln said. “If any member of our party is guilty in that matter, you know it or you do not know it. If you do know it, you are inexcusable for not designating the man and proving the fact. If you do not know it, you are inexcusable for asserting it, and especially for persisting in the assertion after you have tried and failed to make the proof.”

He characterized the southern position on the issue in stark terms.

“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, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events.”

The southern stance on expansion of slavery, he argued, was built on shaky legal reasoning and flawed interpretations of the Constitution. Having strongly denounced the threats of disunion, he now called northerners to action.

“Even though much provoked, let us do nothing through passion and ill temper. Even though the southern people will not so much as listen to us, let us calmly consider their demands, and yield to them if, in our deliberate view of our duty, we possibly can,” he said, perhaps shocking some in the audience with what might have sounded like a call for giving in to the demands of the south. But then he continued, “The question arises, what will satisfy them?”

Cooper Union, New York City 

Lincoln then proceeded through a long list of concessions and compromises, followed by ever more extreme southern demands, culminating in Lincoln’s belief that southerners would only be satisfied when northerners, “cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right….Silence will not be tolerated – we must place ourselves avowedly with them.”

Clearly this was impossible. Lincoln went on to declare that southerners would demand the north “suppress all declarations that slavery is wrong,” return all those who had escaped from slavery and repeal “our Free State constitutions.”

“They will continue to accuse us of doing, until we cease saying.”

Lincoln reiterated that he only sought to stop slavery’s expansion, because letting it spread would allow it “to overrun us here in these Free States,” and thus each person in attendance had a duty to stand and fight against such an expansion.

“Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored – contrivances such as groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong, vain as the search for a man who should be neither a living man nor a dead man – such as a policy of “don’t care” on a question about which all true men do care – such as Union appeals beseeching true Union men to yield to Disunionists.”

Drawing to his conclusion, Lincoln issued a stirring call to action. “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.”

Lincoln’s speech was a sensation in the north. It was reprinted in newspapers across the region, and was so popular that he was invited to speak throughout New England over the next two weeks. It appealed to northerners who sought to end slavery and preserve the union without violence. Fears stoked by Brown’s actions and Seward’s words led many to look for a leader who was not likely to provoke disunion. Ironically, given the events of the following year, many found their spokesman in Lincoln.

Lincoln was suddenly a legitimate contender for the presidency. At the convention, Seward led, but not decisively. Lincoln’s northeastern speaking tour brought him unexpected support from New Hampshire, and on the second ballot, Vermont, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania delegates moved toward the Illinoisan. On the third ballot, Lincoln was nominated. He was elected with the votes of almost every northern state that fall. Seward was appointed Secretary of State.

Taking the oath of office following the secession of seven southern states, Lincoln tried to stave off civil war by offering conciliatory words towards the south. His speech seemed to express the same sentiment as his Cooper Union assurance that he was no threat to the south: “we are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.” It did not work, and the Civil War began six weeks later.

Throughout the first 18 months of his presidency, Lincoln pursued the moderate course on slavery which he had outlined at Cooper Union: quarantine its spread until the institution gradually died out on its own. But by September 1862 the impossibility of this position was clear, and he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the first step toward abolishing slavery nationwide. It was followed by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865.

In his second inaugural, Lincoln again struck a conciliatory chord. This time, urging peace and reunification to a nation shattered by four years of war. He spoke of the need to “bind up the nation’s wounds,” and to do so “with malice toward none, charity for all.” But Lincoln was murdered before he could implement his vision of reuniting the nation.

The grieving republic had survived its greatest cataclysm due to the steady hand of its greatest President, whose longshot bid for the highest office in the land had been launched toward success when he won over a skeptical New York City crowd five years earlier.

Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer summed it up in 2010. “Had Abraham Lincoln failed at his do-or-die debut in New York, he would never have won his party’s presidential nomination three months later, not to mention election to the White House that November. Such was the impact of a triumph in the nation’s media capital. Had he stumbled, none of the challenges that roiled his presidency would ever have tested his iron will….At the Cooper Union, Lincoln became more than a regional curiosity. He became a national leader.”