Cooper Union Address Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

February 27, 1860, was a cold, snowy day in New York City. Still, many spectators enthusiastically braved the weather to come to the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, also called the Cooper Institute. Their object was to hear a speaker from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, known as a spellbinding western orator who had bested Stephen Douglas in debates for the Senate two years before. Now these sophisticated New Yorkers wanted to see Lincoln in action. More than just private individuals, there were newspaper reporters and publishers present, and their impressions would shape how many in the North came to view Lincoln.

Lincoln recognized the significance of this moment. He had traveled from Springfield, had purchased a new suit for the occasion, and earlier in the day, he had sat for a picture to be taken by the famous photographer Mathew Brady, an image that could be copied and disseminated far and wide. Lincoln’s speech at Cooper Union would include historical analysis about the founding generation’s view of slavery expansion, direct addresses to both Southerners and his fellow Republicans, and a ringing defense of the moral rightness–and hence moral power–of opposition to the expansion of slavery.

Summary Overview

February 27, 1860, was a cold, snowy day in New York City. Still, many spectators enthusiastically braved the weather to come to the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, also called the Cooper Institute. Their object was to hear a speaker from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, known as a spellbinding western orator who had bested Stephen Douglas in debates for the Senate two years before. Now these sophisticated New Yorkers wanted to see Lincoln in action. More than just private individuals, there were newspaper reporters and publishers present, and their impressions would shape how many in the North came to view Lincoln.

Lincoln recognized the significance of this moment. He had traveled from Springfield, had purchased a new suit for the occasion, and earlier in the day, he had sat for a picture to be taken by the famous photographer Mathew Brady, an image that could be copied and disseminated far and wide. Lincoln’s speech at Cooper Union would include historical analysis about the founding generation’s view of slavery expansion, direct addresses to both Southerners and his fellow Republicans, and a ringing defense of the moral rightness–and hence moral power–of opposition to the expansion of slavery.

Defining Moment

Lincoln’s address came at a time of growing sectional conflict, contentions within political parties, and tensions in public attitudes. The ongoing question revolved around the treatment of slavery, both in states where it already existed and especially in the new western territories. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 had largely kept this issue off of the table, but in 1854, Senator Stephen A. Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act changed how new territories determined the legality of slavery, attempting to base the decision on popular sovereignty, which would allow the settlers in each territory to vote on the issue. When applied in Kansas, the result was disastrous, leading to the violent clash known as Bleeding Kansas, political disputes over what was truly the popular will, and even violence in Congress, with Democratic representative Preston Brooks caning Republican senator Charles Sumner almost to death. The expansion of slavery into the territories seemed even more certain with the 1857 Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford. The court, led by Chief Justice Roger Taney, declared that masters could take slaves into any territory, essentially opening all western territories to slavery. The ruling sparked outrage across the North.

With tensions running high, conditions became even more delicate in the wake of John Brown’s raid in October 1859. Brown believed himself divinely inspired to lead a slave revolt and liberate Virginia’s slaves through violence. Having practiced violent attacks in Kansas at Pottawatomie Creek, Brown now looked eastward, adopting as his target the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). Brown believed that by seizing weapons and arming slaves he would spark a widespread revolt. Brown’s plan failed, and he was captured, tried, and executed. To Northern antislavery advocates, Brown was a martyr. To Southerners, he was a madman, inspired by the violent language of abolitionists and “Black Republicans.”

Amidst these sectional tensions, discord was also fracturing the national parties. Stephen Douglas still hoped for the Democratic nomination for the 1860 presidential election, which he had been eyeing for years. His candidacy, however, would run into Southern Democratic objections that his popular-sovereignty position was not proslavery enough. By trying to stay neutral, Douglas had alienated Southern radicals, leaving him open to a Southern challenge. Seeing these discords, Republicans might take encouragement for the upcoming election, but their party suffered from the ambitions of many men who might make a claim to the nomination. The leading candidate was William Seward of New York, but some thought him too radical an opponent of slavery to win. Other politicians, such as Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania, and Edward Bates of Missouri, all had regional followings and could make a claim to lead the Republican Party. Any other challengers would have to prove both articulate and compelling to a diverse Republican base throughout the country.

Author Biography

Abraham Lincoln may be remembered as one of the United States’ greatest presidents, but few would have foreseen that future as 1860 began. Lincoln was born in Kentucky on February 12, 1809, and moved with his family to Indiana at age eight. When he was twenty-one, his family moved again, to Illinois. As a young man, he worked a number of physical jobs to build his personal capital, including assembling a flatboat and sailing it to New Orleans. In what would later earn him one of his political nicknames–the Railsplitter–Lincoln and a friend split hundreds of logs to create rails for split-rail fences. After a limited military career during the Black Hawk War, Lincoln owned and worked in a general store in New Salem, Illinois. When the store failed, Lincoln took up law, joining the Illinois bar in 1836. He relocated to Springfield and built a successful legal practice working on both local cases and cases for railroad companies. He married Mary Todd in 1842 and started a family.

During this time, Lincoln began practicing politics. He served multiple terms in the Illinois House of Representatives. Identifying as a Whig–and lionizing Henry Clay–Lincoln even earned one term in the US House of Representatives, serving from 1847 to 1849. He lost support because of his opposition to President James K. Polk’s Mexican-American War, which was popular in Illinois. After his one term, he believed he would retire from politics; instead, he was energized by the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, shepherded through Congress by fellow Illinoisan Stephen Douglas, which sought to nullify the Missouri Compromise and open more territory to slavery. Lincoln soon affiliated with the emerging Republican Party.

Lincoln emerged as a national figure in the 1858 Illinois senatorial election, in which he carried the Republican banner against Douglas, who was seeking reelection as preparation for running for president in 1860. Lincoln kicked off the campaign with his fiery “House Divided” speech and soon provoked Douglas into participating in seven debates throughout Illinois. These Lincoln-Douglas debates not only proved important for the Illinois campaign but also sparked national interest. Lincoln’s full speeches from the debates were reprinted in newspapers and, when gathered together, became a best-selling booklet. Although Lincoln lost the election–he won a majority of votes but lost because the decision was made by the Democratic-majority Illinois legislature–he saw it as only a momentary setback. In 1859, Lincoln campaigned for Republican candidates throughout the Midwest, including Iowa and Wisconsin. In Ohio, he once again challenged Douglas, who was stumping for Democrats in the state, and gave significant speeches in both Cincinnati and Columbus. Lincoln’s actions in 1858–59 brought him to the attention of eastern Republicans and garnered him the invitation to speak in New York City in February 1860. He was initially scheduled to speak at Henry Ward Beecher’s Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, but with the growing interest in Lincoln, the venue was shifted to the auditorium of Cooper Union in Manhattan.

Document Analysis

Lincoln opens his address in an unusual, understated way, claiming, “The facts with which I shall deal this evening are mainly old and familiar.” It is almost as if Lincoln is trying to lower expectations from the outset. The only “novelty,” he promises his hearers, may lie “in the mode of presenting the facts, and the inferences and observations following that presentation.” Lincoln is rhetorically preparing his hearers, genteel New Yorkers, for a closely argued speech, a lawyer’s brief, warning that they should not expect a soaring rhetorical performance. This strategy will serve Lincoln well. He will begin the first and longest section of the speech by detailing a history of the Founding Fathers’ attitudes to slavery’s expansion. As the speech progresses, its tone and power will rise. In the second section, as he addresses Southerners, he will add sarcasm to his logic, while still retaining a moderate voice. Only at the end, while addressing his fellow Republicans–and, ultimately, the nation–will Lincoln unleash his clearest statement about the moral issue of slavery and challenge his hearers to a commitment to a moral crusade. The emotional payoff at the end is the direct result of the deliberate, calculated beginning.

The Founders and Slavery

Lincoln begins his first section with a quote from his old senatorial rival and future presidential rival, Stephen Douglas. Lincoln reports to his hearers, “In his speech last autumn, at Columbus, Ohio, as reported in ‘The New-York Times,’ Senator Douglas said: ‘Our fathers, when they framed the Government under which we live, understood this question just as well, and even better, than we do now.’” Rather than directing an attack against Douglas, Lincoln uses this quote as the launching pad for his entire talk, skillfully turning the very words of his primary opponent against him by demonstrating that his understanding of this statement is superior to Douglas’s. Further, Lincoln will invest this statement with even more meaning than Douglas intended. One clue to this is the way Lincoln says he is going to “adopt” the claim “as a text for this discourse.” In speaking of such a text, Lincoln is comparing this statement to a biblical passage. His style is reminiscent of a minister proposing a biblical text to expound in a sermon. Thus, although this is a secular speech, it carries with it the form and cadence of the sermons Lincoln’s audience would have been familiar with from many Sundays spent in church services. Lincoln will take this principle–”Our fathers… understood this question just as well, and even better, than we do now”–and elucidate it in a type of political sermon.

How, then, to understand how the “fathers,” as Lincoln repeatedly calls them throughout the speech, viewed the issue of slavery’s expansion? Lincoln claims it is a useful question, furnishing a “precise and an agreed starting point.” From a philosophical perspective, this becomes an exercise in determining the founders’ attitude on the subject and then giving them the benefit of the doubt that their way was correct. Lincoln is doing his best to be filiopietistic–revering his (political) ancestors. His politics would be predicated on a respect for the political fathers. He is trying to determine an original intent.

Lincoln’s approach is built upon a certain type of conservative outlook that he reveals later in the speech. In a section of the speech not reproduced here, defending his approach, he asks, “What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried?” Lincoln claims the conservative mantle, against Southern charges of his radicalism, by aligning his position with that of the founders. Lincoln’s was not an unthinking, reactionary position. He did not want to “discard all the lights of current experience–to reject all progress–all improvement.” Rather, he believed that the logic of the founders’ position needed to be understood and given due weight, especially if all sides agreed they understood the question better that people in Lincoln’s day.

To examine this question, Lincoln could have gone in a variety of directions, as many historians have done subsequently. Lincoln, however, proves his historical and legal research–which he did for hours in the capitol’s law library in Springfield–through painstaking explanation. First, he considers how to define the frame of government in the nation. His answer is the Constitution and its subsequent amendments. This allows him to take as his sample of the Founding Fathers the thirty-nine signatories of the Constitution. Then Lincoln frames the question still further: did these fathers believe the “Federal Government” had power to control slavery in “our Federal Territories”? In this, Lincoln is not asking a broader question about what the framers of the Constitution thought about the morality of the slave trade or slavery in general. He observes, again in a section not reproduced here, that sixteen of the founders who left no legislative mark on the question were still known as “noted anti-slavery men,” including Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton. Yet Lincoln looks only to the congressional votes left behind by the twenty-three of thirty-nine fathers who had opportunity to indicate their opinion.

Lincoln then marches through a number of legislative moments that might have given rise to objections to federal determinations about slavery in territories. One of his key examples is the Northwest Ordinance, drafted under the Articles of Confederation but signed into law by George Washington in 1789, which demonstrates congressional prohibition of slavery in new territory. Other examples that at least partially support his claim are the Territorial Act–an act passed in 1804 that divided the Louisiana Purchase into the Territory of Orleans and the District of Louisiana–and the debates over Missouri statehood in 1820. In totaling up attitudes, Lincoln sidesteps the two counterexamples he mentions: James M’Henry (McHenry) of Maryland and Charles Pinckney of South Carolina. Both voted against prohibiting slavery in a given territory. Lincoln does not deny this, but he claims their opposition was to the specific context, not Congress’s overall power to limit slavery. Lincoln’s conclusion, then, is that of the original thirty-nine founders, twenty-one, “a clear majority of the whole,” saw no hindrance to Congress’s limiting slavery in territories. Lincoln claims that “such, unquestionably, was the understanding of our fathers who framed the original Constitution.”

If this was the case, then Lincoln had both a negative and a positive conclusion. The negative conclusion is directed against Democrats such as Douglas who wanted to deny what Lincoln claims the founders had affirmed. In the face of this evidence, Lincoln claims that counterarguments are “a little presumptuous” and indeed “impudently absurd.” Anyone arguing against Lincoln–and Douglas is the implied disputant–is said to be welcome to bring forth other evidence. “But he has no right to mislead others, who have less access to history, and less leisure to study it, into the false belief that ‘our fathers…’ were of the same opinion–thus substituting falsehood and deception for truthful evidence and fair argument.”

The positive conclusion that Lincoln comes to is that Republicans stand in line with the founders, and this policy should become again the policy of the land. He wants Americans to “speak as they spoke, and act as they acted.” His final conclusion in this section is that “this is all Republicans ask–all Republicans desire–in relation to slavery. As those fathers marked it, so let it be again marked, as an evil not to be extended, but to be tolerated and protected only because of and so far as its actual presence amongst us makes that toleration and protection a necessity.” Thus, Lincoln’s Republican position is radical only insofar as it goes to the root of the nation’s political history. He does not demand more; he does not want to change the terms of slavery where it exists. He wishes to mark it as an evil, tolerating it where necessary but not giving it carte blanche to spread.

Addressing the South

After making that significant policy point, Lincoln turns to address Southerners. He signals this by saying, “And now, if they would listen–as I suppose they will not–I would address a few words to the Southern people.” (In the section of the excerpt that begins, “Your purpose, then, plainly stated,” the your refers to Southerners.) Lincoln uses this technique of directly addressing those he disagrees with in several speeches; perhaps his most famous usage came near the end of his first inaugural address, when he said, “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war” (271). In this section of the Cooper Union speech, Lincoln indicates his frustration that Southerners almost certainly will not listen.

Still, Lincoln tries to communicate across the sectional divide. One way he does so is by interpreting the recent Dred Scott case. Lincoln had been attacking the Dred Scott ruling for years, as was evident in both his “House Divided” speech and his debates with Douglas. Here, he challenges Southerners’ desire to claim the Dred Scott decision as having constitutionally settled the issue of slavery in the territories. He brings up two points against the ruling. First, he claims it was decided based on a mistaken reading of the Constitution, as demonstrated by the opinion’s argument that “the right of property in a slave is distinctly and expressly affirmed in the Constitution.” Lincoln argues that this is not the case, since slavery is never mentioned explicitly in the Constitution, and whenever slaves are “alluded to,” they are described as “person[s]” rather than property. Second, he claims the witness of “our fathers,” who “made the Constitution” and allowed the federal government to prohibit slavery in the Northwest Territory.

Even with this explanation, Lincoln does not believe Southerners will respond well, because, he charges, Southerners are refusing to join the debate with good faith or open minds. Lincoln thus has some strong words for the South. He charges Southerners with threatening to destroy the Union if their view of the Constitution is not validated. “You will rule or ruin in all events,” he tells them. Against Southern threats of secession, Lincoln points out that they are endangering the Union, not him. Within the year, the Southern states would begin to carry out their threats.

Addressing Republicans

In his final section, Lincoln addresses Republicans, both those assembled at Cooper Union and all those who he knew would later read his address. In the excerpt, this section starts with, “The question recurs, what will satisfy them?” Of course, them refers to the same Southerners he previously addressed as you; now, the unreasonable Southerners are the problem to be addressed. And the problem is dramatic indeed, because the proslavery Southerners are demanding that Republicans “cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly–done in acts as well as in words.” As Lincoln observes, neither silence about the subject nor leaving slavery alone where it exists is enough for such Southerners. Lincoln worries that in both word and deed, this will lead to the negation of “our Free State constitutions.” The reason for the Southerners’ intransigence is their belief “that slavery is morally right, and socially elevating,” so “they cannot cease to demand a full national recognition of it, as a legal right, and a social blessing.” The proslavery South, following the lead of John C. Calhoun, had decided that slavery was not a necessary evil but a positive good. If it was a positive good, it needed not only to be protected but to be expanded, and without criticism.

And so, by his final paragraphs, Lincoln has reached the nub of the conflict, not only between Southerners and Republicans, but ultimately between the states: the morality of slavery. As Lincoln presents the choice, slavery is either morally right or morally wrong, and he comes down on the side of it being a moral wrong. Lincoln had already made this point in his 1859 speech in Cincinnati, saying, “I think Slavery is wrong, morally, and politically. I desire that it should be no further spread in these United States, and I should not object if it should gradually terminate in the whole Union.” He believed there should be “a national policy in regard to the institution of slavery, that acknowledges and deals with that institution as being wrong” (qtd. in Carwardine 123). Lincoln reiterates this position in his penultimate paragraph, which he begins by saying, “Wrong as we think slavery is”–that is, identifying it as a wrong. If this is the case, he argues, then Republicans cannot acquiesce to Southern demands that they treat it as a right, and they also must oppose Stephen Douglas’s policy of moral indifference.

Lincoln concludes with a stirring peroration, its force reflected in its expression in all capitals: “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.” Moral duty, he says, flows from moral rectitude, and Lincoln is thus rallying all those who saw slavery as a moral evil and refused to let it expand beyond its current borders. From a stolid beginning, Lincoln ends with a crescendo, trumpeting not just a superior policy but the only moral one, and the only one that could promote positive action.

Essential Themes

The speech had significant effects in 1860 and afterward. Politically, it showed Northern Republicans that Lincoln was a serious thinker, and a moderate one. The speech catapulted him into the limelight, and his popularity rose significantly. It also launched him on a speaking tour of New England, where he met similarly positive responses. By raising Lincoln’s national profile, the speech prepared the way for him to garner the Republican nomination at the party convention in Chicago in May. Although several state delegations had their favorites, Lincoln was a second choice of many states, and he picked up their votes in subsequent rounds of voting. During the campaign itself, the Cooper Union speech was reprinted as evidence of Lincoln’s responsible Republican outlook.

After Lincoln received the nomination, the election dynamics were in his favor. The Democrats fractured. Their convention in Charleston, South Carolina, ended in a Southern walkout and failed to nominate a candidate. Later, Douglas earned the support of the Northern Democrats, while sitting vice president John C. Breckinridge became the Southerners’ choice. Meanwhile, a Constitutional Union Party formed with John Bell at the head to appeal to the border states and some old-line Whigs. With the vote fragmented, Lincoln won the popular vote and dominated the Electoral College vote, although he did so without any support from the South.

In Harold Holzer’s view, Lincoln’s speech at Cooper Union was “the speech that made Abraham Lincoln president.” Further, themes that he developed in the speech would shape subsequent American development. Lincoln’s condemnation of slavery would increasingly be picked up by Northerners, and his claim that “right makes might” contributed to the vision of a moral and religious crusade against slavery. Once secession occurred, Northerners could fight passionately, first for the Union and then, after the Emancipation Proclamation, for the Union and the liberation of the slaves.

Additionally, Lincoln’s concern for American patterns derived from the Founding Fathers would continue to inform his leadership. His precise accounting of the founders’ attitudes on slavery expansion reflected his strong sense of the need to follow their advice. He demonstrated his desire for “adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried.” Although the Civil War would introduce unimaginable new circumstances, Lincoln as president would govern in a way he believed consistent with the original founding vision.

  • Carwardine, Richard. Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power. New York: Vintage, 2006. Print.
  • Guelzo, Allen. Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999. Print.
  • ---. Abraham Lincoln as a Man of Ideas. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2009. Print.
  • Holzer, Harold. Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President. New York: Simon, 2004. Print.
  • Jaffa, Harry, and Robert Johannsen, eds. In the Name of the People: Speeches and Writings of Lincoln and Douglas in the Ohio Campaign of 1859. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1959. Print.
  • Lincoln, Abraham. “First Inaugural Address–Final Text.” The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Ed. Roy Prentice Basler. Vol. 4. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1953. Print. 262–71.
Additional Reading
  • Corry, John. Lincoln at Cooper Union. New York: Xlibris, 2003. Print.
  • Ecelbarger, Gary. The Great Comeback: How Abraham Lincoln Beat the Odds to Win the 1860 Republican Nomination. New York: Dunne, 2008. Print.
  • Egerton, Douglas. Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election That Brought On the Civil War. New York: Bloomsbury, 2010. Print.
  • Foner, Eric. The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. New York: Norton, 2010. Print.
  • Guelzo, Allen. Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction. New York: Oxford UP, 2012. Print.
  • McPherson, James. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford UP, 2003. Print.
  • Oakes, James. The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics. New York: Norton, 2007. Print.
  • Potter, David. The Impending Crisis, 1848–1861. New York: Harper, 1977. Print.
Categories: History Content