Abraham Lincoln

Peter Cooper

Historian's Comments

Contemporary biographer Isaac Arnold: "Great curiosity was manifested to hear this Western prodigy, this prairie orator, this rough, uncouth, unlearned backwoodsman. He realized all this, and his Cooper Institute speech, either designedly, or otherwise, was admirably adapted to remove prejudice, and create confidence."1

Biographer William E. Barton: "Lincoln delivered an address devoid of all the characteristics of stump oratory. It was a carefully reasoned, thoughtful discourse, addressed to the intelligence and conscience of his hearers. He surprised his audience by his knowledge of American political history and the principles underlying our national legislation."2

Contemporary biographer Noah Brooks: "He had prepared a very different sort of speech from that which some before him had expected. This was not a crowd to be amused with queer stories, rough wit, and comical anecdotes. The speech was one of the most remarkable ever delivered in the city of New York. It was a masterly exposition of the history of the early days of the Republic, when our political institutions were in the process of formation, special reference being made to the slavery question as then considered. It was a scholarly, skillfully framed, and closely logical address. His style of delivery was so fresh and vigorous, his manner of illustration so clear and easily understood, that the audience drank in every work with delight."3

Biographer Lord Charnwood: "His appearance at the Cooper Institute, in particular, was a critical venture, and he knew it. There was natural curiosity about this untutored man from the West. An exaggerated report of his wit prepared the way for probable disappointment. The surprise which awaited his hearer was of a different kind; they were prepared for a florid Western eloquence offensive to ears which were used to a less spontaneous turgidity; they heard instead a speech with no ornament at all, whose only beauty was that it was true and that the speaker felt it. The single flaw in the Cooper Institute speech has already been cited, the narrow view of Western respectability as to John Brown. For the rest, this speech, dry enough in a sense, is an incomparably masterly statement of the then political situation, reaching from its far back origin to the precise and definite question requiring decision at that moment."4

Biographer David Donald: "But the speech that he delivered, reading carefully and soberly from sheets of blue foolscap, quickly erased the impression of a crude frontiersman. It was a masterful exploration of the political paths open to the nation....As a speech, it was a superb performance. The audience frequently applauded during the delivery of the address, and when Lincoln closed, the crowd cheered and stood, waving handkerchiefs and hats."5

Historian Don E. Fehrenbacher: "At Cooper Institute ...with eloquence and dignity he brought his preconvention efforts to an impressive culmination and in effect measured himself against Seward on the latter's home ground."6 "It was undoubtedly Lincoln's Cooper Institute address and impressive tour of New Engalnd that convinced many Illinoisans of his presidential stature."7

Contemporary biographer William H. Herndon: "I advised Mr. Lincoln to go by all means and to lecture on politics. I told Mr. Lincoln I thought it would help open the way to the Presidency, thought I could see the meaning of the move by the New York men, thought it was a move against Seward, thought Greeley had something to do with it, think so yet, have no evidence."8

Contemporary biographer Josiah G. Holland: "The papers of the city were full of his address and with comments upon it the next day. The Illinois lawyer was a lion. Critics read the speech, and marveled at its pure and compact English, its felicity of statement and its faultless logic. It was read during the day not only by New York but by nearly all New England."9

Horace Greeley biographer Harlan Hoyt Horner wrote: "The measure of the man he had become is to be found in this address. Its language indicates the skill he had acquired in clarity of statement, in simplicity of style, and in effective straightforward thinking. The orderly, coherent, and unassailable logic of this speech gives evidence of the lawyer and politician at his best. The careful research on which it was based, the knowledge of the Constitution and the history of his country, of which it revealed him possessed, gave him the unmistakable rank of a statesman; and the courage and unabashed naturalness with which he addressed this distinguished audience in the East singled him out as presidential timber."10

Biographer Lord Longford: "In a sense Lincoln was only developing a theme that he had already promulgated quite often. The double message, however, was never perhaps spelled out so powerfully till the end of the Civil War. He spoke of the Southern people as a reasonable and just people and begged his own friends to treat them as such: 'Even though much provoked, let us do nothing through passion and ill-temper....We must not only let them [the South] alone, but we must somehow convince them that we do let them alone....Wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let alone where it is, because that much is due to the necessity arising from its actual presence in the nation.' But never in any circumstances must they disguise their deeply held conviction that the institution of slavery was intrinsically evil."11

Historian Reinhard H. Luthin: "Lincoln's New England speeches continued to strike the note of conservatism, caution, and conciliation. Though not mere repetitions of his Cooper Union Speech, they pointed out that slavery was wrong, and also they expressed a hope for abatement of sectional strife and controversy."12

Lincoln chronicler Herbert Mitgang: "He has good reason for wanting to show himself as a political man in the East. It is there that the real powers of the Republican party sit. And, as Lincoln writes in confidence to his political allies, during the delicate period when the nominating lines are being drawn for the presidential convention, he wishes to be considered a candidate."13

Biographer Mark E. Neely, Jr.: "The first part of the address thus resembled a history lecture more than a stump speech, Illinois style, but Lincoln may have been thinking of his new eastern audience and thinking as well that Horace Greeley editor of the New York Tribune and enemy of Seward, would find it easy to use his giant steam presses to publish the speech."14

Historian Allan Nevins: "Seldom has a speaker risen with such quiet mastery to his opportunity. His gaunt height, shaggy hair, and ungainly awkwardness in managing his long limbs and huge hands and feet, the bad cut and wrinkles of his new broadcloth suit, the shrillness of his voice, all combined at first to make a questionable impression. Then, as he warmed to his theme, as the glow of his earnestness lighted up his craggy face, as men caught the force of his ideas and language, he carried his audience with him. The tenor of his speech was as soberly conservative as Seward's. It fell into two halves; the first addressed to Douglas and a refutation of his arguments, the second to the South and a correction of its misconceptions. Its spirit throughout was calm and philosophic, employing historic facts to meet the popular sovereignty fallacy, and a sweet reasonableness to allay Southern fears. But whereas Seward had tended to blur moral principle, Lincoln emphasized it."15

Contemporary biographer John G. Nicolay: "The close attention bestowed on its delivery, the hearty applause that greeted its telling points, and the enthusiastic comments of the Republican journals next morning showed that Lincoln's Cooper Institute speech had taken New York by storm."16

Salmon P. Chase biographer John Niven: "Chase made a major mistake in the fall of 1859 when he refused the invitation tendered to him by William Cullen Bryant and other leading New Yorkers to I've an address in the city. Had he done so he might have upstaged Lincoln before the city's Republican elite. There is no doubt that Lincoln gained much momentum for the address he gave at Cooper Union some months later. Chase was now paying more attention to Lincoln though he and his supporters still thought Bates the major threat. But when Chase read the accounts of Lincoln's Cooper Union address he must have realized that the Illinoisan would prove a serious competitor. His chief campaign workers in the city, [James] Briggs and [Hiram] Barney, entertained Lincoln and wrote Chase glowing accounts of his visit."17

Biographer Stephen B. Oates: "Lincoln responded to continued southern imputations about the Republicans and John Brown. 'You charge that we stir up insurrections among your slave,' Lincoln said. 'We deny it; and what is your proof? Harpers Ferry! John Brown!! John Brown was no Republican and you have failed to implicate a single Republican in his Harper's Ferry enterprise." But he saved his most eloquent remarks for his fellow Republicans. Since they intended southerners no harm and promised over and over to leave their slaves alone, what then was the dispute about? 'The prime fact upon which depends the whole controversy' was that southerners thought slavery right and Republicans thought it wrong."18

Biographer Alonzo Rothschild: "After the [1859] Ohio election, which resulted in favor of the Republicans, Lincoln journeyed to Kansas. There as elsewhere, to judge from the reports of his speeches, - or rather from the fragments of several that have been preserved, - 'popular sovereignty,' together with the expounder of the doctrine, was still uppermost in his mind. And a few weeks thereafter, when he delivered at Cooper Institute, in New York, the most elaborate address of his life, that same subject furnished a theme, and one of Douglas's speeches, a text. The oration at the metropolis was, in fact, a grand summing up of the controversy opened by Lincoln, as we have seen somewhat over twenty months before, in the little western Capital. By a sort of political miracle, the arena in which the contestants then faced each other had, with unexampled rapidity, grown until it became coextensive with the entire country."19

Biographer Nathaniel Wright Stephenson: ""It was a masterly restatement of his position; of the essence of the debates with Douglas. It cleansed the Republican platform of all accidental accretions, as if a ship's hull were being scraped of barnacles preparatory to a voyage; it gave the underlying issues such inflexible definition that they could not be juggled with. Again he showed a power of lucid statement not possessed by any of his rivals."20

Contemporary biographer William O. Stoddard: "Those who heard and those who afterwards read it in print alike filed it away as an historical document. Those who listened to its delivery acknowledged with one voice that the country possessed and had now discovered one more great man and great orator. Nothing like this had been at all expected, although enough was already known of Mr. Lincoln to call together in Cooper Institute an audience which astonished him."21

Biographer Ida M. Tarbell: "Indeed it was scarcely to be expected that prudent and conservative men would conclude that, because he could make a good speech, he would make a good President. They knew him to be comparatively untrained in public life and comparatively untried in large affairs. They naturally preferred a man who had a record for executive statesmanship."22

Biographer Kenneth J. Winkle: "His Cooper Institute address was perhaps the most important that he delivered before winning the presidency. Invited to New York City by a group of young Republicans, Lincoln's task was to introduce himself to eastern Republicans, the wing of his party long faithful to the more radical Charles Sumner, William Seward, and Salmon Chase. His goal was to forge a coalition between eastern and western Republicans by presenting a conservative position and counseling moderation."23


  1. Isaac Arnold, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 157-158.
  2. William E. Barton, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 409.
  3. Noah Brooks, Abraham Lincoln: The Nationís Leader in the Great Struggle Through Which was Maintained the Existence of the United States, p. 185-186.
  4. Lord Charnwood, Abraham Lincoln, p. 156.
  5. David Herbert Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered, p. 238-239.
  6. Don E. Fehrenbacher, Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850s, p. 146.
  7. Don E. Fehrenbacher, Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850s, p. 154.
  8. Emanuel Hertz, editor, The Hidden Lincoln From the Letters and Papers of William H. Herndon, p. 76.
  9. Josiah G. Holland, Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 212.
  10. Harlan Hoyt Horner, Lincoln and Greeley, p. 165.
  11. Lord Longford, Abraham Lincoln, p. 76.
  12. Reinhard H. Luthin, The Real Abraham Lincoln, p. 210-211.
  13. Herbert Mitgang, The Fiery Trial: A Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 50.
  14. Mark E. Neely, Jr., The Last Best Hope on Earth, p. 54.
  15. Allan Nevins, The Emergence of Lincoln: Prologue to Civil War, 1859-1861, Volume II, p. 185-186.
  16. John Hay and John G. Nicolay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, p. 140.
  17. John Niven, Salmon P. Chase: A Biography, p. 215.
  18. Stephen B. Oates, Abraham Lincoln: The Man Behind the Myths, p. 78.
  19. Alonzo Rothschild, Lincoln: Master of Men: A Study in Character, p. 115-116.
  20. Nathaniel Wright Stephenson, Lincoln, p. 95.
  21. William O. Stoddard, Abraham Lincoln: The Man and the War President, p. 175.
  22. Josiah G. Holland, Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 341.
  23. Kenneth J. Winkle, The Young Eagle, p. 306.

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