Friday, October 30, 2009

New York Civil War Site: Cooper Union

This past weekend, I visited the Cooper Union hall with a number of other Civil War buffs. It was here that Lincoln gave his famous speech that made him a candidate for President.

The tour guide related a number of interesting facts. First, the college had not invited Lincoln to speak there. He had originally been invited to speak at Henry Ward Beecher's Plymouth Church in Brooklyn. Cooper Union is located across the East River in downtown Manhattan. Brooklyn was a separate city at that time. The Brooklyn Bridge had not yet been built. The organizers feared that it would snow, causing the river to freeze. At that time, the only means to Manhattan from Brooklyn were steamboat or foot. Contrary to most accounts, our guide pointed out that it did not snow. There was fear of snow.

Lincoln stood on the stage and delivered his speech with 1,500 people in attendance. The audience members paid a sizable sum, twenty-five cents, to attend. You know that the audience must have been composed primarily of middle class and well-off individuals.

Though he was a wealthy attorney at the time, Lincoln wore a rumpled suit. He had not given sufficient attention to his grooming.

He also thought little about the speech after delivering it. He wrote to his wife that he had no trouble delivering the speech. It reminds one about Lincoln's reaction after delivering the Gettysburg Address.

As a midwestern lawyer, he was little known in the East. After the Cooper Union speech, he acquired a national reputation.

The most famous phrase in the speech is "right makes might." However, Lincoln also made an interesting statement about the South's attitude prior to the war.

He said,"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." (emphasis added)

Whether you agree with that view or not, that is what happened. The South ruled over itself and then suffered ruin. The Cooper Union speech not only created a presidential candidate. It was prophetic.

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