Lincoln at Cooper Union - February 27, 1860

Photo of Abraham Lincoln taken February 27, 1860 in New York City by Mathew Brady, the day of his famous Cooper Union speech.

The Cooper Union Speech, or Address, was delivered by Abraham Lincoln on February 27, 1860, at Cooper Union, in New York City. Lincoln was not yet the Republican nominee for the presidency, as the convention was scheduled for May. It is considered one of his most important speeches. Some have argued it was responsible for making him President. In the speech, Lincoln elaborated his views on slavery, affirming that he did not wish it to be expanded into the western territories and claiming that the Founding Fathers would agree with this position. The journalist Robert J. McNamara wrote, "Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech was one of his longest, at more than 7,000 words. And it is not one of his speeches with passages that are often quoted. Yet, due to the careful research and Lincoln's forceful argument, it was stunningly effective." Horace Greeley's New York Tribune hailed it as "one of the most happiest and most convincing political arguments ever made in this City ... No man ever made such an impression on his first appeal to a New-York audience."

The speech

Lincoln's speech has three major parts, each building towards his conclusion. The first part concerns the founders and the legal positions they supported on the question of slavery in the territories. The second part is addressed to the voters of the southern states, clarifying the issues between Republicans and Democrats, arguing that the Republican position on slavery is the 'conservative' policy. The final section is addressed to Republicans.

In the first section, in response to a statement by Stephen Douglas, Lincoln asks rhetorically "What is the frame of government under which we live?" and answers that it "must be: 'The Constitution of the United States.'" From there he begins his reasoning on why the federal government can regulate slavery in the federal territories (those that were not states), especially resting on the character of the founders, and how they thought of slavery:

The sum of the whole is, that of our thirty-nine fathers who framed the original Constitution, twenty-one – a clear majority of the whole – certainly understood that no proper division of local from federal authority, nor any part of the Constitution, forbade the Federal Government to control slavery in the federal territories...

In the second part, in which he creates a prosopopoeia by creating a mock debate between Republicans and the South, Lincoln denies that Republicans are a "sectional" party, only representing interests in the Northern part of the country, and help incite slave rebellions. He rebukes the Southern accusation that Republicans helped John Brown by saying "John Brown was no Republican; and you have failed to implicate a single Republican in his Harper's Ferry enterprise." He addressed the single-mindedness of the Southerners, saying:

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.

He also tried to show that the Southern demand to secede from the Union if a Republican were to be elected president was like armed robbery: "the threat of destruction to the Union, to extort my vote, can scarcely be distinguished in principle" from that of a robber.

The third section, addressed to fellow Republicans, encourages level-headed thinking and cool actions, doing "nothing through passion and ill temper."

We must not only let them alone, but we must somehow, convince them that we do let them alone. This, we know by experience, is no easy task. We have been so trying to convince them from the very beginning of our organization, but with no success. In all our platforms and speeches we have constantly protested our purpose to let them alone; but this has had no tendency to convince them.

Lincoln states that the only thing that will convince the Southerners is to "cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right" and to support all their runaway slave laws and the expansion of slavery. He ends by saying that Republicans, if they cannot end slavery where it exists, must fight through their votes to prevent its expansion. He ends with a call to duty:

Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. 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 scholar Harold Holzer called the Cooper Union address “Lincoln’s watershed, the event that transformed him from a regional leader into a national phenomenon. Here the politician known as frontier debater and chronic jokester introduced a new oratorical style: informed by history, suffused with moral certainty, and marked by lawyerly precision.”

Text Credit: Wikipedia - Cooper Union Speech; Holzer quote: "The Speech That Made The Man". (American Heritage Magazine. Winter 2010. Volume 59, Issue 4).

Photo credit: Matthew Brady


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