On February 27, 1860, Abraham Lincoln stood before a crowd at Cooper Union on 8th Street in New York City, attempting to convince a strongly Democratic city that he, a Republican, deserved the presidency. Until then he was thought of mostly as a country lawyer, but his speech at Cooper Union let New York Republicans market him as a “thoughtful orator” and a reasonable moderate that understood the needs of the country as a whole. It was this speech that won him support in New York, which helped turn him from politician to President. So what exactly did Lincoln say?
Many people view Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator,” but in 1860 he was more focused on preserving the current status quo. He opposed the spread of slavery, but wanted to leave it alone where it existed, and promised to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law. “As those [founding] 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 among us makes that toleration and protection a necessity.” He still called slavery an “evil,” but one that he was willing to deal with.
Many arguments about slavery hinged on the idea that our founding fathers would not have wanted the federal government to control what was seen as a states rights issue, while others balked at the idea of following. Lincoln addressed this head on: “I did not mean to say we are bound to follow implicitly in whatever our fathers did. To do so, would be to discard all the lights of current experience—to reject all progress—all improvement. What I do say is, that if we would supplant the opinions and policy of our fathers in any case, we should do so upon evidence so conclusive, and argument so clear, that even their great authority, fairly considered and weighed, cannot stand; and most surely not in a case whereof we ourselves declare they understood the question better than we.” You can read the full speech here.
The next day, New York Tribune editor Horace Greely declared “No man ever before made such an impression on his first appeal to a New-York audience.”