Friday, August 27, 2004

Abraham Lincoln at Cooper Union, 1860.


How did Abraham Lincoln, as a one-term Congressman, and unsuccessful candidate for Senate from Illinois, use an invitation to come to New York to make a speech to turn himself into a viable candidate for the Republican nomination?

The answer to this question can be found in the new book Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President by Harold Holzer.

Originally, Lincoln was invited to come to Brooklyn to speak as part of a speaker’s series sponsored by local opponents of New York’s Senator William Seward (then the front-runner for the Republican nomination in 1860) and supporters of Salmon Chase (one of the stars of Gore Vidal’s Lincoln.) As the book describes, by the time Lincoln finally made it to Brooklyn in February 1860, the series had ended without him, and the speech was moved to Cooper Union as a one-time event.

As a doctrinal matter, Lincoln had to show that he could split the difference between Stephen Douglas on his right (or Republicans like Chase on his right) and William Seward on his left, that he could do this by showing that Lincoln stood with the framers of the Constitution on the slavery question (i.e. containment, with slavery placed on the path to ultimate extinction), and that he could do this in a manner that was palatable enough to make him, at worst, every Republican's second choice for President.

In addition to all that, Lincoln had more practical problems to consider: (a) he had to convince an Eastern audience that he was not a country bumpkin, (b) the custom of the time made it impossible for a candidate for President to admit he was a candidate for President, and (c) he could not stay in New York indefinitely.

The Cooper Union speech shocked the audience. First the speech was far less folksy and more carefully researched than Lincoln’s reputation. The speech Lincoln gave at Cooper Union was not made by the “rail-splitter,” but by the railroad attorney. Second, the person delivering the speech was far taller, more alien and more disheveled than even Lincoln’s reputation in New York suggested. Much of the Holzer book records the “you had to be there” quality of the speech, how people disappointed by Lincoln’s appearance were generally won over not only by the contents of the speech, as by his speaking manner. The book contains many testimonies about how Lincoln’s face lit up as he was speaking.

In order to translate this captivating speaking manner to an audience that would not have a chance to see Lincoln, the book describes how careful Lincoln and his supporters were in the reproduction and distribution of the speech. After delivering the speech, and after going to dinner with his supporters, in other words, around midnight, Lincoln went to the offices of the New York Tribune, and proof-read the galleys of the speech. Lincoln had to have been there most of the night. Other reprints, attempting to show Lincoln’s speaking style, indicated where the crowd at Cooper Union applauded. Later, Lincoln supporters, with the approval and the oversight of Lincoln, re-created all of Lincoln’s research to produce an annotated copy of the address (re-published in the Holzer book), which contained scholarly footnotes about American constitutional thought from the Revolutionary War era

After spending a few days in New York, Lincoln was scheduled to visit his son, Robert, a student at Phillips-Exeter in New Hampshire. In between this visit, Lincoln gave 11 speeches in 12 days, none of which had been scheduled before he left Illinois, and all of which were variations of the Cooper Union speech. Although Lincoln traveled without an entourage, the book describes how the speeches took an increasingly vibrant nature. Lincoln turned down many other invitations, as he had to get back to Springfield. Once he returned to Springfield, he did not leave until he went to Washington to become President (i.e., he did not even make a speech at the convention --- it was not the custom of the time for a candidate who had been "drafted" by the convention one evening, to have the time to travel cross-country and give a carefully-prepared speech by the next evening.) In responding to any substantive question after he returned from New York, Lincoln always said that he had previously made his position plain (in either the Lincoln-Douglas debates or the Cooper Union speech), and had nothing new to add. Would that our current politicians stay on message that well!

The book never quite says this, but beyond the fact that it was unseemly for a politician to be making this sort of speaking trip, it also seems that Lincoln did not have the money necessary to stay out on the road indefinitely. Beyond a $200 fee for speaking at Cooper Union, Lincoln paid all his own expenses. The $200 fee itself stirred up a controversy with supporters of Seward, who questioned Lincoln’s motives. (One of the evocative treats about reading books about 19th-century political campaigns is the realization that they were far nastier than our own. The notion of objective, fact-finding journalism was a completely alien concept. The current campaign is merely a nostalgic reminder of those times.)

The Holzer book spends many pages pointing out the other important matter Lincoln accomplished in New York – he had his picture taken by Matthew Brady. This portrait would be mass-produced, sold, copied, perverted, but was basically the only picture of Lincoln that was in circulation during 1860. The picture (on the book's cover) showed Lincoln as sober and statesman-like. Lincoln and Brady went to some lengths to make it that way. Thousands and thousands of pamphlets containing the Cooper Union speech with the Brady picture on the cover were distributed during 1860. The story of photography and printing presses in the 1860s, how things were mass produced and distributed, and how changes in technology made the distribution possible, made the Selling of the President 1860 possible, was an unexpected pleasure in reading the book.

The effect that Lincoln’s presence, together with the content of the speech, had on New York elites, particularly politicians and journalists, and the effect that the speaking tour had on party regulars in New England, made Lincoln a viable candidate for the Republican nomination in 1860. The fact that the convention was in Chicago did not hurt. Lincoln accomplished what he set out to do in New York. He turned himself from a dark-horse to everybody’s second choice. The book does not really cover the interesting story about how David Davis turned Lincoln into the convention’s first choice. However, the book shows the power of one speech to change the public’s mind, and to bring a politician to the forefront of a country’s consciousness.

One final irony that the book brings out is that although Lincoln made quite a splash in New York City, the city, then as now, was basically a Democratic city, and New York City (but not New York State) overwhelmingly supported the Democratic candidate, Stephen Douglas again, in the election of 1860.


I write this after the Democratic convention of 2004, but before the Republican
convention, where George W. Bush will also make his one great New York City speech, knowing that when the speech is over, he will have changed few minds in New York City, but hoping that his speech has a greater impact on the country as a whole.

A better parallel, however, would probably be the speech that another tall thin mid-level politician from Illinois made at the Democratic convention. That, of course, would be the speech Barack Obama made on the Tuesday night of the Democratic Convention.

Obama’s speech was not televised by the networks. The conventions are no longer deemed worthy of the full attention of the networks because the nomination being a foregone conclusion, the conventions are no longer sporting events, and therefore no longer newsworthy.

This attitude is a tragic mistake. Network television spends hours of prime-time broadcasting events where the conclusion is already known to viewers – the hero will survive to next week’s episode.

Moreover, the final result of the convention, the final pageant, is completely about the horse race and completely about relative power, two things television professes to love. The outcome of the convention, the bland speech by Senator Jones from 8:43 to 8:49, is the product of intricate power plays of who gets to speak, who doesn’t get to speak, who gets the best time slot, how much they get to speak. The speech itself shows whether or not the speaker benefits, whether or not the candidate benefits, whether or not the party benefits, and whether or not the public benefits.

If the networks would cover this – the convention as a fight over television face time --- they would have both their horse-race analysis and something highly relevant to say about what the political parties believe themselves to be, and how much of that they choose to show the voters. The Democrats tried to limit Al Sharpton to 6 minutes. Did not happen. They tried to censor Jimmy Carter’s remarks. Did not happen. They wanted, and got, Max Cleland in at 10:00 prime-time pick-up to introduce the President. I say Kerry would have been better off at 10:00 p.m. if his daughter was telling the hamster story.

At one point recently, I believe the Republican 10:00 p.m. lineup included Giuliani, Schwarzenegger, McCain and Zell Miller. Not a Republican in the lot. The story of this Republican convention (other than the transformation of the supposed Gommorah of the World – New York City – into Alcatraz) is how and to what degree people like Rick Santorum break the conservative stranglehold.

The networks are trying to catch lightning in a bottle with reality TV. Hour after hour of garbage just to catch Omarosa breaking through on The Apprentice. Hour after hour of inside baseball with the participants talking about how to charm the Donald and cheat each other. Why isn’t the convention coverage at least about that? Why isn’t the convention coverage at least about television, and how the scarcity of prime time changes the entire nature of the conventions? I’m a political junkie, so I of course find that interesting, and seek it out. However, I think if the general public cares about whether or not Omarosa made it to the last Apprentice wedding, they would care about how Al Sharpton happened to run 17 minutes over, and what he said during that time. (Or maybe not, since the actual television response of coverage of Sharpton’s speech, was not about the content of the speech, or how it effected the Democrats. Rather, it was an unbroken whine about how Sharpton’s speech made it impossible for the cable networks to break for commercial.)

The networks could not find time for Barama of Illinois. Barama’s speech, if you read it, is not that special. If you saw it, you see an electrifying leader taking the national stage. How will the Republicans choose their new stars? Will someone fail in their star making moment --- as Bill Clinton once did. If we care about how we choose our new fashion models, our new boy band singers, and our new Donalds, shouldn’t we care about that as well?

If Holzer’s book on Lincoln shows us nothing else, it shows us that the qualities of leadership are a combination of skill and the ineffable. It shows us that the medium is the message. I think the networks should cover something between 9 pm and 10 pm. I would prefer it if they cover the conventions. The very least they can do is cover themselves.