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This Week in History: The Speech that Won Lincoln the Republican Nomination

Photograph of Abraham Lincoln

The most famous of the beardless poses, taken by Mathew B. Brady on Monday morning, February 27, 1860, only a few hours before Lincoln delivered his Cooper Union address. That speech and this portrait, Lincoln afterwards said, put him in the White House.

Last night, Daniel Day Lewis took home an Oscar for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln and became the first actor to win three lead Oscars. This week also marks an important milestone in the life of the real Abraham Lincoln, without which there likely would have been no president, and perhaps no movie or third Oscar for Lewis.

On February 27, 1860, Abraham Lincoln delivered a speech that played a pivotal role in his gaining the 1860 Republican Presidential nomination. In the well-researched Cooper Union Address, President Lincoln argued that of the 39 signers of the Constitution, 21 had voted at least once, some more than once, for the restriction of slavery in National Territories, thus “showing that, in their understanding, no line dividing local from federal authority, nor anything else, properly forbade the federal government to control as to slavery in federal territory.” The address was a stunningly effective argument demonstrating that the founding fathers intended Congress to regulate slavery and it provided a coherent justification for the Republican Party's opposition to slavery's extension.

Lincoln told the crowd of 1,500 New Yorkers, some of them prominent members of the Republican Party:

It is surely safe to assume that the 39 framers of the original Constitution, and the 76 members of the Congress which framed the amendments thereto, taken together, do certainly include those who may be fairly called "our fathers who framed the government under which we live." And so assuming, I defy any man to show that any one of them ever, in his whole life, declared that, in his understanding, any proper division of local from federal authority, or any part of the Constitution, forbade the federal government to control as to slavery in the federal territories. I go a step further. I defy any one to show that any living man in the whole world ever did, prior to the beginning of the present century, (and I might almost say prior to the beginning of the last half of the present century,) declare that, in his understanding, any proper division of local from federal authority, or any part of the Constitution, forbade the federal government to control as to slavery in the federal territories. To those who now so declare, I give, not only "our fathers who framed the government under which we live," but with them all other living men within the century in which it was framed, among whom to search, and they shall not be able to find the evidence of a single man agreeing with them.

Last night, Daniel Day Lewis took home an Oscar for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln and became the first actor to win three lead Oscars. This week also marks an important milestone in the life of the real Abraham Lincoln, without which there likely would have been no president, and perhaps no movie or third Oscar for Lewis.

On February 27, 1860, Abraham Lincoln delivered a speech that played a pivotal role in his gaining the 1860 Republican Presidential nomination. In the well-researched Cooper Union Address, President Lincoln argued that of the 39 signers of the Constitution, 21 had voted at least once, some more than once, for the restriction of slavery in National Territories, thus “showing that, in their understanding, no line dividing local from federal authority, nor anything else, properly forbade the federal government to control as to slavery in federal territory.” The address was a stunningly effective argument demonstrating that the founding fathers intended Congress to regulate slavery and it provided a coherent justification for the Republican Party's opposition to slavery's extension.
Lincoln told the crowd of 1,500 New Yorkers, some of them prominent members of the Republican Party:

It is surely safe to assume that the 39 framers of the original Constitution, and the 76 members of the Congress which framed the amendments thereto, taken together, do certainly include those who may be fairly called "our fathers who framed the government under which we live." And so assuming, I defy any man to show that any one of them ever, in his whole life, declared that, in his understanding, any proper division of local from federal authority, or any part of the Constitution, forbade the federal government to control as to slavery in the federal territories. I go a step further. I defy any one to show that any living man in the whole world ever did, prior to the beginning of the present century, (and I might almost say prior to the beginning of the last half of the present century,) declare that, in his understanding, any proper division of local from federal authority, or any part of the Constitution, forbade the federal government to control as to slavery in the federal territories. To those who now so declare, I give, not only "our fathers who framed the government under which we live," but with them all other living men within the century in which it was framed, among whom to search, and they shall not be able to find the evidence of a single man agreeing with them.

Addressing Southerners directly in the speech, Lincoln also argued that they were the revolutionary force seeking to upturn the policies adopted by the founding fathers:

But you say you are conservative—eminently conservative—while we are revolutionary, destructive, or something of the sort. What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried? We stick to, contend for, the identical old policy on the point in controversy which was adopted by "our fathers who framed the government under which we live;" while you with one accord reject, and scout, and spit upon that old policy, and insist upon substituting something new.

The Cooper Union Address won Lincoln the support of Republican leaders in the East, convincing them that a Westerner with no formal education was as rhetorically gifted as anyone from the East. Lincoln’s address lasted over an hour and he was often interrupted by cheers from the crowd. The New York Times ran the text of the speech on its front page the following day and the New York Tribune pronounced the address "one of the happiest and most convincing political arguments ever made in this city."

Read the full speech in our archives here.

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