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Margin Notes

Lincoln at Cooper Union

Today, February 27, marks the anniversary of Lincoln’s Cooper Union Address.

In October 1859, Abraham Lincoln accepted an invitation to lecture at Henry Ward Beecher’s church in Brooklyn, New York.

However, when Lincoln arrived in New York, the Young Men’s Republican Union had assumed sponsorship of the speech and moved its location to the Cooper Institute in Manhattan. The Union’s board included members such as Horace Greeley and William Cullen Bryant. Lincoln, as an unannounced presidential aspirant, attracted a capacity crowd of 1,500 curious New Yorkers. Extensively researched, Lincoln’s speech examined the 39 signers of the Constitution and explained that 21 of the signers, a majority, had voted at least once, some more than once, for the restriction of slavery in National Territories. The speech played a pivotal role in Lincoln gaining the 1860 Republican Presidential nomination.

Just hours after the address, Lincoln visited the photographic studio of Mathew Brady. The resulting photo from that visit is commonly referred to as the “Cooper Union Pose.” It is one of the few full-length photographs of Lincoln before he became president. Three months after it was taken, and publicly circulated, Lincoln was nominated as the GOP presidential candidate. The photograph was widely disseminated during the national campaign, both in the illustrated press and through the popular Currier and Ives prints. One of the most important applications was campaign ribbons. We are happy to share one with you here today.

Lincoln was a savvy politician who understood the intrinsic value of image. When interviewed late in his life about the session, Brady recalled that Lincoln “…was full of fun in the gallery,” …“as genial as a summer day, and teeming with reminiscence.” Brady also recalled when he visited Lincoln at the White House shortly after he was elected, Lincoln exclaimed that this picture, along with the speech, had made him president.