Mr. Lincoln and New York
by Lewis E. Lehrman
A good suit is neither necessary nor sufficient for a good speech, much less a successful candidacy for the Presidency. Nevertheless in February 1860, Abraham Lincoln bought a new black suit before he left Springfield, Illinois to deliver the landmark speech of his first presidential campaign. He bought it because he wanted to make a good impression on sophisticated Easterners willing to pay twenty-five cents to come out in a snowstorm to hear him at the Cooper Union auditorium. And, he bought it because he did not want his perpetually disheveled appearance to distract New Yorkers from the persuasiveness of his ideas.
The Cooper Union speech was the only one Mr. Lincoln intended to give on that trip East—but its success led to invitations to give other speeches throughout New England. He honored those requests but responded to virtually no other petitions for public pronouncements until February 1861 when he left Springfield to travel to his inauguration. As a student of the Bible, he understood the dictum in Ecclesiastes about political timing. And unlike most contemporary politicians, Mr. Lincoln understood that it is equally important to know when to say nothing as it is to know when to say something important. So the speech that he so carefully prepared for delivery in New York stood in sharp contrast to the silence he maintained throughout the balance of 1860. Mr. Lincoln was described by legal colleague David Davis as Illinois’ “best stump speaker,” but he conducted an entire presidential campaign without entering a rose garden or mounting a stump.
With typical understatement, Lincoln protested at the opening of his Cooper Institute speech that little in it was new. The constitutional arguments Lincoln made concerning the intentions of the Founding Fathers were not new, but the force of his presentation was original. Responding to Mr. Lincoln’s speech in his newspaper, the New York Evening Post, Editor William Cullen Bryant commented that “part of it in which the speaker places the Republican party on the very ground occupied by the framers of our constitution and fathers of our republic, strikes us as particularly forcible.” Said the erstwhile Democratic, now Republican, editor: “In this great controversy the Republicans are the real conservative party. They simply adhere to a policy which had its origin with George Washington of Virginia, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Abraham Baldwin of Georgia, Alexander Hamilton of New York, and other men from other states worthy to be named with them.”1
In his address, Mr. Lincoln cogently and patiently explained the position of the Founding Fathers on slavery and how it contradicted the positions taken by leading southern and northern apologists for black servitude. Slavery’s defenders wanted northern opponents to “cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly—done in acts as well as in words.”2 According to Mr. Lincoln, “All they ask, we could readily grant, if we thought slavery right; all we ask, they could as readily grant, if they thought it wrong.”3
Mr. Lincoln warned his listeners about political duplicity: “Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored—contrivances such as groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong, vain as the search for a man who should be neither a living man nor a dead man—such as a policy of ‘don’t care’ on a question about which all true men do care—such as Union appeals beseeching true Union men to yield to Disunionists, reversing the divine rule, and calling, not the sinners, but the righteous to repentance—such as invocations to Washington, imploring men to unsay what Washington said, and undo what Washington did.”4
Mr. Lincoln understood the need in political discourse to take a political position and hold it against all frontal assaults and diversionary feints. He engaged neither in suicidal offensives nor pointless retreats. He was a much better political strategist than many of his biographers give him credit for. Mr. Lincoln did not respond to others’ timetables—either those of his contemporaries or those of his subsequent biographers. He did and said things when he deemed them to be necessary. New Yorkers responded to that kind of leadership—not so much in his lifetime as in his death.
Of President Lincoln’s funeral cortège in New York City, an observer wrote:
At Knabe and Co.’s, who, it is to be noticed, are the agents of a Baltimore house, a bust of Mr. Lincoln, severely simple in the absence of all ornamentation,was shown on a black pedestal, and underneath this a fitting quotation, which, however, was marred in the copying: “There was in this man something that could create, subvert or reform, an understanding spirit, and an eloquence to summon mankind to society, or to break the bonds of slavery asunder, and to rule the wilderness of free minds with unbounded authority—something that could establish and overwhelm an empire, and strike a blow in the world that should resound through the universe.5
Estimates of the crowd which turned out for the funeral processions on April 24 and 25, 1865 ranged up to one million. It was an unprecedented turnout and an unrivaled exhibition of grief. The contrast with Mr. Lincoln’s pre-inaugural visit to New York in 1860 could not have been sharper. Then, Mr. Lincoln had been invited to give a speech by the Young Men’s Republican Association. No one had greeted him when he arrived. He went unheralded to Astor House where he checked into a room for three nights. About 1200 New Yorkers struggled through the snow to attend his Monday night lecture. Those who attended were surprised and impressed. So were the city’s newspaper editors—some of whom sat on the platform and several of whom saw fit to print his “Cooper Institute” speech in its entirety.
One newspaper editor who was not impressed was the cantankerous and canny James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald. Bennett never warmed to Mr. Lincoln despite Lincoln’s many overtures before and after he became President. Lincoln’s last offer to Bennett was an appointment as the US Minister to Paris—an offer that Bennett declined less than five weeks prior to Lincoln’s assassination. But the Illinois President’s martyrdom and funeral affected even the New York Herald. A columnist for the paper reported:
New York never before saw such a day as it witnessed yesterday. Rome in the palmiest days of its power never witnessed such a triumphal march as New York yesterday formed and looked upon. When four years ago Abraham Lincoln passed through the city to be armed with authority as the nation’s leader, Broadway sufficed to contain the crowd which, with varied sentiments, cheered, and scoffed, and scowled him a doubtful welcome. When yesterday the same people, inspired with a common, universal sorrow, sadly followed his body, crowned with more glorious honors as the nation’s savior, the same wide street held hardly a fraction of them. Then he was going to be crowned chief magistrate of a divided people and disrupted nation on the eve of a great, bloody and uncertain war. Yesterday he was the great martyr of a nation united under his guidance and that of God, by the successful close of that gloomy war. Then he passed through almost unknown, and the crowd that followed his coach with cheers were actuated by curiosity as much as admiration. Yesterday it was different; yesterday witnessed the real triumphal march of Abraham Lincoln; for he had conquered the prejudices of all hordes and classes, and the hearts of the people who honored him beat with love and veneration of the man. Better for his fame that it should come thus late than too soon. This test of his success and his greatness can never be doubted or disputed.6
The same city which less than twenty-one months earlier had been rocked with riots to protest the drafting of Army recruits was now wracked with grief over the man who had imposed that draft. The city’s deep political divisions were temporarily healed. Even the city ministers united for a memorial service in Union Square that included Catholic Archbishop John McCluskey and Rabbi S.M. Isaacs. Most significantly in a city not known for its racial tolerance, two thousand blacks joined the line of march. Lincoln chronicler Lloyd Lewis called the procession “the greatest sight New York had ever seen: one hundred and sixty thousand persons, most of them in organized groups, marched in the parade, each group vying with the others for the happiest manifestation of woe.”7
Then as now, New York City was the crossroads of the nation. In New York Mr. Lincoln dealt with many of the major political players of the next decade, including Democratic presidential candidates Horatio Seymour (1868), Horace Greeley (1872), and Samuel J. Tilden (1876). As his casket passed through New York along the way back to Illinois, the casket was viewed in Buffalo by past President Millard Fillmore and future President Grover Cleveland. Even a toddler named Teddy Roosevelt supposedly caught a peek at the funeral cortège as it moved through New York City.
Prior to 1860, Mr. Lincoln’s visits to New York had attracted virtually no attention. He passed through the city in 1848 on the way to New England for a political speaking tour. In 1857, he again visited New York in late July, but there is no record of the visit in his hand. The only record is from Mr. Lincoln’s wife, Mary, who later wrote her half-sister: “The summer has so strangely and rapidly passed away. Some portion of it was spent most pleasantly in traveling East. We visited Niagara, Canada, New York and other points of interest. When I saw the large steamers at the New York landings I felt in my heart inclined to sigh that poverty was my portion. How I long to go to Europe. I often laugh and tell Mr. Lincoln that I am determined my next husband shall be rich.”8
New York was the nation’s richest and largest city. Mr. Lincoln could not afford to ignore New York—and eventually New York could not afford to ignore Mr. Lincoln. New York was home not only to the nation’s most influential daily newspapers but also to other important periodicals such as Harper’s Weekly, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News, and New York Illustrated News. President Lincoln once said: “Thomas Nast has been our best recruiting sergeant. His emblematic cartoons have never failed to arouse enthusiasm and patriotism.” Lincoln biographer Herbert Mitgang wrote: “Nast did pictures of training camps and battlefields early in the war and then graduated to drawings that interpreted the larger meaning of the war itself and President Lincoln.”9
Just as the Civil War tested Mr. Lincoln’s leadership skills, New York tested his political skills. “If Abraham Lincoln was not a master politician, I am entirely ignorant of the qualities which make up such a character,” wrote Alexander K. McClure, a Pennsylvania journalist and politician who had ample opportunity to observe the President in action. “In a somewhat intimate acquaintance with the public men of the country for a period of more than a generation, I have never met one who made so few mistakes in politics as Lincoln. The man who could call [Secretary of State William H.] Seward as Premier of his administration, with [Thurlow] Weed the power behind the Premier, often stronger than the Premier himself, and yet hold [New-York Tribune Editor] Horace Greeley even within the ragged edges of the party lines…would naturally be accepted as a man of much more than ordinary political sagacity. Indeed, I have never known one who approached Lincoln in the peculiar faculty of holding antagonistic elements to his own support, and maintaining close and often apparently confidential relations with each without offense to the other.”10
When President Lincoln’s funeral cortège passed through New York on April 24, 1865, the placards that lined the route told the story of Mr. Lincoln’s life:
“Only the actions of the just,
Smell sweet and blossom in the dust.”
“Oh, the pity of it, Iago—the pity of it.”
“Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud?”
“Barbarism of slavery—Can barbarism further go?”
“Be still and know that I am God!”
“A nation’s heart was struck!”
“In sorrowing tears the nation’s grief is spent,
Mankind has lost a friend and we a President.”
“He was a man, take him all in all,
We shall not look upon his like again.”11
On April 25, Mr. Lincoln’s body left the city to go through Upstate New York and back to Springfield, Illinois. But the legacy of his leadership, the Union and Emancipation, endures.
- Herbert Mitgang, ed., Abraham Lincoln: A Press Portrait (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1971), p. 156.
- Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. (New Bruswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953-55), Volume III, p. 547 (February 27, 1860).
- Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume III, p. 549 (February 27, 1860).
- Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume III, p. 550 (February 27, 1860).
- David T. Valentine, Obsequies of Abraham Lincoln, in the City of New York, Under the Auspices of the Common Council (New York: Edmund Jones & Co., 1866), p. 60.
- New York Herald, April 26, 1865, p. 1..
- Lloyd Lewis, Myths After Lincoln (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1929), p. 120.
- Letter from Mary Todd Lincoln to Emilie Todd, September 20, 1850, in Katherine Helm, The True Story of Mary, Wife of Lincoln (New York: Harper, 1928), p. 122-123.
- Herbert Mitgang, The Fiery Trial: A Life of Lincoln (New York: Viking Press, 1974), p. 149.
- Alexander K. McClure, Abraham Lincoln and Men of War-Times (Philadelphia: The Times Publishing Company, 1892), p. 85.
- Lewis, Myths After Lincoln, pp. 120-121.