The Cooper Union Speech and the Rise of Abraham Lincoln

04 Apr 2024 8:04 PM | Therese Orr (Administrator)

This article originally appeared in the pages of the Gettysburg Times, January of 2024. It was penned by Ken Kime of the Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania, in the hopes of sharing the work the Fellowship does.

Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas’s famed 1858 debates on the issue of slavery helped both men achieve popularity in their pursuit of the White House and are often remembered as the early proving ground of Lincoln’s political career.  However, the public generally declared Douglas the victor of those debates, and it would not be until two years later, at Cooper Union, that Lincoln would come to convince the American public of the dominance of his political aptitude.

In 1859, Lincoln campaigned in Ohio, where he gained accolades for his ability to deliver speeches in dramatic fashion. He spoke in Dayton, Columbus, Hamilton, and Cincinnati. Because of one particularly powerful address in Cincinnati at the Fifth Street Market and the ensuing widespread press coverage it garnered, residents in the northeast started to pay more attention to the man from Illinois. At that time, the front runner for the presidential nomination in New York was William Seward—ironically, the man who would later become Lincoln’s Secretary of State. Lincoln was becoming better known in the East, but still wasn’t popular enough to gain any momentum over Seward.

However, in February of 1860, the Rev. Henry Ward invited Lincoln to speak in New York City. After Lincoln accepted the invitation, an estimated 1500 people expressed an interest in attending and the venue was moved to The Cooper (Institute) Union Hall instead of Rev. Ward’s church. Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon said that Lincoln worked harder on this speech than on any that he had written before. The speech was delivered on February 27, 1860. Noah Brooks, a New York Tribune journalist, took special note of the applause that interrupted the speech, as well as the enthusiasm generated amongst the audience.

The Cooper Union speech was a huge success for Lincoln’s push for the White House. During his stay in New York City, he also met popular figures, William Cullen Bryant, Noah Brooks, Horace Greely, Gideon Wells, and Mathew Brady. The extensive newspaper coverage of the program produced an estimated 170,000 copies of the speech that circulated widely, furthering increasing Lincoln’s popularity.  After delivering the speech, Lincoln had Mathew Brady take a formal picture of Lincoln, which remains an iconic image to this day, and printed a formal copy of the speech itself.

While out east, he made appearances and delivered speeches in New Haven, Connecticut, and Providence, Rhode Island. While in New Hampshire, he also visited his son Robert at his prep school for Harvard, in Exeter.

Lincoln went on to make additional speeches in Chicago that March and in Council Bluffs, Iowa in August, but his Cincinnati appearance and the Cooper Union speech in New York City were doubtless fundamental for helping to secure the Republican nomination for the Presidency.

For more information on Lincoln and to learn about The Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania, visit

Ken Kime is the Vice President of The Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania.

Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania is a 501(c)3 Organization
P. O. Box 3372, Gettysburg, PA  17325


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