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The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President

by Harold Holzer

Pub Date: May 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-7432-2466-3
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Had it not been for his “right makes might” speech on Feb. 27, 1860, at New York’s Cooper Union college, Abraham Lincoln might well have remained a rustic lawyer and back-country raconteur.

One can expect such fond hyperbole from Holzer, who has edited numerous collections of Lincolniana (none reviewed)—speeches, photographs, apothegms, and gossip. Cooper Union is with him (their Web site says the old rail-splitter’s appearance there was a principal factor in “assuring him the presidency”). Holzer’s structure is chronological—we learn how the invitation arrived in October 1859 from a group of young Republicans, how the honorarium was an impressive $200 (an amount that Lincoln’s political enemies later tried to use against him), how the venue was changed at the 11th hour from Henry Ward Beecher’s Brooklyn church, how Lincoln thoroughly researched his topic (the right of the federal government to prohibit slavery in the new territories), how he crafted his address (and supervised its subsequent publication), how his tall, homely, unkempt appearance initially startled his large audience (about three-fourths capacity), how he was introduced by William Cullen Bryant. Holzer’s research is prodigious: We learn that 168 gas lamps hissed in 27 crystal chandeliers; we’re told about each stop made by the future president’s train on his subsequent speaking tour through New England; we read that the Brooklyn ferry ran every seven minutes and cost two cents. Although Holzer is an unabashed (even effervescent) advocate for Lincoln—and for the significance of this speech—he also is careful to analyze the architecture and rhetoric of the remarks and to puncture some puffballs that have grown in the yard of Lincoln legends—e.g., that right after the speech he turned down a $10,000 annual salary to work for the New York Central Railroad (the offer was never made). The entire speech—annotated—appears in an appendix.

Sometimes more laudatory than analytical—but the enthusiasm is infectious.