Saturday, February 27, 2010

Abraham Lincoln's Cooper Union Address

Today marks the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's historic address at New York City's Cooper Institute. A few years ago, no less than Harold Holzer boldly claimed that this speech -- and perhaps a photograph by Matthew Brady taken during this visit -- made Lincoln president.

Holzer is likely right. Certainly, Lincoln at Cooper Union, his book examining the speech, its preparation, context, and consequences is one of the best recent books on Lincoln (and was a finalist for the 2005 Lincoln Prize). At length, Holzer details Lincoln's preparation for this speech. Lincoln began with a simple question: What did the founders' believe was the role of the federal government in regulating slavery? Many in the slavery debate claimed that the founders were on their side. Lincoln painstakingly studied records in the Illinois State Law Library to determine how the founders actually voted on the issue of regulating slavery in the American territories. He determined that the Republican Party position correlated with the votes of the vast majority of the founders. In his Cooper Union address, Lincoln carefully presented these findings and then argued consequences based on them.

The speech proved that Lincoln, who had built the beginnings of a national reputation as the man who challenged Stephen Douglas to seven fierce debates, had intellectual power. The Cooper Union address is not built on wit or homespun stories, but on thoughtful analysis. But if we simply marvel at it today, without recognizing the habitual preparation behind it, we are like those Eastern crowds -- amazed that the backwoods, frontier lawyer could make such a smart, polished speech, but expecting him to return to his coarse jokes and rough ways, even as he goes to the White House.

Perhaps more interesting, and less commented on, is that this speech capably demonstrates one of Lincoln's greatest attributes -- his dogged preparation -- that is glimpsed throughout his life, and likely made Lincoln a great president. In fairness, much effort has been exhausted on examining certain aspects of Lincoln's meticulous personality. Douglas Wilson, in his remarkable book Lincoln's Sword, shows how Lincoln carefully edited his words before delivery or publication. Allen Guelzo, in Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation (oddly, the book that bested Holzer's for the 2005 Lincoln Prize), shows how carefully Lincoln considered the issue of emancipation and how he delicately, but determinedly, shaped the issue over the first 15 months of his presidency. In my estimation, though, no one has demonstrated Lincoln's similar deliberate instincts in his role as commander-in-chief. The onetime militiaman studied textbooks on military strategy and viewed demonstrations of modern military weapons in order to better understand how much his army could accomplish. As he became more confident in his military thinking, Lincoln became more proactive, and more effective, in dealing with his generals.

In short, I would argue (and this argument could be a book, so I'll be brief here) that Lincoln's preparation, which made his address at Cooper Union so important in his ascent to the presidency, was the same thing that had brought a frontier boy with little education from the backwoods of Kentucky and Indiana to the leadership of Illinois Republicans in 1860. This preparation also made Lincoln's presidency great, allowing him to lead effectively in the things he is most remembered for: saving the union, ending slavery, and his timeless words defending both those things.

The speech is well worth reading or re-reading. The full text is available in several places, including Holzer's book and countless collections of Lincoln speeches. It is also available online, courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Association and the University of Michigan Library, in their full-text Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

2010 Lincoln Prize Announced

Gettysburg College and the Gilder Lehrman Institute have announced the 2010 Lincoln Prize will be awarded to Michael Burlingame for his 2000+ page two volume biography, Abraham Lincoln: A Life. Burlingame, now the Chair of Lincoln Studies at the University of Illinois-Springfield, is reputed to have spent two decades working on the first major multi-volume biography of Lincoln in over a generation.

Needless to say, I have yet to read Burlingame's now award-winning book. I've twenty-some pages of the original unedited draft, which has more extensive footnotes and is available at the Lincoln Studies Center's website. It is impressive, but I know that I need to read it in old-fashioned book form.

Even without reading Burlingame's work, it is not surprising that it was recognized. Burlingame is frequently seen as one of the foremost Lincoln scholars alive, with a reputation for an almost encyclopedic knowledge of Lincoln-related source materials. More surprising was the scholarly nature of the other finalists, which overlooked some other high profile Lincoln releases in the bicentennial year.

Burlingame will receive the award at a ceremony on April 27.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Lincoln Model Homes

A few weeks ago, after I posted a note about the scale model kits of various Lincoln sites offered online by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, Mike Kienzler of The Abraham Lincoln Observer challenged me to a "build-off" of simple models. Today, we are posting our results.

Mike has constructed the model of the Berry-Lincoln Store (in historic New Salem). Take a look at his post to see his effort, which also has some information on how the models came to be.

I built the model of the Thomas Lincoln cabin outside of Charleston, Illinois. Here are a couple of pictures of the finished product.

Here's the best photo I can find of real location, part of the Wikipedia entry on the Lincoln historical site.

I never imagined I'd need to do an art project again, at least until I had kids, but I must say that I enjoyed this little one (enough that I'm thinking about trying another model). Getting the hang of craft glue again, particularly with some of the model's small tabs, was a bit of a challenge, but otherwise the model was pretty straight-forward. For someone who is artistically challenged, it was a pretty good experience.

Hopefully this will encourage others to give these projects a try. Thanks to Mike the challenge to do this.