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.