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This Day in History: Abraham Lincoln's "right makes might" speech

On this day in 1860, Abraham Lincoln gives a speech that would propel him toward the presidency. He wasn’t yet the well-known figure that we think of today. To the contrary, his New York audience was being introduced to him for the first time.

They knew him only as the Illinois lawyer who had engaged in a series of debates with Senator Stephen A. Douglas two years earlier.

“No man ever made such an impression on his first appearance to a New York audience,” the New York Tribune soon concluded.

But Lincoln hadn’t expected to give the speech—at least not in the way it turned out. He’d traveled to New York City expecting to give a speech at Henry Ward Beecher’s church in Brooklyn. He soon discovered a change in plans: Sponsorship of the event had been assumed by the Young Men’s Republican Union. Likewise, the venue for the event had changed.

Lincoln would give his speech at the Great Hall in the Cooper Union, then the largest secular meeting hall in New York City.

The changes left Lincoln worried. “What he had prepared for Mr. Beecher’s church-folks,” he said at the time, “might not be altogether appropriate for a miscellaneous political audience.”

Were his hosts also having second thoughts? When they saw Lincoln on the day of the speech, they thought his “form and manner were indeed odd, and we thought him the most unprepossessing public man we had ever met.”

Nor did the standing-room-only crowd of 1,500 people have a good first impression.

“When Lincoln rose to speak,” one eyewitness wrote, “I was greatly disappointed. He was tall, tall—oh, how tall! and so angular and awkward that I had, for an instant, a feeling of pity for so ungainly a man. His clothes were black and ill-fitting, badly wrinkled—as if they had been jammed carelessly into a small trunk. . . . I said to myself: ‘Old fellow, you won’t do; it’s all very well for the wild West, but this will never go down in New York.’”

Lincoln soon resolved any lingering doubts. He’d spent weeks researching and preparing—and it showed.

“[P]retty soon he began to get into his subject,” our eyewitness explained, “he straightened up, made regular and graceful gestures; his face lighted as with an inward fire; the whole man was transfigured. I forgot his clothes, his personal appearance, and his individual peculiarities. Presently, forgetting myself, I was on my feet with the rest, yelling like a wild Indian, cheering this wonderful man.”

Naturally, Lincoln’s speech argued against slavery, particularly its expansion into new territories.

“Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us,” he concluded, “nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. Let us have faith that right makes might; and in that faith let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”

The speech was wildly successful. Newspapers reprinted the text, and it was later circulated widely during Lincoln’s presidential campaign.

Yet what could have happened if Lincoln had failed?

“[I]t is entirely possible,” historian Harold Holzer concludes, “that had he not triumphed before the sophisticated and demanding audience [at Cooper Union], Lincoln would never have been nominated, much less elected, to the presidency that November. And had Lincoln not won the White House in 1860, the United States—or the fractured country or countries it might otherwise have become without his determined leadership—might today be entirely different.”

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