Lincoln on the Founding Fathers and Expansion of Slavery


2nd Lieutenant
Oct 26, 2012
see link for full speech

Cooper Union Address

New York, New York
February 27, 1860

In October 1859 Abraham Lincoln accepted an invitation to lecture at Henry Ward Beecher's church in Brooklyn, New York, and chose a political topic which required months of painstaking research. His law partner William Herndon observed, "No former effort in the line of speech-making had cost Lincoln so much time and thought as this one," a remarkable comment considering the previous year's debates with Stephen Douglas.
The carefully crafted speech examined the views of the 39 signers of the Constitution. Lincoln noted that at least 21 of them -- a majority -- believed Congress should control slavery in the territories, not allow it to expand. Thus, the Republican stance of the time was not revolutionary, but similar to the Founding Fathers, and should not alarm Southerners (radicals had threatened to secede if a Republican was elected President).
When Lincoln arrived in New York, the Young Men's Republican Union had assumed sponsorship of the speech and moved its location to the Cooper Institute. The Union's board included members such as Horace Greeley and William Cullen Bryant, who opposed William Seward for the Republican Presidential nomination. Lincoln, as an unannounced presidential aspirant, attracted a capacity crowd of 1,500 curious New Yorkers.
An eyewitness that evening said, "When Lincoln rose to speak, 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." However, once Lincoln warmed up, "his face lighted up 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 like the rest, yelling like a wild Indian, cheering this wonderful man."
Herndon, who knew the speech but was not present, said it was "devoid of all rhetorical imagry." Rather, "it was constructed with a view to accuracy of statement, simplicity of language, and unity of thought. In some respects like a lawyer's brief, it was logical, temperate in tone, powerful - irresistibly driving conviction home to men's reasons and their souls."
The speech electrified Lincoln's hearers and gained him important political support in Seward's home territory. Said a New York writer, "No man ever before made such an impression on his first appeal to a New York audience." After being printed by New York newspapers, the speech was widely circulated as campaign literature.
Easily one of Lincoln's best efforts, it revealed his singular mastery of ideas and issues in a way that justified loyal support. Here we can see him pursuing facts, forming them into meaningful patterns, pressing relentlessly toward his conclusion.
With a deft touch, Lincoln exposed the roots of sectional strife and the inconsistent positions of Senator Stephen Douglas and Chief Justice Roger Taney. He urged fellow Republicans not to capitulate to Southern demands to recognize slavery as being right, but to "stand by our duty, fearlessly and effectively."

brass napoleon

Retired Moderator
Member of the Year
Honored Fallen Comrade
Feb 6, 2010
A terrific speech. I always find it interesting how willing some people are to quote a single sentence from a letter that Lincoln wrote to Horace Greeley, as evidence that Lincoln didn't care at all about slavery, and yet completely ignore this entire speech (and dozens of other speeches and letters that were all about slavery). But Lincoln was absolutely clear throughout his political career, including his entire time in the White House - slavery was wrong and he would make no compromises on stopping its expansion.

I especially like the closing remarks of this speech:

Nor can we justifiably withhold this, on any ground save our conviction that slavery is wrong. If slavery is right, all words, acts, laws, and constitutions against it, are themselves wrong, and should be silenced, and swept away. If it is right, we cannot justly object to its nationality - its universality; if it is wrong, they cannot justly insist upon its extension - its enlargement. All they ask, we could readily grant, if we thought slavery right; all we ask, they could as readily grant, if they thought it wrong. Their thinking it right, and our thinking it wrong, is the precise fact upon which depends the whole controversy. Thinking it right, as they do, they are not to blame for desiring its full recognition, as being right; but, thinking it wrong, as we do, can we yield to them? Can we cast our votes with their view, and against our own? In view of our moral, social, and political responsibilities, can we do this?

Wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is, because that much is due to the necessity arising from its actual presence in the nation; but can we, while our votes will prevent it, allow it to spread into the National Territories, and to overrun us here in these Free States? If our sense of duty forbids this, then let us stand by our duty, fearlessly and effectively. Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored - contrivances such as groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong, vain as the search for a man who should be neither a living man nor a dead man - such as a policy of "don't care" on a question about which all true men do care - such as Union appeals beseeching true Union men to yield to Disunionists, reversing the divine rule, and calling, not the sinners, but the righteous to repentance - such as invocations to Washington, imploring men to unsay what Washington said, and undo what Washington did.

Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, 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.


Lt. Colonel
Feb 23, 2010
A little off topic, yet very similar. Liincoln showed his First Inaugural Speech to Seward for comment and Seward thought it too hard ande lack any appeal to compromise and Lincoln immediately accepted the criticism and added the last paragraph and, to my mind, it does make a very big difference in the tone of the Speech, which, until the addition of that last parragraph, does indeed seem hard and unyielding in all aspects concerning secession.

P.S. of course, to committed secessionis(not Lincoln's intended audience) it is still a declaration of war.


2nd Lieutenant
Oct 26, 2012
Comments surrounding the speech: by Harold Holzer

Last edited: