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How We Elected Lincoln

A.J. Dittenhoefer

 

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II

LINCOLN 'S INTRODUCTION
TO THE EAST

ABRAHAM LINCOLN made his first public appearance in New York at Cooper Union on the night of the 27th of February, 1860. My anti-slavery attitude was strengthened by that wonderful speech.

My acquaintance with Abraham Lincoln began on the afternoon of that memorable day. I was presented to him at his hotel, and I venture to hope that I made some impression on him. This may have been due to the fact that at an early age I had taken an active part in the Republican campaigns, and had followed with close attention the Lincoln and Douglas debates as they were reported in the New York journals. Consequently I could talk intelligently of national politics. I was on hand early at the Institute that night, and, having a seat upon the platform, I was able to observe the manner of the orator as well as to hear every word he uttered. The way in which he carried himself before the large audience that


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filled every nook and corner of that underground hall is engraven on my mind. He was a very homely man. Indeed, he often referred to his homeliness himself. His tall, gaunt body was like a huge clothed skeleton. So large were his feet and so clumsy were his hands that they looked out of proportion to the rest of his figure. No artistic skill could soften his features nor render his appearance less ungainly, but after he began to talk he was awkwardness deified.

In repose, as I saw him on many subsequent occasions, his face seemed dull, but when animated it became radiant with vitalized energy.

No textual report of his Cooper Institute address can possibly give any idea of its great oratorical merits. Mr. Lincoln never ranted, but gave emphatic emphasis to what he wished especially to "put across" by a slowness and marked clearness of enunciation. His voice was unpleasant, almost rasping and shrill at first. Perhaps this was due to the fact that he found it necessary to force it. A little later, he seemed to control his voice better, and his earnestness invited and easily held the attention of his auditors.

To summarize the seven thousand words spoken by Mr. Lincoln on that great occasion would be a difficult task and could not be successfully attempted in these reminiscences. I will only state that his theme was "slavery as the fathers viewed


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it." Its delivery occupied more than an hour, its entire purpose being to show that the fathers of the Republic merely tolerated slavery where it existed, since interference with it would be resisted by the South; moreover, recognition of the legality of slavery in those States had been the inducement offered to them to enter the Union .

Mr. Lincoln, however, indicated that he was unalterably and inflexibly opposed to the extension of slavery in territory in which it did not exist.

Mr. Lincoln began with a quotation from one of Senator Douglas's speeches, in which the "Little Giant" asserted that the framers of the Constitution understood the slavery question as well as, or better than, their descendants. He brilliantly traced the origin and growth of democracy under the various forms that preceded the final adoption of the Constitution.

As it appeared to an abolitionist in principle, the speaker handled the slavery question somewhat cautiously, chiefly condemning the contemplated repeal of the Missouri Compromise, and opposing the extension of slavery into Territories and States where it did not exist. The appeal that he made to the reason and the common sense of the Southerner was forcible. He denied that the Republicans of the North were sectional, or that they blamed the present generation of the South


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for the existence of slavery. He went out of his way to condemn the John Brown raid, asserting that the Republican party had no sympathy with that foolhardy enterprise. He compared the John Brown raid to the previous outbreak at Southampton , Virginia , under the negro, Nat Turner, in which sixty white people, mostly women and children, were destroyed. He denounced the declaration of the Southern people that Northern antislavery men had instigated the John Brown incursion at Harper's Ferry, and he showed that the trial of John Brown at Charlestown proved the allegation to be utterly fallacious.

The sentences near the close of Mr. Lincoln's address will serve as the keynote upon which he subsequently based his candidacy for the Presidency in opposition to the extremely radical antislavery views of Horace Greeley and William H. Seward.

"Wrong as we think slavery," said Lincoln , "we can 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, allow it to spread in the national Territories and to overrun us here in these free States ? Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith let us dare to do our duty as we understand it."

The reception of these closing words by former


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Whigs and partially convinced Republicans who were in the audience can hardly be described as enthusiastic. Many of these men left the auditorium that night, as I did, in a seriously thoughtful mood.

Nevertheless, Mr. Lincoln was congratulated by many upon the "boldness" of his views. And, indeed, they seemed radical at a time when nearly every prominent statesman of the country was "trimming" on the slavery question. The great Daniel Webster had ruined his political career some years previously by trying to be "all things to all men" politically.

When I called at Mr. Lincoln's hotel the following morning, I found Mr. Lincoln alone. The shouts of approbation of the previous night were still ringing in my ears, but the figure of the awkward Illinoisan suggested nothing in the way of public enthusiasm or personal distinction. He then and there appeared as a plain, unpretentious man. I ventured to congratulate him upon the success of his speech, and his face brightened. "I am not sure that I made a success," he said, diffidently.

During the remainder of the brief time I was with Mr. Lincoln in his hotel, together with two members of the Republican committee, there was only a general conversation about the Douglas-Lincoln debates, and the intense anti-slavery agi-


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tation prevailing in the Kansas and Nebraska Territories and in Illinois .

A few days after that epoch-making speech a prominent Democratic acquaintance, who had often expressed to me in language of bitterness his hatred of all people who opposed the South, assured me that Mr. Lincoln's speech had made him a Free-Soiler, although he had not believed it possible that such a change in his views could ever occur.

In subsequent speeches throughout New England Mr. Lincoln went to greater lengths in his denunciation of slavery. At Hartford , on the 5th of March, he denounced slavery as the enemy of the free working-man; a day later, at New Haven , he characterized slavery as "the snake in the Union bed"; at Norwich , on the ninth of that month, he described Douglas's popular sovereignty as "the sugar-coated slavery pill."

These later speeches greatly strengthened the anti-slavery agitation throughout the North, and went far to settle the opinions of the voters, who were wavering between Douglas 's popular sovereignty and the ultra radicalism of Garrison and Phillips.


 

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