If he had not come to New York, or if his speech there had been a failure, the Lincoln of history would not have existed.
On Saturday, February 25, 1860, Henry Bowen was in Manhattan catching up on some work at the Independent, a religious weekly he and other Plymouth founders had started back in 1848, with Reverend Beecher and Theodore Tilton as star columnists and editors. The offices were at 6 Beekman Street, just off Printing House Square. In the middle of the quiet afternoon an unsettling figure materialized across his desk from him. A battered stovepipe hat exaggerated his improbable height. He was dark and thin as a shadow, with swarthy, deeply lined cheeks and hooded blue-gray eyes. He wore a rumpled black suit and carried a carpetbag. He stood there for a few heartbeats radiating diffidence. Then, almost apologetically, in a thin and nasal voice, he introduced himself as Abraham Lincoln and held out a giant hand.
Bowen was startled. All New York Republicans had read Lincoln’s debates with Stephen Douglas when he unsuccessfully competed for Douglas’s Senate seat in 1858. But only Horace Greeley and a few others had ever seen or heard the man. Lincoln had passed through the city in 1848, and then briefly visited it once again with his wife, Mary, in 1857. The latter had been a business trip for him—he tried, unsuccessfully, to collect some $5,000 owed him for legal services by the Illinois Central Railroad, which had offices in the city. Mary, a pathological shopper, had loved strolling Broadway.
Bowen was not on the committee that had invited Lincoln to come speak at Plymouth Church the following Monday, which would be Lincoln’s first public speaking engagement in the metropolis. Although Lincoln had not yet declared himself a candidate, some Republicans were beginning to promote the prairie lawyer as a viable competitor to New York’s statesmanlike Seward, whom Bowen, and most everyone else, favored to lead the party in the upcoming presidential race.
From Springfield, Lincoln had traveled to Chicago, then by train to Philadelphia and finally Jersey City. From there he’d taken a ferry to Cortlandt Street and walked the few blocks to Bowen’s office. As the weary traveler asked Bowen’s indulgence to drape his long legs across the couch for a little rest, Bowen felt “sick at heart” over Lincoln’s prospects before a big-city audience.
The Plymouth committee had developed cold feet themselves. Invited speakers generated important revenue for the church, and they began to doubt that Lincoln, to whom they’d offered a very nice fee of two hundred dollars plus expenses, could fill the hall. Horace Greeley had pounced. He and William Cullen Bryant were on the board of an organization called the Young Men’s Central Republican Union. It had begun in the 1850s as a pro-Frémont group; Greeley was now pushing it to become an anti-Seward one. The group gladly took over sponsorship of Lincoln’s visit, and moved the venue to the Great Hall of the new Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in Manhattan. Lincoln didn’t know of the venue change until Bowen told him.
In the Tribune, Greeley exhorted all Republicans in the city to come hear “a man of the people, a champion of free labor, of diversified and prosperous industry.” In the Evening Post, Bryant was predicting that Lincoln would utter “a powerful assault upon the policy and principles of the pro-slavery party, and an able vindication of the Republican creed.” Because Henry Raymond was in Seward’s camp, the Times barely noticed Lincoln’s arrival.
After resting up awhile in Bowen’s office, Lincoln walked a short way over to bustling, clattering Broadway. Towering above the jostling crowd, a full seven feet from his heels to the top of his beaver hat, he turned into the Astor House. The Astor, which had been the jewel of luxury hotels when young Dan Sickles hobnobbed with Greeley and others there in the 1840s, had now been overtaken by newer, more deluxe competitors—the nearby Metropolitan; the St. Nicholas up at Broadway and Broome Street, featuring steam heat, which may be why it was a favorite of Southern visitors; and the Fifth Avenue uptown, where Edwin Booth lived. But the Astor was the dowager empress, still the favorite of visiting politicians and writers, who enjoyed bending ears and elbows in its top-notch restaurant and bar. The Lincolns had stayed there in 1857.
After a bellboy got a fire going in his room’s fireplace, Lincoln sat long into the night working on his speech. The next morning, at Bowen’s invitation, he joined the crowds streaming to the Fulton Street ferry landing. The Beecher Boats left every five minutes on Sunday mornings, and they were packed. Stepping off at the landing in the area now called DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), the crowd surged up the hill and onto Orange Street, where doormen kept them milling outside while members with rented pews took their seats. Only then were visitors allowed to pack the galleries. Bowen easily spotted Lincoln in the crush and escorted him to his family pew. Lincoln, with his ridiculously long legs, took the aisle seat. A small brass plaque still marks the spot. Bowen introduced him to Beecher after the service. Lincoln, never the most comfortable extemporaneous speaker himself, greatly admired the show Beecher put on. Beecher was too impressed with himself to think much of Lincoln; like many others in New York, he considered him coarse and not very intelligent. Like Horace Greeley, he would be both an ally and a gadfly.
On Monday a delegation of local Republicans met Lincoln at the Astor House. They spent some time fussing with the new black frock coat he’d bought for the trip; the sleeves were too short, and it had wrinkled in his trunk. They also gave him a new silk top hat to replace his worn-out beaver. Then they led him uptown to Mathew Brady’s photography studio to have his portrait taken.
Brady’s early years are obscure. Evidently he emigrated from Ireland but claimed to have been born upstate in the early 1820s. By the 1840s he was in New York City, making jewelry cases. It’s believed that Samuel Morse introduced him then to the new daguerreotype miniature on copper plate, the first viable form of photography. In 1844, Brady opened his first daguerreotype gallery at Broadway and Fulton Street, diagonally across Broadway from Barnum’s museum. He developed a reputation as the daguerreotypist to the stars, cannily wooing the celebrated figures of the day to sit for him, from John James Audubon and James Fenimore Cooper to Daniel Webster and Henry Clay. In 1856 he hired the Scotsman Alexander Gardner. While Brady, whose eyes were failing, concentrated on business and promotion, Gardner took over the technical end of things and helped Brady make the crucial move from daguerreotypes to glass-negative photographs printed on paper. In 1858, Brady opened the National Photographic Art Gallery on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, and Gardner went there to run it for him. In the waiting room on any given day one could find some of the most powerful political and military figures in the country impatiently waiting their turn to have their portraits done. Besides cartes de visite (a combination postcard and calling card), many of these portraits would be reprinted as lithographs in newspapers and in Harper’s—the editors there said that nine of ten portraits they ran came from Brady studio images—solidifying and furthering the great men’s national celebrity.
When Lincoln came to him Brady had just opened his fourth studio in New York, at Broadway and 10th Street, three blocks up from the Cooper Union. A natty five foot six, Brady gazed up at the odd-looking giant with his mule ears and long neck and considered how to pose him. He decided on a pose he’d used before—for Senator Jefferson Davis. He had Lincoln stand at a slight angle to the camera with the fingertips of his left hand resting on a stack of books, which both suggested erudition and helped keep the body still during the camera’s long exposure time. He also hiked up Lincoln’s shirt collar to hide the neck. He couldn’t do much about the wrinkles in Lincoln’s coat, which are clearly visible in the photograph. Because of that long exposure time, portraitists clamped a brace to the subject’s neck to keep the head still. For Lincoln, Brady had to lift his brace on a stool to reach. Like many subjects of the era, Lincoln looks self-conscious and ill at ease, even a little melancholy, in the resulting portrait. Nevertheless, it would be the most important photograph not only of his life but maybe of the century.
The Cooper Union, which had just opened the previous autumn, was the industrialist, inventor, and philanthropist Peter Cooper’s great gift to the people of New York. Cooper was yet another of the era’s self-made men, a poor grocer’s son born in 1791 on Little Dock Street (later Water Street) in lower Manhattan and apprenticed to a coach-builder in his teens. By the age of thirty he owned a prospering glue factory, and at forty he introduced the Tom Thumb, the first practical steam locomotive in America. His Trenton Iron Works rolled out steel used in the first transatlantic telegraph cable. Other inventions ranged from a remote-controlled torpedo boat to the gelatin dessert that became Jell-O to bifocal spectacles with hinged lenses. In 1857 he’d bought the North American Telegraph Company, progenitor of AT&T, and invented ways to improve signal transmission. Meanwhile he’d been active in city politics, serving his first term as a non-Tammany Democrat on the Common Council in 1828 and running unsuccessfully for mayor in 1845.
Beginning in the 1840s he’d bought up small parcels of real estate below Astor Place to create Cooper Union, a school of applied sciences and technology that was a progressive marvel with its free admission and open enrollment (the first private college in the city to admit blacks, Jews, and women), a free library, a curriculum independent of any religious instruction, and an outstanding series of lectures in the Great Hall. With plush seating for two thousand and glittering gas lighting, it was the grandest auditorium in Manhattan.
Fifteen hundred people, “the pick and flower of New York” according to one correspondent—most every paper had a writer there—braved a slushy snowstorm to come to the Great Hall on Monday evening. Greeley, Bryant, and sixteen other prominent New York Republicans sat on the stage behind Lincoln; Beecher’s young friend Theodore Tilton, who had accompanied John Brown’s body to New York, was thrilled to sit among them. Bryant gave Lincoln a rousing introduction. He was one of the few New Yorkers besides Greeley who’d actually met him before. While traveling in Illinois in 1832 he’d encountered Lincoln as a gangly young captain of the state’s Indian-fighting militia.
Lincoln was well aware of how much he had riding on this one performance. In a wide field of potential Republican presidential candidates he knew he appeared, on paper, one of the least qualified. He’d been a state legislator out in the boondocks, an undistinguished one-time congressman, and a celebrated but failed senatorial candidate. Despite all the interest his debates with Douglas had generated, newspapers still frequently misspelled his name as Abram, or called him Abe, which he hated because he thought it sounded too cornpone, or just went with A. Lincoln. He had nothing like Seward’s public record or oratorical suavity. He’d later say he never felt so nervous in his life as he did on the Great Hall stage. He fidgeted in his new outfit, rattled his foolscap pages, and began to read his painstakingly worded speech in his thin, twangy voice. The first words out of his mouth, according to a witness, sounded like “Mr. Cheerman.” The crowd gawked. Some tittered. This was the man who’d held his own against Douglas? Who was challenging the mighty Seward?
But a few minutes into it he found his footing, and for more than an hour he held the audience so spellbound that the only sound other than his voice was the hissing of the gas lamps—and the increasingly frequent bursts of applause. Lincoln was never a comfortable extemporaneous speaker; he preferred to read his speeches. He wrote himself some masterful ones, lawyerly in their precision and logic, and breathtaking, for the time, in their plainspoken concision. This night he went straight to the key issues of the hour, slavery and the threat of secession. He took no extreme abolitionist stance but offered a moderate, measured statement of conviction that while slavery was “an evil not to be extended” to new territories, the Constitution demanded that it be “tolerated and protected” where it already existed. “Wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is,” he said. Knowing that Southerners would be reading his words in newspapers over the next few days, he spoke directly to them: “Do you really feel yourselves justified to break up this Government[?]” Addressing their fears of slave rebellion, he argued, “John Brown’s effort was peculiar. It was not a slave insurrection. It was an attempt by white men to get up a revolt among slaves, in which the slaves refused to participate. In fact, it was so absurd that the slaves, with all their ignorance, saw plainly enough it could not succeed.” Finally, rallying all Republicans, he concluded with the famous line, “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 audience exploded in cheers and tossed their hats in the air. It was an unalloyed triumph, not just for Lincoln but for Greeley, who now knew he’d found his champion in his battle with Seward, Weed, and Raymond. Greeley made a few closing remarks. Afterward, Lincoln went for a victory meal at the Athenaeum Club, farther uptown at Fifth Avenue and 16th Street. It was a club for “gentlemen of literary tastes,” including Bryant, publisher George Putnam, and the lawyer and future president Chester A. Arthur.
Then Lincoln rode a streetcar down to the Astor House, reportedly “alone, the sole occupant of the horse-drawn vehicle.” Near midnight, he walked over to the Tribune’s offices at Nassau and Spruce Streets, where an eighteen-year-old proofreader showed him the transcript of his speech. Lincoln, who loved hanging around newspaper offices, lingered for quite a while, carefully reading the text and chatting with the young worker.
When Lincoln went down to the lobby of the Astor House the next morning, he saw that the Tribune, the Herald, and the Times had all run the speech in full. It also appeared later that day in Bryant’s Evening Post, and Greeley would publish it as a pamphlet. Telegrams arrived with a flurry of offers to come speak elsewhere in the Northeast. Strangers approached him to shake his hand. He even got a job offer: Erastus Corning, one of the state’s leading conservative Democrats, asked if Lincoln would consider doing law work for his New York Central Railroad. Lincoln politely declined. He left New York that day for a whirlwind tour of New England, giving speeches in eleven cities over the next two weeks. Although he still did not declare his candidacy, he admitted privately to a friend that “the taste of it is in my mouth a little.”
When the Republicans met for their convention in Chicago that May, in a cavernous space called, coincidentally, the Wigwam, Seward was still the front-runner. Like Seward and the other more prominent candidates, Lincoln stayed away. At the time, men still “stood” for the office of the presidency rather than openly running for it; it was a lingering holdover from the early republic, when patrician gentlemen were expected to surrender to the public will without appearing too eager for power and glory. Even with the rise of political parties and machines, candidates still maintained a dignified distance from the fray and let their supporters do their campaigning.
From Springfield, Lincoln closely monitored the convention by telegraph while his forces busily worked the floor. They introduced the popular image of him as “the Rail-Splitter”—which prompted guffaws in the South, where rail-splitting was menial labor assigned to slaves. They packed the convention hall with supporters who shouted and cheered on cue every time an organizer waved a white hanky. They cut backroom deals. And they had a secret weapon: Horace Greeley. Weed and Raymond had frozen Greeley out of the New York delegation to the convention, but he wangled himself a spot as an alternate delegate for Oregon. Greeley was at least as famous as any of the candidates, and even Raymond admitted he “made a great sensation here. He is surrounded by a crowd wherever he goes.” Greeley was wearing his long white duster, and Raymond couldn’t resist adding, “Some foolish wag pinned to his coat tail a paper bearing an inscription, ‘For Wm. H. Seward,’ and for several hours he unconsciously carried the irrepressible badge with him.” The Times listed the large field of candidates with Seward at the top and “Mr. Lincoln” last. In the Tribune, Greeley placed Seward first, with Lincoln next. Arguing that Seward was too radical to take the White House from the Democrats, Greeley helped swing delegates toward Lincoln. Seward won the first two ballots but failed to get enough votes for the nomination. Lincoln came in second. On the third ballot, he narrowly won enough votes to carry the nomination.
It was as big an upset as there ever was. Seward was bitterly disappointed. Weed reportedly broke down in tears. Raymond denounced Greeley’s actions as “the long-hoarded revenge of a disappointed office-seeker.” James Watson Webb called Greeley a “viper.” But they were loyal Republicans, and after licking their wounds they all got to work for their candidate. Henry Bowen came around as well; Lincoln rewarded him with an appointment as collector for the port of New York. With Bowen came his preacher, Henry Ward Beecher. Although still not impressed with Lincoln on a personal level, he had come to see him as the most likely vessel through which the great work of ending slavery would be accomplished.
The platform the conventioneers unanimously ratified came out swinging, attacking the Democrats for their “measureless subserviency” to the Slave Power, denouncing “the threats of disunion so often made by Democratic members,” and condemning as “a dangerous political heresy” the Taney court’s “dogma that the Constitution, of its own force, carries slavery into any or all of the territories of the United States.”
Lincoln did not personally hit the campaign trail. He remained in Springfield, while an army of Republicans did his stumping for him. His Cooper Union speech and his Brady photograph, both reproduced tens of thousands of times during the campaign, represented him. Engraved and lithographed copies of the photo appeared in newspapers and magazines around the country, including the cover of Harper’s Weekly. Fletcher Harper, the youngest of the four Harper brothers, had founded the weekly in 1857. Originally a conservative Democrat like his siblings, he gradually went over to the other side with the coming of disunion and war. With a circulation of more than one hundred thousand by 1860, his magazine was a highly influential Republican platform.
Brady and a distributor also had the photo printed on thousands of cartes de visite. Lincoln’s handlers printed the portrait on campaign buttons, banners, and flyers. Now all Americans had an image to put with his words. In the end, it could be said that no day in Lincoln’s political career was more pivotal than Monday, February 27, 1860, the day he made his speech and got that picture taken in New York City.
Behind the scenes in Springfield, Lincoln monitored and micromanaged the campaign. He and his team were fully aware of how critical the nationally distributed New York papers could be to his chances. Although Greeley was always a wild card, they felt they could count on the Tribune, the Times, and the Post. They wrote off the Daily News, where Benjamin Wood told his readers that if Lincoln won “we shall find negroes among us thicker than blackberries.” That left the mighty Herald. They had little hope there either. When Lincoln was nominated, a Bennett editorial sneered, “Abram Lincoln is an uneducated man—a vulgar village politician, without any experience worth mentioning in the practical duties of statesmanship, and only noted for some very unpopular votes which he gave while a member of Congress. In politics he is as rabid an abolitionist as John Brown himself, but without the old man’s courage.” Like Wood, Bennett warned his Irish and German readers about “hordes of darkeys overrunning the North and working for half wages.” Nevertheless, Lincoln sent out feelers to “his Satanic Majesty,” as Bennett was known. His Majesty would not be wooed—not yet.
The Democrats, meanwhile, did Lincoln the great favor of falling to pieces all on their own. They had gone into their national convention in Charleston that April hopelessly divided over slavery. Hard-line Southern delegates wanted a platform that mandated extending slavery to the territories. Northerners leaned toward Stephen Douglas and the popular sovereignty approach. Fernando Wood, who had just stumped for Douglas in the Northeast, went to the convention hoping that his friends among the Southern delegates would secure him a spot as Douglas’s vice presidential running mate. But the Southern delegates walked out rather than back any compromise on slavery. Douglas led a field of candidates who included Andrew Johnson and Jefferson Davis, but after an exhausting fifty-seven ballots the delegates gave up and agreed to reconvene in Baltimore in May. A large cadre of Southerners walked out of that convention too; the remaining delegates chose Douglas but not Wood. The Southerners formed their own Congregational Democratic Party and nominated John Breckinridge of Kentucky. Another Southern party, the Constitutional Union Party, made up mainly of former Whigs from the border states who opposed secession, nominated Tennessee senator and plantation owner John Bell. And there were a few other Democratic splinters.
Both parties knew that winning New York State with its thirty-five electoral votes—more than any other—was critical. Lincoln’s strategists calculated that they’d have to win the state without much help from New York City. The “moneybags of Wall Street” and the “rich Jews and other moneylenders” would side with the slaveholders, Greeley predicted. Seward agreed.
To ensure that outcome, the Democrats sent their most fiery, rabble-rousing speakers to the city. Breckinridge’s man earned laughter and applause when he asked his audience not to let the Republicans “steal away [the South’s] niggers.” Ohio’s fiercely pro-slavery congressman Clement L. Vallandigham, who bonded with the Wood brothers, used similar language stumping for Douglas. The Herald, the Day-Book, and the Daily News all cheered. So did the Journal of Commerce, which after the death of the Tappans’ friend David Hale had turned increasingly against abolition through the 1850s. It was never as outrageously racist as the other papers, but disapproved of ending slavery because of the potential impact on New York business.
The squabbling among the various Democrat factions deeply troubled the city’s Democrat elite, many of them prosperous merchants and financiers. They were convinced that Lincoln’s election would push the South into secession, which would spell financial ruin for them. Chief among them was August Belmont, the Rothschilds’ German-born agent in New York, son-in-law to the illustrious Commodore Perry, sportsman for whom the Belmont Stakes would be named in 1867, and a big player in the Democracy. Belmont brought together New York’s backers of Douglas, Breckinridge, and Bell and proposed a fusion slate, hoping to cobble together enough electoral votes to defeat Lincoln. Many of the city’s merchants backed the idea, as did Fernando Wood.
In October they held a rally at Cooper Union to ratify a Douglas-Breckinridge-Bell slate. The evening began with parades through the streets, fireworks, and the incessant firing of Captain Rynders’s cannon, called the Baby Waker. Blazing tar barrels filled Cooper Square with eye-watering smoke. Speechmakers riled up the crowds both inside and outside of the Great Hall. One referred to the Republican Party as a “hybrid monstrosity,” a Cyclops with its one eye fixed on slavery, and declared that “however the Republican candidate, as a lawyer, might split hairs, or however, as a backwoodsman, he might split rails, he should not be permitted, as President, to split the Union.” Another lambasted Lincoln and his “Black Republicans” in language that sounds astonishingly racist now, but had the crowd laughing and cheering then. A Times reporter glossed his speech:
The engrafting of negrology upon their political stock, produced its natural fruit—nigger—the eternal nigger. [Laughter.] They ate nigger—they drank nigger—they—at least the amalgamationists—slept nigger. They saw him in their dreams—they saw him in their waking hours—all over, everywhere, they saw the sable gentleman. Ubiquitous, this black principle was becoming attenuated through the exhaustion of mere extension. But the Convention at Chicago rescued their party from this new peril. When nominating a rail splitter for the Presidency they really resolved that they saw a nigger in the fence. [Great cheering.]
Cartoonists joined in mocking the Black Republicans. New York’s Currier & Ives published a cartoon of Greeley and Lincoln with the “next Republican candidate”—a microcephalic black man Barnum was currently promoting as the “What-Is-It?”
The Republican campaign rolled on. It included two aspects that seem odd now. One was the unofficial but ubiquitous campaign song—“(I Wish I Was in) Dixie’s Land,” better known simply as “Dixie.” We think of “Dixie” as the theme song of the Confederacy, which it was. But the song was hugely popular in the North as well. Dan Emmett, performing with Bryant’s Minstrels, introduced it at Mechanics’ Hall on Broadway in 1859. He claimed to have written it in his damp and chilly Bowery rooms, pining away one night for sunnier Southern climes. His account was contested by a pair of black musicians, Dan and Lew Snowden, who’d been Emmett’s neighbors when he lived in Ohio and claimed to have taught him the tune. Whoever wrote it, “Dixie” was an immediate hit. Other minstrel groups added it to their repertoire; Firth, Pond & Co. produced the sheet music, and it spread quickly throughout the country. Lincoln pronounced it “the best song I ever heard,” and he was just one of its very many fans. Both Union and Confederate troops would march to it.
The other unexpected aspect of Lincoln’s campaign was a pseudomilitary organization of young Republicans who called themselves the Wide-Awakes. They looked rather like a militia, only carrying torches rather than muskets, and provided protection at rallies and at the polls. The first club formed in Hartford in March 1860, and soon new ones opened in cities and towns throughout the North. In big cities like New York they had thousands of members by the fall. Wide-Awakes wore uniforms that included military-style caps and shiny capes. They marched through the streets in neat regimental style, carrying banners with their logo, a staring eye. Although their parades always started out peacefully, there were frequent clashes with fans of the Democracy.
On the night of November 2, Seward addressed a Lincoln rally in the hall of the Palace Garden, one of the city’s last indoor-outdoor pleasure gardens, opened in 1858 on 14th Street at Sixth Avenue. The room was so densely packed that “there was hardly room to wedge in another finger,” the Times reported, and an even larger crowd flattened the lawn outside. After Seward spoke to lusty cheers, a glee club sang “Dixie.” Then “several thousand” Wide-Awakes formed up and, torches blazing, marched Seward all the way from 14th Street down to the Astor House where he was staying. Along the way a gang of volunteer firemen rushed the procession “with clubs and wrenches, which they used freely upon the heads of the Wide-Awakes, of whom several were knocked down, and dispossessed of their torches.” Seward was eventually delivered safely to his hotel. When the war started, Wide-Awakes who were of age would volunteer for the Union army in great numbers.
Lincoln’s election that November was anything but a resounding national mandate to govern. He won just under 40 percent of the popular vote, almost all from the Northeast, the upper Midwest, and the far West. None of the fifteen slave states went for him; he wasn’t even allowed on the ballot in ten of them. Douglas polled just under 30 percent. Breckinridge and Bell divvied up the South. Had the Democrats not split their votes they surely would have won. Although Lincoln took New York State (as did the Republican gubernatorial candidate Edwin Morgan), he lost by a landslide in both New York City, where the fusion slate outpolled him better than two to one, and Brooklyn.