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Dr. Larry Arnn On Lincoln’s Cooper Union Speech

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HH: It’s the last radio hour of the week, and the one for which many of you set your alarm clocks. It’s the Hillsdale Dialogue with Dr. Larry Arnn and one or more of his colleagues at Hillsdale College. is where you find everything out about the college and all of their online offerings. All of the Hillsdale Dialogues, stretching back three years now, are available at, beginning with Homer, and up now to February 27th of 1860. Dr. Arnn, welcome back. Of course, we’re talking about the Cooper Union address today.

LA: It’s a wonderful thing to talk about, Hugh.

HH: But I have a couple of questions before we go to that, and that is this is, we spent seven weeks talking about the Lincoln-Douglas debates, then we had the first Republican debate, and we’ve had a lot of commentary and conversation thereafter. The party of Lincoln does not seem to be today where it was in 1858-1860, does it?

LA: Well, when has it ever been since then, except maybe in the 1980s? Well, I guess Calvin Coolidge was really good, too.

HH: Yeah.

LA: But yeah, it’s, the debate format is terrible. And some of them will distinguish themselves, I think, and I hope. It’s a better field than we’ve had in recent elections, and so there’s promise in that. But somebody needs to tell the story in a powerful way, as Lincoln did in the debates and in these speeches we’re going to talk about today.

HH: You know, Donald Trump built this enormous audience of 24 million people, but then it was sliced and diced into 30 second soundbytes, and you can’t really make an argument. And what you’ve been saying for years is that people have to make arguments about where the country needs to go. But the opportunities to make those arguments are fewer and fewer, and farther between.

LA: Yeah, and you know, there’s a lot of interest in politics. And you know, at Hillsdale and on your show, we get people who pay enormous attention for hours at a time. But you know, and on our online courses and all kinds of things like that, and events we hold, but the national attention needs to reach that point. And it’s chopped up by the media in crazy ways, and we have to break through that. Of course, one way to break through that is to be the nominee, because then, you’re going to get a lot of attention all over the country. And in recent years since Reagan, I argue, our nominees have not made the best of that, even the ones who have won.

HH: Reagan made a lot of great speeches, and he used the format of the speech. I know you are a counselor to many, and endorser of none in the Republican field. Are you counseling them to seek out, as Jeb Bush did this week at the Reagan Library, he sought out a venue, he publicized it, he’s coming on tomorrow to talk about it. He put out the entire speech. He made a critique of Hillary Clinton at length. And he wanted people to pay attention. Are you counseling a lot of Republicans to try and create that sort of a venue of the sort that we’re going to talk about now with Lincoln?

LA: Yeah, I am very much, of course, and then also, I’m telling them that, the ones I talk to, that they should make the equivalent of the House Divided speech. They should say that this generation of Americans has to choose between two alternative forms of government. And the one form, the one that’s increasingly installed is powerful and hard to resist, and promises the Moon. But I think that it leads down the road to despotism. I think they should make that case, and set the national, the general election up for a debate about that. And then, there would be real focus.

HH: And I hope people are listening to this. Now let’s go to where we left off last week. Lincoln loses the election after seven extraordinary debates with Judge Douglas. What happens to him after the election? And how does he come to be at the Cooper Union on February 27th of 1860, and originally, I think he was supposed to go to Henry Ward Beecher’s church in Brooklyn. He ended up at Cooper Union, which is a college. Can you kind of fill us in before we get to the night that he takes the stage?

LA: Well, when 1860, 1859 dawns, things are getting more political in the country, right? And so the field is starting to form. And Lincoln gets this invitation to go back east. He gave speeches. I looked it up back there. And they had dramatic effects, and Lincoln had never been there before. And they had never seen him before. And the Cooper Union was the first of them, and had the most dramatic impact, although they all did. If we have time today, I’m going to tell you a great story, one of my favorite things about Lincoln. So this goes through 1859, and then in 1860, Lincoln is invited to the Cooper Union, and then the Hartford and several places back east. He gives these speeches. Big crowds and lots of press coverage, and in general, and so you know, we’re in February of 1860, and those speeches were over by the first week in March. The Republican convention is in May, in Chicago, and Lincoln’s a candidate now after these speeches are over. And then the Democratic convention is later in May, the first one, no, June, I’m sorry, in June. And that one is in Charleston, South Carolina, and that one breaks up in dissent. And the party splits. They try again in Baltimore, another group split off, and then they had a second one. So that makes three total in Baltimore. All this is happening in late June. And they end up, the Democrats, nominate a bunch of candidates out of their thing. But the Republicans unite behind Lincoln. And I’ll just tell that story real quick. They, it was in the wigwam, a big, huge, wood building built for the purpose all out in Chicago, a political coup for Lincoln supporters, because it’s in Lincoln’s state, not a hard coup to make, because they need to carry Chicago.

HH: Yup.

LA: And it’s possible they can do it. And they know that in part because of the Republican performance in the 1858 election. And so on the first ballot, they’re all for Seward of New York, but not enough to get the nomination, and there’s evidence that Lincoln understood that that would be what would happen. And he went campaigning, but he didn’t go to the convention. He sent people led by a man named David Davis. And his instruction to them was wait for the second ballot and build support. And Lincoln won on the third ballot, and not by a huge amount over Seward, but he won. And one of his instructions to his managers, and see, he wasn’t in the town. He was down in Springfield, although they were in telegraph communication. He said make no deals, I’ve looked all this up to get the story right, that bind me. That was his last instruction to them. They were not allowed to make any deals. And at the end of this, I’ll tell you the one that he made. Davis made it. I might have mentioned this before, but I misspoke who made it. And the one I said made it was the beneficiary. Well, I’ll just tell it real quick. Make no deals that bind me. Lincoln needed Pennsylvania, and the big man from Pennsylvania was Simon Cameron. And he had a reputation, Thaddeus Stevens, the Senator, abolitionist Senator said once, and in front of Lincoln and Simon Cameron, he wouldn’t steal a red hot stove. And Cameron acted like he was going to, like he was going to challenge him to a duel. He said I demand that you take that back, and Stevens said okay, you would steal a red hot stove.

HH: (laughing)

LA: Well, David Davis made a deal on Lincoln’s behalf and without his authority to appoint Simon Cameron to the War Department, which he did, and he lasted a year, and was dismissed for crooked dealings and making money off of the government. So that was a heck of a thing. But now go back to Cooper Union. Lincoln’s ability to command votes in the east comes in part from his resume in Illinois and his Lincoln-Douglas debates, but also from the effect of these speeches, especially the Cooper Union speech.

HH: And I am amazed by the intrigue going on here. We, first of all, we should all pray for the fervent disillusion of the Democratic Party into factions as we speak. It would be a wonderful thing if they had three or four candidates in 2016, and not just 1860. It’s not likely to happen. The other is, though, that he would counsel such patience, and he was a very patient guy, and very, I want to use the word cunning in its highest sense. He was a very effective politician, Larry Arnn, not just a statesman, but a very effective politician.

LA: Oh, he was a shrewd, well, he showed it in the war later. He was a shrewd war leader. But if you think, Lincoln won 40% of the vote in the 1860 election, and that looks like he’s a, you know, bad plurality president. But the truth is there were several southern states where his votes were not even counted. And second, if you add up the electoral votes of everybody on the ballot against Lincoln, he still would have won by a large majority in the Electoral College.

HH: That’s amazing. Now we turn to the speech that got this all started, the Cooper Union speech, and I want to read it before the break, just the first three paragraphs. It begins, “Mr. President and fellow citizens of New York, the facts with which I shall deal this evening are mainly old and familiar, nor is there anything new in the general use I shall make of them. If there be any novelty, it will be made in the presenting of the facts, the inferences and observations following that presentation. In his speech last autumn at Columbus, as reported in the New York Times, Senator Douglas said our founders when they framed the government under which we live understood this question just as well, and even better than we do now.” I read that only to say it’s a continuation of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Larry Arnn.

LA: Exactly so.

HH: And so when we come back, it didn’t stop in the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates. The first time Lincoln takes the stage, he’s going right back at Judge Douglas. Stay tuned, America.

— – – – –

HH: I actually had forgotten that, Larry Arnn, until I went back and read this.

LA: Well, it’s brilliant, and I don’t know how much you want to read, but the speech begins with an intellectual achievement. He takes this thing, and he says I agree with Douglas. I’m going to take as my text his assertion that those who framed the government understood this question just as well or even better than we do now. And so then he asked the question, what did they do? What did they do about the power of the federal government to forbid slavery in the federal territory?

HH: They being the founders, they being the men of 1787.

LA: Specifically the 39 members of the Constitutional Convention who signed the document.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And so he traces all 39. And he finds, I mean, you should read it. He finds that 23 of them actually cast votes in their career on the question of slavery in the federal territories, and 21 of them voted to confine, to forbid or restrict slavery in the territories. That’s a majority of the 39. Then he finds two who voted against those things, and see, this is Lincoln the Euclidian reasoner, right?

HH: And lawyer.

LA: Okay, but those are different things, Hugh.

HH: Yeah.

LA: He says those two may have voted no for expediency. We don’t know. We don’t know if they voted no on Constitutional grounds, whereas the 21, we know. They had to think it was Constitutional, else they violated their oath. Then he says there are 16 who never cast any vote at all on it, but we know that several, on that question, but we know that several of them were leading abolitionists. And so the truth is, and you know, one of the 21, by the way, was Charles Pinckney from South Carolina.

HH: Yeah.

LA: So Lincoln says we actually have their testimony and more, because in the summer, they were writing the Constitution. The Northwest Ordinance was passed that forbad slavery to go into the Northwest Territory, which is a wonderful place where I live, and Ohio happens to be in there, too, although not important.

HH: It was the capital thereof.

LA: Yeah, and so Lincoln says they, and then those 21 voted to implement the Northwest Ordinance, and it was from the same months of the Constitution. So he makes a case that if you take Douglas’ word as gospel that they knew as well or better than we do, we know what they thought. And it’s just, and so that part of the speech, it opens with that piece of scholarship, is really what it is. And he spent weeks, you know, working as a lawyer all the time getting ready for this, and putting that point together. And it sort of matches the scholarship he did for the Peoria speech, where he traced all the movements of slavery across America, and was able to clarify those for people so that you could see that it’s only recently that people are saying it should be expanded because it’s good.

HH: And the hammer that he uses is Judge Douglas’ own statement that we should trust the framers on this subject. That’s the, that’s what he shatters the Democratic Party with, and that’s why Cooper Union matters even to this day in 2015 from 1860 forward. What did the framers think? Okay, that’s what they think is important? Let’s go find out and very Scalia-like, he does.

LA: And think how politically, because you made this point before, politically shrewd it is, because Douglas is likely to be the nominee. And everybody’s thinking about Douglas. And by starting with Douglas, Lincoln is reminding them that he just argued with that guy seven times.

HH: Yeah, yeah.

LA: And he takes him on at the beginning, see. And so it’s the equivalent is this. Imagine, then, that Hillary Clinton or whoever the nominee is going to be, I think that’s in some doubt now, has made it the touchstone of her politics for 30 years that X is true. And so one of these guys who’s running for the Republican nomination, let’s take that for gospel. Let me show you why nothing she does is legitimated by it. That’s what Lincoln does. In other words, he shows that he can defeat him in his central argument, and that is obviously in a profound sense of campaign speech.

HH: And he also summons up the ghost of George Washington. I want people to understand the art of this. Not only does he get to the 39 framers, he goes to the framer of the framers, the man who presided over the convention and who brought the country together, and who actually won its liberty. And he invokes Washington to devastating effect.

LA: That’s right, because Washington signed the implementation legislation for the Northwest Ordinance, and he was, as you say, chairman of the commission of the Constitutional Convention, and he was on public record as an opponent of slavery, and he liberated his slaves upon his death. And so that massive thing, see, and so it’s not just, so the logical point is he takes Douglas’ own assertion and uses it to prove his case. And then the moral point comes in, because what are we going to do, chop up George Washington? It’s only in our day that we started to do that.

HH: (laughing)

LA: (laughing)

HH: And then he also brings in Jefferson. Poor Douglas. Does Douglas even know this is coming, by the way? This is a bit of political history I don’t know anything about. Does Douglas know he’s about to be broadsided at Cooper Union, and with all of the world’s press and New York like today, it was then, the center of the press world.

LA: You would have, I don’t know the answer to that, but we know what Douglas did, by the way. Douglas is actually the first person to campaign for president of the United States having a party nomination. He had, you know, two-thirds of a party nomination. And he campaigned relentlessly all across the country on the same principles that he had used in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and he campaigned extensively in the South, where he was received with wide hostility. And he exhausted himself doing that, and he didn’t get any votes doing it. In the South, he carried some states, but he tried to keep on. And at the end, you know, I’ve told the story during the debates, at the end, after Lincoln was elected, he met with Lincoln and pledged him his support, and said to Lincoln that he’d been trying to keep the Union together. And Lincoln replied that he knew that.

HH: You see, that’s, you did make that point, and maybe someone mentioned it. It’s astonishing, though, at the end that Judge Douglas would try and cop that plea. Do you believe him sincerely, Larry, that he was trying to keep the Union together?

LA: Oh, yeah. I believe it’s central in the same reason, for the same reason that I believe modern liberalism, which in my opinion now in government is doing things that are lawless and threaten to overwhelm the people of the country. I also believe, however, that they are doing those things because they believe in them with all their heart. And they believe that if we will use the tools of science and scientific administration, it’s the only way to create a better world, or even cope with the problems that science has produced so far. In other words, like Douglas, they have a case, and they believe in it. and the tragedy for the republic is that their case is not adequately engaged.

— – — –

HH: Dr. Arnn, what’s amazing about the Cooper Union, again I had forgotten this, it’s very current. He talks about John Brown. He does not hesitate to go right at the heart of what is plaguing the country. It’s not full of cliché. He’s dealing with the real problems of the country and the agony it’s going through.

LA: That’s right, and it takes, so John Brown, and people should know, was an abolitionist from Kansas who seized Harper’s Ferry and tried to foment a rebellion, and of course, it was Robert E. Lee who commanded the troops that destroyed his little insurrection. And of course, the South, Lincoln says in this speech, the pro-slavery confederate leaders, or eventual Confederate leaders, they seized upon this as the cause of the Republicans. They’re going to lead to insurrection and lawlessness in their passion to get rid of slavery And Lincoln repudiates that in this speech. He says, and the argument is interesting on contemporary grounds for another reason.

HH: Yes, yes.

LA: He says first of all, we didn’t do that. Nobody identified with the Republican Party, and didn’t identify in any of these slave revolts, and anything like John Brown. And we protest constantly that we don’t even favor that. We protest in action, because we take the position. We have no power under the Constitution to abolish slavery in the states where it exists. And in his first inaugural, a year later now from this, Lincoln says and indeed, although it would be redundant, if you want to amend the Constitution to say that, I will not resist it. So, and he says, but all of these actions are no good. And even if we are refrained from saying anything about the abolition of slavery in the states where it exists, that’s not enough for you. You will not be satisfied with us until you agree that it is a good thing.

HH: Yeah. Now tell me its application…

LA: And we would be railed against and humiliated unless we will agree with you that slavery is good. And you know, people who don’t like some of the things going on today because of religion or conscience, they meet pressure like that.

HH: That is, I wanted you to go to the contemporary parallel, whether it is same sex marriage, whether it is abortion, whether it is any of the issues categorized under social issues, whether it’s the war in Iraq, whether it’s national defense. You will be made to agree is actually the title of a forthcoming book by a friend of mine. And End of Discussion is another book that’s out there. The Silencing is another book that’s out there. They’re all making this same point. The left is not content with winning. You must agree.

LA: That’s right, and so to live on your own, practicing your principles and your faith, that’s the point. There’s pressure about that. And Lincoln, so the end, the beginning of the speech is a logical analysis, which however has the brilliant effect of placing him as the chief opponent to Stephen Douglas, which he’s won the right to do by being from the same state and debating him.

HH: Stephen Douglas, not Frederick Douglass.

LA: Did I say Frederick?

HH: Yes, you did.

LA: Yeah, Stephen. And the second, the end of the speech is a fighting speech. And the introduction to it is a statement of moderation. We Republicans should not do anything violent. We should not use any violent words. We should make our arguments in reason. And then he says however, they will never be satisfied until we agree, and we must proclaim that we do not agree. And we must proclaim that loudly. And you know, the last sentences of the speech are of course famous. Do you want to read those now?

HH: Let’s wait until after the break, because we’ll run out of time. What I want to read before the break is where he turns over to the attack speech. He says, “A few words now to Republicans. It is exceedingly desirable that all parts of this great confederacy shall be at peace and in harmony one with another. Let us Republicans do our part to have it so, even though much provoked, let us do nothing through passion and ill-temper, even though the Southern people will not as so much as listen to us. Let us calmly consider their demands, and yield to them if, in our deliberate view of our duty, we possibly can. Judging by all they say and do and by the subject and nature of their controversy with us, let us determine, if we can, what will satisfy them.” That’s the appeal for moderation you’re talking about, Dr. Arnn.

LA: That’s right, that’s right. And Lincoln is, see, I counseled somebody in politics lately. I said you must couple two things together, because they make peace together, and one of them is you should be adamant in principle, and you should be moderate in practice.

HH: And in tone, and in tone. I’ll be right back to talk more with Dr. Larry Arnn. I’m going to let him read the concluding lines of the Cooper Union speech. Don’t go anywhere, America, except stay right where you are. We’ll be right back on with more of the Hillsdale Dialogues.

— – – —

HH: What was the close that you were referring to, Larry? Why don’t you read that for the audience, and then let’s talk about what it means.

LA: These are immortal words, right? The speech ends this. It’s after the part about how we’ll never be left in peace until we agree. “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.” So it’s kind of martyrdom, right? “Let us have faith that might makes right. And in that faith, let us to the end dare to do our duty as we understand it.” That’s how it closes.

HH: And it’s really impassioned, and it electrified the crowd, correct?

LA: That’s right. The reactions to this are tremendous, and people, the accounts generally run this way. At first, he looked awkward, and his voice was unpleasantly high, and people stirred around thinking this is going to be boring. And then the best article about it names a place in the third paragraph, and then he made that point. And all of a sudden, everyone was rapt. And then the whole, you could hear a pin drop. And there’s a description of how he did his hands. He stood still. His hands were sort of like boards down by his side. And during the course of the speech, they gradually came up. So his hands were parallel with his head by the time he finished. And one person describes how his body moved with the words, but imperceptibly, never violently, and yet the cadence of it all got right into the crowd. And they were all just hanging and swaying with him. And that you see, that was genius, right, and that, that meant now there’s something more than a calculation that he can win. There’s also love. They want that thing. They want that to lead the country, and it doesn’t just mean that man. The whole being of the man includes the words that he was saying. And so it was just galvanizing.

HH: Let’s go back to that last line. Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us to that end dare to do our duty as we understand it. That presumes that we can know what right is, Larry Arnn.

LA: That’s right. And also, Lincoln’s attack on Douglas in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Churchill had a favorite phrase that he used once about Stanley Baldwin. He said that’s too easy to be good. So Douglas was not asking anybody to do anything, except just what they wanted to do. And Lincoln says that just boils down to the principle of self-interest. And what it liberates is the old thing from the serpent in the Garden of Eden. You eat, you work, and I’ll eat.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And that, you see, in other words, there’s a moral judgment in there, and Lincoln’s point is not I have this brilliant insight into absolute truth. His point is something else. We have nothing to guide us except our sense of right, and we all have that.

HH: Now very few people I could make this jump this quickly with, but I can with Dr. Arnn. In 1935, there was an election in Great Britain. I had occasion to go back and read the Conservative manifesto from 1935. Do you know it doesn’t mention Hitler? It does not mention Hitler.

LA: Yeah.

HH: It is oblivious. It talks about the League of Nations and the need to cut armaments expenditures, and things like that. And I thought to myself, that’s an impoverished political, they avoided the central issue of their time, and I think there are some who would like to run this campaign the same way.

LA: That’s right and see, that was the low watermark in the life of Winston Churchill, maybe the political career, because they snookered him, and for two more years, really. But after that election, Churchill began gathering strength. And he was the best show in the House of Commons, and people were attending to him, and going to his events. And he began to be able to put pressure on the Conservative Party, of which he was a member, and they began to have to listen to him. So by 1936, they’re beginning to pay lip service to rearmament and doing some of it.

HH: It’s just, it’s remarkable to me that those who go direct at the central issue inevitably do at least engage the opponents in the argument. Let me ask you, after Cooper Union, you said he goes on a speaking tour where it’s very heavily-publicized. Is he ever not running for president after this moment?

LA: No, certainly not, and of course, you know, the campaign is, I mean, the convention is two weeks away. You know, I don’t know if we have time, but in response to a journalist in New Haven, Lincoln, how much time do we have?

HH: We have two and a half minutes.

LA: Okay, I think I can do it. In New Haven, Connecticut, Lincoln mentioned this argument. He said if I see a rattlesnake, it depends on where it is what I do. If it’s out in the field, I’ll get a stick and kill it. But what if the rattlesnake is in bed with my children, you know, and this is slavery and the Constitution, right?

HH: Yeah.

LA: The children are the Constitution. Then what I do is less certain. I may not disturb the snake for fear it’ll bite the children. And it might just go away. You see, so the next day, he’s on a train platform with a journalist, and this will explain something about the greatness of Abraham Lincoln, and I read this to young people all the time, but politicians, too. This journalist says to him how did you think of that? What was your education like? And he said well, it wasn’t much. He said, but reading law, I kept coming across the word demonstrate. And I thought it first, so I’m now reading a quote from this newspaper article describing what Lincoln said, I thought at first that I understood its meaning, but soon became satisfied that I did not. What do I mean when I demonstrate more than when I reason or prove? How does demonstration differ from any other proof? I consulted Webster. Certain proof, he says. I thought a great many things were proved beyond a possibility of doubt, without recourse to any such extraordinary process of reasoning. And so I said to myself, Lincoln, you will never make a lawyer if you do not understand what demonstrate means. And I left my situation in Springfield, went home to my father’s house, and stayed there until I could give any proposition in the six books of Euclid at sight. I then found out what demonstrate means, and went back to my law studies.

HH: (laughing)

LA: How many politicians have done that?

HH: I don’t know. That’s not the best ad for students who want to go to Hillsdale College, though. You’ve got to go memorize Euclid. Dr. Larry Arnn, always a pleasure. Next week, the campaign, the aftermath, and the secession, America, don’t miss it on the next Hillsdale Dialogue, all of which are available at Dr. Larry Arnn, always a pleasure.

End of interview.


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