Saturday, February 27, 2010

February 27, 1860: Lincoln at Cooper Union

On Monday, February 27, 1860, Lincoln gave a speech at Cooper Union in New York City.  The speech laid the groundwork for him to eventually win the Republican presidential nomination at their convention in May.  In fact, historian Harold Holzer wrote a book about the speech and titled it, "Lincoln at Cooper Union:  The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President."

Lincoln accepted the invitation to speak in New York City in October 1859.  It was to be held at Henry Ward Beecher's Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, but the Young Men's Republican Union assumed sponsorship of the speech and moved it to Cooper Union.  Lincoln discovered this only after his arrival in New York City.

Several members of the YMRU, such as Horace Greeley and William Cullen Bryan, were opposed to William Seward, who was seen as the likely Republican nominee, and were casting about for alternatives.  Several other political figures declined invitations to speak, but this tall, ungainly Westerner, making his first address in the media capital of the country, delivered a well-researched speech that, according to Holzer, "skewered Stephen Douglas, deftly allied the Republicans with the Founding Fathers, promised the South he meant no threat to slavery where it existed, and then insisted that slavery itself was unmistakably evil."  He spoke before a crowd of about 1500 prominent New Yorkers, but newspapers spread his message across the Northeast and the rest of the country.  The speech transformed Lincoln into a national political figure.

The speech was in three parts.  Part One concerned the Founding Fathers and the positions they took on expanding slavery into the territories.  Lincoln showed that the Fathers were on the side of the Republicans.  Part Two was aimed at the South and argued that the Republican position on slavery was the "conservative" policy.  Part Three was aimed at Republicans and urged them to fight to prevent the expansion of slavery.  The speech did not contain many of Lincoln's usual rhetorical flourishes and is seldom quoted, but is known as his "right makes might" speech for a passage that came at the end:
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.
The text of the speech can be found at the National Park Service's site for the Lincoln Home.  A narration by Sam Waterston can be found at NPR.

After Lincoln's arrival in New York City, but before the speech, he visited Matthew Brady's photography studio on Bleecker Street.  The resulting image (shown above) would become known as the "Cooper Union Portrait" and would be the basis for campaign posters in the 1860 election.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

February 2, 1860: Jefferson Davis's Resolutions

On Thursday, February 2, 1860, one day after the U.S. House of Representatives finally elected a speaker, Senator Jefferson Davis (D-MS) introduced a series of resolutions on slavery in the U.S. Senate.

In the first of the six resolutions, Douglas argued that the States had adopted the Constitution as "free and independent sovereignties" and that "any intermeddling by any one or more States, or by a combination of their citizens, with the domestic institutions of the others, on any pretext, whether political, moral, or religious, with the view to their disturbance or subversion, is in violation of the Constitution, insulting to the States so interfered with, endangers their domestic peace and tranquillity--objects for which the Constitution was formed--and, by necessary consequence, serves to weaken and destroy the Union itself."  In case there was any doubt, he made it clear in the second resolution that the main "domestic institution" he was talking about was slavery.  He went on to argue in further resolutions that slavery could not be limited in the territories.  Only after a territory was admitted to the Union as a state could the residents outlaw slavery, and any interference of the Fugitive Slave Act was "hostile in character, subversive of the Constitution and revolutionary in their effect."

Davis did not seem to care if the resolutions were adopted; the purpose seemed to be to undermine Senator Stephen Douglas's Freeport Doctrine and to introduce principles Southern Democrats could unite behind at the upcoming convention of the Democratic Party.  The resolutions would put Douglas, the expected Democratic nominee for president in 1860 in an impossible position if they could be adopted as the part of the party's platform.  Douglas could not and would not try to defend these principles in the North.

Douglas recognized the trap laid for him and questioned the need for the resolutions:  "There is no necessity for legislation; no grievances to be remedied; no evil to be avoided; no action is necessary; and yet the peace of the country, the integrity of the Democratic party, is to be threatened by abstract resolutions, when there is confessedly no necessity for action."

The resolutions eventually passed in the Senate, but not in the House.

When the Democratic Party's platform committee met later that year in Charleston, each state had one vote.  California and Oregon joined the slave states to provide a majority of 17-16 for a slave-code plank based on the Davis resolutions.

Monday, February 01, 2010

February 1, 1860: A New Speaker of the House

On Wednesday, February 1, 1860, the U.S. House of Representatives finally chose a speaker.  William Pennington, a Republican from New Jersey, was chosen by a majority of one vote.

With passions now fully inflamed from John Brown's raid and execution, the first session of the Thirty-Sixth United States Congress convened in Washington on December 5, 1859.  The first order of business for the House was to organize and elect a speaker, usually a routine task.

The newly-formed Republican Party had a plurality, but not a majority.  There were 109 Republicans, 101 Democrats, 26 members of the American Party, a few Know-Nothings, and one lone Whig.  On the first ballot, Republicans lined up behind John Sherman of Ohio, who was thought to be moderate enough to garner the votes of enough representatives to win.  Democrats backed Thomas S. Bocock of Virginia.  Neither man gained enough votes, a majority, because a few other candidates received a scattering of votes.

Before a second ballot could be taken, Representative J. B. Clark (D-Mo.) put forth a resolution "that the doctrine and sentiments of a certain book, called 'The Impending Crisis of the South -- How to Meet It,' purporting to have been written by one Hinton Helper, are insurrectionary and hostile to the domestic peace and tranquility of the country, and that no member of this House who has endorsed or recommended it or the Compend from it is fit to be Speaker of the House."

If the goal was to shut down the government, Clark's resolution was a brilliant political move. As historian Bruce Catton put it in The Coming Fury...

That did it...(F)rom the time the Missouri Congressman dropped his resolution into the hopper, the House of Representatives became completely impotent.  It could not elect a speaker, it could not get itself organized, it could not even vote the pay which its members needed so badly, until it had worn itself out in hot discussion of a book which, taken by itself, was hardly of minor importance.  The row to which it gave birth settled nothing whatever.  It simply registered (in terms that would be ratified in blood, a short time thereafter) the appalling height the American political fever had reached.  The irrational had become wholly logical."

In The Impending Crisis, Helper, a Southerner, denounced slavery, not because of any benevolent feelings for the slaves, but because of the harm he thought the institution was inflicting on Southern whites.  "Slavery," he declared, "lies at the root of all the shame, poverty, ignorance, tyranny and imbecility of the South."  The New York Tribune recognized the book's value to Republicans and published a favorable review.  Some Southern states made it a crime to circulate the book.  A Republican committee published an abridged version in 1859 with added captions such as "The Stupid Masses of the South" and "Revolution -- Peacefully if we can, Violently if we must."

When Clark urged the House to resolve that anyone who had endorsed the Helper book was unfit to be speaker, he knew that 68 Republicans, including almost every viable Republican candidate, had signed a circular advertising the compend, the abridged version of the book.  The debate over the resolution went on for week after week, with the language becoming increasingly incendiary and members coming to the chamber armed.  Sherman was forced to try to explain that he lent his name without knowing what he was endorsing:  "I do not recollect signing the paper referred to, but I presume, from my name appearing in the printed list, that I did sign it.  I therefore make no excuse of any kind.  I never read Mr. Helper's book, or the compendium founded upon it.  I have never seen a copy of either."

Finally, on January 30, 1859, Sherman had had enough and withdrew his name from consideration.  After a series of give-and-take deals, William Pennington was chosen as Speaker of the House by one vote.

From Catton's The Coming Fury:  "At various places in the North, ardent Republicans celebrated, firing cannon and making jubilant speeches, as if some sort of victory had been won; and if the House had in fact discharged the unendurable emotional tension that possessed it, so that it could now get down to business and give the nation orderly government, a celebration would have been in order.  But nothing had been settled.  One stalemate had been ended, but the greater stalemate remained:  the undigestible lump of slavery remained, and this one effort to cope with it had been a noisy and spectacular failure.  Only the extremists had gained anything."