Mr. Lincoln and the Winter of Our Discontent

1860 photograph of Abraham Lincoln
1860 photograph of Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln is such an iconic figure that the present-day public does not see him as his contemporaries did. We see him as a grave, contemplative figure, like Daniel Chester French’s elegant statue, just out of sight past the columns of the Lincoln Memorial.

But the Abraham Lincoln who ran for president in 1860 was around 6-foot-4 at a time when the average American adult male was around 5-foot-8, and his badly tailored suits and tall hats made him look like a scarecrow. On top of that, he had a high raspy voice.

He added the stovetop hat in his debates with the 5-foot-4 Stephen A. Douglas (so he could really tower over him), but the effect was not always in his favor. Although the Lincoln-Douglas debates made Lincoln a prominent figure in Illinois politics, he lost the 1858 U.S. Senate race in Illinois to Douglas. The big argument of the day was if the territories should decide for themselves whether or not to allow slavery.

In the fall of 1859, the whole country was up in arms about the question of slavery – specifically, slavery in the territories. In October, John Brown had stormed the armory in Harpers Ferry, Va. (now W. Va.), and the national debate about states’ rights and slavery just got hotter. Invited to speak at Henry Ward Beecher’s Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, Lincoln got the opening he needed to plead his case against the spread of slavery in a national forum when he was invited to speak at Henry Ward Beecher’s Plymouth Church in Brooklyn. Then, even better, the venue was changed to the Cooper Union in Manhattan.

Lincoln overcame his ungainly appearance with a brilliant and carefully researched speech, in which he showed how the majority of the founding fathers had voted to prohibit the spread of slavery in the territories. So, he argued, the country, and especially the South, should accept this position.

He became the Republican candidate for president and won the election with only 40 percent of the votes, the three other candidates splitting the rest of the votes among them. He didn’t even have a clear popular majority. But it is hard to imagine what would have happened if one of the other candidates –Breckinridge, Bell or Douglas – had won.

Many in the South believed that England and France could not get by without their cotton, and that one or both of those countries would support the Southern cause. It was a bad bet, because neither country wanted to wage war against the stronger Northern coalition. On the other hand, many in the North thought a war would end quickly, due to the region’s economic superiority. That didn’t happen either; Southerners were fighting to keep a system that they felt they couldn’t survive without.

Lincoln was so sure his Cooper Union speech would get a lot of press that he visited Matthew Brady’s photographic studio beforehand. Brady, a master, was able to retouch (what we would call “Photoshop out”) some of Lincoln’s more unflattering facial features. Lincoln knew that this would make or break his chances for the Republican presidential nomination, especially since he clearly stated his belief that slavery was immoral. He ended the speech on Feb. 27, 1860, his longest ever, with: “Let us have faith that right makes might.”

The speech by the previously little-known politician from Illinois was a daring gamble. He won – and by April the United States was embroiled in a war that would claim more American lives than any other in our history.

Donna Evers is the owner and broker of Evers & Co. Real Estate, the largest woman-owned and -run real estate company in the metro area; the proprietor of Twin Oaks Tavern Winery in Bluemont, Va.; and a devoted student of Washington-area history. Reach her at devers@eversco.com.

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Fri, 26 May 2017 07:14:41 -0400

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