The Cooper Institute address is one of the most important addresses ever delivered in the life of this nation, for at an eventful time it changed the course of history. When Mr. Lincoln rose to speak on the evening of February 27, 1860, he had held no administrative office; he had endeavoured to be appointed Commissioner of Patents, and had failed; he had sought to be elected United States Senator, and had been defeated; he had been a member of Congress, yet it was not even remembered; he was a lawyer in humble circumstances, persuasive of juries, but had not reached the front rank of the Illinois Bar. The record which Mr. Lincoln himself placed in the Congressional Directory in 1847 might still be taken as the record of his public and official life: “Born February 12th, 1809, in Hardin County, Kentucky. Education defective. Profession a lawyer. Have been a captain of volunteers in the Black Hawk War. Postmaster in a very small office. Four times a member of the Illinois Legislature and a member of the lower house of Congress.” Was this the record of a man who should be made the head of a nation in troubled times? In the estimation of thoughtful Americans east of the Alleghanies all that they knew of Mr. Lincoln justified them in regarding him as only “a Western stump orator”—successful, distinguished, but nothing higher than that—a Western stump orator, who had dared to brave one of the strongest men in the Western States, and who had done so with wonderful ability and moral success. When Mr. Lincoln closed his address he had risen to the rank of statesman, and had stamped himself a statesman peculiarly fitted for the exigency of the hour.
Mr. William Cullen Bryant presided at the meeting; and a number of the first and ablest citizens of New York were present, among them Horace Greeley. Mr. Greeley was pronounced in his appreciation of the address; it was the ablest, the greatest, the wisest speech that had yet been made; it would reassure the conservative Northerner; it was just what was wanted to conciliate the excited Southerner; it was conclusive in its argument, and would assure the overthrow of Douglas. Mr. Horace White has recently written: “I chanced to open the other day his Cooper Institute speech. This is one of the few printed speeches that I did not hear him deliver in person. As I read the concluding pages of that speech, the conflict of opinion that preceded the conflict of arms then sweeping upon the country like an approaching solar eclipse seemed prefigured like a chapter of the Book of Fate. Here again he was the Old Testament prophet, before whom Horace Greeley bowed his head, saying that he had never listened to a greater speech, although he had heard several of Webster’s best.” Later, Mr. Greeley became the leader of the Republican forces opposed to the nomination of Mr. Seward and was instrumental in concentrating those forces upon Mr. Lincoln. Furthermore, the great New York press on the following morning carried the address to the country, and before Mr. Lincoln left New York he was telegraphed from Connecticut to come and aid in the campaign of the approaching spring election. He went, and when the fateful moment came in the Convention, Connecticut was one of the Eastern States which first broke away from the Seward column and went over to Mr. Lincoln. When Connecticut did this, the die was cast.