One would think the book’s subtitle “The speech that made Abraham Lincoln President,” would set up an unattainable expectation of greatness. After all, how could a book hold a candle to a great speech? Or perhaps the speech wasn’t so great after all and the author merely wanted to sell more books. And yet, I was wonderfully surprised to see that this really was an exceptional book about an exceptional speech.
Harold Holzer is a world renowned expert on Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. He has won several awards for the numerous books he has authored, co-authored, edited or co-edited on this the most widely studied President in our history. Holzer takes us back to February 1860, a few months before the convention that would nominate Abraham Lincoln on the Republican ticket for President. He examines the opportunity given to Lincoln to speak in New York City, where powerful men like Horace Greeley are looking to put forth an alternative to New York’s favorite son, William Seward. Through the negotiations of when and where – and the ultimate surprise upon arrival to find the location had been moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan – Holzer shows a remarkable ability to build tension and anticipation leading to the actual speech itself. He gives us a taste of a time, that in the days before movies and television and 24-hour internet, men were drawn to great speakers, especially of the political variety.
And a great speech it was. With several chapters leading up to the speech, Holzer helps us see the intricate research and effort Lincoln exerted over several months to preparing what he felt, presciently so, was to be the most important speech in his life. One chapter is assigned the duty of parsing the intricate language of this 90-minute magnum opus. As Holzer so captivatingly relates, the speech consists of three main sections: the first a historical accounting of the founder’s beliefs regarding slavery. Lincoln takes a line from a speech given by his long-time rival from Illinois, Senator Stephen Douglas, in which he says “Our fathers, when they framed the Government under which we live, understood this question just as well, and even better, than we do now.” With these words repeated over and over in his speech at Cooper Union, Lincoln cleverly recounts the votes that in toto demonstrate convincingly that the founders of our country believed that the federal government did, in fact, have the right and the obligation to restrict the spread of slavery into the new territories. In the second section, Lincoln addresses himself directly to “the Southern people,” whom he knows will not hear his speech, all while cleverly speaking to northern Republicans whose support he needs. The third, and shortest section, asserts that Republicans cannot relinquish their principle that slavery is wrong just to placate the South, and ends with his now 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.”
I read the full speech in the appendix before reading the rest of the book, then again – this time out loud, as if giving it myself – after finishing the chapter explaining its significance. While the speech as read is superb in itself, it is when spoken out loud as an oration that it gains its ultimate power. Holzer has captured this masterpiece with his own masterpiece. This book is a must read for anyone interested in Abraham Lincoln, history, or simply the power of a well prepared speech.