The Most Hated Man in New York

Article excerpt

Abraham Lincoln liked to speak of himself as a "Western free state man," and no wonder, since virtually all but the last forty-eight months of his life were lived on the western side of the Appalachians. He did not visit New York City until he was thirty-nine years old, and, even then, it was just to pass through. (He was on his way to New England to deliver a series of speeches on behalf of Zachary Taylor's campaign for the presidency in 1848). Nevertheless, New York played a key role in making Lincoln president because of the terrific impact made on the East Coast leadership of the young Republican party by his electrifying speech at New York City's Cooper Institute on February 27, 1860. Lincoln liked to joke that, along with the striking portrait photograph shot by Matthew Brady the same day, the Cooper Union speech "made me president."

It was only partly a joke. Lincoln was originally invited to New York to speak as part of the Plymouth Lecture Series, sponsored by Henry Ward Beecher's Plymouth Church. But sponsorship was soon widened to include the Young Men's Republican Union, an alliance of New York City Republicans who were determined to prevent the 1860 Republican presidential nomination from falling into the lap of the candidate-in-waiting, New York's William Henry Seward. Seward was the champion of Northern anti-slavery politics. But he was also the crony of Albany's most notorious wheeler-and-dealer, Thurlow Weed. The conservatives who made up the Young Men's Republican Union dreaded the prospect of the corrupt Weed pulling the nation's strings from behind Seward's throne. The corruption was bad enough on its own terms; the greater danger lay in the disgrace that a corrupted Seward presidency would bring to the anti-slavery cause.

With the lecture's new sponsorship came a new agenda--showcasing alternative Republican talent from afar--and a new venue, the Great Hall of Peter Cooper's new Institute for the Advancement of Science and Art, on Astor Place, two blocks east of Broadway. Lincoln had to share the runway with two other western worthies making their East Coast debuts, Frank Blair of Missouri on January 25 and the Kentucky abolitionist Cassius Marcellus Clay on February 15. But, by every account, Lincoln not only brought down the house, he also easily nudged Blair's and Clay's speeches into obscurity. As Lincoln's Congressional ally Isaac Arnold wrote in 1866, "this speech was very widely circulated and read"--to the tune of some 70,000 copies--"and prepared the minds of the people for his nomination for the Presidency."

Arnold's "people," however, did not include the people of New York City. Although Lincoln carried the state of New York in the 1860 presidential campaign with a healthy 54 percent of the vote, he garnered only 35 percent of the city's vote, which went overwhelmingly Democratic. In January 1861, the city's Democratic mayor, Fernando Wood, threatened to declare Manhattan a "free city" (in other words, to secede) so that it could resume its profitable trade with the rebel South, and Wall Street financiers balked so often at supporting the Northern war effort, and so often played the war to their own profit, that a frustrated Lincoln once wished that everyone "of those fellows in Wall Street, who are gambling in gold at such a time as this" could have "his devilish head shot off!"

City voters swarmed to the polls again in 1862 and helped elect a Democratic governor, Horatio Seymour, with a whopping 62 percent majority in the city, and turned the New York congressional delegation from a 21-10 Republican majority in the 37th Congress into a 17-16 Democratic majority in the 38th. (Seymour, in his inaugural address, railed against the Emancipation Proclamation as "a proposal ... for scenes of lust and rapine, of arson and murder unparalleled in the history of the world" and refused to co-operate with federal authorities in recruiting black soldiers for the Union Army). When Lincoln ran for reelection in 1864, he had a mandate from a series of military successes and won in a national landslide; but his percentage of the vote in New York City actually dropped to 33 percent. …