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Local Legends | The Draft Riots

Lib.Cr-image2Library of CongressThe draft riots of 1863 from a contemporary publication.

The City of New York has known the influence of many powerful men, one of whom was a man of the cloth named Archbishop John Hughes. He had, since his arrival in 1838, aligned himself with the unassimilated Irish immigrants in lower Manhattan. This Ulster-born prelate rallied them in the face of abject discrimination, (such as “No Irish Need Apply,”) yet played on their fears whenever he could. Hughes was highly ambitious, and gladly courted controversy in the press. His letters to the editor were always signed with a cross, which with a flick of his pen looked a whole lot more like a knife. And because of his fearful countenance and violent temper, reporters began to call him “Dagger” John Hughes.

That Hughes himself was a deeply bigoted fellow would not be a difficult point to prove. He regularly published his racist diatribes, and exhorted his disdain for abolitionists in numerous sermons. He whipped up his largely Irish congregation with dire warnings of freed black slaves traveling north to steal their jobs, and they heeded his every word.

By 1861, even Abraham Lincoln was terrified of Hughes, and courted his favor at the outbreak of war. He dearly wanted the “Fighting Irish” on the side of the Union, and Dagger John was flattered that Lincoln would call on him with hat in hand. He therefore wrapped himself in the flag and bid his parishioners to do the same.
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Local Legends | Abe at Cooper Union

Lincoln-Cooper_UnionAbraham Lincoln, in a portrait by Matthew Brady taken only hours before his famous Cooper Union address, given 151 years ago last week. Insert: a contemporary view of Cooper Union, from an engraving in Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 1883.
Great_Hall_todayTim MilkThe Great Hall today.

It’s a common trope around these parts, and a friend of mine says it all the time. “Huh? What? I mean, come on, I don’t know about that.” It’s almost palpable as you cross from Broadway west to east, this game of contention.

Socially, politically, it’s been a longstanding history, going back to the 1850’s, when the urbanity of lower Manhattan began to seep like an aroma into the enclave we now call “The East Village.” But more than that, it was almost as if a lens had been held up to catch the lunar rays, and send them down here, right here, a place like nowhere else, where skeptics and firebrands, bohemians and bon vivants converge to strike their poses. One might wonder where all this contention had its start, yet I believe it was never more apparent than when Abraham Lincoln came here to speak.

On Feb. 22, 1860, on the eve of the great Civil War and before his nomination as Presidential candidate seemed possible, Lincoln boarded a train that drew him some 1,800 miles eastward, all six feet five inches of him, folded like a jackknife into a second-class seat. He had a speaking engagement scheduled in New York, and that alone was worth the trip. Originally, he was set to speak in Brooklyn, but a change of venue brought the affair to Cooper Union, a recently established learning center designed to draw thinkers and dreamers to an area that had become, well, just a bit slummy.

Our “Prairie Orator” arrived in New York on Feb. 26, dressed in a brand new suit. It was, however, criss-crossed with razor-sharp creases, having come all the way from Illinois in a very small handbag. He looked grotesque, one man said, as he shambled along, exhausted and rumpled, in the cruelest new shoes known to mankind. Once he had booked a room downtown for the night, he sat up late, refining his speech.
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