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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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