Dark Horse

Launching Lincoln's Career

By John Strausbaugh

On Saturday, February 25, 1860, Henry Bowen was in Manhattan catching up on some work at the Independent, a religious weekly he and other founders of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights had started back in 1848, with the Plymouth pastor Henry Ward Beecher as star columnist. The offices were at 6 Beekman Street, just off Printing House Square. In the middle of the quiet afternoon an unsettling figure materialized across his desk from him. A battered stovepipe hat exaggerated his improbable height. He was dark and thin as a shadow, with swarthy, deeply lined cheeks and hooded blue-gray eyes. He wore a rumpled black suit and carried a carpetbag. He stood there for a few heartbeats radiating diffidence. Then, almost apologetically, in a thin and nasal voice, he introduced himself as Abraham Lincoln and held out a giant hand.

Bowen was startled. All New York Republicans had read Lincoln’s debates with Stephen Douglas when he unsuccessfully competed for Douglas’s Senate seat in 1858. But only Horace Greeley and a few others had ever seen or heard the man. Bowen was not on the committee that had invited Lincoln to come speak at Plymouth Church the following Monday, which would be Lincoln’s first public speaking engagement in the metropolis. Although Lincoln had not yet declared himself a candidate, some Republicans were beginning to promote the prairie lawyer as a viable competitor to New York’s statesmanlike senator William Seward, whom Bowen, and most everyone else, favored to lead the party in the upcoming presidential race.

From Springfield, Lincoln had traveled to Chicago, then by train to Philadelphia and finally Jersey City. From there he’d taken a ferry to Cortlandt Street and walked the few blocks to Bowen’s office. As the weary traveler asked Bowen’s indulgence to drape his long legs across the couch for a little rest, Bowen felt "sick at heart" over Lincoln's prospects before a big-city audience.

The Plymouth committee had developed cold feet themselves. Invited speakers generated important revenue for the church, and they began to doubt that Lincoln, to whom they'd offered a very nice fee of two hundred dollars plus expenses, could fill the hall. Horace Greeley had pounced. He and William Cullen Bryant were on the board of an organization called the Young Men's Central Republican Union. The group gladly took over sponsorship of Lincoln's visit, and moved the venue to the Great Hall of the new Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in Manhattan. Lincoln didn't know of the venue change until Bowen told him.

After resting up a while in Bowen's office, Lincoln walked a short way over to bustling, clattering Broadway. Towering above the jostling crowd, a full seven feet from his heels to the top of his beaver hat, he turned into the Astor House, the dowager empress of New York luxury hotels in 1860. After a bellboy got a fire going in his room's fireplace, Lincoln sat long into the night working on his speech.

The next morning, at Bowen's invitation, he joined the crowds streaming to the Fulton Street ferry landing. Ferries, nicknamed Beecher Boats, headed across the East River every five minutes on Sunday mornings, heading for Plymouth Church, and they were packed. Stepping off at the landing in the area now called DUMBO, the crowd surged up the hill and onto Orange Street in Brooklyn Heights. Bowen easily spotted Lincoln in the crush and escorted him to his family pew. Lincoln, with his ridiculously long legs, took the aisle seat. A small brass plaque still marks the spot.

Bowen introduced him to Beecher after the service. Lincoln, never the most comfortable extemporaneous speaker himself, greatly admired the show Beecher put on. Beecher, the most famous preacher in the country, was too impressed with himself to think much of Lincoln; like many others in New York, he considered him coarse and probably not very intelligent.

On Monday a delegation of local Republicans met Lincoln at the Astor House. They spent some time fussing with the new black frock coat he'd bought for the trip; the sleeves were too short, and it had wrinkled in his trunk. They also gave him a new silk top hat to replace his worn-out beaver. Then they led him uptown to Mathew Brady's photography studio to have his portrait taken.

Jeff Rosenheim describes what transpired there in Photography and the American Civil War. A natty five foot six, Brady gazed up at the odd-looking giant with his mule ears and long neck and considered how to pose him. He decided on a pose he'd used before -- for Senator Jefferson Davis. He had Lincoln stand at a slight angle to the camera with the fingertips of his left hand resting on a stack of books, which both suggested erudition and helped keep the body still during the camera's long exposure time. He also hiked Lincoln’s shirt collar to hide the neck. He couldn't do much about the wrinkles in Lincoln's coat, which are clearly visible in the photograph. Because of that long exposure time, portraitists clamped a brace to the subject's neck to keep the head still. For Lincoln, Brady had to lift his brace on a stool to reach. Like many subjects of the era, Lincoln looks self-conscious and ill at ease, even a little melancholy, in the resulting portrait.

Fifteen hundred people, "the pick and flower of New York" according to one correspondent, braved a slushy snowstorm to come to the Great Hall that evening. Greeley, Bryant, and sixteen other prominent New York Republicans sat on the stage behind Lincoln. Bryant gave Lincoln a rousing introduction. He was one of the few New Yorkers besides Greeley who'd actually met him before. While traveling in Illinois in 1832 he'd encountered Lincoln as a gangly young captain of the state's Indian-fighting militia.

Lincoln was well aware of how much he had riding on this one performance. In a wide field of potential Republican presidential candidates he knew he appeared, on paper, one of the least qualified. He'd been a state legislator out in the boondocks, an undistinguished one-time congressman, and a celebrated but failed senatorial candidate. Despite all the interest his debates with Douglas had generated, newspapers still frequently misspelled his name as Abram, or called him Abe, which he hated because he thought it sounded too cornpone, or just went with A. Lincoln. He had nothing like Seward's public record or oratorical suavity. He'd later say he never felt so nervous in his life as he did on the Great Hall stage. He fidgeted in his new outfit, rattled his foolscap pages, and began to read his painstakingly worded speech in his thin, twangy voice. The first words out of his mouth, according to a witness, sounded like "Mr. Cheerman." The crowd gawked. Some tittered. This was the man who'd held his own against Douglas? Who was challenging the mighty Seward?

But a few minutes into it he found his footing, and for more than an hour he held the audience so spellbound that the only sound other than his voice was the hissing of the gas lamps -- and the increasingly frequent bursts of applause. He went straight to the key issues of the hour, slavery and the threat of secession. He took no extreme abolitionist stance, but offered a moderate, measured statement of conviction that while slavery was "an evil not to be extended" to new territories, the Constitution demanded that it be "tolerated and protected" where it already existed. "Wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is," he said. Finally, rallying all Republicans, he concluded with the 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."

The audience exploded in cheers and tossed their hats in the air. Afterward, Lincoln rode a streetcar down to the Astor House, reportedly "alone, the sole occupant of the horse-drawn vehicle." Near midnight, he walked over to the offices of Greeley's Tribune at Nassau and Spruce Streets, where an eighteen-year-old proofreader showed him the transcript of his speech. Lincoln, who loved hanging around newspaper offices, lingered for quite a while, carefully reading the text and chatting with the young worker.

When Lincoln went down to the lobby of the Astor House the next morning, he saw that the Tribune, the Herald and the Times had all run the speech in full. Greeley would publish it as a pamphlet. Telegrams arrived with a flurry of offers to come speak elsewhere in the Northeast. Strangers approached him to shake his hand. He left New York that day for a whirlwind tour of New England, giving speeches in eleven cities over the next two weeks. He had come to New York a relative nobody, and was leaving it a star. Although he still did not declare his candidacy, he admitted privately to a friend that "the taste of it is in my mouth a little."

Published February 20th, 2016

John Strausbaugh's most recent book The Village, a history of Greenwich Village, was one of Kirkus Reviews' Best Books of 2013. His next one, City of Sedition, a history of New York City during the Civil War, comes out this summer. He is a former editor of New York Press and has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post and elsewhere.