Abraham Lincoln

An 1860 photograph of Abraham Lincoln standing with his left hand placed on a stack of books

Courtesy: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-5803.

When the former Illinois Whig congressman Abraham Lincoln gave his speech at Cooper Union in New York City on February 27, 1860—only hours after Matthew B. Brady took this portrait—Lincoln was nationally known but not yet a candidate for president of the United States. Senator William H. Seward of New York was the Republican front-runner, and the elite New York party leadership took a dim view of Lincoln’s suitability—he lacked society manners and formal education. But Lincoln’s speech that night convinced them he was a viable candidate. In response to his rival Stephen Douglas’s claim that the nation’s founders saw no role for federal regulation of slavery, Lincoln argued in lawyerly fashion that twenty-one of the original thirty-nine framers of the U.S. Constitution went on to cast votes in favor of restricting the spread of slavery. Speaking less than four months after the execution of John Brown for his raid on Harpers Ferry, Lincoln also clearly dissociated the Republican party from Brown’s actions. In both respects, then, the Republicans were the “conservative” party, whereas southern “disunionists” were the true and dangerous radicals. Backed by Brady’s distinguished portrait, Lincoln was on his way to the White House.