It's a measure of Abraham Lincoln's stature that whole books have been written about his speeches -- not the collected speeches, mind you, but one speech per book. This has happened at least twice, with Garry Wills's Lincoln at Gettsyburg: The Words That Remade America and now with Harold Holzer's Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President (Simon & Schuster, $25). Though nowhere near as well-known as the Gettysburg Address, the Cooper Union speech of Feb. 27, 1860, was pivotal in Lincoln's career. It "tested whether Lincoln's appeal could extend from the podium to the page," Holzer continues, "and from the rollicking campaigns of the rural West to the urban East, where theaters, lecture halls, and museums vied with politics for public attention. Cooper Union held the promise of transforming Lincoln from a regional phenomenon to a national figure. Lincoln knew it, and rose to the occasion." Three months afterward, he won the Republican Party's nomination for president.
But Lincoln would not have been Lincoln if he hadn't unleashed his vaunted sense of humor at Cooper Union. Here, complete with audience reactions, is an example in which he is speaking to hypothetical Southerners: "But you will not abide the election of a Republican president! In that supposed event, you say, you will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! [Laughter.] That is cool. [Great laughter.] A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, 'Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!' [Continued laughter.]"
Himself no mean orator, former New York governor Mario Cuomo spins a fantasy on Lincoln's speechmaking prowess in Why Lincoln Matters: Today More Than Ever (Harcourt, $24). The book ends with the 2004 address to Congress that Lincoln might have delivered were he president now. In it, Lincoln harks back to his management of the Civil War: "Allow me only to say that whatever the verdict of history concerning my conduct then, it is clear our current engagement with terrorism, which will in all likelihood continue into the indefinite future, does not, for all its seriousness, present a danger to our country's existence equal to that which prompted my reluctant but limited suspension of liberties in the past."
-- Dennis Drabelle