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Sunday, May 23, 2004

Lincoln at Cooper Union

Earlier tonight on C-Span II, I watched Sam Waterston deliver the speech that Abraham Lincoln gave at Cooper Union on February 27, 1860. The speech is the subject of a new book by Harold Holzer entitled, ďLincoln At Cooper Union: The Speech that Made Abraham Lincoln President.

Having spent most of my life in the Land of Lincoln, I had previously read the speech, but this was the first time Iíd heard it read out loud. At the end of the session, Waterston told the audience in the Great Hall at Cooper Union this was an experiment. They wanted to see how a modern day audience would react to the speech. It was one of the longest speeches Lincoln gave.

Despite the slight distraction of Waterstonís spectacles perched precariously on the tip of his nose (I kept thinking they were going to slide off his face), I found the speech to be very compelling. I couldnít take my eyes and ears off his presentation. There were several times when I got a lump in my throat as I tried to imagine those times and what was going on in our divided country back then.

Throughout the speech, I was struck by the fact that Lincoln was speaking those words not only from his heart, but to the whole country (north and south) and not just a privileged few. I found this to be in stark contrast to how many of our current day politicians speak and deliver.

I donít know if it was Waterston or the words alone, but a feeling was conveyed that Lincoln sincerely believed that Douglas was wrong and that a major social injustice had to be righted. Obviously, Lincoln felt the need to not just attack Stephen Douglasís position, but to offer up a necessary alternative with a thorough analysis of why and the reasons therefor. This was not just politics for Lincoln. It was just awesome.

Hereís the text of Lincolnís Cooper Union Speech which I snagged from the NY Times

Posted by Marie at May 23, 2004 10:28 PM


I am not familiar with this speech although I'll read the text when I get a chance.

I remember that Sam Waterston gave voice to Lincoln in Ken Burns's Civil War documentary. During one of the episodes Waterston, portraying Lincoln, gave the Gettysburg Address in a very personal, heartfelt way that I can still remember. Not at all like the rote memorization I had from my youth.

Posted by: Kem White at May 24, 2004 12:55 PM

Thinking about it more the next day, I want to emphasize that Lincoln was not just refuting Douglas, but setting forth a case for freedom for the slaves. Much like a lawyer might present evidence and give a closing argument. This was not a politician saying "hey, I'm telling you this is good for you so you should go along with it. Trust me. Take my word for it."

Posted by: Marie at May 24, 2004 1:15 PM

How can I get a DVD of Sam Waterston's portrayal of A. Lincoln's Cooper Union Address?

Posted by: Pat Oliver at July 6, 2004 7:17 PM


Go to the Book Notes website to find VHS and DVD of the Waterson delivery of the speech ($29.95). Link provided above

Posted by: David at July 12, 2004 6:08 AM