Churchill and Lincoln: Scholars Consider the Cooper Union Speech

Churchill and Lincoln: Scholars Consider the Cooper Union Speech

Cooper Union, 27 February 1860

Abra­ham Lin­coln in 1860 con­front­ed as exis­ten­tial a threat as Churchill as Prime Min­is­ter in 1940. A recent pod­cast of the Hills­dale Dia­logues offers thought­ful comparisons.

Lincoln 1860, Churchill 1940

“Lin­coln and Churchill found them­selves chal­lenged by wars of nation­al sur­vival,” writes the Lin­coln schol­ar Lewis Lehrman. “Even though their ear­ly lives appear to be dif­fer­ent, there are sim­i­lar aspects in their edu­ca­tion­al preparation….

In June 1860, Lin­coln wrote that “when I came of age I did not know much…. The lit­tle advance I now have upon this store of edu­ca­tion, I have picked up from time to time under the pres­sure of necessity.”

Churchill in March 1949 would echo these remarks at Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy: “I frankly con­fess that I feel some­what over­awed in address­ing this vast sci­en­tif­ic and learned audi­ence.… I have no tech­ni­cal and no uni­ver­si­ty edu­ca­tion, and have just had to pick up a few things as I went along.”

Their obser­va­tions under­val­ued the immense effort both had put into self-improve­ment. At 23, Lin­coln had stat­ed in his first polit­i­cal cam­paign that edu­ca­tion is “the most impor­tant sub­ject which we as peo­ple can be engaged in.” At that age Lin­coln was hard at work…at the study of gram­mar…. By age 45 he had mas­tered Euclid.

We are remind­ed again of these shared traits by Hills­dale Col­lege Pres­i­dent Lar­ry Arnn and author and broad­cast­er Hugh Hewitt. On Octo­ber 27th, they dis­cussed Lincoln’s 1860 Coop­er Union speech on the week­ly Hills­dale Dialogues.

What does “demonstrate” mean?

It is iron­ic that the great­est speech in Amer­i­can con­sti­tu­tion­al his­to­ry was deliv­ered at Coop­er Union, where on Octo­ber 26th Jew­ish stu­dents shel­tered or hid from fanat­i­cal “demon­stra­tors.” That is an inter­est­ing word, demon­strate. A digres­sion is in order, because Lewis Lehrman’s ref­er­ence to Lin­coln and Euclid was repeat­ed by Dr. Arnn, who offered some­thing Lin­coln said in 1859:

Read­ing law, I kept com­ing across the word “demon­strate.” I thought at first that I under­stood its mean­ing, but soon became sat­is­fied that I did not. What do I mean when I “demon­strate”? More than when I rea­son or prove? How does “demon­strate” dif­fer from any oth­er proof? I con­sult­ed Web­ster. “Cer­tain proof,” he says it means. I thought a great many things were proved beyond a pos­si­bil­i­ty of doubt with­out recourse to any such extra­or­di­nary process of rea­son­ing. So I said to myself, Lin­coln, you will nev­er make a lawyer if you do not under­stand what “demon­strate” means. I left my sit­u­a­tion in Spring­field, went home to my father’s house, and stayed there. until I could give any propo­si­tion in the six books of Euclid at sight. I then found out what “demon­strate” means, and went back to my law studies.

“Can you imag­ine any mod­ern politi­cian say­ing that?” Dr. Arnn asks. Evi­dent­ly, we have some­what obfus­cat­ed the mean­ing of the word “demon­strate.”

Cooper Union
Lin­coln pho­tographed by Matthew Brady on 27 Feb­ru­ary 1860 just before address­ing Coop­er Union. (Nation­al Archives, pub­lic domain)

“Adamant in principle, moderate in practice”

Arnn and Hewitt deft­ly ana­lyze Lincoln’s Coop­er Union speech—as vital an ora­tion as Churchill at M.I.T. in 1949 or Har­vard Yard in 1943. In the begin­ning, Lin­coln bril­liant­ly demol­ish­es the con­sti­tu­tion­al argu­ments for slav­ery. What catch­es the eye par­tic­u­lar­ly today, how­ev­er, are cer­tain lat­er para­graphs. They begin with his def­i­n­i­tion of conservatism:

What is con­ser­vatism? Is it not adher­ence to the old and tried, against the new and untried? We stick to, con­tend for, the iden­ti­cal old pol­i­cy on the point in con­tro­ver­sy which was adopt­ed by “our fathers who framed the gov­ern­ment under which we live”; while you with one accord reject, and scout, and spit upon that old pol­i­cy, and insist upon sub­sti­tut­ing some­thing new.

True, you dis­agree among your­selves as to what that sub­sti­tute shall be. You are divid­ed on new propo­si­tions and plans, but you are unan­i­mous in reject­ing and denounc­ing the old pol­i­cy of the fathers.

What is the mod­ern appli­ca­tion of Lincoln’s pre­cepts? It is, says Dr. Arnn, to pro­claim when one does not agree with “some­thing new,” but to do so pru­dent­ly: “I coun­seled some­body in pol­i­tics late­ly. I said you must cou­ple two things togeth­er, because they are of a piece. You should be adamant in prin­ci­ple, and mod­er­ate in prac­tice. And in tone.”

Lincoln to Republicans

Lincoln’s con­clud­ing words at Coop­er Union are immor­tal. He spoke first to his par­ty, then to his coun­try­men. He began with moderation:

A few words now to Repub­li­cans. It is exceed­ing­ly desir­able that all parts of this great con­fed­er­a­cy shall be at peace, and in har­mo­ny, one with anoth­er. Let us Repub­li­cans do our part to have it so. Even though much pro­voked, let us do noth­ing through pas­sion and ill tem­per. Even though the south­ern peo­ple will not so much as lis­ten to us, let us calm­ly con­sid­er their demands, and yield to them if, in our delib­er­ate view of our duty, we pos­si­bly can. Judg­ing by all they say and do, and by the sub­ject and nature of their con­tro­ver­sy with us, let us deter­mine, if we can, what will sat­is­fy them.

“Right makes might…”

Under­neath that mod­er­a­tion lay the steel of principle:

Let us be divert­ed by none of those sophis­ti­cal con­trivances where­with we are so indus­tri­ous­ly plied and belabored—contrivances such as grop­ing for some mid­dle ground between the right and the wrong, vain as the search for a man who should be nei­ther a liv­ing man nor a dead man—such as a pol­i­cy of “don’t care” on a ques­tion about which all true men do care—such as Union appeals beseech­ing true Union men to yield to dis­union­ists, revers­ing the divine rule, and call­ing not the sin­ners but the right­eous to repentance—such as invo­ca­tions to Wash­ing­ton, implor­ing men to unsay what Wash­ing­ton said, and undo what Wash­ing­ton did.

Nei­ther let us be slan­dered from our duty by false accu­sa­tions against us, nor fright­ened from it by men­aces of destruc­tion to the gov­ern­ment nor of dun­geons to our­selves. 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.

Or as Churchill said, in a sim­i­lar cir­cum­stance: “I refuse to be impar­tial as between the fire brigade and the fire.”

One yearns for a politi­cian able to express their sen­ti­ments today.

Further reading

“Churchill’s Steady Adher­ence to His ‘Iron Cur­tain’ Speech, 2021.

“Churchill’s Ersatz Meet­ing with Lincoln’s Ghost,” 2018.

“Lehrman on Churchill and Lin­coln,” 2016.

“Churchill’s ‘Vast Gaps of Knowl­edge,” 2017.

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