Saturday, October 10, 2009

Lincoln in New York

We are members of the New-York Historical Society, located at 77th Street and Central Park West, just a few lovely blocks from where we now live. We affectionately call it "N dash Y" because the old fashioned spelling for New York, which the Historical Society still uses has a hyphen in it. So good ol' N-Y threw a preview and reception for members on Thursday night of their new exhibit "Lincoln in New York." It's always fun to go to these because the wine flows freely, the crowds don't get too large, and the exhibits tend to be pretty good, too. This one was no exception. The wine did indeed flow, accompanied by plenty of eats that were brought out by waiters on little trays, dainty little appetizers, all of them quite good. But especially nice was the exhibit itself, shedding new light on the many ways in which New York City helped to shape the political rise of Abraham Lincoln.

A lot of people know that Lincoln's Cooper Union speech delivered in New York City in February 1860, months before he became the nominee of the Republican Party, helped to build support for his candidacy when he made his most elaborate and convincing argument to date against the extension of slavery. But just as interesting is how the notoriety that resulted from this speech inaugurated a connection between New York and Lincoln that grew progessively stronger over the last five years of his life. In some ways, no other city, save Washington, did so much to influence his presidency, though not always, by any means, to his benefit.

I was surprised to learn, for instance, that despite strong support from powerful newspaper editors like Horace Greeley at the New-York Tribune, New York City remained strongly opposed to Lincoln in both 1860 and 1864, though New York State and its 35 electoral votes did go for Lincoln both times. What was there about New York City that so disliked Lincoln, at least until his death? For one thing, despite New York's liberal reputation, it had strong pro-slavery elements, hardened by New York's highly profitable connections to the southern cotton trade. For another, New York was an often wild, diverse, slightly crazy place (not unlike today) that did not easily go for the newly favored man. Samuel F.B. Morse, one of the early holders of a patent for the telegraph, was one of many entrepreneurial New Yorkers who supported slavery and detested Lincoln, not just because slavery was good for the economy, at least as he saw it, but because any attempt by the federal government to interfere in local affairs was anathema to him, especially as he saw slavery as part of the natural condition of humankind, some belonged on top while others should remain on the bottom. He was hardly alone in this opinion in the New York City of that era.

Another New York event that caused Lincoln great pains were the draft riots of 1863, which resulted in the deaths of 120 civilians and became the "worst civil disorder in the nation's hisory--except for the Civil War itselt." Ostensibly precipitated by opposition to the new conscription laws, the riots were a complex mix of racial hatred and racist targeting of a burgeoning community of free Blacks in New York and the understandable frustration arising from the thousands of properous New Yorkers who were permitted to exempt themselves from military service by purchasing "substitutes."

One other point regarding New York's connection to Lincoln. During his first visit, the time he gave the Cooper Union speech, he visited the photographic gallery of one Mathew Brady. Brady's ability to bring out the contours of Lincoln's craggy face, to show off his height, and to convey the seriousness of his entire demeanor - this, as much as anything, contributed to his popularity and to the sense that here was a man who could be entrusted with the country's weighty affairs. The cards that were made from this one photograph, before the famous Lincoln beard appeared, were duplicated by the thousands and became, for many people, their only visual introduction to Lincoln. The picture had to be perfect, and, by most accounts, it was.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting stuff. The importance of these photo cards in mid 19th century America is under appreciated. We don't think twice about sharing photos and there are many around who don't recall what even a photo album is for, much less the novelty of the reproducible image itself. Lincoln owed a lot to Brady.