Classroom Activities

  1. Lincoln makes the point to speak to the “Southern people” though he believes they will not listen. Who do you think he is really speaking to? What does he accomplish in this part of the speech?
  2. Reflect on Lincoln’s reputation before and after his Cooper Union address. Why do you think he felt it necessary to give this speech?  What effect do you think it had on his reputation?
  3. The Cooper Union address has been called “the speech that made Abraham Lincoln president.” Why do you think the speech is viewed in this way?
  4. At the last minute Lincoln discovered that the location of the speech had been changed from Plymouth Church in Brooklyn to the Cooper Institute in Manhattan. When he learned this, Lincoln wanted to edit his speech. Why do you think Lincoln wanted to modify his speech based on this change in location and audience? What characteristics of his audience might have affected his thinking?
  5. The argumentative style of this speech differs greatly from Lincoln’s typical stump speech. How would you characterize the style and tone of this speech?  How do you think his stump speeches might have differed?  What factors might have contributed to these differences?

Student Research

  1. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas clashed multiple times in a series of debates. Visit the National Parks Service’s collection of Lincoln-Douglas debates (here) and read the second debate at Freeport, Illinois. How does Lincoln’s interpretation of the Constitution differ from Douglas’ interpretation?
  2. After Emancipation, Peter Cooper – the founder of Cooper Union – invited Frederick Douglass to defend Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Read that speech here. How does Douglass’s 1863 argument against slavery differ from Lincoln’s? What factors do you think contribute to their differing approaches?
  3. Abolitionists used the Declaration of Independence as evidence for their arguments against slavery. Examine the language of the Declaration versus the language of the Constitution. Identify parts of both documents that might be relevant to the slavery issue, and discuss how each could be used in the arguments for and against the expansion slavery in the territories.

Citizenship Resources

  1. On what issues do you believe the individual states should have power or control? What sorts of issues does it make sense for the federal government to exercise power? What, exactly, does the U.S. Constitution say about this matter?
  2. What responsibility do you think the government should have in upholding the “morality” of its citizens? How does this question relate to whether one views the United States as a “secular” nation or one founded on religious principles?
  3. In Lincoln’s time, presidential candidates did not actively campaign for the presidency in the way they do today. Cooper Union would be Lincoln’s last speech before his election in 1860. How do you think the self-promotion of our presidential candidates today has changed the face of politics and elections?
  4. Consider Lincoln’s conclusion of the speech. Discuss what he might have meant by “right makes might,” and reflect on the relevance that idea might have for debates over contemporary issues, like racial equality or women’s rights.