“Brady and the Cooper Institute made me president.”
Abraham Lincoln said he was elected president in 1860 because of a speech and a photographer.
Photography had been invented in France barely twenty years before, but in the 1840s it became the rage in America. A number of Americans studied the photographic process, and a few decided that money could be made from it. One of those was Matthew Brady.
Brady opened a photographic studio in New York City in 1844. He took advantage of the universal curiosity about the photographic process by inviting every famous person who came to the city to his studio to have his or her picture taken. The result of Brady’s promotion is a remarkable collection of pictures of the glitterati of the mid 19th century. It also made Brady the most famous photographer in America.
Brady’s most important photograph was taken in 1860 when Abraham Lincoln came to town. Lincoln had been prominently mentioned as a presidential candidate of the young and growing Republican Party. He had left Illinois to complete a speaking tour in the northeast, and in February he was scheduled to address an audience at the Cooper Institute.
On the day of the address, Lincoln went to Brady’s studio at 359 Broadway. The photograph Brady took was shows a tall, serious-looking man who looked as though he could deal with the problems facing his country. Lincoln was not particularly handsome, but there is some arresting about his face and the way in which he looks into the camera.
The photograph was widely used by engravers during the next few months, so that most of the nation knew what Lincoln looked like.
The speech that Lincoln gave that evening was his most famous to date. Speaking on the issue of slavery and its threat to the nation, Lincoln said that a house “divided against itself” cannot stand.
Lincoln later acknowledge that the day of his speech at the Cooper Union – the same day he had his picture taken by Matthew Brady – was the most important day of his presidential campaign.
Brady’s name today is associated with the many photographs he and his associates took during the Civil War. But we would have known about him anyway because before 1861 he had already been photographing the rich and the famous.
(Adapted from James Glen Stovall, Journalism: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How, Allyn and Bacon, 2005.)