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The Great Hall at Cooper Union: A Place That Matters on Lincoln’s 200th

great hall cooper union 1864

The Great Hall at Cooper Union, located at 7 East 7th Street in Manhattan, was nominated to the Census of Places that Matter for its vital role as a platform for free speech.  We celebrate the Great Hall today, the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, because of its association with this great president.

When industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper laid the cornerstone for his new Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in 1853, he pledged “moral, mental and physical improvement of the rising generation.” The Great Hall, which occupies the basement of the monolithic Foundation Building, has proved to be an enduring testament to this founding vision.

The Great Hall has always been an important venue for the communication of Cooper’s ideals. In 1860, just two years after opening, Abraham Lincoln made his famous speech against slavery proclaiming, “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.” Now known as the Cooper Union Address, its success is believed to have secured him the presidency.

Like Lincoln, Presidents Grant, Cleveland, Taft, Theodore Roosevelt and Barack Obama all spoke at the Great Hall prior to being elected, while Woodrow Wilson and William Jefferson Clinton each spoke as incumbents.

Additionally, the Great Hall has acted as a forum for women’s rights and the labor movement. It was there that the founder of the American Federation of Labor, Samuel Gompers, supported the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the Women’s Trade Union League. The Great Hall also witnessed the emergence of pioneering organizations like the NAACP and the American Red Cross.

Today, the school continues its mission as a tuition-free college.   As the New York Times noted in 1987, the voices of “presidents, social reformers, leaders in the arts and sciences, literary lions and assorted troublemakers and dreamers now echo along the corridors at Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.”