When Abe Lincoln visited the city’s worst slum

February 27, 1860 was the date Lincoln delivered his famous speech at Cooper Union, explaining his position on slavery—and wowing New Yorkers who were not so familiar with this Republican presidential candidate from the Midwest.

The afternoon before, however, he spoke in front of a very different audience: destitute children who lived at the Five Points House of Industry.

At the time, Five Points was Manhattan’s most crime-ridden, impoverished slum. The House of Industry was a charity that mainly housed and assisted poor and orphaned kids.

[Photo of Lincoln—taken by Mathew Brady the day before he visited Five Points]

“As Lincoln peeked in on one of the Sunday School classes, a teacher asked the tall, skinny lawyer to say a few words to his students,” writes Tyler Anbinder, author of Five Points.

“Lincoln at first declined, insisting he could offer no words of advice to such destitute children. But his companion, Illinois congressman Elihu B. Washburne, insisted tht Lincoln speak, suggesting that he describe the hard times of his own youth.

“Lincoln reluctantly consented, telling the students, as Washburne later recalled, that ‘I had been poor; that I remembered when my toes stuck out through my broken shoes in the winter; when my arms were out at the elbows; when I shivered with the cold.

“‘And I told them there was only one rule. That was, always do the very best you can . . . if they would follow that rule, they would get along somehow.’

“By now, Lincoln’s eyes had filled with tears, and he could not continue.”

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3 Responses to “When Abe Lincoln visited the city’s worst slum”

  1. Nabe News: October 18 - Bowery Boogie | A Lower East Side Chronicle Says:

    [...] his famous speech on slavery at the Cooper Union.  Afterward, he headed to the Five Points slum to talk with destitute children [Ephemeral [...]

  2. The bloody, two-day “Great Gang Fight” of 1857 « Ephemeral New York Says:

    [...] if poverty and disease weren’t bad enough, powerful gangs—backed by local politicians and ignored by a [...]

  3. When Charles Dickens toured the city in 1842 « Ephemeral New York Says:

    [...] on social justice, he was shocked by the poverty he encountered in the notorious Five Points neighborhood—which he considered to be worse than London’s East [...]

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