Remembering Lincoln’s “House Divided” Speech

By Nancy Spannaus

June 16, 2019—In my Internet scanning today, I happened to note that it is the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s famous “House Divided” speech, which was given at the Illinois State Republican Convention in 1858. This was the convention which nominated Lincoln to run against Stephen Douglass for Senate—a race he lost, but which brought him into prominence nationally. Some have even asserted that it was crucial to his election to the Presidency.

Remembering Lincoln's "House Divided" Speech

Statues of the Lincoln-Douglas debate in Alton, Illinois. (Nancy Spannaus)

Lincoln’s speech was a shocker.  It led off with a discussion of a Biblical statement included in three of the Gospels and well known to his listenership. I quote the opening section in full:

If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.

We are now far into the fifth year, since a policy was initiated, with the avowed object, and confident promise, of putting an end to slavery agitation.

Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only, not ceased, but has constantly augmented.

In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed.

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.

I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided.

It will become all one thing or all the other.

Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.

It is this part of the speech that we today are likely to remember, or to have heard of.  But Lincoln did not stop with such an abstraction. He proceeded to outline, step by step, the measures that had been taken, from the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) through the Dred Scott decision (1856) and its aftermath, to direct the nation toward becoming “all slave.”

The “Popular Sovereignty” Fraud

The basic argument of the pro-slavery forces, of course, was, as Lincoln denoted it, “the sacred right of self-government,” or what Stephen Douglas called “popular sovereignty.” Lincoln exposes this as a fraud. For one thing, he reveals that when the anti-slavery forces proposed an amendment to the Kansas-Nebraska Act “expressly declaring that the people of the territory may exclude slavery,” the pro-slavery forces voted them down! Then, with the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, the “machinery” was put in place that would permit the spread of slavery to all the states.

Remembering Lincoln's "House Divided" Speech

Dred Scott

Lincoln summarized the “working points” of that machinery thus:

First, that no negro slave, imported as such from Africa, and no descendant of such slave can ever be a citizen of any State, in the sense of that term as used in the Constitution of the United States.

This point is made in order to deprive the negro, in every possible event, of the benefit of this provision of the United States Constitution, which declares that–

“The citizens of each State shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States.”

Secondly, that “subject to the Constitution of the United States,” neither Congress nor a Territorial Legislature can exclude slavery from any United States Territory.

This point is made in order that individual men may fill up the territories with slaves, without danger of losing them as property, and thus to enhance the chances of permanency to the institution through all the future.

Thirdly, that whether the holding a negro in actual slavery in a free State, makes him free, as against the holder, the United States courts will not decide, but will leave to be decided by the courts of any slave State the negro may be forced into by the master.

This point is made, not to be pressed immediately; but, if acquiesced in for a while, and apparently indorsed by the people at an election, then to sustain the logical conclusion that what Dred Scott’s master might lawfully do with Dred Scott, in the free State of Illinois, every other master may lawfully do with any other one, or one thousand slaves, in Illinois, or in any other free State.

Auxiliary to all this, and working hand in hand with it, the Nebraska doctrine, or what is left of it, is to educate and mould public opinion, at least Northern public opinion, to not care whether slavery is voted down or voted up.

This shows exactly where we now are; and partially, also, whither we are tending.

Indeed, Lincoln outlines what he considers to be a vast, multi-faceted, and longstanding conspiracy to ensconce slavery as a permanent national institution. This conspiracy must be nipped in the bud now, he argues, else “We shall lie down pleasantly dreaming that the people of Missouri are on the verge of making their State free; and we shall awake to the reality, instead, that the Supreme Court has made Illinois a slave State.”

Laying Down the Gauntlet

Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech was a political bombshell in its time, seen correctly as a declaration that he intended to fight to ensure, by some as-yet-unspecified means, that the nation become “wholly free.” It was followed by his famous series of debates with his Democratic opponent Stephen Douglas, during which he rooted his anti-slavery beliefs in the principles of the founding of our republic.

Remembering Lincoln's "House Divided" Speech

Lincoln greeted by jubilant former slaves as he toured Richmond in April 1865.

According to the introduction published on Abraham Lincoln Online,  his law partner William Herndon tried to dissuade him from giving it. Lincoln had read him the speech beforehand, and alarmed Herndon, who feared a backlash. But Lincoln insisted on going ahead, saying: “The proposition is indisputably true … and I will deliver it as written. I want to use some universally known figure, expressed in simple language as universally known, that it may strike home to the minds of men in order to rouse them to the peril of the times.” When Lincoln’s opponent made political hay of it in the electoral campaign, Herndon advised Lincoln to defend himself by saying that he was only quoting scripture. Lincoln refused.

In hindsight, several years later, Herndon evaluated it differently, writing that “Through logic inductively seen, Lincoln as a statesman, and political philosopher, announced an eternal truth — not only as broad as America, but covers the world.”

Read it

In these days of political “tit-for-tat,” we would do well to take the time to read these immortal words of one of our nation’s preeminent statesmen, who represents the best of the American System  tradition. They not only provide insight into our history, but may indeed provoke us to think more productively about the problems we face today.