Lincoln’s “House Divided” Speech Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“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.”

Summary Overview

In the early summer of 1858, members of the recently formed Republican Party of Illinois gathered in a state convention. One of their chief goals was to nominate a candidate for US Senate. This was not usually done, since the decision would be made by state legislators, rather than majority vote of the party. Still, to head off confusion (including the raising of other candidates’ names) and to present a clear choice for Republicans against the nationally known Democrat Stephen Douglas, the convention nominated Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln had been working on a taut, terse, combative speech that would provide both his acceptance of the nomination and the grounds on which he intended to contest the election. That speech has come to be called the “House Divided” speech, because of a metaphor Lincoln used in the introduction, speaking of the nation as a house divided over the issue of slavery. In the speech, Lincoln masterfully wove together his philosophical opposition to slavery while working to achieve the short-term political end of building the Republican Party and getting himself elected to the Senate.

Defining Moment

Lincoln entered the lists in 1858 at a critical moment for the nation and amid a number of significant contexts that established how the speech would be received. One key context was the westward expansion of the United States, fueled by visions of Manifest Destiny, which had touched off the Mexican-American War in 1846. That war had added large swaths of new territory, and what place slavery would have in those new lands remained to be decided. As a result of this indeterminacy, sectional conflict increased, played out in party politics at the national level. Both expansionists and those who wished to limit slavery realized the stakes were growing significantly.

The conflict received greater expression as political parties sharpened their stances. For Lincoln, this meant supporting the emerging Republican Party. The Republicans had surfaced in reaction to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. They represented an amalgam of Whigs (a party on its last legs, divided over the issue of the expansion of slavery), Free-Soil parties, Know-Nothings (American Party members), abolitionists, and immigrant groups. Sites in both Wisconsin and Michigan claim to be the birthplace of the Republican Party, but in truth, the party coalesced across the North by appealing to multiple constituencies. Although the Republican candidate for president in 1856, John C. Frémont, did not win, he ran well throughout the North. Lincoln had shown clear attachment to the Republican Party, and the party was strengthened by the nomination of Lincoln at its convention in June 1858. Such party unanimity was essential because, in the nineteenth century (and until the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment in the twentieth), US senators were chosen by the state legislatures. In Illinois, this meant the combined vote of both houses. Thus, Lincoln set out to make the campaign a true choice between parties—symbolized by himself and Douglas—regarding national issues.

In the “House Divided” speech, Lincoln identified significant issues of the previous five years that he believed threatened to shift the balance of slavery in the nation. These issues began with the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which had been authored by none other than his opponent Douglas. The act left the issue of slavery in territories like Kansas up to “popular sovereignty,” meaning the people of a given territory would decide the issue, not the federal government. The end result, though, was “Bleeding Kansas,” as pro- and antislavery forces dueled through both politics and open violence to gain control of the state. One key result of this clash was the Lecompton Constitution, a proslavery constitution sent to Washington, DC, as proof of the territory’s intent. Douglas broke with President James Buchanan over the Lecompton Constitution, but to Lincoln it symbolized the antidemocratic forces lurking behind the claims of popular sovereignty. This belief was only strengthened when the Supreme Court issued its Dred Scott v. Sandford decision, declaring that the slave Dred Scott, even though he had been taken into free territory, remained the property of his master. He had no standing before the court and so could not sue for his freedom. To Lincoln, this represented a grave judicial threat to dealing with slavery. Taking these issues together, 1858 was a moment ripe for Illinois (and by extension the nation) to confront the issue of slavery and its expansion.

Author Biography

In 1858, Lincoln was not the famous figure he would become. He had established himself in Illinois, and some Republicans on the national level had heard of him. At this point, though, he was decidedly a regional figure. Lincoln was born in Kentucky in 1809. His family moved several times when he was a child, so he was raised in Indiana and then Illinois. As a young man he demonstrated the “Free Labor” ideal, whereby men were free to use their physical labor as a stepping stone to greater accomplishments in life. In his early twenties he built and took a flatboat of goods down the Mississippi to New Orleans. There, he was horrified by the slave market, seeing the brutal realities of people buying and selling other people. Returning to Illinois, he worked hard and engaged in multiple activities. He served in the military during the Black Hawk War in 1831 and became a captain. In New Salem he ran a general store, served as town postmaster, and worked as a surveyor. When these activities failed to produce a career, he began to study law, gaining admission to the bar in 1836. He then moved to Springfield (the new state capital) to practice law. He took on a wide variety of cases, especially as he rode the legal circuit through the state, although he gave special attention to business and railroad cases. He soon married Mary Todd and started a family.

In the 1830s, Lincoln also began his political career, serving multiple terms in the Illinois House of Representatives. As a Whig, he served one term in the US House of Representatives (1847–49). He opposed the Mexican-American War, believing President James K. Polk had misled the American people as to whether actual territorial aggression had been perpetrated by the Mexican army. To prove this point, Lincoln introduced “spot resolutions” in Congress to demand on what “spot” American blood had been shed. Lincoln’s stance proved unpopular, and he was not reelected. Lincoln withdrew from politics for several years, but he was reenergized with the debate over the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He was an early supporter of the new Republican Party, and he even received votes to be its vice presidential candidate in 1856. Remaining active in Republican politics, he was ready to challenge Douglas for the US Senate seat in 1858.

Document Analysis

Lincoln launched into his speech by identifying the stakes of the political contest, which he believed were nothing less than the character of the American nation in its relationship to slavery. The problem originated in the division of the United States over slavery and the actions of certain political leaders to expand slavery’s presence in the nation. To describe the significance of the dispute, Lincoln reached for a biblical metaphor, claiming, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” His hearers would have immediately recognized the reference, as Lincoln was quoting Jesus from Matthew 12:25 (repeated in Mark 3:25). As historian Richard Carwardine has noted, much of the antislavery sentiment in Illinois originated in churches, and so Lincoln was using a familiar turn of biblical phrase to demonstrate the seriousness of the issue and the moral significance of the debate. But this disunion could not remain: “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free,” Lincoln told his audience. He continued, “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.”

Lincoln then presented two alternatives: “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 course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States.” Lincoln believed—and stated elsewhere—that slavery had been tolerated by the founding generation of the county because people believed it would ultimately disappear, that the country would evolve away from using slaves. Since slavery was accepted in the Constitution, Lincoln was willing to accept it where it already existed. However, he refused to accept the expansion of slavery, especially when underhanded, undemocratic means were used to bring it about. This led to his claim, throughout the speech, of a conspiracy to expand slavery throughout the entire nation. Near the end of the speech, Lincoln portrayed the danger this way: “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.” Lincoln believed this would be as abhorrent to all the citizens of Illinois as it was to himself.

In the speech, Lincoln masterfully wove together his philosophical opposition to slavery while working to achieve short-term political ends. Philosophically, Lincoln indicated his distaste for slavery’s expansion. Self-government demanded the ability to oppose the expansion of slavery. On a moral level, Lincoln suggested that it was insufficient (as Douglas had already declared) simply not to care. Politically, Lincoln hoped to rally Republicans, Free-Soilers, and former Whigs to his candidacy. Thus, he was building political support for his candidacy, just as he had encouraged the holding of a Republican convention to nominate him. Further, Lincoln sought to detach eastern Republicans from any flirtation with Douglas. When Douglas broke with President Buchanan over the Lecompton Constitution, easterners such as Horace Greeley believed he could be lured away from the Democrats and brought into the Republican fold. Lincoln wanted those outsiders to see the Illinois Republicans’ perspective: Douglas had actually contributed to the problems surrounding the issue of slavery, and so long as he refused to take a moral position on the issue, he could never be more than an occasional and accidental ally. From this stance, Lincoln hoped to confront all Illinoisans with Douglas’s inconsistencies and involvement in slavery’s expansion—which Lincoln believed was unpopular in the state, even though many still tolerated slavery’s existence.

Lincoln reached out to a wide audience—first those in the convention hall but also, more importantly, all the Illinois citizens who would read or hear the speech. Lincoln was trying to shape interpretation of the political landscape. To do so, he laid out his outline at the very first: “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.” This provided the division of his speech, as he predicated his ultimate call for action on his previous diagnosis of recent events.

Where We Are and Whither We Are Tending

In describing his contemporary conditions, Lincoln charged that a conspiracy to advance slavery existed. He used multiple words to describe this: a “combination,” “a piece of machinery,” with “evidences of design and concert of action.” Later, he used a carpentry analogy, that when framed timbers gathered by multiple people are joined together to construct a building, with all the pieces in place, it is hard to believe that a common plan was not guiding them. Lincoln’s logic was that if things appeared to be a conspiracy and worked together as a conspiracy, with things fitting together as if they had been planned, then it was reasonable to assume some sort of design or conspiracy was at work. Lincoln went further and identified the four major contributors to this design, which he portrayed as the “workmen”: “Stephen [Douglas], Franklin [Pierce], Roger [B. Taney], and James [Buchanan].”

Lincoln then traced how he saw this design coming together in a series of steps, beginning in 1854. The first step involved the “Nebraska bill” (Kansas-Nebraska Act), authored by Douglas. The bill had multiple pernicious effects. First, it “opened all the national territory to slavery.” By undoing the Missouri Compromise, this was a marked departure of national policy and laid the groundwork for subsequent problems. Second, Lincoln pointed to the philosophy underlying the Kansas-Nebraska Act. To Douglas, the approach represented a type of popular sovereignty, a democratic endorsement of the settlers’ views on slavery. Lincoln mocked this, though, calling it “squatter sovereignty” and claiming that it perverted a true definition of self government to instead mean “That if any one man, choose to enslave another, no third man shall be allowed to object.” Third, Lincoln insisted that the Nebraska act had a negative effect “to educate and mould public opinion . . . to not care whether slavery is voted down or voted up.” Douglas had already tried to ignore the morality of slavery, and his bill was training Northerners to do the same thing.

The other steps involved national politics around the Dred Scott Supreme Court case. As the case was argued (and reargued) before the court, successive Democratic presidents Pierce (1853–57) and Buchanan (1857–61) worked to prepare public opinion to accept the court’s ruling. In his final year as president, Pierce spoke in favor of accepting the forthcoming decision. Buchanan, who was alerted of the final decision before it was made public, used his inaugural address to endorse what the court would hand down. Then, Buchanan further lent his support to the decision when he responded to the “Silliman Letter.” Benjamin Silliman was a respected professor of natural sciences at Yale, and he enlisted forty signatories to protest publicly the proslavery activity of Kansas’s territorial governor. Buchanan responded with a public letter of his own, published in the Washington, DC, newspaper the Union. In the letter, he not only endorsed those activities in Kansas but belittled anyone who might dare dispute the Dred Scott vision of slavery in the territories. Lincoln saw all of this as further conspiring to prepare the country to go along with the expansion of slavery, which he and the Republicans refused to do.

These presidential utterances were meant to advance the Dred Scott majority decision. The ruling, written by Chief Justice Taney, laid a legal groundwork for the permanence of slavery and expansion of the institution. In Lincoln’s telling, the ruling’s three main components all contributed to strengthen slavery. First, it declared that no slave or descendent of a slave can ever be a citizen of a state or the United States. This would prevent the protections afforded to free blacks in free states from traveling with them to slave states. Second, the ruling denied to both Congress and any territorial legislature the ability to exclude slavery from any US territory. To Lincoln this meant opening up all western territories to slavery and that no territory settled by antislavery Northerners could keep slavery out. To Lincoln’s mind, this was not just judicial activism but judicial revolution, as it denied the validity of both the Northwest Ordinance and the Missouri Compromise. Finally, any disputes about the condition of a slave taken into a free state would be decided by a slave state (in Dred Scott’s case, Missouri), rather than a free state.

Given this background, Lincoln believed he could also say something about where the country was heading. He observed that there was no clear statement in Dred Scott about whether a state could exclude slavery. Supreme Court justices John McLean and Benjamin Robbins Curtis had dissented from the Taney decision but not addressed this question, nor had Supreme Court justice Samuel Nelson. Lincoln saw an opening—”another nice little niche”—for another Supreme Court decision that could declare that states had no power to exclude slavery. Lincoln ventured to suggest that this was likely, especially after Americans were educated for long enough in the “don’t care” attitude of Douglas. As Lincoln saw it, the end result would be, through judicial power, to expand slavery across the entire United States.

What to Do and How to Do It

After reviewing the Dred Scott decision, Lincoln turned to the question of how Republicans should respond. His answer was, “To meet and overthrow the power of that dynasty is the work now before all those who would prevent that consummation.” Claiming that these proslavery actors were part of a political dynasty was a serious charge in the American republic. In using that strong language, Lincoln was again pointing to the need to oppose the antidemocratic conspiracy to spread slavery. Thus, Republicans would stand as a bulwark against the shadowy plans of proslavery politicians.

Lincoln states clearly that Douglas is not the leader Illinois needed, based on his stance on slavery. Perhaps eastern Republicans would whisper “that Senator Douglas is the aptest instrument there is,” but Lincoln argued against any rapprochement. Yes, Douglas may have been right on the Lecompton Constitution, and Lincoln was glad if Douglas was “wiser to-day than he was yesterday.” Still, to Lincoln, he remained wrong on the fundamental moral question of slavery, as he continued to insist that he did not care whether it should be allowed or forbidden. As a result, he was in no position to advance the Republican position about slavery. Douglas was a “caged and toothless” lion, without standing to counter the slave conspiracy. By extension, Lincoln was making clear that he opposed slavery’s expansion, and that this was the only legitimate moral position. This position led Lincoln to assert with great finality, “But clearly, he is not now with us—he does not pretend to be—he does not promise to ever be.” Lincoln wanted to make clear that he was the only viable Republican choice.

Lincoln then would lead the charge of organizing Illinois Republicans for the election. In 1856, the Republicans had done well, and Lincoln hoped to build upon their success. Therefore, he ended his speech with a call to courage and action: “We shall not fail—if we stand firm, we shall not fail . . . sooner or later the victory is sure to come.” With these words, Lincoln and the Republicans were ready to contest the senatorial election throughout the state.

Essential Themes

Lincoln’s speech had significant effects both immediately in Illinois and for later debates about slavery and the trajectory of the nation. Initially, the speech received a warm response at the convention and from dedicated Republicans. However, it also issued terms that were too stark for many. It ran the risk of scaring away as many voters as it might attract. The moral certainty of the speech also seemed to threaten disunion over the slavery issue. Despite Lincoln’s subsequent insistence that he was not inviting conflict, his pleas were not enough to deflate this charge. Indeed, one of Douglas’s lines of attack was that Lincoln was a radical abolitionist unwilling to compromise.

Politically, the speech kicked off the senatorial election season. After exchanging subsequent speeches (often with Lincoln following Douglas around the state), the candidates agreed to a series of debates, which would gain fame as the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Stretching from August through October, the two men debated each other throughout Illinois. In these debates, Lincoln returned often to the themes he had sketched in the “House Divided” speech, especially attacking Douglas as one who did not care about slavery and whose support for popular sovereignty on the issue was incoherent in light of the Dred Scott decision. In the election, Lincoln won the popular vote, but Democrats (and hence Douglas) won the majority of state legislative seats, including key “swing” counties around Springfield in the center of the state. Although he had lost, Lincoln had firmly articulated a Republican position against the expansion of slavery and raised his national profile.

Subsequently, the “House Divided” speech continued to serve as a touchstone for the divides of the late 1850s. As the Civil War approached, Southerners pointed back to the speech as evidence of Lincoln’s radicalism and desire for conflict, even though Lincoln rejected such labels. In the twentieth century, scholars have noted the significance of the themes that Lincoln advanced in the speech. For political philosopher Harry Jaffa, Lincoln encapsulated the moral debate at the heart of the sectional split that would ultimately lead to the Civil War. For Jaffa, the divide was nothing less than a “Crisis of the House Divided.” More recently, historian Allen Guelzo portrayed the “House Divided” speech as the kickoff to the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which, in his interpretation, defined the country. The “House Divided” speech has continued to retain its power as a rhetorical presentation, as a significant marker on the path to Civil War, and as a touchstone for issues of fundamental significance in the American political tradition.

Bibliography
  • Carwardine, Richard. Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power. New York: Vintage, 2006. Print.
  • Finkelman, Paul. Dred Scott v. Sandford: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford, 1997. Print.
  • Guelzo, Allen. Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999. Print.
  • ---. “Houses Divided: Lincoln, Douglas, and the Political Landscape of 1858.” Journal of American History 94.2 (2007): 391–417. Print.
  • ---. Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America. New York: Simon, 2008. Print.
  • Jaffa, Harry. Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. 1959. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1982. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Foner, Eric. The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. New York: Norton, 2010. Print.
  • Holzer, Harold, ed. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The First Complete, Unexpurgated Text. New York: HarperCollins, 1993. Print.
  • Johannsen, Robert, ed. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
  • Lincoln, Abraham. “The War with Mexico: Speech in the United States House of Representatives.” TeachingAmericanHistory.Org. Ashbrook Center, 2006–12. Web. 13 Mar. 2013.
  • McPherson, James. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford UP, 2003. Print.
  • Potter, David. The Impending Crisis, 1848–1861. New York: Harper, 1977. Print.
  • Zarefsky, David. Lincoln, Douglas, and Slavery: In the Crucible of Public Debate. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990. Print.

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