President Lincoln’s “House Divided” Speech Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Slavery dominated the political landscape of the United States in 1858. The emerging Republican Party was focused on this issue. In one of the most visible races of 1858, the Illinois Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln as their candidate for the United States Senate. His acceptance speech, now know as the House Divided Speech, was a strong statement about how slavery put the future of the United States at risk. Although most saw this speech as too radical, hurting Lincoln’s electability, it clearly stated Lincoln’s beliefs. It was this speech that many in the South looked to when making their decision to secede from the Union only a few years later.

Summary Overview

Slavery dominated the political landscape of the United States in 1858. The emerging Republican Party was focused on this issue. In one of the most visible races of 1858, the Illinois Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln as their candidate for the United States Senate. His acceptance speech, now know as the House Divided Speech, was a strong statement about how slavery put the future of the United States at risk. Although most saw this speech as too radical, hurting Lincoln’s electability, it clearly stated Lincoln’s beliefs. It was this speech that many in the South looked to when making their decision to secede from the Union only a few years later.

Defining Moment

Addressing the core of the Illinois Republican Party, Abraham Lincoln not only reminded them of his position on slavery but also staked out what was an extreme stance for the Republicans. The Republican Party had just come into existence a few years prior to this speech, because the Democratic Party generally supported the institution of slavery, while the Whig Party was disintegrating over it. Although these two main parties were far from identical, Northern abolitionists pushed hard for an alternative which clearly opposed slavery. The Republican Party was that institution and was feeling its way forward, being pulled in one direction by those who wanted to win elections in contested areas and in the other by those who wanted to maintain a clear, strong anti-slavery position. In this speech, given at Springfield, Lincoln placed himself in this latter camp, making a clear statement about the need to end the institution of slavery.

As a former Congressman and member of the Illinois legislature, Abraham Lincoln was aware of the feelings of the people of Illinois on the issue of slavery. He made this speech, which not only clearly separated him from his opponent, Stephen A. Douglas, but which he knew placed him outside the mainstream political thought of the people of the state. However, he had become active in the Republican Party to fight for the end of slavery, and in his campaign for the U.S. Senate he wanted to do so forcefully. Although not victorious in this campaign, Lincoln was successful in moving the people toward his point of view.

This speech, in conjunction with the debates during the campaign, made Lincoln a national figure in the Republican Party and beyond. Lincoln’s senatorial campaign was one of the reasons he was selected to be the Republican nominee for president in 1860. This speech was one of the primary reasons the South seceded after Lincoln won that election. Lincoln’s views, as illustrated in this speech, can be seen as a major reason that slavery finally ended in the United States during the 1860’s. Lincoln lost the election, but because of this speech he eventually was able to bring about his goal, the end of slavery.

Author Biography

Abraham Lincoln was born February, 12, 1809. He was born in Kentucky to Thomas and Nancy Hanks Lincoln. His family moved to Indiana and then to Illinois. Mainly self-educated, Lincoln first worked as a manual laborer. Moving to New Salem, Illinois, Lincoln worked for a year and then became co-owner of a business. His business took him south on the Mississippi River, and during these trips he witnessed the Southern culture based on slavery. He was in the Illinois Militia during the Black Hawk War and then returned to New Salem. He continued his studies, entering the legal profession in 1836. Elected to the Illinois General Assembly, Lincoln pushed for the expansion of voting rights to all men. He rejected slavery, but did not see himself as an abolitionist because he thought their extreme position only made the pro-slavery people try harder to keep slavery. In 1842, he married Mary Todd, and they had four children, two of whom survived Lincoln.

Lincoln was a member of the Whig Party, serving eight years in the General Assembly. In 1846, he was the only Whig elected to Congress from Illinois, the rest being Democrats. He vowed to serve only one term, and during that term he worked unsuccessfully to pass several anti-slavery bills, while also criticizing the ongoing Mexican-American War as American expansionism. With the essential demise of the Whig Party in Illinois, Lincoln dropped out of politics. However, Douglas’ support of the Kansas-Nebraska Act caused Lincoln to try for a senate seat in 1854. He dropped out, supporting the eventual winner. In 1858, he accepted the nomination of the Republican Party for the U.S. Senate. Although losing the election, this speech and his performance in the debates made him a national figure. He ran for president on the Republican ticket in 1860, and won against a splintered opposition. Most leaders of the Southern states believed they would have no future in the Union, leading to those states seceding, which resulted in the Civil War. He was an active president, in terms of how the war was conducted. During the War, he took steps to end slavery on federal land and in the states which had seceded. While planning steps to unify the country in the post-war period, Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, a Southern sympathizer. He died on April 15, 1865.

Document Analysis

The people of Illinois were generally opposed to slavery. In line with much of nineteenth century society, many did not necessarily see it as a moral evil, although a strong minority did. For most citizens of Illinois, slavery was an economic institution which gave an unfair advantage to those who were in the position to own this source of low cost labor. Just as Lincoln’s family had ended up in Illinois because his father could not compete against plantations employing slave labor, this was the case for many in the state. They had no desire to allow the institution into Illinois, even if they did not find slavery morally reprehensible. Lincoln and the Republican Party were in line with mainstream thought in Illinois by opposing the spread of slavery. Politically, Lincoln was attempting to depict his opponent, Stephen A. Douglas, as the one on the fringe. While not specifically pro-slavery, Douglas had worked hard to broker compromises in Congress which might allow new states to come in as either free or slave, depending upon the views of the inhabitants. By illustrating that Douglas had worked to keep the South happy, rather than holding a hard line against slavery, Lincoln hoped the people of Illinois would not support Douglas. However, in reality, Lincoln’s assertion that ultimately slavery had to be abolished placed him on the fringe and was not acceptable to a majority of Illinois voters. Many were not as optimistic as Lincoln that the abolition of slavery could be achieved without the nation being “dissolved.”

Lincoln’s strong opposition to the institution of slavery , including his belief that slavery was morally wrong, placed him within the mainstream of the Republican Party. From his business experience on the Mississippi River, he could relate to the fact that it not only gave economic advantages to a small group of people, but it had created two very divergent cultures within the United States. It was clear to Lincoln that if the United States were going to remain united, there had to be political and social unity on what had become a central and divisive issue throughout the first seven decades of the republic. Using a Biblical quotation, which would have been known by most of his audience, Lincoln said “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Applying this to slavery in the United States, Lincoln went on to say, “this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.” For Lincoln, slavery had to end as soon as possible; there was no other acceptable option. What he feared, and what he emphasized in the speech, was that politically the unification of the nation was moving in the opposite direction; Lincoln saw the entire country becoming open to slavery. Because anti-slavery views were at the heart of the Republican Party, Lincoln claimed that they, and only they, were in the position to stop the growth of slavery.

Looking back to 1854, the year the Republican Party was formed, Lincoln outlined the drastic changes which had occurred as regarded the issue of slavery. Without explicitly mentioning Douglas in his opening argument, Lincoln used Douglas’ phrases to describe the debate which had taken place on the Kansas-Nebraska Act (referred to by Lincoln as the Nebraska bill). This law allowed the people who created states in the territory which became the states of Kansas and Nebraska, to decide whether to have slavery or to exclude it. Previously, under the Missouri Compromise of 1820, slavery had been excluded from this territory. Douglas had been one of the Northern Democratic leaders who had helped guide the Kansas-Nebraska Act through the Senate. Douglas had asserted that the Act would lead to stronger ties between North and South. Although mentioning Douglas’ work on this bill was a major part of the speech, it was not until almost halfway through the speech that Lincoln mentioned Douglas by name. In using this rhetorical tactic, Lincoln was better able focus on recent events rather than the person. Once he mentioned Douglas, Lincoln then tried to show how Douglas’ views in conjunction with the 1857 Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court would make the extension of slavery almost mandatory. Lincoln’s reference to “Douglas’ ‘care-not’ policy” was intended to excite the Republican base. Douglas had used this phrase in the Kansas-Nebraska Act debate, essentially saying he did not care if the territories became free or slave states. This, Douglas asserted, should be left to the people establishing the states. Lincoln, and the Republican Party, did care about this issue, which was what had caused the party to be formed. Toward the end of this speech, Lincoln rejected the idea which some in Illinois advanced, that Douglas, as both a Democrat (the strongest party in the South) and an experienced legislative leader, would be the best person to work to limit future proposed legislation which might assist slave owners. Lincoln rejected this, since, according to Lincoln, Douglas had spent a great deal of effort to show that it was “a sacred right of white men to take negro slaves into the new territories.” Having done this, Lincoln rejected any assumption that Douglas would take a strong stand against the Southern Democrats in the future.

Just as Lincoln focused his speech on one issue, slavery, and ignored all of the other social and economic issues facing Illinois and the United States, he went beyond what Douglas himself had specifically done on this issue. Much of the speech focused on the Dred Scott decision, including references to the timing of the court’s decision, as well as semi-veiled references to the Democratic Party’s behind-the-scenes efforts their desired decision. At various times in the history of the United States there have been landmark Supreme Court decisions which have galvanized both supporters and opponents of the ruling. The Dred Scott case fell into this category. At issue was whether a slave taken into a Free State, or a federally mandated slave-free territory, could gain his freedom. Among the points of the majority opinion, the court ruled that Africans who were brought into the United States as slaves, or if their ancestors had been brought in as slaves, could not be U.S. citizens, and as such, they were always slaves, even in territories which had been designated as free by Congress. In addition, federal laws designating territories as free were unconstitutional and judicial jurisdiction regarding slaves who had traveled through free states was given to the home state of the slave owner. As with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Chief Justice Taney , writing the majority opinion, believed that this ruling would ease tensions on the issue of slavery within the country. The effect was actually the opposite. Lincoln seized upon this discontent to challenge the ruling and its implications.

Lincoln charged that the Supreme Court’s decision had been held up until after the 1856 presidential election in order to assist the Democratic candidate, James Buchanan. In fact, while a candidate and president-elect, Buchanan had contacted members of the Supreme Court regarding the timing of the decision. While Lincoln was not able to give specifics on this, he did raise the timing issue directly in the speech. The timing of the ruling was important, because it was a close election with three parties fielding candidates who won electoral votes. Buchanan, as a Democrat, easily carried all the Southern states and secured victory by winning his home state of Pennsylvania and, with the strong support of Douglas, Illinois. Buchanan also carried Indiana, New Jersey, and California among the free states. Fremont, the Republican candidate, won the other Northern states, with Fillmore winning Maryland. If the ruling had come prior to the election, it is possible that more support for Freemont might have developed or that the Republicans might have won more seats in Congress.

Hinted at in the speech by Lincoln’s references to Democratic leaders ideas fitting so well with the Court’s ruling, was the fact that some Democrats, including President-elect Buchanan had contacted a member of the court from a Northern state, pushing him to join with the majority of Southern justices in order that the ruling not be seen as based on the regional affiliation of the justices. Although the Supreme Court had been vague in dealing with the issue of slaves in free states, in Lincoln’s opinion the result of the Dred Scott case was that the process had been started whereby “the Supreme Court has made Illinois a slave State.” All that was needed was to have the “little niche” bringing this about by “another Supreme Court decision, declaring that the Constitution of the United States does not permit a state to exclude slavery.” Lincoln aggressively raised this issue because it was one which was important to most of the people in Illinois. Douglas’ popular references to self-determination and self-government would be contradicted if Illinois had to allow slavery within its borders. Even though it had not yet happened, Lincoln emphasized this possibility in order to try to broaden the basis of his support.

Lincoln closed his speech by extending an olive branch to Douglas. Lincoln stated that he hoped that in the future he and Douglas could “come together on principle so that our great cause may have assistance from his great ability.” However, Lincoln stated, “he is not now with us.” Whether he eventually would join the anti-slavery movement or not, Lincoln told his fellow Republicans, “if we stand firm, we shall not fail.” His closing words were, “sooner or later the victory is sure to come.” Lincoln hammered hard on the issue of slavery and the role which Douglas had played in allowing it to spread. Lincoln pushed the idea that the Democrats were responsible for recent decisions which called into question the ability of people to keep slavery out of their territories, and maybe even their states. Lincoln did not hesitate to clearly speak his beliefs in a manner which all could appreciate. While, in part because of this speech, he was unable to unseat the incumbent senator, his views gave direction to the Republican Party and ultimately led to his election as president two years later. For this reason, if for no other, Lincoln’s House Divided Speech was an important point in American political history.

Essential Themes

Abraham Lincoln presented a very liberal view of what American society could become through juxtaposing his dream with the events of the 1850s. During the four years prior to this speech, Lincoln believed that the pro-slavery movement had made major gains through the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Dred Scott decision. However, this made Lincoln more determined to end the American institution of slavery in order that his vision of a truly united United States of America might come into existence.

At the end of his speech, Lincoln stated that “wise councils may accelerate or mistakes delay it,” but he was certain that slavery would end. This certainty regarding change is a part of his legacy. In this speech, he made it clear that, win or lose, he was one of the individuals who would push to bring about this change. What type of political evolution might have led to the peaceful end of slavery in the United States is unknown; since just over two years after Lincoln made this speech, he was elected president, the South seceded and the Civil War ensued. His views on slavery and his later political success not only led to the Civil War, but they started the United States on the path toward full equality for all persons. This speech was a sign pointing in that direction. Clearly, vocalizing the problems confronting the United States was only a small step forward, but it was an important one. Lincoln’s rejection of the idea that people were superior or inferior, based on the color of their skin, was an important statement for a political leader to make.

Lincoln was correct that slavery was morally wrong. He was correct that a nation must be united on issues of central importance, or face a diminished ability to be united on other fronts. This speech was not only a record of the initial beliefs of the Republican Party; it was a call to see the common humanity of all people. It was an attempt to help everyone see this in such a way that it drew the country together. Although unsuccessful in his bid for the U.S. Senate, Lincoln’s questioning of the status quo pushed the debate on slavery to a new level.

Bibliography
  • National Park Service. House Divided Speech. Springfield: Lincoln National Historic Site, 2013. Web. 30 Sept. 2013.
  • White, Ronald C. Abraham Lincoln: A Biography. New York: Random House, 2009. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Abraham Lincoln Online. House Divided Speech. Abraham Lincoln Online, 2013. Web. 6 Oct. 2013.
  • C-SPAN. American Presidents: Life Portraits: Abraham Lincoln. Washington: National Cable Satellite Corporation, 2012. Web. 6 Oct 2013.
  • Foner, Eric. The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. New York: Norton, 2010. Print.
  • Jaffa, Harry V. A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000. Print.
  • Miller Center of Public Affairs. American President: Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865). Charlottesville: U of Virginia, 2012. Web. 15 Oct 2012.
  • Sandburg, Carl. Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1954. Print.
  • Winkle, Kenneth J. The Young Eagle: The Rise of Abraham Lincoln. Dallas: Taylor, 2001. Print.
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