House Divided Speech
"Douglas is working like a lion. He is stumping the state, everywhere present and everywhere appealing to his old lieges to stand by him. Never did feudal baron fight more desperately against the common superior of himself and his retainers." So reported Chester P. Dewey of the New York Evening Post on the 1858 Senate contest in Illinois. "Lincoln, too is actively engaged. His senatorial nomination has sent him to the field, and he is working with an energy and zeal which counter-balance the spirit and dogged resolution of his opponent. Lincoln is battling for the right and Douglas is desperately struggling to save himself from utter political ruin. He is losing strength daily, while Lincoln is surely gaining upon him."1
On June 16, 1858, the Illinois State Republican Convention met to nominate Abraham Lincoln for the Senate seat held by Senator Stephen A. Douglas. This was itself an unusual occurrence in an era when Senate candidates were elected by State Legislatures and parties seldom declared their candidates in advance. One contemporary, David McWilliams recalled, "It was my good fortune to represent Living County in the convention. I recollect well the famous speech by Mr. Lincoln in the evening in the old hall of the House of Representatives. I was stopping at the Chenery House, and some time before the meeting I saw Mr. Lincoln standing on the outer edge of the sidewalk in front of John Williams' dry goods store, on the northwest corner of the square, all alone, his hands clasped behind, his silk hat pushed back on his head. An hour later, he began his immortal address..."2
Contemporary biographer Josiah G. Holland wrote: "At eight o'clock, the hall of the House of Representatives was filled to its utmost capacity, and when Mr. Lincoln appeared he was received with the most tumultuous applause. The speech which he made on that occasion is so full of meaning, so fraught with prophecy, so keen in its analysis, so irresistible in its logic, so profoundly intelligent concerning the politics of the time, and, withal, so condensed in the expression of every part, that no proper idea can be given of it through any description or abbreviation. It must be given entire."3 The speech began:
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.
The "House Divided" speech which Mr. Lincoln delivered was more prophetic than reportorial. It recognized the hardening lines between northern and southern opinion and the unwillingness to compromise. Lincoln biographer Ida Tarbell wrote: "The speech was, in fact, one of great political adroitness. It forced Douglas to do exactly what he did not want to do in Illinois: explain his own record during the past four years; explain the true meaning of the Kansas-Nebraska bill; discuss the Dred Scott decision; say whether or not he thought slavery so good a thing that the country could afford to extend it instead of confining it where it would be in course of gradual extinction. Douglas wanted the Republicans of Illinois to follow Greeley's advice: 'Forgive the past.' He wanted to make the most among them of his really noble revolt against the attempt of his party to fasten an unjust constitution on Kansas. Lincoln would not allow him to bask for an instant in the sun of that revolt. He crowded him step by step through his party's record, and compelled him to face what he called the 'profound central truth' of the Republican party, 'slavery is wrong and ought to be dealt with as wrong.'"5
A key part of the speech was its references to an apparent conspiracy to extend slavery – among Senator Douglas, former President Franklin Pierce, President James Buchanan and Chief Justice Roger B. Taney. Mr. Lincoln said: "We can not absolutely know all these exact adaptations are the result of preconcert. But when we see a lot of framed timbers, different portions of which we know have been gotten out at different times and places and by different workmen – Stephen, Franklin, Roger and James, for instance – and when we see these timbers joined together, and see they exactly make the frame of a house or a mill, all the tenons and mortices exactly fitting, and all the lengths and proportions of the different pieces exactly adapted to their respective places, and not a piece too many or too few – not omitting even scaffolding – or, if a single piece be lacking, we can see the place in the frame exactly fitted and prepared to yet bring such piece in – in such a case, we find it impossible to not believe that Stephen and Franklin and Roger and James all understood one another from the beginning, and all worked upon a common plan or draft drawn up before the first lick was struck."6 Lincoln biographer Ida Tarbell noted that Mr. Lincoln 'marshalled one after another of the measures that the pro-slavery leaders had secured in the past four years..."7
Historian Richard H. Sewell wrote: "Whatever the nature of their collaboration (to use a less loaded and probably more accurate word than 'plot' or 'conspiracy'), there can be no denying that Pierce, Buchanan, Taney, and Douglas had lately moved in step to expand rather than curtail slavery's domain." In first discarding the Missouri Compromise line, and then by judicial mandate (with presidential endorsement) denying any legislative right to ban slavery from the territories, Democratic policy-makers had revealed a tendency toward encouraging the spread of slavery. And that tendency, as Lincoln not unreasonably observed, gained strength both from the moral indifference inherent in popular sovereignty and from Taney's ruling that where the Constitution was concerned Negroes 'had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."8
Lincoln aide and biographer John G. Nicolay wrote: "Lincoln's speech excited the greatest interest everywhere throughout the free States. The grave peril he so clearly pointed out came home to the people of the North almost with the force of a revolution; and thereafter their eyes were fixed upon the Illinois senatorial campaign with undivided attention."9 However, noted biographer Ida Tarbell, "The speech was severely criticized by Lincoln's friends. It was too radical. It was sectional."10
Lincoln biographer William H. Herndon: "Lincoln had now created in reality a more profound impression than he or his friends anticipated. Many Republicans deprecated the advanced ground he had taken, the more so as the Democrats rejoiced that it afforded them an issue clear and well-defined. Numbers of his friends distant from Springfield, on reading his speech, wrote him censorious letters; and one well-informed co-worker (Leonard Swett) predicted his defeat, charging it to the first ten lines of the speech. These complaints, coming apparently from every quarter, Lincoln bore with great patience. To one complainant who followed him into his office he said proudly, 'If I had to draw a pen across my record, and erase my whole life from sight, and I had one poor gift or choice left as to what I should save from the wreck, I should choose that speech and leave it to the world unerased.'"11
Mr. Lincoln's speech was the opening salvo of the senatorial campaign. Indeed, noted biographer Tarbell, "It forced Douglas to do exactly what he did not want to do in Illinois; explain his own record during the past four years; explain the true meaning of the Kansas-Nebraska bill; discuss the Dred Scott decision; say whether or not the thought slavery so good a thing that the country could afford to extend it instead of confining it where it would be in the course of gradual extinction."12 A Douglas reply, however, had to await for Senator Douglas's return from Washington to Chicago.
According to Herndon, "Here he rested for a few days until his friends and co-workers had arranged the details of a public reception on the 9th of July, when he delivered from the balcony of the Tremont House a speech intended as an answer to the one made in Springfield. Douglas said: "From this view of the case, my friends, I am driven irresistibly to the conclusion that diversity, dissimilarity, variety in all our local and domestic institutions, is the great safeguard of our liberties; and that the framers of our institutions were wise, sagacious, and patriotic, when they made this government a confederation of sovereign States, with a Legislature for each, and conferred upon each Legislature the power to make all local and domestic institutions to suit the people it represented, without interference from any other State or from the general Congress of the Union. If we expect to maintain our liberties, we must preserve the rights and sovereignty of States; we must maintain and carry out that great principle of self-government incorporated in the compromise measures of 1850; indorsed by the Illinois Legislature in 1851; emphatically embodied and carried out in the Kansas-Nebraska bill, and vindicated this year by the refusal to bring Kansas into the Union with a Constitution distasteful to her people."13
Senator Douglas returned to the Dred Scott theme he had opened in his Springfield exchange with Mr. Lincoln a year earlier: "The other proposition discussed by Mr. Lincoln in his speech consists in a crusade against the Supreme Court of the United States on account of the Dred Scott decision. On this question, also, I desire to say to you unequivocally, that I take direct and distinct issue with him. I have no warfare to make on the Supreme Court of the United States, either on account of that or any other decision which they have pronounced from that bench. The Constitution of the United States has provided that the powers of government (and the Constitution of each State has the same provision) shall be divided into three departments – executive, legislative, and judicial. The right and the province of expounding the Constitution, and constructing the law, is vested in the judiciary established by the Constitution."14
Further, Senator Douglas said "that the reason assigned by Mr. Lincoln for resisting the decision of the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case, does not in itself meet my approbation. He objects to it because that decision declared that a negro descended from African parents, who were brought here and sold as slaves, is not, and cannot be, a citizen of the United States. He says it is wrong, because it deprives the negro of the benefits of that clause of the Constitution which says that citizens of one State shall enjoy all the privileges and immunities of citizens of the negro of the privileges, immunities and rights of citizenship, which pertain, according to that decision, only to the white man. I am free to say to you that in my opinion this government of ours is founded on the white basis. It was made by the white man, for the benefit of the white man, to be administered by white men, in such manner as they should determine. It is also true that a negro, an Indian, or any other man of inferior race to a white man, should be permitted to enjoyed, and humanity requires that he should have all the rights, privileges and immunities which he is capable of exercising consistent with the safety of society."15
Further, said Douglas, "The other proposition discussed by Mr. Lincoln in his speech consists in a crusade against the Supreme Court of the United States on account of the Dred Scott decision. On this question, also, I desire to say to you unequivocally, that I take direct and distinct issue with him. I have no warfare to make on the Supreme Court of the United States, either on account of that or any other decision which they have pronounced from that bench. The Constitution of the United States has provided that the powers of government (and the Constitution of each State has the same provision) shall be divided into three departments – executive, legislative, and judicial. The right and the province of expounding the Constitution, and constructing the law, is vested in the judiciary established by the Constitution."16
Douglas' speech set the tone for the campaign's next four months. On July 10, 1858, Mr. Lincoln gave an extended response to a Chicago speech by Senator Douglas. In his reply, Mr. Lincoln responded to the Dred Scott theme and attacks its foundations and supporters:
I have expressed heretofore, and I now repeat, my opposition to the Dred Scott Decision, but I should be allowed to state the nature of that opposition, and I ask your indulgence while I do so. What is fairly implied by the term Judge Douglas has used 'resistance to the Decision?' I do not resist it. If I wanted to take Dred Scott from his master, I would be interfering with property, and that terrible difficulty that Judge Douglas speaks of, of interfering with property, would arise. But I am doing no such thing as that, but all that I am doing is refusing to obey it as a political rule. If I were in Congress, and a vote should come up on a question whether slavery should be prohibited in a new territory, in spite of that Dred Scott decision, I would vote that it should. [Applause; 'good for you;' 'we hope to see it;' 'that's right.']
Mr. Lincoln also spoke of the way the Kansas-Nebraska bill undermined the basis of the Constitution:
I am not, in the first place, unaware that this Government endured eighty-two years, half slave and half free. I know that. I am tolerably well acquainted with the history of the country, and I know that it has endured eighty-two years, half slave and half free. I believe – and that is what I meant to allude to there – I believe it has endorsed because, during all that time, until the introduction of the Nebraska Bill, the public mind did rest, all the time, in the belief that slavery was in course of ultimate extinction. ['Good!' 'Good!' and applause.] That was what gave us the rest that we had through that period of eighty-two years; at least, so I believe. I have always hated slavery, I think as much as any Abolitionist. [Applause.] I have been an Old Line Whig. I have always hated it, but I have always been quiet about it until this new era of the introduction of the Nebraska Bill began. I always believed that everybody was against it, and that it was in the course of ultimate extinction. (Pointing to Mr. [Orville H.] Browning, who stood near by.) Browning thought so; the great mass of the nation have rested in the belief that slavery was in course of ultimate extinction. They had reason so to believe.
Five days later, Mr. Lincoln wrote Lieutenant Governor Gustave V. Koerner: "I have just returned from Chicago. Douglas took nothing by his motion there. In fact, by his rampant endorsement of the Dred Scott decision he drove back a few republicans who were favorably inclined towards him. His tactics just now, in part is, to make it appear that he is having a triumphal entry into; and march through the country; but it is all as bombastic and how as Napoleon's bulletins sent back from the his campaign in Russia. I was present at his reception in Chicago, and it certainly was very large and imposing; but judging from the opinions of others better acquainted with faces there, and by the strong call for me to speak. When he closed, I really believe we could have voted him down in that very crowd. Our meeting, twenty-four hours after, called only twelve hours before it came together and got up without trumpery, was nearly as large, and five times as enthusiastic."19
Chicago was the first exchange in the classic 1858 campaign between the two Illinois senatorial combatants: Historian William Lee Miller wrote: "The distinctly drawn and major issue between them was whether slavery should be permitted to spread to the territories (to which Douglas said yes and Lincoln said no), which turned on whether slavery was morally wrong (to which Lincoln said yes and Douglas said no), which turned on whether the Negro was a fellow human being with the right not to be enslaved (to which Douglas said no and Lincoln said yes)."20 The exchange and a few similar exchanges that followed set up the logic for the Lincoln-Douglas debates which Mr. Lincoln proposed later in July 1858 and began in late August.