Abraham Lincoln, House Divided Speech

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.

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.4

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 – That is what I would do. ['You will have a chance soon.'] Judge Douglas said last night, that before the decision he might advance his opinion, and it might be contrary to the decision when it was made; but after it was made he would abide by it until it was reversed. Just so! We let this property abide by the decision, but we will try to reverse that decision. [Loud applause – cried of 'good.'] We will try to put it where Judge Douglas would not object, for he says he will obey it until it is reversed. Somebody has to reverse that decision, since it is made, and we mean to reverse it, and we mean to do it peaceably.

What are the uses of decisions of courts? They have two uses. As rules of property they have two uses. First – they decide upon the question before the court. They decide in this case that Dred Scott is a slave. Nobody resists that. Not only that, but they say to everybody else, that persons standing just as Dred Scott stands is [sic] as he is. That is, they say that when a question comes up upon another person it will be so decided again, unless the court decides in another way, [cheers – cries of 'good,'] unless the court overrules its decision. [Renewed applause]. Well, we mean to do what we can to have the court decide the other way. That is one thing we mean to try to do.

The sacredness that Judge Douglas throws around this decision, is a degree of sacredness that has never been before thrown around any other decision. I have never heard of such a thing. Why, decisions apparently contrary to that decision, or that good lawyers thought were contrary to that decision, have been made by that very court before. It is the first of its kind; it is an astonisher in legal history. [Laughter.] It is a new wonder of the world. [Laughter and applause.] It is based upon falsehood in the main as to the facts – allegations of facts upon which it stands are not facts at all in many instances, and no decision made on any question – the first instance of a decision made under so many unfavorable circumstances – thus placed has ever been held by the profession as law, and thus it has always needed confirmation before the lawyers regarded it as settled law. But Judge Douglas will have it that all hands must take this extraordinary decision, made under these extraordinary circumstances, and give their vote in Congress in accordance with it, yield to it and obey it in every possible sense.17

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.

The adoption of the Constitution and its attendant history led the people to believe so; and that such was the belief of the framers of the Constitution itself. Why did those men, about the time of adoption of the Constitution, decree that Slavery should not go into the new Territory, where it had not already gone? Why declare that within twenty years the African Slave Trade, by which slaves are supplied, might be cut off by Congress? Why were all these acts? I might enumerate more of these acts – but enough. What were they but a clear indication that the framers of the Constitution intended and expected the ultimate extinction of that institution. [Cheers.] And now, when I say, as I said in my speech that Judge Douglas has quoted from, when I say that I think the opponents of slavery will resist the farther spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest with the belief that it is in course of ultimate extinction, I only mean to say, that they will place it where the founders of this Government originally placed it.

I have said a hundred times, and I have now no inclination to take it back, that I believe there is no right, and ought to be no inclination in the people of the free States to enter into the slave States, and interfere with the question of slavery at all. I have said that always. Judge Douglas has heard me say it – if not quite a hundred times, at least as good as a hundred times; and when it is said that I am in favor of interfering with slavery where it exists, I know it is unwarranted by anything I have ever intended, and, as I believe, by anything I have ever said. If, by any means, I have ever used language which could fairly be so construed, (as, however, I believe I never have,) I now correct it.18

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.

 

Footnotes

  1. Herbert Mitgang, editor, Lincoln As They Saw Him, p. 106 (Chester P. Dewey, New York Evening Post, August 16, 1858).
  2. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends, p. 159-160 (David McWIllians, Northwestern Christian Advocate, February 5, 1901).
  3. Josiah G. Holland, Holland's Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 161.
  4. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 461-469 (Speech in Springfield, June 16, 1858).
  5. Ida M. Tarbell, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 306-307.
  6. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume III, p. 461-469 (Speech in Springfield, June 16, 1858).
  7. Ida M. Tarbell, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 306.
  8. Richard H. Sewell, Ballots for Freedom: Antislavery Politics in the United States, 1837-1860, p. 302.
  9. John G. Nicolay, A Short Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 120.
  10. Ida M. Tarbell, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 306.
  11. William H. Herndon and Jesse Weik, Herndon's Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 327.
  12. Ida M. Tarbell, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 306-307.
  13. Robert W. Johannsen, editor, The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858, p. 31.
  14. Robert W. Johannsen, editor, The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858, p. 31.
  15. Robert W. Johannsen, editor, The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858, p. 32-33.
  16. Robert W. Johannsen, editor, The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858, p. 31.
  17. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 484-502 (Speech in Chicago, July 10,1858).
  18. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 502-503 (Letter to Gustave V. Koerner, July 15. 1858).
  19. William Lee Miller, Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography, p. 343.
  20. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 461-469 (Speech at Springfield, Illinois, June 16, 1858).

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