On June 16, 1858, Abraham Lincoln won the Republican nomination for the vacant U.S. Senate seat from Illinois. His opponent in the election would be Stephen Douglas. Upon his nomination, Lincoln delivered the “House Divided” speech in the war of words of what would culminate in the Lincoln-Douglas debates later that year.
Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, reports that Lincoln composed the speech by writing out drafts on small scraps of paper which he numbered. He then put the pieces of paper in his tall hat for safekeeping. When he thought he had completed the speech, Lincoln assembled the pieces into their proper order and wrote out the entire speech.
The humble beginnings of the speech from a couple of scraps of paper to Lincoln’s masterpiece started with a well-known biblical quote (for a biblically literate audience) from the Gospel of Matthew 12:25: “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand.”
The topics he addressed would be the “popular sovereignty” doctrine enunciated by Douglas in the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) and the more recent Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) decision by the Supreme Court. Kansas-Nebraska allowed for popular sovereignty, or the principle that the territories could decide whether to allow slavery. The Dred Scott decision declared the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional because the Court decided that Congress could not regulate slavery in the new territories. These would be the object of Lincoln’s attack on the morality of slavery and its spread in the new territories.
Lincoln opens the speech by declaring that Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act with the intention of quelling the agitation of the slavery question. That object was a fool’s hope and the act augmented rather than soothed the sectional tensions. Lincoln therefore predicted that, “In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed.”
After quoting Matthew, he then predicted that, “This government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free . . . . It will become all one thing, or all the other.” Lincoln had a moral vision of self-government and slavery. He understood that logically slavery must eventually exist everywhere or nowhere according to the popular sovereignty doctrine. If slavery were right, then “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.” If it were wrong, however, then, “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.”
Lincoln believed that the Founding Fathers compromised temporarily with slavery to create the Union, but they thought it wrong and put it on the path to gradual extinction. He and the Republicans wanted to restrict slavery to where it already existed and yet halt the expansion of the institution into the territories. The Congress had the plain power to regulate the territories in Article IV, but the Kansas-Nebraska Act and Dred Scott reversed the constitutional authority to ban slavery in the territories.
Lincoln lambasted popular sovereignty as “squatter sovereignty” and nothing more than moral relativism. He embraced the right of self-government but thought that Douglas’ version was “so perverted” that it reduced self-government to the idea that, “If any one man, choose to enslave another, no third man shall be allowed to object.” Lincoln, like Thomas Jefferson, did not believe that one had a natural or constitutional right to do a wrong. The foundation for republican government was rooted in natural law. As Jefferson stated in his First Inaugural Address: “All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.” Therefore, if popular sovereignty included the right to enslave another, the system would eventually spread throughout the Union.
Finally, Lincoln detected a conspiracy to expand slavery among Douglas, former President Franklin Pierce, Chief Justice Roger Taney, and current President James Buchanan. Lincoln charged that they were erecting a framework and scaffolding to promote the acceptance of Dred Scott and popular sovereignty among the American people. Buchanan, Lincoln said, “fervently exhorted the people to abide by the forthcoming decision, whatever it might be.” Meanwhile, Douglas’ popular sovereignty doctrine worked to “educate and mold public opinion, at least Northern public opinion, not to care whether slavery is voted down or voted up.” In other words, they plotted to erect a morally relativist republic where slavery could be decided on by a democratic vote and spread all over the Union.
Lincoln lost the election to Douglas, but the two would square off again for the presidency in 1860. Throughout these campaigns, Lincoln consistently maintained that slavery was an evil that should be restricted to where it already existed. Thus, his ideas accorded with those of the Founders and the natural law ideals of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, the “apple of gold” in the “picture of silver” as he would put it.
Read Abraham Lincoln’s “A House Divided Speech” here: https://constitutingamerica.org/?p=4305
Tony Williams is the Program Director for the Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute, which teaches teachers American Founding principles and documents, in Charlottesville, VA. He is also the author of four books, including America’s Beginnings: The Dramatic Events that Shaped a Nation’s Character.
May 7, 2013 – Essay #57