Lincoln 1860

Lincoln 1860

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Lincoln Behind The Myths - The "House Divided" Speech

American History magazine is kicking off a year-long series in which it will attempt to "humanize" Abraham Lincoln. Titled "The Lincoln Chronicles," the series of six articles will attempt to spotlight six crucial episodes in Lincoln's life; episodes which "tested, revealed and enlarged Lincoln's character and made him the towering figure he became." The author of the series is University of Texas historian H.W. Brands, probably best known for his Pulitzer Prize-nominated The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin and his more recent Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times.

The first article in this ambitious series from American History recounts the events leading up to Lincoln's famous "House Divided" speech he gave in Springfield, Illinois on June 16, 1858. In that speech, of course, Lincoln made the radical statement that in his view the United States could not continue being half free and half slave. He believed (and was of course correct) that it would become all one thing or all the other.

The article, titled "Dangerous Ambition," begins by telling us how Lincoln was somewhat "adrift" in the summer of 1858. It had been over a decade since his sole term in Congress. While he was making a handsome living as a lawyer, his ambition wouldn't permit him to be content in that profession forever. The recently-formed Republican Party gave Lincoln an opportunity to once again step into politics. When the party began searching for a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1858, Lincoln was nominated by the Illinois Republican Party.

Up to that point, Lincoln had been a fairly moderate politician. His only term in the House of Representatives in Washington was unremarkable, save for a speech in which he challenged the legality of the Mexican War. While he was principally against slavery, he was far less "radical" about it than most abolitionists were at that time. So when Lincoln rose to give his speech that June day in 1858, no one could have seen what was coming.

After a few opening remarks, Lincoln declared: "A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe that this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and have free." According to Dr. Brands, this was "explosive language, and Lincoln knew it." Lincoln continued: "I do not expect the Union to be dissolved. I do not expect the house to fall. But I do expect it was cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other. 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 the course of ultimate extinction; or 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."

The words stunned the listeners as Lincoln had obviously taken the words of the radicals and made them his own. Again according to Brands, the "slaveholder plot must be resisted, Lincoln said, and it would be defeated." Lincoln closed by saying: "We shall not fail...The victory is sure to come."

The rest of the article deals with the aftermath of this speech, which is considered the equal in eloquence of The Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address. The national press reprinted it, and Lincoln soared onto the national stage. The Lincoln-Douglas debates would occur later in the fall of 1858, causing Lincoln's star to shine at supernova brilliance. Though he would lose the Senate election to Stephen Douglas, his prominence didn't falter.

Dr. Brands closes by writing that Lincoln never backtracked from his claim that slavery must be ended, but points out that Lincoln never addressed the issue in such stark and bold words. In other words, a Senate candidate may speak much more sharply than a candidate for the nation's highest office, which Lincoln became in 1860.

The issue of American History that is the basis of this post is still available at newsstands and bookstores. It also contains a letter from the publisher which explains the attempt to "humanize" Abraham Lincoln. If you've never read an issue of this magazine, I would encourage you to do so. Published 6 times per year, it always contains fascinating stories about the history of our nation.


Toby said...

I just finished Allan Guelzo's account of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. By his account, the speech did great political damage to Lincoln. It was too radical for the Old Line Whigs whose he needed to vote for Republican candidates in 1858. Certainly for a former Whig, Lincoln did not do as well as he hoped in districts that had solid Whig majorities up to 1856.

It is also relevant to point out that while Lincoln believed that slavery must eventually end, he did not necessarily see that as the work of his own generation. Rather, Lincoln stood in 1858 against the spread of slavery into areas where it had not been allowed by the Founding Fathers and the Missouri Compromise. He believed preventing its spread would put the institution on a course to ultimate extinction.

Lincoln certainly wanted to strike a blow against slavery, but he did not in his wildest imagination see himself at that time as the man who would issue an Emancipation Proclamation destroying slavery where it was strongest.

Jason M. Rubin said...

Toby's points well taken, one might also wonder whether Lincoln's "radical" utterance of a house divided (surely one of his best-known utterances) was in some way a self-fulfilling prophecy. In his opening, he said that, "In my opinion, it [meaning agitation around slavery] will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached and passed." Perhaps Lincoln was subtly sowing the seeds of such a crisis, advancing the idea that America had to ultimately make a choice about slavery and the time to do so was upon them.

Rebecca said...

Right now, I'm reading "Battle Cry of Freedom" by James McPherson and the chapter I'm on is talking about Lincoln specifically and his position on slavery. One thing that I'm realizing is that it seems to me that the country had no other way to solve the slavery issue. Thanks for pointing out those articles. I will have to keep my eyes open for them!

Linkorn said...

Looking foward to the articles. Yes, this was one of the most explosive speeches of Lincoln. Vsry dramatic and harsh words not really unlike Sewards irrepresible conflict, although Lincoln wasn't really held to them. Also, Lincoln held that slavery would wither on the vine if it wasn't allowed to expand. Such was the MO comprise which encouraged him to get back involved in politcs

Linkorn said...

Thanks, looking forward to the articles. These words were surely very explosive for Lincoln, among his most inflammatory but they never reached the audience that Seward's irrepresible conflict did. These didn't come back to haunt him as such. Lincoln thought that slavery would wither on the vine if not allowed to expand. The MO comprise gave him the opportunity to get back into the political game and renergized his feelings.

Mike B said...

I've recently discovered your site, and am enjoying it immensely. I've shared it with my District's teachers in a recent blog post at

I'm currently reading Dale Carnegie's "The Lincoln Unknown", but havent' gotten to the House Divided speech yet. I'll look forward to comparing the two.

Thanks again for a wonderful blog.

-Mike B

Anonymous said...

All I was looking for was the House Divided speech Abraham Lincoln has quoted. I ended up reading the whole thing only because you have written this document so beautifully. Thank you for taking your time to write up this blog, it has helped me in a great way!!!!!

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