Lincoln's House Divided Speech

Lincoln's House Divided Speech

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The House Divided Speech was an address given by Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States, serving from March 1861 until his assassination in April 1865. He successfully led his country through a great constitutional, military and moral crisis – the American Civil War – preserving the Union, while ending slavery, and...

 (who would later become President of the United States
President of the United States
The President of the United States of America is the head of state and head of government of the United States. The president leads the executive branch of the federal government and is the commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces....

) on June 16, 1858, in Springfield, Illinois
Springfield, Illinois
Springfield is the third and current capital of the US state of Illinois and the county seat of Sangamon County with a population of 117,400 , making it the sixth most populated city in the state and the second most populated Illinois city outside of the Chicago Metropolitan Area...

, upon accepting the Illinois Republican Party
Republican Party (United States)
The Republican Party is one of the two major contemporary political parties in the United States, along with the Democratic Party. Founded by anti-slavery expansion activists in 1854, it is often called the GOP . The party's platform generally reflects American conservatism in the U.S...

's nomination as that state's United States senator. The speech became the launching point for his unsuccessful campaign for the Senate
United States Senate
The United States Senate is the upper house of the bicameral legislature of the United States, and together with the United States House of Representatives comprises the United States Congress. The composition and powers of the Senate are established in Article One of the U.S. Constitution. Each...

 seat against Stephen A. Douglas
Stephen A. Douglas
Stephen Arnold Douglas was an American politician from the western state of Illinois, and was the Northern Democratic Party nominee for President in 1860. He lost to the Republican Party's candidate, Abraham Lincoln, whom he had defeated two years earlier in a Senate contest following a famed...

, which included the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858
Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858
The Lincoln–Douglas Debates of 1858 were a series of seven debates between Abraham Lincoln, the Republican candidate for Senate in Illinois, and the incumbent Senator Stephen Douglas, the Democratic Party candidate. At the time, U.S. senators were elected by state legislatures; thus Lincoln and...

. The speech created a lasting image of the danger of disunion because of slavery, and it rallied Republicans across the North
Northern United States
Northern United States, also sometimes the North, may refer to:* A particular grouping of states or regions of the United States of America. The United States Census Bureau divides some of the northernmost United States into the Midwest Region and the Northeast Region...

. Along with the Gettysburg Address
Gettysburg Address
The Gettysburg Address is a speech by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and is one of the most well-known speeches in United States history. It was delivered by Lincoln during the American Civil War, on the afternoon of Thursday, November 19, 1863, at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery...

 and his second inaugural address
Lincoln's second inaugural address
Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865, during his second inauguration as President of the United States. At a time when victory over the secessionists in the American Civil War was within days and slavery was near an end, Lincoln did not speak of happiness, but of...

, this became one of the best-known speeches of his career.

The best-known passage of the speech is:
Lincoln's goal with this speech was to differentiate himself from Douglas. Douglas advocated popular sovereignty
Popular sovereignty
Popular sovereignty or the sovereignty of the people is the political principle that the legitimacy of the state is created and sustained by the will or consent of its people, who are the source of all political power. It is closely associated with Republicanism and the social contract...

, under which the settlers in each new territory decided their own status as a slave or free state; he asserted that that rule would end slavery-induced conflict and allow northern and southern states to coexist peacefully. Lincoln, however, said that the United States would inevitably become either all slave or all free. As long as the North and South held such distinct opinions, and as long as this issue permeated every political question, the Union could not function.

Lincoln's Argumentation

  • "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. 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 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 newNorth as well as South. Have we no tendency to the latter condition? Let any one who doubts, carefully contemplate that now almost complete legal combination— piece of machinery so to speak—compounded of the Nebraska doctrine
    Kansas-Nebraska Act
    The Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854 created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, opening new lands for settlement, and had the effect of repealing the Missouri Compromise of 1820 by allowing settlers in those territories to determine through Popular Sovereignty if they would allow slavery within...

    , and the Dred Scott decision
    Dred Scott v. Sandford
    Dred Scott v. Sandford, , also known as the Dred Scott Decision, was a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that people of African descent brought into the United States and held as slaves were not protected by the Constitution and could never be U.S...

    .

  • The Kansas-Nebraska Act opened all the national territory to slavery [...]. This [...] had been provided for [...] in the notable argument of "squatter sovereignty," otherwise called "sacred right of self government," which latter phrase, though expressive of the only rightful basis of any government, was so perverted in this attempted use of it as to amount to just this: That if any one man, choose to enslave another, no third man shall be allowed to object.

  • While the Nebraska Bill was passing through Congress, a law case, involving the question of a negro's freedom … was passing through the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Missouri; and both Nebraska Bill and law suit were brought to a decision in the same month of May, 1854. The Negro's name was "Dred Scott" [...].

  • [The points decided by the Dred Scott decision include] that whether the holding a negro in actual slavery in a free state, makes him free, as against the holder, the United States courts will not decide, but will leave to be decided by the courts of any slave state the negro may be forced into by the master. This point is made, not to be pressed immediately [...] [that] the logical conclusion that what Dred Scott's master might lawfully do with Dred Scott, in the free state Illinois, every other master may lawfully do with any other one, or one thousand slaves, in Illinois, or in any other free state.

  • While the opinion of [...] Chief Justice Taney, in the Dred Scott case [...] expressly declare[s] that the Constitution of the United States neither permits congress nor a territorial legislature to exclude slavery from any United States territory, [...] [Taney] omit[s] to declare whether or not the same constitution permits a state, or the people of a state, to exclude it. Possibly, this was a mere omission; but who can be quite sure [...].

  • The nearest approach to the point of declaring the power of a state over slavery, is made by Judge Nelson. He approaches it more than once, using the precise idea, and almost the language too, of the Nebraska Act. On one occasion his exact language is, "except in cases where the power is restrained by the Constitution of the United States, the law of the State is supreme over the subject of slavery within its jurisdiction." In what cases the power of the states is so restrained by the U.S. Constitution, is left an open question, precisely as the same question, as to the restraint on the power of the territories was left open in the Nebraska Act. Put that and that together, and we have another nice little niche, which we may, ere long, see filled with another Supreme Court decision, declaring that the Constitution of the United States does not permit a state to exclude slavery from its limits. And this may especially be expected if the doctrine of "care not whether slavery be voted down or voted up" shall gain upon the public mind sufficiently to give promise that such a decision can be maintained when made.

  • Such a decision is all that slavery now lacks of being alike lawful in all the States. Welcome, or unwelcome, such decision is probably coming, and will soon be upon us, unless the power of the present political dynasty shall be met and overthrown. We shall lie down pleasantly dreaming that the people of Missouri are on the verge of making their State free, and we shall awake to the reality instead that the Supreme Court has made Illinois a slave State.

Origins of the phrase "House Divided"


The speech contains the quotation "A house divided against itself cannot stand," which is taken from Mark 3:25 "And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand." Lincoln was referring to the division of the country between slave and free states. The "house divided" phrase had been used by others before, and by Lincoln himself in another context in 1843. Most famously, eight years before Lincoln's speech, during the Senate debate on the Compromise of 1850
Compromise of 1850
The Compromise of 1850 was a package of five bills, passed in September 1850, which defused a four-year confrontation between the slave states of the South and the free states of the North regarding the status of territories acquired during the Mexican-American War...

, Sam Houston
Sam Houston
Samuel Houston, known as Sam Houston , was a 19th-century American statesman, politician, and soldier. He was born in Timber Ridge in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, of Scots-Irish descent. Houston became a key figure in the history of Texas and was elected as the first and third President of...

 had proclaimed: "A nation divided against itself cannot stand." During the War of 1812
War of 1812
The War of 1812 was a military conflict fought between the forces of the United States of America and those of the British Empire. The Americans declared war in 1812 for several reasons, including trade restrictions because of Britain's ongoing war with France, impressment of American merchant...

 a similar line appeared in a letter from Abigail Adams
Abigail Adams
Abigail Adams was the wife of John Adams, who was the second President of the United States, and the mother of John Quincy Adams, the sixth...

 to Mercy Otis Warren
Mercy Otis Warren
Mercy Otis Warren was a political writer and propagandist of the American Revolution. In the eighteenth century, topics such as politics and war were thought to be the province of men. Few women had the education or training to write about these subjects. Warren was the exception...

. Mrs. Adams wrote "... A house divided upon itself - and upon that foundation do our enemies build their hopes of subduing us." In Thomas Paine's 1776 Common Sense, his description of the composition of Monarchy, "this hath all the distinctions of a house divided against itself . . ."

See also


  • Abraham Lincoln on slavery
    Abraham Lincoln on slavery
    Abraham Lincolns position on slavery was one of the central issues in American history. Initially, Lincoln expected to bring about the eventual extinction of slavery by stopping its further expansion into any U.S. territory, and by offering compensated emancipation...

  • Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858
    Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858
    The Lincoln–Douglas Debates of 1858 were a series of seven debates between Abraham Lincoln, the Republican candidate for Senate in Illinois, and the incumbent Senator Stephen Douglas, the Democratic Party candidate. At the time, U.S. senators were elected by state legislatures; thus Lincoln and...

  • Origins of the American Civil War
    Origins of the American Civil War
    The main explanation for the origins of the American Civil War is slavery, especially Southern anger at the attempts by Northern antislavery political forces to block the expansion of slavery into the western territories...


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