"A House Divided" Speech

"A House Divided" Speech

Abraham Lincoln, June 16, 1858

In 1856 Abraham Lincoln, an Illinois lawyer and politician, left the Whig Party over the issue of Slavery and joined the newly-formed, antislavery Republican Party. Lincoln was outraged at the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and the Dred Scott decision. He was particularly displeased with Senator stephen a. douglas (D-Ill.) for championing the popular sovereignty doctrine, which allowed territories to decide whether to be free or slave states. The Dred Scott case suggested that there was no legal way to prevent slavery in the North as well.

The Republicans chose Lincoln as their candidate in the 1858 Illinois senatorial race against Douglas. The campaign was marked by a series of seven brilliant debates between the two contenders. Lincoln advocated loyalty to the Union, regarded slavery as unjust, and was opposed to any further expansion of slavery. He opened his campaign on June 16, 1858, with the declaration "'A house divided against itself cannot stand.' I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free." His speech attacked the morality and legitimacy of popular sovereignty and warned that whether slavery could be permitted in the North was still an open question.

Lincoln lost the election due to an unfavorable Apportionment of legislative seats in Illinois. At that time U.S. senators were elected by a vote of the state legislature. Though Lincoln garnered more popular votes, the legislators chose to reelect Douglas. Despite the loss, Lincoln's firm antislavery position had enhanced his national reputation and helped him win election as president in 1860.

"A House Divided" Speech

"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, and the Dred Scott decision....

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…[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.

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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"….

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[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.

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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.

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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.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.