On this day in 1858, after receiving his fledgling Illinois Republican Party’s nomination for US Senate, Abraham Lincoln delivers his “House Divided” speech before 1,000 delegates in the Springfield Statehouse. The address drew sharp lines and set the tone for the rail splitter’s unsuccessful campaign for the seat, held by Democrat and Stephen A. Douglas, a race which would climax with the seven principal Lincoln-Douglas debates of the same year.
Intent on differentiating himself from Sen. Douglas’ “popular sovereignty” position, a defacto acceptance of unrestricted new slave states, Lincoln’s title reflects part of the speech’s introduction, “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” a biblical concept familiar to Lincoln’s audience as a statement by Jesus recorded in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke). Even Lincoln’s close friends and supporters regarded the speech as too radical for the occasion; his law partner, William H. Herndon, considered Lincoln as morally courageous but politically incorrect.
Lincoln read the speech to Herndon before delivering it, referring to the “house divided” language this way: “The proposition is indisputably true . . . and I will deliver it as written. I want to use some universally known figure, expressed in simple language as universally known, that it may strike home to the minds of men in order to rouse them to the peril of the times.”
As feared by many and hoped by Lincoln, the speech created more than a stir, giving Lincoln’s political opponent fresh ammunition. Herndon remarked, “when I saw Senator Douglas making such headway against Mr. Lincoln’s house divided speech I was nettled and irritable.” Herndon dared Lincoln to challenge Douglas by declaring the true authorship to be God’s; “Go and whine and complain to Him for its revelation, and utterance” Herndon implored, for a sound rebuke of Douglas. Lincoln simply demurred out of his characteristic humility.
Responding most specifically to the recent Dred Scott decision, in which the SCOTUS held an escaped slave remained mere property with no rights of citizenship or standing to sue, Lincoln aimed squarely at the immorality of the ruling. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” intoned the country lawyer. “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 new—North as well as South. Have we no tendency to the latter condition?”
After winning a plurality of the voters in Illinois but losing in the legislature (under the pre-17th Amendment indirect election system for Senators) Lincoln edited the texts of all his debates with Sen. Douglas and had them published. The widespread coverage of the original debates and the subsequent popularity of the book led eventually to Lincoln’s nomination for President by the 1860 Republican National Convention in Chicago.
Hence, two years after Lincoln’s Senate defeat, he carried 180 electoral votes and 18 states, beating Douglas and a divided field handily, winning the Presidency, sounding the eventual death knell for slavery in the entire United States, and saving the very Republic itself.