The Worlds Famous Orations. America: II. (18181865). 1906.
I. The House Divided Against Itself Speech
Abraham Lincoln (180965)
Born in 1809, died in 1865; began to practise law in 1837; served in the Black Hawk War in 1832; elected to Congress in 1847; the unsuccessful Republican candidate for the United States Senate in 1858; elected President in 1860; issued the Emancipation Proclamation September 22, 1862; reelected President in 1864; entered Richmond with the Federal Army on April 4, 1865; assassinated ten days later.
IF1 we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it. We are now far into the fifth year since a policy was initiated with the avowed object, and confident promise, of putting an end to slavery agitation. Under the operation of that policy, that agitation not only has not ceased, but has constantly augmented. In my opinion, it will not cease until a crisis shall have been reached and passed. A house divided against itself can not stand. I believe this government can not 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 that 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 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. 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 speakcompounded of the Nebraska doctrine and the Dred Scott decision.
Put this 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. To meet and overthrow that dynasty is the work before all those who would prevent that consummation. That is what we have to do. How can we best do it?
There are those who denounce us openly to their own friends, and yet whisper to us softly that Senator Douglas is the aptest instrument there is with which to effect that object. They wish us to infer all, from the fact that he now has a little quarrel with the present head of the dynasty; and that he has regularly voted with us on a single point, upon which he and we have never differed. They remind us that he is a great man and that the largest of us are very small ones. Let this be granted. But a living dog is better than a dead lion. Judge Douglas, if not a dead lion, for this work, is at least a caged and toothless one.
How can he oppose the advance of slavery? He does not care anything about it. His avowed mission is impressing the public heart to care nothing about it. A leading Douglas Democratic newspaper thinks Douglass superior talent will be needed to resist the revival of the African slave-trade. Does Douglas believe an effort to revive that trade is approaching? He has not said so. Does he really think so? But if it is, how can he resist it? For years he has labored to prove it a sacred right of white men to take negro slaves into the new Territories. Can he possibly show that it is less a sacred right to buy them where they can be bought cheapest? And unquestionably they can be bought cheaper in Africa than in Virginia.
He has done all in his power to reduce the whole question of slavery to one of a mere right of property; and as such, how can he oppose the foreign slave-trade? How can he refuse that trade in that property shall be perfectly free, unless he does it as a protection to the home production? And as the home producers will probably ask the protection, he will be wholly without a ground of opposition.
Senator Douglas holds, we know, that a man may rightfully be wiser to-day than he was yesterdaythat he may rightfully change when he finds himself wrong. But can we, for that reason run ahead, and infer that he will make any particular change, of which he himself has given no intimation? Can we safely base our action upon any such vague inference? Now, as ever, I wish not to misrepresent Judge Douglass position, question his motives, or do aught that can be personally offensive to him. Whenever, if ever, he and we can come together on principle, so that our cause may have assistance from his great ability, I hope to have interposed no adventitious obstacle. But, clearly, he is not now with ushe does not pretend to be, he does not promise ever to be.
Our cause, then, must be entrusted to, and conducted by, its own undoubted friendsthose whose hands are free, whose hearts are in the workwho do care for the result. Two years ago the Republicans of the nation mustered over thirteen hundred thousand strong. We did this under the single impulse of resistance to a common danger. With every external circumstance against us, of strange, discordant, and even hostile elements, we gathered from the four winds, and formed and fought the battle through, under the constant hot fire of a disciplined, proud, and pampered enemy. Did we brave all then, to falter now?now, when that same enemy is wavering, dissevered, and belligerent! The result is not doubtful. We shall not failif we stand firm, we shall not fail. Wise counsels may accelerate, or mistakes delay it; but, sooner or later, the victory is sure to come.
Note 1. Delivered at the Illinois Republican State Convention at Springfield, on June 16, 1858, after he had been chosen the party candidate for the United States Senate, as the successor of Stephen A. Douglas. This speech practically initiated the famous debate between Lincoln and Douglas, which followed during the political campaign of that year. The opening paragraph has often been cited as evidence of Lincolns political prescience and grasp of the situation. Sewards Irrepressible Conflict speech bears a remarkable resemblance to it, but Seward spoke four months after Lincoln. Seward was then the foremost man in his party, while Lincoln was almost unknown outside of his own State. The speech of Seward, in consequence, attracted wide attention, while Lincolns at the time passed almost unnoticed. Lincoln had taken extraordinary care in the preparation of his speech. Herndon says:
He wrote on stray envelopes and scraps of paper as ideas suggested themselves, putting them into that miscellaneous and convenient receptacle, his hat. As the convention drew near, he copied the whole on connected sheets, carefully revising every line and sentence. He had studied and read over what he had written so long and carefully that he was able to deliver it without the least hesitation or difficulty. Before delivering it, he invited a dozen or so of his friends over to the library of the state House, where he read and submitted it to them. Some condemned, and not one indorsed it. But it suited my views, and I said: Lincoln, deliver that speech as read; it will make you president. At the time I hardly realized the force of my prophecy. He rose from his chair, and, after alluding to the careful study and intense thought he had given the question, he answered all the objections substantially as follows: Friends, this thing has been retarded long enough. The time has come when these sentiments should be uttered, and if it is decreed that I should go down because of this speech, then let me go down linked to the truthlet me die in the advocacy of what is just and right.