Lincoln on Race and Slavery

By Henry Louis Gates Jr.; Donald Yacovone et al. | Go to book overview

21

A House Divided, Speech At Springfield, Illinois:
CW, 2:461–462, 464–465, 466–468

On the evening of June 16, 1858, Lincoln accepted the state Republican Party's nomination to challenge incumbent U.S. senator Stephen A. Douglas. For weeks he worked furiously on his acceptance speech and delivered it from memory. His oration drew upon a popular biblical metaphor, “a house divided,” that abolitionists and proslavery advocates like George Fitzhugh had used to dramatize the challenge slavery posed to the nation. Lincoln, however, employed it to draw out the starkest, most fateful choice facing the nation. For years he had warned of the dangers posed by Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska Act, and he denounced the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision the previous year as a blatant attempt to nationalize the institution of slavery. By 1858, he spoke of a conspiracy of proslavery advocates in the three branches of the nation's government to extend slavery throughout the country, not just in the West. Because of what Douglas and his allies had done, he warned, the compromises that had kept the nation together had been destroyed. Americans now had to choose: “'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.” Heightening the tension and sense of foreboding, Lincoln declared that a single Supreme Court decision would spell the end of every state statute and constitution that had outlawed slavery since the Revolution. Under Douglas and his Southern allies, the country had regressed to a point never imagined by the Founding

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