Lincoln's Defense of Politics
Lincoln's “house divided” doctrine and William Seward's “irrepressible conflict” were both expressions, according to Lincoln, of “the opinion that slavery is a durable element of discord, and that we shall not have peace with it, until it either masters, or is mastered by, the free principle.”1 Lincoln treated the doctrines as equivalent, and perhaps they were—until November 6, 1860. When the election was over, the conflict of principles between the North and the South took on a different character, one that demanded ultimate reconciliation. The challenge for the incoming administration was to preserve the political gains that its party's electoral victory had realized. To do this, it was necessary to preserve the community of the states in its historical integrity. Since the adoption of the Constitution, the history of the Union had been one of uninterrupted growth and prosperity. Seward's language stressed the need for overcoming a threat; Lincoln's stressed the need for overcoming division in Americans' common political house.
With Lincoln's election to the presidency, Americans were confronted, in a more urgent manner than at any time since 1787–1790, with this broad question: Does the Union have a dignity at least equal to that of the states? Republicans believed that it did, but their belief did not necessarily supply them with a ready answer to the immediate prac-