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A House Divided Speech - Annotated, okay?
Lincoln can deliver a speech. Today, June 16, 1858, he launched his national political career with the House Divided speech. Come read my okay breakdown.
Abraham Lincoln is synonymous with giving a good speech. The man was born to talk. He's this tall, slender dude that is graceful with his words and delivery. I imagine he sounds just like Daniel Day-Lewis when reading instructions out loud.
On my birthday this past year, I received a book from an avid blog reader. The subject is the 100 best speeches in the history of the world. Lincoln, of course, makes a list. He has two: the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural.
Jesus Christ is also on the list, understandably. Yet, the Son of God only has one.
What’s even more confounding than that is the speech Lincoln delivered from the Illinois State Legislature upon securing the Republican nominee for the US Senate on June 16, 1858, isn't on the list.
Some consider it the speech that launched him into the presidency. Some people have said that. Not everyone, but some.
It's the House Divided Speech. To me, it accomplished three things because three is the magic number. Right, Jesus?
1. It differentiates him from his Senatorial opponent, the incumbent, Stephen A. Douglas.
2. It paints a complete picture of slavery- where we are at that moment and what it most certainly will become.
3. Lincoln ties his position to God. For God-fearing people of the 19th century, this is important even if it didn’t immediately land the way he wanted it to.
For Christmas, this past pandemic, another avid blog reader, who also happens to be my girlfriend, gifted me a paperback of all the debates between Lincoln and Douglas. It's a fantastic collection of opinions.
Today’s lesson is to highlight the moments when Lincoln is magnificent. I strongly encourage you to take the time to read the speech in its entirety. It’s not long. Just picture Mr. Day-Lewis speaking it. It’s intoxicating. Okay, let’s get started.
Mr. President and Gentlemen of the Convention.
Absolutely brilliant opening.
If we could first know where we are and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do and how to do it.
This was the pitch I had when someone asked me, why are you blogging about history?
Seriously, though, Lincoln immediately sets the tone. We don't know enough about our past and will screw ourselves over. If only we had a history blog, even a mediocre one, to save us.
Lincoln dives right into the issue. We haven't solved the slavery "agitation," and it has only gotten worse.
Then buckle up, people, because Abe lays the hammer down.
In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached and passed.
"A house divided against itself cannot stand."
This is precisely point #2 and #3. Lincoln knows this won't end well. Then he references Matthew 12:25, and unless the audience was Catholic, everyone in the room knew what he was talking about.
Lincoln then states this is inevitable. He stops here. He clarifies he is optimistic the Union won't fail, probably because he wants people to elect him to prevent that from happening, and THANK GOODNESS WE DID.
It will become all one thing or all the other.
Even if slavery was the partisan issue of the day, more economical than merely moral, Lincoln explains that one side will prevail.
Next, Abe lays out the history of how we got there, and it's straight out of the Okay History playbook, baby.
He points directly to the Dread Scott decision. Then he presents future history teachers with the quote they need at the top of every syllabus.
Let him consider not only what work the machinery is adapted to do, and how well adapted; but also, let him study the history of its construction, and trace, if he can, or rather fail, if he can, to trace the evidence of design and concert of action, among its chief architects, from the beginning.
Man. Why does anyone study biology when you have this? I mean, biology is essential, but Lincoln, man. LINCOLN. The “if he can” phrases are Lincoln’s peanut butter and jelly.
We shift to the meat of the speech. Abe focuses on the issue behind the issue. Individualism. Speaking of the Kansas- Nebraska Act, passed four years earlier, quantified those states, rather than Congress, who would decide whether new states and territories would be free from slavery.
Lincoln notes the weirdness of Congress passing a bill that prevents itself from regulating states. He doesn’t let the Supreme Court off the hook, either. Abe mentions Dread Scott again and Scott's situation when his master moved him in and out of free territories like a couch.
This necessity had not been overlooked; but had been provided for, as well as might be, 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.
Read that last sentence again. Isn’t this what we face today in so many issues – what one person chooses, in respect to another, no third person can arbitrate the case?
Lincoln lays into President Buchanan and the shenanigans surrounding the Dread Scott decision and election.
Once again, just like today, we have wrapped up around the election and the Supreme Court issues.
At this point, Lincoln has Douglas back and locked in his crosshairs. Abe ties Steve to Dread Scott and the thinking behind it. The machinery as he paints it.
The several points of the Dred Scott decision, in connection with Senator Douglas' "care-not" policy, constitute the piece of machinery, in its present state of advancement.
If anyone wondered if there were any differences between Abe and Steve, Lincoln clarifies there were, then lists them like Jesus delivering the Sermon on the Mount.
Abetitude #1 accomplished.
Look at this statement when Lincoln breaks down what it means to be black in America in the mid-1850s.
This point is made in order to deprive the negro, in every possible event, of the benefit of this provision of the United States Constitution, which declares that--
"The citizens of each State shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States."
We don’t need James Polk’s campaign skills on this one, people. We are drinking after we elect this dude.
Lincoln steers us back to the point. Where are we, as a country, trending at this moment? The Kansas-Nebraska bill, he explains:
is to educate and mold public opinion, at least Northern public opinion, to not care whether slavery is voted down or voted up.
This shows exactly where we now are; and partially, also, whither we are tending.
The man used the word “whither” at least three times in this speech. I have used whither once in my life.
Over the next few minutes, the future president travels down a rabbit hole and pulls every Democrat he can think of down with him.
He presents each side’s arguments—the word Why appears a lot.
With fury, Lincoln fires off uncompromising declaration after another. Steve was pro-slavery; Abe was not.
Abe was even more so; his argument was Dread Scott would spread slavery to the North if we didn't squash it now.
These things look like the cautious patting and petting of a spirited horse, preparatory to mounting him, when it is dreaded that he may give the rider a fall.
I’m not sure what this means, but I’m digging it.
Lincoln wraps up by reminding everyone in the room that he, a Republican, will be the carrier of freedom when elected. He takes one final swipe at Douglas on the issue of slavery expansion, calling Judge Douglas, if not a dead lion for this work, is at least a caged and toothless one.
Lincoln takes a step back, briefly, not wanting to harm Douglas's reputation, and suggests the two have a further debate. You know, to clarify about Douglas’s teeth.
Rallying his Republican colleagues, Lincoln fosters the final call to action.
The result is not doubtful. We shall not fail -- if we stand firm, we shall not fail.
Wise councils may accelerate or mistakes delay it, but sooner or later, the victory is sure to come.
Almost everyone in the room thought Lincoln was calling for Civil War. He was not. He did know the war was inevitable. Douglas was, at best, wishy-washy on the subject. Congress had abated its responsibility. The Supreme Court drew a line in the sand.
Some say the speech cost him the 1858 election. Some. Not everyone, just some.
The House Divided speech grew famous as the march to war inched closer. Lincoln was correct. We would spill blood over this, and ultimately, the House would be made whole. We are going to make Ken Burns famous y’all.
But what kind of house? Lincoln didn’t see his final work that began with this epic address.
Have you read it? What are your thoughts? What do you think Stephen A. Douglas felt about matching up with Lincoln?