Summary

Abraham Lincoln delivered the “House Divided” speech in Springfield, Illinois, on June 16, 1858 after the Republican State Convention nominated him to run for the Illinois Senate seat opposite Democrat Stephen A. Douglas. For years, the nation had been embroiled in debates over states’ rights and the expansion of slavery. Delivered two years before the start of the Civil War, the content of Lincoln’s speech was both unexpected and contrary to what his advisers would have preferred.

Summary of the Speech

Lincoln begins by addressing the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, legislation that allowed the people of the two newly organized territories to determine through popular vote (Lincoln calls it “squatter sovereignty”) whether slavery would be permitted. The Kansas-Nebraska Act effectively overturned the Missouri Compromise, which had prohibited slavery north of the 36° 30’ line since 1820. Lincoln notes that while the legislation was presented as a measure to calm the slavery debate, it did quite the opposite.

When he states that “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” he is alluding to verses found in the biblical books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. While he does not expect the United States to dissolve, he does believe the current situation, with some states permitting slavery and others prohibiting it, cannot continue. Lincoln points out that while the idea of “squatter sovereignty” might appear to be informed by ideals of self-government, the Kansas-Nebraska Act actually created a situation where slaveowners can transport slaves anywhere they wish.

Lincoln suggests that there was some inappropriate maneuvering at the highest levels of government designed to ensure that the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed. The passage of this act then created a “niche” for the Dred Scott decision. Lincoln implicates his opponent, Stephen Douglas, and outgoing president Franklin Pierce, the co-authors of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, as well as incoming president James Buchanan and the Supreme Court in the alleged corruption. He posits that a proposed amendment to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which would have allowed residents to vote to ban slavery in their states or territories, was intentionally voted down by lawmakers in anticipation of the Dred Scott decision. The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Dred Scott decision were a significant boon to the pro-slavery cause. Lincoln reminds his audience that these new precedents mean that Illinois, long protected by the Missouri Compromise, could conceivably become a slave state.

Lincoln further speculates about what may have happened behind the scenes to overturn the Missouri Compromise and create a legal situation favorable to slavery’s expansion both west and northward. He reminds his listeners that his opponent has no real interest in keeping slavery out of Illinois: Douglas has long addressed the slavery question in terms of property rights and has thus been a proponent of the right of a slaveowner to take slaves into any territory. Douglas has openly stated that he does not care about the slavery issue from a moral standpoint, instead emphasizing its importance in terms of popular sovereignty and states’ rights. Lincoln wonders if a man so dedicated to property rights might also have an interest in the economic facets of slavery—an interest that could possibly make him a proponent of the revival of the slave trade.

While Lincoln expresses hope that he is not offending Judge Douglas, he does believe it is up to Republicans to do the right thing. He reminds his audience that the Republican party was formed two years prior specifically to resist the Kansas-Nebraska Act and stop the spread of slavery.