Lincoln’s Prescient Words

Good morning, it’s Friday, June 16, 2017. One hundred and fifty-nine years ago today, a former one-term congressman from Illinois delivered one of the most momentous political orations in American history.

“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” Abraham Lincoln told an audience of Illinois Republicans at the state capitol in Springfield, Illinois. “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free,” he added. “It will become all one thing or all the other.”

Lincoln was delivering an acceptance speech to a nascent political party that had nominated him to run against Sen. Stephen A. Douglas. Although history has adjudged Lincoln the winner of his famous subsequent series of debates with Douglas, “Honest Abe” did not win his 1858 Senate campaign. He did, however, establish himself as the most articulate and charismatic leader of a political party devoted to limiting human bondage and extending human liberty.

Although Abraham Lincoln’s “house divided” speech is often said to have set in motion his debates with Douglas, the two men had been at it for years. Lincoln’s famous 1854 “Peoria Speech” was actually a debate with the Democratic senator. The subject of both Lincoln orations, Peoria and Springfield, was opposition to the spread of slavery — the animating force behind the creation of the Republican Party. In Peoria, Lincoln had detailed his reasons for that position, one of them simply being “the monstrous injustice of slavery itself.”

Four years later, he had honed his argument: stopping the spread of slavery meant eventually ending slavery, Lincoln predicted. In this talk, we see a glimpse of the future president Lincoln would become, and — to use an appellation applied to a later Republican president — what a “great communicator” he was. We see also that Abe Lincoln was a political man; this was a partisan speech. In his telling, the Dred Scott decision was not just a legal abomination: It was part of a Democratic Party plot that included the Kansas-Nebraska Act and James Buchanan’s inaugural address.

Abraham Lincoln was also a man who knew his Bible. The “house divided” imagery and wording, as his listeners would have known, came from the Book of Matthew. A familiar touchstone to Americans of the 19th century, the phrase had been used by other prominent political figures, ranging from Abigail Adams to Sam Houston.

Finally, Abraham Lincoln was someone who knew how to write. In his June 16, 1858 speech were some of the cadences and prose style he would later employ as a wartime president: “The election came,” Lincoln said in Springfield. “Mr. Buchanan was elected, and the endorsement, such as it was, secured.” Anyone who has ever been to the Lincoln Memorial can recognize in that language an evocative presage of Lincoln’s second inaugural address.

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics

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