A House Divided: Abraham Lincoln’s Warning To America, Then and Now

Friday, October 18, 2019
By Paul Martin

By J.L. Johnson
October 18, 2019

On June 16, 1858, the Illinois Republican Party selected Abraham Lincoln to challenge Stephen A. Douglas for his seat in the United States Senate. At 8:00 that evening, candidate Lincoln delivered his famous “House Divided” speech, during which he warned the nation about slavery’s destructive effect on the Union.

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. We are now far into the fifth year, since a policy [the Kansas-Nebraska Act] was initiated, with the avowed object, and confident promise, of putting an end to the slavery agitation. Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only not ceased, but has constantly augmented. In my opinion, it will not cease until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed. A House divided against itself cannot stand.

Even though the original author of the house-divided doctrine was Jesus of Nazareth, Lincoln knew that his application of the quote would be controversial, so he previewed the speech for several friends and associates. With the exception of his law partner, William Herndon, they deemed it too radical and inflammatory for the times, but Lincoln was undeterred. He insisted:

The proposition is indisputably true, and I will deliver it as written. I want to use some universally known figure, expressed in simple language as universally known, that it may strike home to the minds of men in order to rouse them to the peril of the times.

His address certainly roused men to the peril of the times, but its critics’ concerns were equally well founded. Even John Lucas Scripps, Lincoln’s biographer and co-editor of the Chicago Tribune, admitted that many who heard and read the speech understood it as “an implied pledge on behalf of the Republican Party to make war upon the institution [slavery] in the states where it now exists.” This included Lincoln’s future secretary of state, William H. Seward, who, five months later, predicted that an “irrepressible conflict” was now unavoidable — a prediction that soon became reality.

By March 4, 1861, seven states had left the Union, with six more threatening to leave. In an attempt to stanch the bleeding, President Lincoln used his first inaugural address to assure the nation that he would not end slavery, or bring the states that had seceded back into the Union, by force of arms. His assurances came too late. The point of no return had been breached, and the address did nothing to decrease animosity, allay fears, or bridge the divide. Instead, animosity increased, the Union dissolved, and the nation descended into four years of self-inflicted misery, death, and destruction.

In retrospect, America’s pre-war house divided had only one great issue to resolve, but our task is more complex and much more difficult. Presently, the fissures within our national edifice are so numerous that the phrase United States has become little more than a maudlin metonymy used to paper over the cracks in our politically, ethnically, morally, religiously, generationally, and geographically divided house. Our culture is decaying, and our increasingly uncivil and ever-coarsening society is so inflexible, and attitudinally fractured, that cooperation on even the most noble of causes has become impossible. Earlier this month, a police chief in Thousand Oaks, California canceled a benefit designed to raise money for a fallen officer’s family because people with whom he disagreed politically would be on the program! This extreme political prejudice is now the norm for the “woke” folk, who treat all their disputants like political lepers.

A sense of rebellion also hangs in the air as hamlets, villages, cities, and entire states have declared their independence from any federal law with which they disagree, while providing sympathy and sanctuary to criminal aliens. Meanwhile, in spite of having sworn to “uphold, protect, and defend the constitution,” presidents, legislators, and judges treat it more like a yellowed and moldering scrap of paper taken from an ancient suggestion box than as the supreme law of the land. This turns the Constitution into a living document flexible enough to accommodate and approve the ever shifting views and mores of society. If this judicial philosophy becomes the norm, the Supreme Court’s axiom of Equal Justice under Law will be replaced by the old blacksmith’s sign that read, All Sorts of Fancy Twisting and Turning Done Here. Such a subjective approach is reflective of a government moving from a republic to a direct democracy, elevating rex over lex and placing those God-given unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness at risk.

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