Understanding history means accepting two universal truths.
First, human nature never changes. Ideologies of “progress” notwithstanding, human beings have never made any moral advancement.
People in different times and places certainly have held different ideas of right and wrong, but this has not altered their fallen natures. If this were not true, then we would have no reason to study the past. We could regard ourselves as having transcended history. But we have not.
Second, the contest between liberty and power, good and evil, never ceases. It intensifies and then abates, only to rise again and repeat the pattern. But it remains constant. Only the battlefields and contestants change.
Monday, Feb. 12, marks Abraham Lincoln’s 215th birthday. This provides an opportunity to revisit one of Lincoln’s most important speeches.
As we do, we might reflect not only on how Lincoln understood the unfolding crisis of his day but also on how his understanding of that crisis helps illuminate aspects of our own sharp divisions and fierce struggles.
In Lincoln’s words, readers will undoubtedly recognize parallels and lessons for our time.
“A House Divided”
On June 16, 1858, Lincoln appeared at the Illinois Republican convention. There, he delivered what became known as his “House Divided” speech.
At the time, of course, Lincoln’s election to the presidency lay nearly two and a half years in the future. A decade earlier, he had served as a one-term congressman from Illinois. Otherwise, he remained almost totally unknown outside his adopted home state.
Likewise, by 1858 the Republican Party was only four years old. It had no presence in the American South and faced competition from elements of the old Whig Party in the North.
The day before the speech, Illinois Republicans had nominated Lincoln to challenge incumbent Democratic Sen. Stephen A. Douglas. The impending campaign involved only one major issue: the future of slavery.
And Lincoln’s opponent stood at the center of the controversy.
In 1854, Douglas had spearheaded a campaign in Congress to remove 34-year-old restrictions on slavery in nearly all of the western territories. This included much of the trans-Mississippi West — the land acquired from France in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase.
The resulting Kansas-Nebraska Act left voters in each territory to decide for themselves whether to admit slavery.
Then, in the infamous 1857 Dred Scott Case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Congress had acted without constitutional authority when it banned slavery from the territories in the first place. In other words, according to SCOTUS, slaveholders had a right to carry their property into any territory.
This, of course, raised the question of how — if at all — voters in those territories might choose to exclude slavery.
Lincoln, therefore, had a clear and profound contradiction with which to hammer his political opponent.
But the newly minted Republican Senate candidate also had a much larger purpose. He meant to explain, first, how the nation had arrived at a moment of crisis, and second, what might happen in the not-too-distant future.
Only four lines into his now-famous speech, Lincoln made his first prediction. Agitation over slavery, he said, “will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed.”
He then turned to the New Testament and paraphrased Matthew 12:25.
“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” Lincoln said. The Union, he added, “cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.”
Then, he advanced a prediction that proved only half true.
“I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.”
In other words, Lincoln suggested that eventually slavery would exist either nowhere or everywhere. He then posed a question that doubled as a warning: “Have we no tendency to the latter condition?”
The answer required an honest appraisal of how Americans had gotten themselves into their present predicament. And for this, Lincoln adopted a familiar posture — he became a conspiracy theorist.
In the histories of what he called the “Nebraska doctrine” and the Dred Scott decision, Lincoln found “evidences of design and concert of action, among its chief bosses, from the beginning.”
The conspiracy, as Lincoln saw it, began in 1854.
Before then, Americans had always operated on the principle of excluding slavery from the territories by congressional mandate.
They had done this, first, because they acknowledged Congress’ power to regulate the territories, and second, because many Americans hated slavery. They recognized it as a moral abomination and wanted to restrict its spread.
Alas, under the Nebraska doctrine, Democrats “perverted” otherwise noble principles, such as what they called the “sacred right of self-government.” According to Douglas and his fellow Democrats, democracy meant the right to enslave.
But the “sacred right of self-government” alone would not do. Indeed, the Dred Scott decision three years later suddenly made the purpose of the Nebraska doctrine clear to Lincoln.
In defending that doctrine and the “sacred right of self-government” — again, the right to vote for slavery — Douglas had advanced a “care not” policy. That is to say, he cared not whether voters chose or rejected slavery. To him, it only mattered that they exercised their “sacred right of self-government.”
But when the Dred Scott decision rendered that supposed right effectively meaningless, Lincoln argued that Democrats had designed it so. The Nebraska doctrine struck Lincoln as having deliberately paved the way for Dred Scott.
For instance, if a man may carry his slave into a free territory, why may he not also carry his slave into a free state such as Illinois? The logic of the Dred Scott decision pointed to that conclusion. And it had help from Douglas’ call to moral indifference.
“Auxiliary to all this, and working hand in hand with it, the Nebraska doctrine, or what is left of it, is to educate and mould public opinion, at least Northern public opinion, to not care whether slavery is voted down or voted up,” Lincoln said.
Moments later, Lincoln delivered one of the speech’s most famous passages, perhaps second only to the “house divided” line.
He began by comparing the alleged conspiracy to the construction of a building. It had “framed timbers, different portions of which we know have been gotten out at different times and places and by different workmen.”
Lincoln then identified four prominent Democrats as fellow “workmen” — co-conspirators. He mentioned Douglas, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, President James Buchanan and former President Franklin Pierce.
Since every piece of the metaphorical building fit together perfectly, Lincoln said, “we find it impossible not to believe that Stephen and Franklin and Roger and James all understood one another from the beginning, and all worked upon a common plan or draft drawn up before the first lick was struck.”
The conspiracy, of course, would not end there.
Lincoln suggested that the Kansas-Nebraska Act had explicitly mentioned states for a reason. Coupled with Douglas’ “care not” policy, this too could lead to a future SCOTUS ruling that invalidated bans on slavery.
“Such a decision is all that slavery now lacks of being alike lawful in all the States,” Lincoln said. “Welcome or unwelcome, such decision is probably coming, and will soon be upon us, unless the power of the present political dynasty shall be met and overthrown.”
Finally, Lincoln identified the new Republican Party as the only hope for ending Democratic rule and thereby arresting slavery’s spread.
“Two years ago the Republicans of the nation mustered over thirteen hundred thousand strong,” he said in reference to the 1856 presidential election, when Republican candidate John C. Fremont won 11 states and received more than 1.3 million votes.
“We did this under the single impulse of resistance to a common danger, with every external circumstance against us. Of strange, discordant, and even, hostile elements, we gathered from the four winds, and formed and fought the battle through, under the constant hot fire of a disciplined, proud, and pampered enemy,” Lincoln added.
In other words, Republicans willed their new party into being for the sole purpose of defending freedom. It existed for no other reason.
Meanwhile, their “proud” and “pampered” enemy controlled the “present political dynasty.” And that had to change.
To summarize the “House Divided” speech in a way that should illuminate our present circumstances, here are Lincoln’s seven major contentions:
First, a national division cannot endure. When it reaches peak intensity, a final crisis will resolve it. Afterward, the nation will become “all one thing, or all the other.”
Second, the forces aligned with brute power and undisguised evil have engaged in a conspiracy against freedom. The catastrophic consequences of their rule have occurred by design.
Third, these combined forces amount to an apostasy from a prior consensus. Where we once enjoyed meaningful agreement on moral principles, we now find ourselves at odds.
Fifth, the triumph of brute force requires moral indifference. Call it “care not” or call it “tolerance” — it will have the same effect.
Sixth, power is never content. Advance an immoral agenda under the illusion of free choice, and before long you will mandate it everywhere.
Seventh, the Republican Party exists only to defend Americans’ liberties.
Despite “discordant” and even “hostile” elements, the party’s leaders would do well to remember as much.
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