Abe Lincoln’s most famous speech prior to becoming president was delivered this week (June 16) in 1858. It was called the “House Divided” speech, and in it, Lincoln, the just-nominated Republican candidate for the Illinois U.S. Senate seat in the upcoming 1858 election, warned members of the Illinois Republican Convention that the nation faced a potential crisis over slavery.
Using a biblical metaphor (Mark 3:25), Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” referring to the fact that the nation was divided between 17 free states and 15 slave states. He added, “I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved … but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.”
The speech was partly a response to Lincoln’s Democratic opponent in the 1858 election, the incumbent Sen. Stephen Douglas, who had previously sponsored legislation, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, in which “popular sovereignty” would determine whether the new western territories seeking statehood would enter the Union as slave states or free states. Under “popular sovereignty,” the inhabitants of western territories seeking statehood would hold a referendum in which a popular majority decided whether it would be a free or slave state.
The act was controversial because many of those western territories were north of the 36°30° parallel, meaning their entry into the Union would violate the Missouri Compromise of 1820. That compromise prohibited slavery in any territory north of Missouri’s southern border (which lay at the 36°30° parallel), Missouri being the exception. The anti-slavery forces, Lincoln among them, acknowledged that the Constitution protected slavery where it already existed, but they passionately opposed its spread into new territories, which the Missouri Compromise helped prevent, but which the Kansas-Nebraska Act would likely accelerate.
For their part, the southern slave-holding states supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act, because if slavery was denied in the western territories, and therefore confined to the South, it would eventually die out. No new western slave states meant no new members of Congress from those states to protect slavery, meaning future Congresses, dominated by free states, would pass laws ending slavery.
Lincoln lost the election to Douglas, but the fame he earned debating Douglas over the issue of slavery during the campaign helped him earn the Republican presidential nomination and, eventually in 1861, the White House.
Further, his “House Divided” speech was prophetic. The nation – the “House” – ceased to be divided thanks to a Civil War that was won by the Union North under President Lincoln. That victory ensured that the nation eventually would be “all one thing” – free – and not the other.