Through the spoils of war in 1848, and a $15 million payment, the U.S. acquired nearly half of Mexico’s territory. To some, Mexico had dumped its useless wasteland and the U.S. had been duped into paying for it. But to most, the acquisition of the Mexican territory was the culmination of Manifest Destiny–the fulfillment of the expansion across the North American continent, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, that was ordained by God.
But did God intend for this territory to be slaveholding or free?
Within two short years, California petitioned to become a state. Slaveholding or free? That question would propel the nation that had just become a continental power to the precipice of dissolution.
It took the Compromise of 1850 to avert a disaster. The Compromise itself was made up several bills. Among them, California would be admitted as a free state. To pacify slave-state politicians upset about the imbalance, the Fugitive Slave Act was passed. It required Northern citizens to assist in the recovery of slaves escaping from the South.
With the threat of dissolution addressed, a continental build-out could get underway. The country pined for a transcontinental railroad. The South wanted a route that ran far south, but the North insisted on a route in the center. Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas was committed to this central route and to the prerequisite organization of the territory of Nebraska.
As chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories, Senator Douglas had the responsibility of sponsoring the necessary legislation. He had already been instrumental in bringing five states into the Union and had created five territories. He repeatedly tried to organize Nebraska, but sectional differences had made it impossible thus far.
The Missouri Compromise, thirty years prior, had prohibited slavery north of the line of 36º 30′, and all of the Nebraska territory was above that line. Yet Douglas’ 1854 legislation–though it used the same language under which Utah and New Mexico had become territories–made the proposed condition of slavery or freedom unclear. So the legislation was revised to appeal to the Southern Democrats, explicitly stating that the decision about slavery was “to be left to the decision of the people residing therein, through their appropriate representatives.” Essentially, “popular sovereignty” would rule the day and kill the slave restriction in the Missouri Compromise.
Still, Democratic Senator Archibald Dixon of Kentucky didn’t think this pushed the Missouri Compromise far enough. Dixon proposed an amendment that specifically stated the Missouri Compromise restriction did not apply to the proposed Nebraska Territory, nor to any other territory of the United States.
Douglas wanted to avoid a fight and begged Dixon to withdraw his amendment, but Dixon refused. So Douglas supported the Kansas-Nebraska bill–now modified to propose two territories from the land rather than just one. The bill declared that the Missouri Compromise was inconsistent with the Compromise of 1850 and, hence, inoperative. With the backing of Democratic President Franklin Pierce, the bill had become law.
Protests arose not only from free-soilers and abolitionists, but also from moderates–including moderate Democrats–who thought the slavery issue had been put into remission in 1850, and now found it eating away at the country again.
Abraham Lincoln, retired from politics and happy in his law practice, was compelled to return to politics. As Paul M. Angle observed, Lincoln “believed that no man concerned for his country could remain silent.” Writing about the event later, in the third person, Lincoln said of himself, “His profession had almost superseded the thought of politics in his mind, when the repeal of the Missouri Compromise aroused him as he had never been before.”
“It is as if two starving men had divided their only loaf,” Lincoln said of the Compromise of 1850. Having divided the loaf in a fair compromise, the South now wanted more: “The one had hastily swallowed his half, and then grabbed the other half just as he was putting it in his mouth!”
Lincoln vehemently disagreed that “popular sovereignty”–the choice of white men of European ancestry–should be allowed to cush the inalienable right to liberty the Declaration of Independence promised to all men, regardless of color. Like so many others, Lincoln thought that if slavery remained confined to the states in which it currently existed–protected by the Constitution, incidentally–it would eventually come to extinction and liberty would prevail. Now he found the monster of slavery more animated than ever before.
Believing that Anti-Nebraska men must be elected to overturn the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Lincoln began canvassing the state of Illinois with the goal of re-electing Anti-Nebraskan Richard Yates. A new Abraham Lincoln was on the scene. Where in earlier years, Angle notes, Lincoln “had brought roars of laughter with raillery and personal jibes and had grappled for any small argumentative advantage,” Lincoln now “spoke from deep conviction that the nation was in danger–spoke without humor but with eloquence that he had never before achieved.”
Claiming popular sovereignty to be a middle ground that couldn’t logically exist, he urged men to rally together and embrace liberty. “Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and policy, which harmonize with it. Let north and south–let all Americans–let all lovers of liberty everywhere–join in the great and good work. If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and keep it, forever worthy of the saving.”
To further the Anti-Nebraska cause, Lincoln allowed himself to be named as a candidate for the Illinois House of Representatives. On November 7, 1854, he was elected. But the senatorial term of James Shields, a Douglas supporter, was expiring and Lincoln was in a position to take the seat. To strengthen his candidacy, he declined to accept his seat in the Illinois House.
In February 1855, the legislature met in joint session. On the first ballot, Lincoln was the leader with 44 votes, but could not win without the five votes received by Lyman Trumbull. Vote after vote, Trumbull’s supporters refused to budge. After the ninth ballot, Lincoln realized that unless he threw his support to Trumbull, a supporter of the Kansas-Nebraska Act would be elected. So he released his supporters to vote for Trumbull and Trumbull won the election. But Lincoln became the clear leader of the Anti-Nebraska men and was destined to run against Stephen A. Douglas when his term expired in 1858.
Lincoln Opposes Douglas
At the Republican State Convention of Illinois, on June 16, 1858, a resolution declaring “that Abraham is the first and only choice of the Republicans of Illinois for the United States Senate as the successor to Stephen A. Douglas” was carried unanimously. Acknowledging the nomination that evening, Lincoln delivered what became known as the House Divided Speech–the name being taken from the opening of the speech:
“…We are now far into the fifth year since a policy was initiated with the avowed object and confident promise of putting an end to 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.”
I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. 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. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new, North as well as South.”
Lincoln borrowed the reference to the “house divided against itself,” from the Bible. In the twelfth chapter of Matthew, Jesus healed a man possessed with a devil. The Pharisees accused him of casting out devils by the power of Beelzebub, the prince of devils. To this, Jesus replied:
“Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand: And if Satan cast out Satan, he is divided against himself; how shall then his kingdom stand?” (Matthew 12:25)
Lincoln made a public reference to this Biblical quotation as early as 1843, when he wrote a circular emphasizing the unity of the Whig party:
“That ‘union is strength’ is a truth that has been known, illustrated, and declared in various ways and forms in all ages of the world. That great fabulist and philosopher, Aesop, illustrated it by his fable of the bundle of sticks; and he whose wisdom surpasses that of all philosophers has declared that ‘a house divided against itself cannot stand.'”
The quotation was one which Lincoln obviously found useful. However, it was only after careful consideration that he included it in his speech at the state Republican Convention in 1858. Lincoln was well aware that the position could be inflammatory. In fact, most of Lincoln’s friends advised against it.
Within weeks, Stephen Douglas would twist Lincoln’s meaning and paint him as a warmonger and radical abolitionist. But as part of Lincoln’s legacy, the House Divided Speech marked the point at which Abraham Lincoln, local politician, firmly planted his stake in the ground on a highly-charged national issue.
MR. PRESIDENT AND GENTLEMEN OF THE CONVENTION: If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it.
We are now far into the fifth year since a policy was initiated, with the avowed object and confident promise, of putting an end to 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.”
I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.
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.
Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new, North as well as South.
Have we no tendency to the latter condition?
Let any one who doubts, carefully contemplate that now almost complete legal combination–piece of machinery so to speak–compounded of the Nebraska doctrine, and the Dred Scott decision. Let him consider not only what work the machinery is adapted to do, and how well adapted; but also, let him study the history of its construction, and trace, if he can, or rather fail, if he can, to trace the evidences of design, and concert of action, among its chief architects, from the beginning.
But, so far, Congress only, had acted; and an indorsement by the people, real or apparent, was indispensible, to save the point already gained, and give chance for more.