Here we continue with an explanation of how Lincoln’s famous words, “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” became famous. Until those words became associated with Lincoln, the man who most disagreed with Lincoln repeated those words as an accusation.
Nonetheless, Douglas did not succeed in making his charge stand as an accusation. When Lincoln replied, he stood by his words, and time has given us an understanding the rightness of Lincoln’s words.
Lincoln and Douglas debated each other less than three years before the American Civil War. Both understood how much the issue of slavery divided the nation and the state of Illinois. In the previous year, the Supreme Court had issued its 7–2 decision on Dred Scott v. Sandford. The Court, mostly appointed by Democrat presidents, tried to use its judicial authority to settle what the Constitution had left unsettled, but their abuse of authority backfired upon them. The nation saw the ruling as partisan, not constitutional justice. Thus, the Court helped propel the nation into civil war.
An Excerpt From The Lincoln – Douglas Debates
In what follows, we have portions of Lincoln’s speech in the third debate.
While I am upon this subject, I will make some answers briefly to certain propositions that Judge Douglas has put. He says, “Why can’t this Union endure permanently, half slave and half free?” I have said that I supposed it could not, and I will try, before this new audience, to give briefly some of the reasons for entertaining that opinion. Another form of his question is, “Why can’t we let it stand as our fathers placed it?” That is the exact difficulty between us. I say, that Judge Douglas and his friends have changed them from the position in which our fathers originally placed it. I say, in the way our fathers originally left the slavery question, the institution was in the course of ultimate extinction, and the public mind rested in the belief that it was in the course of ultimate extinction. I say when this Government was first established, it was the policy of its founders to prohibit the spread of slavery into the new Territories of the United States, where it had not existed. But Judge Douglas and his friends have broken up that policy, and placed it upon a new basis by which it is to become national and perpetual. All I have asked or desired any where is that it should be placed back again upon the basis that the fathers of our Government originally placed it upon. I have no doubt that it would become extinct, for all time to come, if we but readopted the policy of the fathers by restricting it to the limits it has already covered-restricting it from the new Territories.
I do not wish to dwell at great length on this branch of the subject at this time, but allow me to repeat one thing that I have stated before. Brooks, the man who assaulted Senator Sumner on the floor of the Senate (author’s note: see Caning of Charles Sumner), and who was complimented with dinners, and silver pitchers, and gold-headed canes, and a good many other things for that feat, in one of his speeches declared that when this Government was originally established, nobody expected that the institution of slavery would last until this day. That was but the opinion of one man, but it was such an opinion as we can never get from Judge Douglas or anybody in favor of slavery in the North at all. You can sometimes get it from a Southern man. He said at the same time that the framers of our Government did not have the knowledge that experience has taught us-that experience and the invention of the cotton-gin have taught us that the perpetuation of slavery is a necessity. He insisted, therefore, upon its being changed from the basis upon which the fathers of the Government left it to the basis of its perpetuation and nationalization.
I insist that this is the difference between Judge Douglas and myself-that Judge Douglas is helping that change along. I insist upon this Government being placed where our fathers originally placed it.
I remember Judge Douglas once said that he saw the evidences on the statute books of Congress, of a policy in the origin of Government to divide slavery and freedom by a geographical line that he saw an indisposition to maintain that policy, and therefore he set about studying up a way to settle the institution on the right basis-the basis which he thought it ought to have been placed upon at first; and in that speech he confesses that he seeks to place it, not upon the basis that the fathers placed it upon, but upon one gotten up on “original principles.” When he asks me why we cannot get along with it in the attitude where our fathers placed it, he had better clear up the evidences that he has himself changed it from that basis; that he has himself been chiefly instrumental in changing the policy of the fathers. [Applause.] Any one who will read his speech of the 22d of last March, will see that he there makes an open confession, showing that he set about fixing the institution upon an altogether different set of principles. I think I have fully answered him when he asks me why we cannot let it alone upon the basis where our fathers left it, by showing that he has himself changed the whole policy of the Government in that regard.
He tries to persuade us that there must be a variety in the different institutions of the States of the Union; that that variety necessarily proceeds from the variety of soil, climate, of the face of the country, and the difference in the natural features of the States. I agree to all that. Have these very matters ever produced any difficulty amongst us? Not at all. Have we ever had any quarrel over the fact that they have laws in Louisiana designed to regulate the commerce that springs from the production of sugar? Or because we have a different class relative to the production of flour in this State? Have they produced any differences? Not at all. They are the very cements of this Union. They don’t make the house a house divided against itself. They are the props that hold up the house and sustain the Union.
But has it been so with this element of slavery? Have we not always had quarrels and difficulties over it? And when will we cease to have quarrels over it? Like causes produce like effects. It is worth while to observe that we have generally had comparative peace upon the slavery question, and that there has been no cause for alarm until it was excited by the effort to spread it into new territory. Whenever it has been limited to its present bounds, and there has been no effort to spread it, there has been peace. All the trouble and convulsion has proceeded from efforts to spread it over more territory. It was thus at the date of the Missouri Compromise. It was so again with the annexation of Texas; so with the territory acquired by the Mexican war, and it is so now. Whenever there has been an effort to spread it there has been agitation and resistance. Now, I appeal to this audience (very few of whom are my political friends), as national men, whether we have reason to expect that the agitation in regard to this subject will cease while the causes that tend to reproduce agitation are actively at work? Will not the same cause that produced agitation in 1820, when the Missouri Compromise was formed-that which produced the agitation upon the annexation of Texas, and at other times-work out the same results always? Do you think that the nature of man will be changed-that the same causes that produced agitation at one time will not have the same effect at another?
This has been the result so far as my observation of the slavery question and my reading in history extends. What right have we then to hope that the trouble will cease-that the agitation will come to an end-until it shall either be placed back where it originally stood, and where the fathers originally placed it, or, on the other hand, until it shall entirely master all opposition? This is the view I entertain, and this is the reason why I entertained it, as Judge Douglas has read from my Springfield speech.
When the Supreme Court had ruled on Dred Scott v. Sandford, the Court decided the Federal Government had no power to regulate slavery in territories acquired after the creation of the United States. Lincoln feared that the Court would eventually issue a second decision, forcing the free states to accept slaves within their boundaries. Here is an excerpt of that speech Douglas detested.
While the opinion of the Court, by Chief Justice Taney, in the Dred Scott case, and the separate opinions of all the concurring Judges, expressly declare that the Constitution of the United States neither permits Congress nor a Territorial legislature to exclude slavery from any United States territory, they all omit to declare whether or not the same Constitution permits a state, or the people of a State, to exclude it. (from here)
Even then, in 1858, Lincoln feared what has come to be known as a “living constitution,” and in his speech, he made it clear that if the Court could force slavery upon a territory then sooner or latter the Democrats would use the Court to force their notion of a sacred right to own property — to own slaves — upon the free states.