A House Divided

When the final day of the June 1858 Illinois Republican state convention arrived the convention had already made history. But it was nothing compared to what was to come.

During the 19th century, before the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, United States Senators were chosen by state legislatures. The typical practice was for the new legislatures to be sworn in following the fall elections and then for each party or faction within the legislature to put forward its nominee for the Senate, should one of their state’s two senators’ terms have expired. The legislature would then vote on the nominees and select their senator.

Not surprisingly, the nominee of the party holding the most seats in the legislature usually won.

In 1858 Illinois Republicans opted to pursue a different course. In June of that year they proposed to make that fall’s state legislative elections a referendum on the upcoming Senate race between the incumbent Democrat, Stephen Douglas, and an as-yet unnamed Republican challenger; though by the time the convention delegates met on June 16, 1858, everyone had a good idea of who that nominee would be. They would then present their Senate nominee to the people of Illinois and ask them to vote for Republican legislators so that they could send that nominee on to Washington.

Former Congressman Abraham Lincoln had been running for the Senate for nearly four years. The former Whig state legislator had served his single Congressional term in the late 1840s, then had returned to his law practice in Springfield after the party declined to nominate him for a second term. It seemed that Lincoln’s star had risen as far as it was going to rise and was now in decline. The death of his young son in 1850 had compounded his misery, and Lincoln had largely disappeared from politics by the early part of the decade.

All that changed in 1854 when Illinois’ second-term senator, Douglas, championed his solution to the sectional crisis over slavery, something called “popular sovereignty.”

Douglas sought to follow in the footsteps of the late Henry Clay, a Senator and former Speaker of the U.S. House from Kentucky. Clay had gained national prominence and fame as the “Great Compromiser,” who had engineered a way out of one impasse after another over slavery and threatened secession during the preceding decades. With Clay’s death in 1852, Douglas perhaps saw an opportunity to seize his mantle and to catapult himself to national fame.

Douglas’ idea of popular sovereignty involved taking the question of the expansion of slavery out of the hands of Congress and entrusting it to the people of the newly admitted western states. A series of violent incidents, including duels between members of Congress, led to many legislators being inclined to hand off the responsibility.

The compromise of 1820 (one of Clay’s early projects) had admitted Missouri as a slaveholding state, but specified that slavery would not be permitted in any new state north of a line extending west from the southern border of Missouri. While it did nothing to free enslaved persons in the south, the Missouri Compromise served to limit the spread of slavery into the west, capping the amount of influence pro-slavery legislators could expect to gain in Congress as new states were admitted.

But now Douglas’ plan threatened to blow up the compromise, allowing slavery to spread unchecked into newly-admitted states, and therefore to gain more strength in Congress. The immediate explosion of violence in Kansas following the enactment of Douglas’ legislation in 1854 seemed like proof that the nation was increasingly divided against itself.

Re-enter Abraham Lincoln.

Horrified at the dangerous course the nation seemed to be on, Lincoln re-emerged as a political figure and sought the Senate seat up for election in 1854, but he was denied. The seat instead went to Lincoln’s former Illinois House colleague Lyman Trumbull, who would go on to a distinguished career in the Senate which included his role as one of the principal authors of the 13th Amendment, banning slavery.

Lincoln was undeterred. If he could not win the race to serve alongside Douglas in 1854, he would instead challenge the “Little Giant” himself when his seat came open in 1858. Lincoln began following Douglas around the state, attending his speeches and challenging him to a discussion about popular sovereignty and the unfolding disaster it had caused in Kansas.

Douglas gave Lincoln the cold shoulder each time, so Lincoln would then wait for Douglas to leave town, then deliver his remarks anyway – usually winning over the crowd to his side. By 1858 he was ready to take the challenge to the ballot box.

The formal creation of the Republican Party in the mid-1850s gave Lincoln a better chance at victory in 1858. The new party brought together the remnants of several scattered anti-slavery parties throughout the country and unified their efforts to oppose the ruling Democratic Party then dominated by southerners and their northern allies like the incumbent President James Buchanan.

To offer Illinoisans a clear choice in the upcoming state legislative elections, the more than 1000 delegates to the Republican state convention who met at the Statehouse in Springfield decided to nominate Lincoln in June, and give the state’s voters a clear choice about who their next senator should be.

Late in the afternoon of June 16, 1858, the balloting for the nomination concluded, and Lincoln was formally chosen as the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate against Douglas. That evening, after a break for dinner, Lincoln stepped into the House chamber to deliver his remarks accepting the nomination.

“The weather was intensely hot and the Hall crowded almost to suffocation,” the Chicago Tribune correspondent reported. Some delegates suggesting moving the speech outside into the cooler air, but Lincoln assured them he did not intend to speak for very long, and also mentioned that his “voice was not in excellent condition,” and so would prefer to remain in the hall with its better acoustics.

Lincoln tore into Douglas right from the start.

“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,” he said of popular sovereignty. “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.”

And then Lincoln spoke the words that made his speech famous. The words that put into clear context exactly what was happening to the nation, and where it was likely to lead. Quite possibly the words that made him President just two years later.

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

As Lincoln was frequently known to do, he had taken this phrase from scripture. In the book of Matthew, Jesus says to skeptics, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand.” In the book of Mark the same statement is related more succinctly, “And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.”

Wherever the inspiration for the remark came from, it perfectly summarized the condition of the nation. It showcased Lincoln’s talent for developing a simple to understand phrase or remark which suddenly made the whole issue clear. His two-minute speech at Gettysburg five years later would be perhaps its greatest example.

But Lincoln was not finished. He went on to explain why the increasing division was such a threat.

“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 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 offered a stark and terrifying warning of where the country might be headed with no limits on slavery’s expansion. He cited the violence in Kansas and the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in the Dred Scott case as proof that the evil of slavery could spread and infect the entire nation, regardless of the wishes of those living in northern states.

He put the blame squarely on Douglas’ policy.

“The new year of 1854 found slavery excluded from more than half the states by state Constitutions, and from most of the national territory by Congressional prohibition. Four days later commenced the struggle which ended in repealing that congressional prohibition. This opened all the national territory to slavery.”

With Douglas gaining prominence in the Senate and the Supreme Court striking down any rights Dred Scott might have held, Lincoln warned that there was nothing to stop slavery advocates from declaring that the Constitution “does not permit a state to exclude slavery from its limits.”

“Such a decision is all that slavery now lacks of being alike lawful in all the states. 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. We shall lie down pleasantly dreaming that the people of Missouri are on the verge of making their state free, and we shall awake to the reality instead that the Supreme Court has made Illinois a slave state. To meet and overthrow the power of that dynasty is the work now before all those who would prevent that consummation. That is what we have to do,” he said.

In the audience, Lincoln’s listeners grew concerned. His speech seemed radical to some, premature to others, including Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon. The prevailing mood in Illinois at the time seemed to many to be opposition to slavery, but aversion to violent conflict. Lincoln’s call to “overthrow the power of that dynasty,” worried many in the audience, and as it would turn out, in the electorate at large. He would go on to narrowly lose the election to Douglas.

But it would prove to be a short-term setback only. Lincoln’s words echoed far beyond the walls of Representatives Hall in the Statehouse. Reprinted in newspapers as far away as New York the next day, Lincoln’ words caught the eye of abolitionists throughout the north, who were in search of a prominent, talented spokesperson for their cause.

Among these were the New York poet William Cullen Bryant and several of his colleagues at the Cooper Union in New York. Impressed by Lincoln’s skill and the clarity of the “house divided” remarks, they invited Lincoln to speak to a group of about 1500 abolitionists in New York City. Accepting the invitation, Lincoln traveled to New York in February 1860 and delivered the speech which many historians believe made him President of the United States, finally defeating Douglas and setting the nation on a course to ending the evil of slavery.