“A House Divided”

by Fred Ray on February 12, 2010 · 6 comments

Scott Johnson of Powerline blog has a post commemorating the birth of Abraham Lincoln today. He quotes Lincoln’s famous 1858 “house divided” speech, calling it “one of the most incendiary speeches in American history;” one that propelled the prairie lawyer to the White House. Maybe so (it was perceived differently at the time), but it was also one of Lincoln’s most misleading, particularly its most quoted lines:

“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 is here repeating a meme of the New England radicals—that the country was menaced by a shadowy conspiracy they called The Slave Power. This malign cabal would stop at nothing to re-impose slavery all over the country, and was well on its way to doing it. It had to be stopped by any means at hand—you had to get it or it would get you. This is exactly what Lincoln is saying here.

As such it falls into the category of scare propaganda like Red Scares or Brown Scares. The Southern slaveholders did not have, nor were ever likely to have, the political muscle to make slavery legal in the rest of the country. Only the year before the US Supreme Court had decided, in Dred Scott, that slavery was a matter for the states and not the federal government. Making slavery legal nationwide would have at the very least required a constitutional amendment, which was unlikely to have gotten off the ground.

As with all scares, however, there were germs of truth. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was extremely divisive and was used by Northern Abolitionists as an example of how The Slave Power was pushing its insidious tentacles into free states. It was also true that some Southern slaveholders dreamed of a vast slave empire that stretched across Central America and the Caribbean, and some—the filibusters—even tried to implement it. Still, it was a big jump from returning lawful property across state lines to the re-imposition of slavery in free states; and the filibuster expeditions, such as the one under William Walker, were more fit for a comic opera than serious statecraft.

Slave Power scares might have played well in New England, but not in the Midwest, where abolition was a less pressing topic. Stephen Douglas won the senatorial election of 1858 by a comfortable margin, after which Lincoln moderated his rhetoric. By 1860 he had changed his tune entirely and, as president, expressly offered to preserve slavery in the South as the price of coopting secession. Four years later the house of state did cease to be divided—but it was done at the point of a bayonet.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

admin February 12, 2010 at 11:45 pm

Fred,

Interesting you mentioned this speech now. I am currently listening to an audiobook which recreates the Lincoln-Douglas Debates in their entirety. I’m almost through the first three debates, and Douglas repeatedly refers to this speech. I found myself wondering exactly what you discuss above, how would the South have expanded slavery back into the Northern states? With that said, Douglas’ position of allowing states, and more importantly territories, to decide on the slavery question seems incredibly naive, especially with the disaster of Kansas barely in his rear-view mirror.

Brett

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Stephen Graham February 13, 2010 at 1:34 am

One of the implications of Scott v. Sandford was that the presence of a slave in a free territory didn’t necessarily free the slave. A case that was bound for the Supreme Court, Lemmon v. New York, which concerned transit, and by implication sojourns, in free states might have allowed slave owners to freely bring their slaves into free states and reside there. That at least appears to be the direction Taney was headed with an opinion he had drafted in preparation for the case/

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admin February 13, 2010 at 9:02 am

Stephen,

Good comments. So you’re saying that, if Taney had ruled in this way, Southerners would have then been free to move to any state or territory and legally keep their slaves? I can now see more justification for Lincoln’s position, but I doubt Lincoln’s fear that every free state would turn slave state could ever have been accomplished given the respective populations of the free states versus the slave states.

All of this reminds me that I have yet to get the Lincoln-Douglas debates in print. Does anyone have a suggestion for a good annotated version?

Brett

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Fred Ray February 13, 2010 at 7:46 pm

There were a number of cases like that in the lower courts — did a slave become free just by entering a free state? New England said he did, but the Fugitive Slave Law said he didn’t. A much thornier problem, which I think Stephen is referring to, is whether a slaveowner could transit a free state with his property intact. If so, why could he not stay there and conduct business, as long as his residency of record was, say, Charleston? As a practical matter I think this was impossible, but it was consistent with Dred Scott.

It was, however, quite a long way from re-establishing slavery nationwide.

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elektratig February 14, 2010 at 10:58 am

Although it is indeed “quite a long way from re-establishing slavery nationwide,” I don’t think the Republicans were paranoid about the possibility that the Supreme Court might create a constitutional “right to travel” (as we call it today) that would permit slaveholders with their slaves to travel to or through free states. The dissent in Lemmon at the New York Court of Appeals suggested such an approach, and Taney and others on the Supreme Court hinted that they saw merit to it as well. You can find some discussion of this at my posts here and here.

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admin February 14, 2010 at 11:20 am

Elektratig,

Thanks for the comments. I encourage TOCWOC readers to go check out not only the posts linked to above but Elektratig’s blog as a whole. There is a lot of interesting stuff there, especially if you like antebellum American history.

Brett

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