Study Guide

House Divided Speech Introduction

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House Divided Speech Introduction

Abraham Lincoln: Future Predictor

Somehow, Abraham Lincoln's psychic powers aren't featured prominently in summaries of his life.

Apparently a bunch of other super-important stuff happened during his presidency, and his ability to see the future gets lost in the mix. (Historians have weird priorities.)

The "House Divided" speech is the earliest of Lincoln's super-famous speeches, which include his two inaugural addresses and a little (literally—it's crazy-brief) thing called the "Gettysburg Address." At the time in 1858, people had taken notice of this weirdly tall, disheveled politician, and after this speech and events that followed, he was chosen to be a nominee for president in 1860. Hopefully you know how that election played out.

Hint: it went well for him.

Despite the fact that it was given in 1858, Lincoln's famous "House Divided" speech is often lumped in with the general history of the Civil War, which didn't start until 1861. The reason for the confusion is because the central issue of the speech is the potential spread of slavery, which was, um, kind of a big deal in the Civil War.

In fact, the "House Divided" speech essentially foreshadows the Civil War. We told you: it's like Honest Abe looked into a crystal ball, saw a whole lot of North vs. South-related carnage, cringed, and gave this speech.

Divided-House Rock

The most famous part of the speech is the first paragraph, where he busts out the "house divided against itself" line to describe the state of things in America. Lincoln uses the speech to warn his audience that the political divide over slavery can't keep going on the way that it has. And the idea of "popular sovereignty"—letting the residents of each state decide—isn't working like it's supposed to.

Lo and behold, within three years the nation's at war…because of that "divided" house. Ta da! The magical Mr. Lincoln, everybody.

Lincoln originally gave the speech at the Republican convention in Springfield, Illinois, to kick off his campaign to be a U.S. senator. This is probably another reason why the speech is attached to the Civil War. Senatorial nomination conventions generally don't go down in history for…well, anything. To make the setting even less exciting, Lincoln lost the election.

However, the "House Divided" speech kicked off a campaign that became national entertainment through the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, a famous series of debates between Republican Abraham Lincoln and his rival for the senate seat, Democrat Stephen A. (Douglas. Remember, they didn't have back then.) Also, Lincoln pushed some buttons by suggesting a kind of conspiracy theory that a group of men—including Douglas—were working to make slavery a nationwide thing.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates were heavily focused on slavery, as Douglas was the architect of the policy of "popular sovereignty," where residents in U.S. territories chose for themselves whether or not to allow slavery in their shiny new states. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act was the main embodiment of that policy. Given that the act led to something called "Bleeding Kansas," there were clearly mixed results. (Things that are all good, sunshine-and-puppy-type events don't usually get associated with the word "bleeding.")

Lincoln's "House Divided" speech at the Republican convention fought back against the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the more recent Dred Scott decision.

Wait—Dred who?


Existential Dred

Let's back up for a sec: only a few months before the "House Divided" speech, the Supreme Court had ruled against a slave named Dred Scott. They ruled that he was still, in fact, a slave, and then Chief Justice Taney put a racist cherry on top of the racist sundae by declaring that Black people were not—and had never been—citizens of the United States. Also, Congress didn't have the authority to decide whether or not slavery could exist, because slaves were property, and Congress couldn't deny citizens their property.

Yeah, some people didn't seem to get the "all men are created equal" thing.

Back to the show: the basic purpose of Lincoln's "House Divided" speech is to outline the reasons why the current (er: current circa 1858) policy towards slavery in the U.S. might be heading for an all-slavery nation. Now that the Dred Scott decision and the outcome of the Kansas-Nebraska Act had happened, the anti-slavery North was one step (or rather, lawsuit) away from being forced to allow slavery in their states.

How, you ask? Because the Supreme Court could soon decide that states couldn't outlaw slavery either, and then there would be no way for the northern states to outlaw the practice within their borders.

The "House Divided" speech put Lincoln on people's political radar beyond Illinois. It was bold, controversial…and little bit psychic.

Okay, okay: it was more about Abe having his finger on the pulse of current events in America than being able to read the future. But come on: we couldn't leave you without the image of string bean-y Lincoln hunched over a velvet-covered table strewn with Tarot cards.

What is House Divided Speech About and Why Should I Care?

The "House Divided" speech has always held a special place in America's hearts…partly because people love Lincoln (so tall! so bearded! so craggy!) and partly because the basic idea kind of always seems to be relevant.

The Civil War left a scar on the collective American memory, and although that conflict ended, we've pretty much always been divided over one issue or another. There's a reason President Obama referenced this particular speech in his second Inaugural Address in 2013– we're as divided as ever, with no real end in sight. (Source)

"Divided" seems to be America's trademark. Which is pretty ironic given it's called the United States of America.

Back in the day, Lincoln's audience for the speech embodied the increasingly strong antislavery movement that would soon take him to the White House. In the speech, Lincoln himself says the nation will choose one way or the other (and it did choose a few years later, in large part thanks to him). But, like a game of Whack-A-Mole, when one divisive problem was resolved others popped up to take its place.

At the time it was given, the "House Divided" speech articulated the concerns of a serious portion of the population, reflected the reality of a super-divided America, and helped make Abraham Lincoln a household name.

But the idea of America as a "house divided against itself" is still 100% relevant today.

Just check out the results of the 2016 election, guys. When Trump was elected, half of the country collectively gasped in shock and half of the country said, basically, "Oh yeah. We saw this coming." That disparity is evidence of a super-divided country.

For proof of this divided-house mentality, you only really have to look at a map of red states and blue states. As a rule of thumb, the middle of the country is red (Republican-leaning) and the states that border the seaboards are blue (Democrat-leaning). We're not dealing with a North vs. South divide as much as we're dealing with a Coast vs. Middle divide.

But the important part—the word "divide"—is still there in action.

Want a great article that sums up this divide in the context of the 2016 election? We've got you covered. Check out this Washington Post article about Chris Arnade, a photographer who went around the "red states" before the election.

Here's an excerpt:

Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, he said, "represented the front row" — the smartest students in class, destined to enjoy the money and status that came with silver-spoon success.

For what Arnade calls the "back-row kids," the frustration, anger and, yes, humiliation had become overwhelming.

Trump zeroed in, Arnade said, on the one thing that mattered most: The system is rigged against them. They had no shot at achieving the American Dream. (Source)

"Front-row kids" and "back-row kids"? Yeah, that sounds like the nation is still pretty divided.

House Divided Speech Resources


An Interactive Map of the Expansion of Slavery
Based on census data, this map shows you a number of different statistics between 1790 and 1860. You can see the number or percentage of enslaved persons, as well as all free people. It's a great way to see why there was such tension and outrage in the North.

House Divided, Dickinson College
Roger B. Taney's alma mater has a great site dedicated to the Civil War and the antebellum era. The site includes transcriptions of primary sources, calendars so you can see all the historical things that happened on a particular day in history, and digital classrooms on things like the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. It's a one-stop-shop for Lincoln-related material.

Movie or TV Productions

Lincoln (2012)
This Steven Spielberg movie is actually about Lincoln as president trying to get the 13th Amendment passed. It's probably the most historically accurate depiction of him on film, though, especially since Daniel Day-Lewis is so method he probably built himself a log cabin while filming.

Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940)
Adapted from a play, this movie includes one of the surprisingly few depictions of the Lincoln-Douglas debates on screen. Lincoln gives the lines about "a house divided against itself" as part of the debates, instead of during the Republican convention. But hey, he does say it.

Articles and Interviews

Andrew Glass, "Lincoln talks of "House Divided," June 16, 1858," POLITICO (June 16, 2015)
A short reflection on the anniversary of the speech, including a bit about William Herndon and Lincoln's buddies.

Interview with James McPherson, National Endowment for the Humanities (2000)
MacPherson is one of the more famous historians out there today, and his main book Battle Cry of Freedom is all about the Civil War and the lead-up to it. As a part of this interview, he mentions the "House Divided" speech and his feelings towards Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.

Theodore Sorenson, "Ted Sorensen on Abraham Lincoln: A Man of His Words," Smithsonian Magazine (October 2008)
Sorenson was a special adviser to JFK, and counseled that president on his speeches. In the process, he learned a special appreciation for Lincoln's speech-writing ability, which he talks about in this article. Although it doesn't focus a lot on the "House Divided" speech, it makes some interesting points about Lincoln as an orator.


Matthew Pinsker: Understanding Lincoln: House Divided Speech
If you don't feel like reading about the "House Divided" speech, you can watch this video instead. A historian from Dickinson College goes through the speech, explaining the historical context as he goes on. It's not a dramatic reading, so don't turn here if you want to be swept away in the poetry of Lincoln's words.

Watkins Elementary School Performing Abraham Lincoln's "House Divided" at Ford's Theatre (February 10, 2012)
Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. has a series of videos where schoolchildren perform the "House Divided" on the stage of the theatre. There's something pretty adorable about watching third graders take turns, giving a range of drama and emotion as they go through Lincoln's words.


Abraham Lincoln Two Weeks Before the Final Debate With Douglas (October 1, 1858)
Have you ever seen Abraham Lincoln without a beard? Well, here's your chance! This would have been approximately what he looked like when he gave the "House Divided" speech.

Stephen A. Douglas Headshot
Here's a nice close-up of the "Little Giant" who gave Lincoln so much trouble.

Hall of Representatives, Old State Capitol, Springfield, IL (1898)
Here's the room where Lincoln gave the "House Divided" speech. It's not as large as you'd imagine.

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