Study Guide

House Divided Speech Analysis

By Abraham Lincoln

  • Symbols, Motifs, and Rhetorical Devices


  • Rhetoric

    Logos

    Although there are moments here and there where Lincoln waxes a little poetic in the "House Divided" speech, really he's doing his bestest to prove his point through cold, hard evidence, so his method of rhetoric really is logos.

    He really doesn't want emotion muddying the crystal clear waters of logic, guys.

    A ton of the speech is occupied discussing why there's a risk of the North having to accept slavery. He says,

    Let anyone 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. (12)

    Then he spends a loooong time reviewing both of those things, in case anyone had forgotten any of the details.

    The whole time, he carefully points out the ways these details are steps (or "points") towards the horrible outcome of slavery being legalized everywhere. For example, when introducing the Kansas-Nebraska Act:

    This opened all the national territory to slavery and was the first point gained. (16)

    It's all very cause-and-effect. This pattern continues. A great example of the logical progression of evidence to claim is this:

    In what cases the power of the states is so restrained by the U.S. Constitution, is left an open question, precisely as the same question, as to the restraint on the power of the territories was left open in the Nebraska act. Put that and that together, and we have another nice little niche, which we may, ere long, see filled with another Supreme Court decision, declaring that the Constitution of the United States does not permit a state to exclude slavery from its limits. (84-85)

    This plus this equals that. (Maybe they should have called him "Logical Abe"?)

    Even when he gets flowery, there's still reason behind it:

    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. (89)

    It's quite an image he paints—who doesn't like to think about pleasantly dreaming?—but it's straightforward and serves a clear purpose in supporting his idea.

    He must have done a pretty good job convincing people. Yeah, he didn't win this election, but he did get the next one in 1860…which included a pretty big promotion.

  • Structure

    Speech

    The thing about speeches is that you have an audience who can't read what you're saying—especially in the pre-PowerPoint days. That means, in order to do a good job, you have to keep the people in front of you interested and un-confused.

    In other words, don't talk about too many different things, and throw in a few flowery or passionate motivational lines to keep the audience on your side.

    Lincoln was really good at the whole speech thing. Unfortunately, no video or audio recording methods had been invented during his lifetime, but we can infer from his political success he must have been pretty decent. There is some evidence from the time of what he sounded like, but it's scant. (Source)

    In the "House Divided" speech, Lincoln uses a few methods to keep his ideas organized for the listening audience. He focuses heavily on the same two events (Kansas-Nebraska legislation and the Dred Scott decision), and groups the main takeaways into groups of threes. His other main topic is Stephen Douglas and his failures, which are closely connected to what he's already talked about.

    He bookends these points with the easily visualized metaphor of the house plus a note of hope. Too much doom and gloom will lose people's interest—Lincoln assures the audience that he doesn't believe the house will fall, that they can win the fight against the spread of slavery.

    Take note for future public speaking requirements: end on a positive note. The crowd will love you.

    How it Breaks Down

    Introduction

    Lincoln opens the speech with the famous idea of "a house divided against itself cannot stand," and applies it to the United States. We're all one big house, apparently.

    The Kansas-Nebraska Act

    Since the idea of popular sovereignty plays such a key role in the slavery debate, Lincoln reviews the legislation that put it into play and what happened as a result. Dude knows his legislation.

    The Dred Scott Decision

    The most recent major slavery-related event completely changed the way the expansion of slavery could be legislated. It was also a huge national talking point. Lincoln again reviews what happened in the case and its outcome.

    How Dred Scott relates to Kansas-Nebraska

    Part of Lincoln's anti-Douglas argument comes from the idea that the Dred Scott decision has rendered Douglas' policy impossible to implement. It certainly raised a lot of questions about how the regulation of slavery would go forward, and Lincoln puts the situation into the greater historical context.

    The Problem with Popular Sovereignty

    Lincoln wonders to what extent states will be able to retain control the existence of slavery within their borders.

    Down with Douglas

    Lincoln spends a couple o' paragraphs criticizing Douglas' stance and questioning his motives, ideas, and the implementation of his policies.

    Conclusion

    Ending on a more inspiration note, Lincoln confidently asserts that the tide can be turned in favor of America becoming entirely free. Put a spork in this speech, y'all—it's done.

  • Tone

    Concerned, Determined

    The basic tone of the "House Divided" speech is, "The end is nigh! But we'll definitely win." (Which is also the tone of most superhero movies when you think about it.)

    Lincoln worries about the danger of the outcome of recent policies. But he claims to be confident that his side will come out on top. Cue the dramatic yet inspirational music (a little John Williams always works nicely).

    Concerned

    From the beginning, Honest Abe sounds honest-worried. He says, about 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. (4-5)

    Yeeks.

    And he goes on to talk about the Dred Scott case:

    Under the Dred Scott decision, "squatter sovereignty" squatted out of existence, tumbled down like temporary scaffolding; like the mold at the foundry, served through one blast and fell back into loose sand; helped to carry an election and then was kicked to the winds. (43)

    Double yeeks.

    He declares his fear that slavery will expand everywhere throughout the speech. For instance, he declares that the language of the Kansas-Nebraska Act:

    […] is made in order that individual men may fill up the territories with slaves, without danger of losing them as property, and thus enhance the chances of permanency to the institution through all the future. (52)

    Triple yeeks. The "yeeks" moments just keep coming.

    Speaking to a Republican audience, made up of people who are against the expansion of slavery, Lincoln emphasizes his concern repeatedly over the real danger of that happening. Sometimes he uses logical, step-by-step outlines to provide evidence for his fear, sometimes he just waxes poetic on how much trouble they're in.

    Lincoln is genuinely worried that another Supreme Court decision could stop any prohibition of slavery, and he wants to make sure his audience feels the way he does. Although given their party affiliations, they probably were on board the worry train already.

    Determined

    Despite the doom and gloom, Lincoln opens and closes the "House Divided" speech with notes of hope. Their side can and will prevail if they stay strong.

    Although the "house divided" can't last, Lincoln says:

    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. (8-9)

    Yeah, it ain't exactly a shining beacon of hope, but he's so sure that the situation will go one way or the other, you can't help but believe him.

    The really determined Lincoln comes out at the end of the speech. He reminds the audience of how strong the Republican Party has become, and how it has weathered the storm against the powerful, wealthy slaveholding establishment. He ends the speech like this:

    The result is not doubtful. We shall not fail – if we stand firm, we shall not fail. Wise councils may accelerate or mistakes delay it, but, sooner or later the victory is sure to come. (124-126)

    Lincoln's final thought is one that he and his audience can stem the tide and be victorious in the face of the danger he expressed so much concern about. It really wants to make you stand up and clap. Or shed a few patriotic tears. Or both.

  • Writing Style

    Logical…With An Occasional Poetic Metaphor

    If you've ever tried to convince a group of people that there's a conspiracy to spread slavery to the entire United States, then you'll know how important it is to back up your statements with practical, tangible evidence. If for some strange reason you haven't, well, you can thank Honest Abe and his rhetorical skillz.

    Most of the "House Divided" speech provides rational, evidence-based reasons for Lincoln's argument that slavery could soon expand to the whole country. He's not appealing to people's emotions—which are probably already at an agitated fever pitch—but trying to convince them that their (and his) fears are justified.

    A good example is early in the speech, when he starts to recount the recent history of slavery legislation:

    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 and was the first point gained. (14-16)

    He's making a pretty big statement, but he's not using dramatic language to make his point. Throughout the speech, we see the same kind of style. He reminds the audience what happened, when, and how that event furthered the cause of the other side. And he's making it hard to argue when he can present such rational evidence.

    Now and again, he leans into the "house divided" metaphor, or goes off into a more elegant, dramatic style to inspire some feeling in his audience.

    Check it out:

    Under the Dred Scott decision, "squatter sovereignty" squatted out of existence, tumbled down like temporary scaffolding; like the mold at the foundry, served through one blast and fell back into loose sand; helped to carry an election and then was kicked to the winds. (43)

    Abraham L. didn't just say "the decision made popular sovereignty impossible," he used the metaphor of a structure falling down to evoke the opening metaphor and put a scary picture in people's minds. Nobody likes to think of their own house falling down around their ears.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    There wasn't a real official title for this speech—it was Lincoln's response to being nominated as a senatorial candidate. It's always been known as the "House Divided" speech, though, referencing the biblical quote he uses in the beginning to establish a metaphor for the chaos that was the United States at that point.

    The most famous line in the speech starts off with a quote that isn't even Lincoln's. "A house divided against itself cannot stand" actually comes from the Book of Mark (3:25).

    The danger of a divided house is a pretty perfect metaphor for Lincoln in this case. The purpose of the speech was to basically make the audience face the reality: that there was a real chance the Supreme Court would soon take away states' rights to ban slavery. The sectional division over the slavery issue had increased dramatically in the 1850s, and given that the Civil War broke out less than three years after this speech was given, clearly the situation was at a boiling point.

    Lincoln extends the metaphor later, like when he talks about "a lot of framed timbers, different portions of which we know have been gotten out at different times and places and by different workmen" (72) in order to bring the country to where it was by that day.

    Really, the beginning paragraph of the speech is what people generally know and remember, and that's why the speech is called the "House Divided" speech. They remember that, and, you know, the way he was proved 100% right.

  • What's Up With the Opening Lines?

    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. (3-10)

    The first paragraph of this speech is really the only part anyone regularly remembers. But that's because this part is really, really, really good and the rest is only really, really good. Lincoln addresses the Republican convention, and immediately directs the audience's attention to the big issue of the day: the potential expansion of slavery.

    To do that, he first points out that there has been a policy in place for several years (popular sovereignty) that was supposed to calm everyone down, but has just made everything worse. As a result, the country is divided like nobody's business. Lincoln argues that the country can't keep on keeping on this way—it's going to have to come down on one side or the other, or the union between the states will fail. He assures the audience that he doesn't think the union will fail—but the bad news is that could mean that slavery will exist ev-er-y-where.

    This opening paragraph sets up the motivation for Lincoln's speech, as well as the central metaphor. He presents the current America in a way that threatens his audience's way of life, but leaves a glimmer of hope that something can be done to save it. The "house divided" metaphor works well for his purpose; after all, we all know what a house is, and odds are we've all been to one of those family dinner parties that makes you question why people have family dinner parties.

    To this day, people reference the metaphor when talking about a group of people who are supposed to be united facing serious division.

  • What's Up With the Closing Lines?

    The result is not doubtful. We shall not fail—if we stand firm, we shall not fail. Wise councils may accelerate or mistakes delay it, but, sooner or later the victory is sure to come. (124-126)

    The last three sentences of this speech end on a surprisingly motivational note. Honest Abe pumps you up.

    Lincoln has spent pages outlining the recent history of the slavery issue, to explain why the northern states might soon have to allow slavery within their borders. Scary stuff, right? He has some compelling arguments, too.

    Then, at the end, he brings around by confidently asserting that he believes the United States will become all free.

    We shall not fail – if we stand firm, we shall not fail. (125)

    Heck yeah, Abe!

    After all the stuff about how the north could be doomed to become slave states, he finishes on a positive note. As long as the anti-slavery forces stay strong, they will succeed. He's especially confident because of the rapid rise of the Republican Party over the past two years.

    It's generally important in situations like this to give your audience some hope. Otherwise, why would they bother fighting anymore? The speech is quite serious and sometimes paints a depressing picture of the national state of affairs, but ending on an inspirational note can ensure that the audience remembers that all-important feeling of "things suck right now, but we can fix it."

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (5) Tree Line

    Lincoln helpfully lays out his thesis in the first paragraph of the "House Divided" speech, and it's pretty clear what his argument is. He also goes through the evidence for his argument step by step. (Thanks, Honest Abe.)

    However, to really understand the speech you need to have some background information on the events and people he's talking about—he makes a lot of references, sometimes very quickly, which would be easy if you were alive in the 1850s. He can also get a little complex with his sentence structure.

    But overall? It's a tad antique, but this is a political speech. He wants his audience to understand him. And lucky for you, we're here to help out with all the archaic 1850s history stuff.

  • Shout-Outs

    In-Text References

    Historical References

    The Kansas-Nebraska Act
    Dred Scott v. Sandford
    The Lecompton Constitution (38, 44)
    The Election of 1856 (28-32, 43, 65-66)
    The Chase Amendment (22-23)
    This amendment to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, proposed by Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, argued to include language in the bill giving people the explicit power to exclude slavery from the territory. It wasn't passed—Douglas argued that the power was already there, even if not explicitly stated. During the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Douglas framed he Chase Amendment as an example of his opponents introducing legislation just as publicity stunt.

    Political References

    Popular ("squatter") sovereignty
    The Constitution
    The debate over the Kansas-Nebraska Act
    President James Buchanan (28-30, 37-38, 69-72)
    President Franklin Pierce (32, 72)
    Silliman letter (32)
    In 1857, in response to the Kansas governor's use of military force against the people during the chaotic period after Bleeding Kansas, Benjamin Silliman and forty-six other leaders in Connecticut wrote a public letter to President Buchanan condemning the action.

    Biblical References

    Book of Mark 32:5 (6)

    References to This Text

    Literary and Philosophical References

    E.D.E.N. Southworth, The Hidden Hand (Source)
    Southworth was one of America's early female writers, and in this story, published in 1859, she uses imagery and dialogue that seems to be pretty directly influenced by Lincoln's speech.

    Historical and Political References

    Frederick Douglass, "The United States Cannot Remain Half-Slave and Half-Free" (April 16, 1883) (Source)
    Douglass' speech on the 21st Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation is about the state of black people in America twenty years later. He titled his speech after Lincoln's. (Source)

    Barack Obama, "Inaugural Address" (January 21, 2013) (Source)

    Winston Churchill, "The Old Lion" (June 16, 1941) (Source)
    Upon receiving his first American honorary degree from the University of Rochester, Churchill gave this speech, which ends with this: "United we stand. Divided we fall. Divided, the dark age returns. United, we can save and guide the world!"

    Pop Culture References

    The Lego Movie
    This brilliant film features a brief cameo by Abraham Lincoln in Lego form, speaking those famous words…well, kind of. (Source)

    Cher, "Living in a House Divided" (1972)
    Again, this has nothing to with antebellum period politics, although we would love to hear Cher tackle those issues, but the use of the image illustrates how famous Lincoln's idea has become. Cher (and whoever wrote the song) presumably assumed everyone would get the reference.

    A House Divided (2000) (Source)
    This TV movie about a southern belle dealing with finding out she's actually half Black takes its title from Lincoln's speech.

  • Trivia

    Lincoln delivered copies of the "House Divided" speech to newspapers for publication, but since the copy was handwritten, some papers messed up the opening paragraphs. When he gave the speech, he had one of the typed, incorrect versions…but being the pro that he was he fixed it as he spoke. (Source)

    Abraham Lincoln is the only U.S. President to have a patent. It's for a type of adjustable buoyant chambers for boats. What a dude. (Source)

    Abraham Lincoln's superior wrestling skills earned him a place in the Wrestling Hall of Fame as an "Outstanding American." (Source)

    You can go visit the hat Lincoln was wearing the night he was assassinated, if you're ever in Washington, D.C. (Source)

    To foster the idea of Lincoln as an honest "rail-splitter" in the 1860 presidential election, his campaigners (the candidates generally stayed away from the campaign in those days) carried around parade axes as emblems of Lincolns folksy roots. (Source)