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Okay, we'll admit it: Supreme Court decisions aren't the most fun to read. They're long, and they're often not designed to keep the reader exactly entranced. However, given the significance of this case to the "House Divided" speech and the state of the nation at the time it was given, it's worth taking a look at the text.
Roger B. Taney's decision starts with a recap of the previous trials. The Supreme Court had to decide whether the decision of the lower courts was valid. But first, as Taney says, they had to decide whether or not the plaintiff (Scott) was a citizen legally allowed to bring the case before the court.
The question is simply this: Can a n**** whose ancestors were imported into this country, and sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all the rights and privileges and immunities guaranteed to the citizen? One of which rights is the privilege of suing in a court of the United States in the cases specified in the Constitution. (Source)
Spoiler alert: Taney thinks the answer to this question is no.
Instead, when pondering whether or not the Founding Fathers meant to include Blacks as citizens, he says,
We think they are not, and that they are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word 'citizens' in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States. (Source)
Apparently, since their ancestors were subjugated when the Constitution was written, obviously Jefferson, Adams, Washington, and the rest couldn't even fathom Black people being citizens of the U.S. Taney then goes into a long historical tangent to prove this idea, going back to the European nations that first enslaved Africans in the New World.
Oh, and a state can't make someone a citizen…unless it's just for their state.
He's quick to point out, "It is not the province of the court to decide upon the justice or injustice, the policy or impolicy, of these laws," just to interpret the Constitution. (Source)
Taney spends a lot of the decision going over the history of the formation of the United States as evidence for his assertions. Towards the end of the decision, he busts out the second bombshell. Since slaves were considered property, and the federal government was supposed to protect people's right to their property, any federal prohibition of slavery was unconstitutional because it denied citizens their rights to their own property.
… the right of property in a slave is distinctly and expressly affirmed in the Constitution. The right to traffic in it, like an ordinary article of merchandise and property… Upon these considerations, it is the opinion of the court that the act of Congress which prohibited a citizen from holding and owning property of this kind in the territory of the United States north of the line therein mentioned, is not warranted by the Constitution, and is therefore void. (Source)
Taney's decision was received very, very differently in different parts of the country. Technically, the Supreme Court's interpretation had to be law, but it only invalidated federal legislation. States' laws banning slavery still counted.
Reading the actual text of the Dred Scott decision helps clarify the legal arguments used to defend the institution of slavery. People found all sorts of ways to do it. Taney was apparently not even a supporter of slavery, but he still interpreted the Constitution in a way that protected it. The slavery issue was divisive for a reason. It may seem so obvious to us now what the right thing to do would be, but back then people had lots and lots of different opinions.
Lincoln's "House Divided" speech, which talks a lot about the Dred Scott decision, aimed to convince Republicans of the real danger that slavery would soon be legal everywhere. Frederick Douglass' earlier response to the Supreme Court case took a different approach.
He starts out along similar lines:
It is a fitting time to take an observation to ascertain where we are, and what our prospects are. (Source)
However, although he acknowledges how strong the institution of slavery is at that point in time, he's confident that in time, it will be gone. He points out the progress of the abolitionist movement:
Take this fact—for it is a fact—the anti-slavery movement has, from first to last, suffered no abatement. It has gone forth in all directions, and is now felt in the remotest extremities of the Republic… Politicians who cursed it, now defend it; ministers, once dumb, now speak in its praise; and presses, which once flamed with hot denunciations against it, now surround the sacred cause as by a wall of living fire. (Source)
Good point, Frederick D. In directly addressing the Dred Scott ruling, he does not despair:
I have no fear that the National Conscience will be put to sleep by such an open, glaring, and scandalous tissue of lies as that decision is, and has been, over and over, shown to be…By all the laws of nature, civilization, and of progress, slavery is a doomed system. Not all the skill of politicians, North and South, not all the sophistries of Judges, not all the fulminations of a corrupt press, not all the hypocritical prayers, or the hypocritical refusals to pray of a hollow-hearted priesthood, not all the devices of sin and Satan, can save the vile thing from extermination. (Source)
He also points out that—despite what people like Justice Taney have claimed—he doesn't see how the Constitution supports slavery and the prohibition of citizenship for Black, even bringing in historical fact to support his assertion. Imagine that, using evidence, no wonder this guy did well.
Douglass' essential point is that it's inevitable that slavery will die out. It's wrong, and people are increasingly figuring that out, so there's no way the institution will continue. People aren't that completely awful. Lincoln also says in his speech that he doesn't think the union will dissolve, but Douglass takes it further and sees the end of the slavery altogether.
Abraham Lincoln is a pretty good speech writer, but Douglass is a lot more poetic and emotional in his speech. He doesn't shy away from lines that kind of make you want pump your fist in the air a little bit.
Ever wonder how slavery lasted so long? What were people thinking?
Well, here's a good answer. This speech, delivered to the Senate by Senator James Hammond of South Carolina less than three months before the "House Divided" speech, lays out what's become known as the "mudsill theory" to justify slavery.
Oh, and if you're wondering, a "mudsill" is part of the foundation of a building. So he's basically saying America is built on slavery. Yuck.
Hammond's argument is threefold: (1) a slave class is necessary to support the elites, who are the ones leading society to greatness, (2) Black people are better off as slaves, and (3) manual laborers in the North are basically slaves, but actually are worse off.
It's pretty true that the plantation owners needed slaves to maintain their profits, and therefore, their position of power. That's not what he's talking about, though. He genuinely believes that Black people are inferior in intellect, but well-built for labor, and therefore everybody wins from the whole slavery arrangement.
Yeah. This guy is 100% despicable.
Don't believe it? He claims that whites made black people slaves because they are "of another and inferior race," and that "[t]hey are happy, content, unaspiring, and utterly incapable, from intellectual weakness, ever to give us any trouble by their aspirations." (Source)
That's right—he's saying the slaves are totally fine with being enslaved, because they're so unintelligent they can't think of a better way of living. Clearly Mr. Hammond is the one suffering from "intellectual weakness."
Comparing labor forces between the North and the South, the senator claims:
Yours are hired by the day, not cared for, and scantily compensated, which may be proved in the most painful manner, at any hour in any street in any of your large towns. Why, you meet more beggars in one day, in any single street of the city of New York, than you would meet in a lifetime in the whole South. (Source)
According to Hammond, slaves are better off than the working class in the North. Their forms of labor are essentially the same, he says, except that slaves are taken care of for life (he also says they're "well compensated," which is so, so untrue).
As frustrating as it can be to read speeches like this, it's important to understand how the South, and even a number of westerners and northerners, kept the institution of slavery alive for so long. This is the kind of thinking that Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and abolitionists were fighting against, and these were stakes if they lost. The belief that Black people were inferior was definitely not limited to the South…but obviously many people in non-slave states managed to figure out that they were capable human beings.
You probably wouldn't want people like James Hammond moving their plantation business into your area, and people like those in Lincoln's audience would have felt the same way.
It probably won't surprise you to know that the "House Divided" speech wasn't received warmly everywhere, especially in the South. Given that Lincoln was straight-up left off the ballots in the next presidential election, this should not be breaking news.
Here's an example, reprinted in a Chicago paper, of how pro-slavery southerners saw the speech as well as others given during the Republican Convention:
Some of the speeches delivered in this Convention are exceedingly rich specimens of Western eloquence, and while they provoke a smile, it is well enough to remember that the sentiments uttered by these speakers show an unalterable hostility to Slavery, and a determination to drive the knife into the lungs of the South. (Source)
Slavery isn't about freeing the black people in bondage…it's about hurting the South. (Of course. Because that makes sense?)
The author describes Lincoln as "an unshorn Sampson of Free-soilism" (that description sounds pretty amazing, tbh), who is trying to "demolish the Democracy" by getting rid of slavery. (Source)
Yes, because keeping thousands of people enslaved is what democracy is all about.
The Lincoln-Douglas debates immediately followed the "House Freeport Divided" speech, and pitted the up-and-coming Free Soiler Lincoln against Mr. Popular Sovereignty Douglas. There were seven debates in total, but the one in Freeport is particularly well-remembered because Douglas issued what became known as the Freeport Doctrine.
These speeches are pretty long—they're not like today's debates. In Lincoln's opening at Freeport he put four questions to Douglas, about how he sees his policy of popular sovereignty working, especially given the recent Dred Scott decision forbidding Congress to have any say in slavery's existence.
Douglas goes through Lincoln's questions and gives his answers. The answer to Lincoln's second question is the one that got its own name:
The next question propounded to me by Mr. Lincoln is, Can the people of a Territory in any lawful way, against the wishes of any citizen of the United States, exclude slavery from their limits prior to the formation of a State constitution? I answer emphatically …that in my opinion the people of a Territory can, by lawful means, exclude slavery from their limits prior to the formation of a State constitution…It matters not what way the Supreme Court may hereafter decide as to the abstract question whether slavery may or may not go into a Territory under the Constitution, the people have the lawful means to introduce it or exclude it as they please, for the reason that slavery cannot exist a day or an hour anywhere, unless it is supported by local police regulations. (Source)
Basically, he says that if people don't want slavery, but technically can't ban it, they'll pass other indirect laws, or use other means of enforcement or non-enforcement to keep the institution out of their state. He goes on to hold up the Kansas-Nebraska Act as the embodiment of this idea (bold move, Steve-o).
Douglas continues refuting Lincoln's questions and claims, and taking jabs at his opponent when possible. He discusses how the Chase amendment to the Kansas-Nebraska Act (wording giving the state government explicit permission to ban slavery) was just a political ploy to make the bill look bad.
The ability to ban slavery was there, all along, if they only were willing see it (cue cheesy inspirational music).
Then Douglas sort of dances around Lincoln's question of whether Douglas would accept a Supreme Court decision striking down any bans on slavery, by declaring how preposterous it was to think the court would do such a thing. He also says he would support any expansion of the U.S., leaving the slavery decision up to the territories.
After refuting Lincoln's questions, Douglas goes on to attack Lincoln's supposedly abolitionist policies. This is where it gets ugly.
Douglas paints Lincoln as someone who thinks Black people and whites should have equal social standing—which, in 1858, was not a popular opinion. Douglas is sly about it though:
All I have to say on that subject is, that those of you who believe that the n**** is your equal and ought to be on an equality with you socially, politically, and legally, have a right to entertain those opinions, and of course will vote for Mr. Lincoln. (Source)
You can practically hear the condescending judgement when you read it. His main example of this is a recent occasion where Frederick Douglass and family members were driven to an event in a fancy carriage. Ye gads!
This was an idea that Douglas repeatedly invoked against Lincoln in the debates. Painting Lincoln as a super-abolitionist—which Lincoln then had to try and deny—was one of Douglas' big strategies.
In this speech, Douglas also claims that Lincoln was the leader in a conspiracy to "Abolitionize" and destroy the wonderful old Whig party, in order to set up what Douglas repeatedly calls, the "Black Republican" Party. Paranoid much? The senator goes on to read resolutions of the Republican Party, and accuses Lincoln of not upholding his own party platform. For example, he brings up how Lincoln backed away from the resolution to repeal the Fugitive Slave Act, or prevent any new slave states from entering the union.
Douglas' response at Freeport today is primarily remembered for the Freeport Doctrine, which summed up Douglas' approach to the slavery question. The rest is a good example of the content of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which were a mixture of serious political discussion and your standard political mud-slinging.
William Herndon was Lincoln's law partner in Illinois before the senatorial election. He's also known for being Lincoln's biographer, and helping shape our historical image of the man. (The shape was, um, tall.)
An excerpt of his two-volume biography talks about the moment when he first read and reacted to the "House Divided" speech.
Although we have to take it with a little grain of salt—since this is written twenty years after the Lincoln's death by a close friend—it does give some interesting insight into how the speech came together.
Herndon got a sneak preview, as it turns out. He returned to Illinois after a trip to find Lincoln, unsurprisingly, the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate. Herndon describes Lincoln's writing process for the "House Divided" speech:
This speech he wrote on stray envelopes and scraps of paper, as ideas suggested themselves, putting them into that miscellaneous and convenient receptacle, his hat. As the convention drew near he copied the whole on connected sheets, carefully revising every line and sentence, and fastened them together, for reference during the delivery of the speech, and for publication. The former precaution, however, was unnecessary, for he had studied and read over what he had written so long and carefully that he was able to deliver it without the least hesitation or difficulty. (Source)
It's a pretty nice image: Lincoln storing pieces of one of his most famous speeches in his almost equally famous top hat.
Lincoln does a trial run of the speech on Herndon, after which Herndon describes this exchange:
I remember what I said after hearing the first paragraph, wherein occurs the celebrated figure of the house divided against itself: 'It is true, but is it wise or politic to say so?' He responded: 'That expression is a truth of all human experience… The proposition also is true, and has been for six thousand years. I want to use some universally known figure expressed in simple language as universally well-known, that may strike home to the minds of men in order to raise them up to the peril of the times. (Source)
Herndon paints Lincoln throughout as a noble fighter for the anti-slavery cause, who was finally willing to speak his mind by 1858. Lincoln's response to Herndon's rather practical question rings pretty true when you read the speech. The "house divided" metaphor is straight-forward, understandable, and yet evocative—perfect for an audience at a political event. He wanted to put the idea in terms that would be intelligible but also motivational.
Herndon continues on, discussing how Lincoln had used the idea before in 1856, but told to shelve it because it was at that point too divisive. He continues to make Lincoln the prophetic martyr by claiming that Lincoln gave a preview to a group of Republicans:
Some condemned and not one endorsed it. One man, more forcible than elegant, characterized it as a "d———d fool utterance," another said the doctrine was "ahead of its time" and still another contended that it would drive away a good many voters fresh from the Democratic ranks. (Source)
In a nutshell: most of the people Lincoln talked to were against the speech (except Herndon, of course), but he went ahead with it anyway, because, as the man himself said,
The time has come when these sentiments should be uttered; and if it is decreed that I should go down because of this speech, then let me go down linked to the truth—let me die in the advocacy of what is just and right. (Source)
Herndon writes a portrait of his friend as one battling against the elements, even within his own party, to be the beacon of truth and light when no one else dared. Even after the speech Lincoln apparently met with a lot of criticism from Republicans.
That may very well be true…but given how the next few years of Lincoln's political career went, he can't have been that poorly received.
This account, although probably not as objective as biographies we've come to expect, does give some interesting insight into how the "House Divided" speech came to be, and what it was like to experience it as an Illinois Republican.