Study Guide

House Divided Speech Historical Context

By Abraham Lincoln

Historical Context

Remember when Americans banded together to fight for their freedom, created a new independent republic, and lived happily ever after?

That's totally true, if by "ever after" you mean "for a few years at best."

Slavery and Sectionalism

There were all sorts of issues that divided Americans in the decades between the American Revolution and the Civil War (religion, economics, proper hat etiquette, etc.). One of the biggest of them all was slavery. Northern states often took issue with the moral and economic implications of slave labor, which southern states had used to create a booming cotton industry and become economic powerhouses. (Gives "the fabric of our lives" a new meaning, doesn't it?)

Slavery had always been an issue—apparently Thomas Jefferson tried to write an antislavery clause into the Declaration of Independence, but it was removed because of pressure from southern states. (Source) For a long time, the abolitionist cause was trumpeted by groups like the American Colonization Society, which advocated for sending Black people out of the U.S., because society could never handle both races being free at the same time. (Source)

You know what they say: if you can't beat them, send the victims off to start a new colony. (No one had ever said this.)

Abolitionism picked up a lot of steam in the 1830s with the Second Great Awakening. Americans in the North started to really wake up to the fact that owning people might be morally wrong (way to go, guys). The idea of gradual, cooperative emancipation gave way to the demand for immediate freedom for the slaves, and much more aggressive rhetoric denouncing the evil of the institution. Abolitionists were still definitely a minority, but groups attracted about 100,000 people between 1833 and 1840 alone. (Source)

There was always an economic angle to abolitionism as well. Surprise, surprise: people pay attention when there's money involved. Many northerners disliked the slave labor system because it concentrated economic power in a few people's hands, taking away opportunities for the little guys. Plus, the three-fifths clause in the Constitution ensured that the South maintained political power in Congress despite having a much smaller voting population.

Ah, the American Dream.

America was changing a lot over the first half of the 1800s, in ways that made the existing sectional divides even more divide-y. The North became an increasingly complex economy based on manufacturing and commerce, King Cotton grew stronger in the South, and westward expansion opened many cans of worms with regards to how to handle new American territory.

The big question became: should the new states allow slavery or not? For a long time, political balance had been held by the Missouri Compromise, which ensured that there'd be an equal number of slave and non-slave states. Then the Mexican-American War happened, and people really got ready to rumble.

There's No Place Like Kansas

The fight over what to do with all that pretty new land the U.S. won from Mexico in 1848 ended with the Compromise of 1850, which had a whole bunch of terms meant to appease both North and South. One of the ways lawmakers bowed to the South, though, was a new Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which was so severe it increased support for abolition in the North out of resentment.

But really, what to do with all this new western land? The Compromise of 1850 started to break down the system that had kept relative peace for the past seventy years. Stephen A. Douglas, who had helped craft that compromise, had his real moment in the spotlight four years later with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which almost single-handedly broke the old system by doing away with the Missouri Compromise, and replacing it with a policy commonly known as "popular sovereignty."

In a nutshell, popular sovereignty said, "let the people decide, because we don't want to." Presented as the ultimate embodiment of the Constitution, the policy took the responsibility out of the hands of politicians, and put it with the people inhabiting the territory that was about to become a state (in this case, Kansas).

Sounds like a good plan, right? What could possibly go wrong?

Well, take a look at "Bleeding Kansas" to see how it actually played out. Here's a hint: it didn't go well. Douglas himself opposed the results of his own policy, given the amount of voter fraud and violence.

So, let's recap the story so far: decades of sectional tension over slavery have resulted in legislation that caused violence and increasing sectional tension, all related to whether or not new states should allow slavery or not.

Things are going well, huh?

Let's Get Political

All violence aside, the Kansas-Nebraska Act had severe consequences politically. The Whig party dissolved, with its members going to the Democrats or the brand-new Republican Party. Formed in 1856, the Republicans were mostly made up of abolitionists and "free soilers"—people who opposed the expansion of slavery into the west. (Source) One of the "free soilders" was (drum roll please) Abraham Lincoln.

See, he comes into the story eventually.

The Democratic Party would soon split too, though not until the 1860 election. That split was also about slavery, with northern Democrats behind Douglas and southern pro-slavery Democrats backing a different candidate. But that's another story for another time.

The final straw in this glass case of emotion leading to the "House Divided" speech was the Dred Scott case. Basically, slave Dred Scott argued that he was free because he had lived in free territory for many years, which by legal precedent made him free. The U.S. Supreme Court not only decided that he was wrong, but that he shouldn't have been able to sue in the first place, because Black people couldn't be citizens of the U.S.

Yup, that happened.

And the case had become national news since it was appealed to federal court in 1854. Many, like Lincoln, were outraged over Chief Justice Taney's interpretation of the Constitution.

This was the America Abraham Lincoln was living in when he got up at the Republican convention in Illinois in June of 1858. Sectional tension over the expansion of slavery had reached a boiling point, which would shortly explode (pretty literally) into the Civil War.

The house was pretty divided, as it turns out.

Lincoln got some flak at the time (and since) for being too conspiratorial and inflammatory in the speech. But hey, it got people's attention—which is odd, because politicians usually shy away from strong opinions and controversial statements. Guess Lincoln just got away with it.

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