Study Guide

House Divided Speech Main Idea

By Abraham Lincoln

  • Main Idea

    In 1858, Abraham Lincoln was nominated to run for the U.S. Senate. When accepting, he didn't thank his mom or The Academy—he told his audience to watch out, because the states are all going to have to allow or prohibit slavery in the very near future.

    He went on to say this:

    America can't keep going on this way, trying to keep everyone happy (or at least appeased). It clearly doesn't work for us. Don't believe it? The policies of the last decade—primarily the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Dred Scott decision—have opened the door by stopping Congress from prohibiting slavery.

    The opponent in this particular senatorial race, Stephen Douglas, was one of the creators of the current policy, which had (unintentionally, probably?) led to the breakdown of slavery restrictions. Next stop: no regulation whatsoever.

    In essence? Lincoln was grabbing the mic and booming an ominous "Dum dum dummm" into the eardrums of America.

    Questions About Main Idea

    1. What specific events does Lincoln highlight in the "House Divided" speech, and why?
    2. Why would Lincoln have used the "house divided" metaphor for this speech?
    3. How does this speech fit into the continuum of the antebellum period and the buildup towards the Civil War?
    4. Why might Lincoln have chosen this moment to make this speech? What about his current political position would have made these statements appealing?

    Chew on This

    The "House Divided" speech can be read as eerily prophetic or only mildly prophetic, depending on whether you think the "house" fell down with the outbreak of the Civil War.

    Lincoln's speech was just saying what everyone knew, but wasn't willing to admit to themselves, because to do so would mean figuring out a new way to resolve the slavery question.

  • Brief Summary

    The Set-Up

    The antebellum period included a series of events and legislation about slavery, especially the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Dred Scott decision, which exacerbated existing tensions about the expansion of slavery into the west.

    Abraham Lincoln was pretty annoyed with how the debate over slavery was going, so when he had a chance to get up and make a political speech, he did not mince words. No more Mr. Tall Nice Guy.

    The Text

    Lincoln introduces the "house divided" theme in the first section of his speech to illustrate just how bad the situation was in America. He flat-out says that, soon, the U.S. will either allow or ban slavery everywhere…meaning those anti-slavery Republicans in the audience may have to put up with slavery in their neighborhood.

    To really drive home how real this threat is, Lincoln gives a detailed history of recent events in America that have illustrated the danger of an impending all-slavery America. The two main events are the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and the very recent Dred Scott decision of 1857. He's basically saying: "You think I'm exaggerating? Nope. Looks at the reasons why this is a very real thing you should worry about."

    He also lays into his opponent for the senate seat, Stephen A. Douglas, whom he would soon face off with in the WWE of political debates, the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Lincoln goes into all the reasons why Douglas' idea of popular sovereignty won't stop slavery, and might be a conspiracy to spread slavery nationwide.

    He wraps up with a confident assertion that Americans will definitely keep this rickety house from falling down, London-bridge style.

    TL;DR

    The U.S. is going to have to decide to allow slavery everywhere, or nowhere—and the way things have been going, there's a real chance it'll be slavery everywhere.

      
  • Questions

    1. Did Lincoln have good reason to believe that the U.S. would stop being divided over slavery in the near future? Given the context of the antebellum period, why might he believe it, or was it just political rhetoric?
    2. Did the "house divided" cease to be divided after the Civil War and the Thirteenth Amendment?
    3. What does the "House Divided" speech tell us about Lincoln's feelings towards slavery? Does it match what we know about him from the rest of his political career?
    4. Do you think the Civil War proves Lincoln's claim in the "House Divided" speech right or wrong? Did the country "cease to be divided" or was the southern secession proof that the house didn't stand?
    5. If Lincoln were giving the "House Divided" speech today, what do you think would be the issue he would focus on, now that slavery is gone? Why?

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