A House Divided: Abraham Lincoln's Warning To America, Then and Now

On June 16, 1858, the Illinois Republican Party selected Abraham Lincoln to challenge Stephen A. Douglas for his seat in the United States Senate.  At 8:00 that evening, candidate Lincoln delivered his famous "House Divided" speech, during which he warned the nation about slavery's destructive effect on the Union.

If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.  We are now far into the fifth year, since a policy [the Kansas-Nebraska Act] was initiated, with the avowed object, and confident promise, of putting an end to the 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.

Even though the original author of the house-divided doctrine was Jesus of Nazareth, Lincoln knew that his application of the quote would be controversial, so he previewed the speech for several friends and associates.  With the exception of his law partner, William Herndon, they deemed it too radical and inflammatory for the times, but Lincoln was undeterred.  He insisted:

The proposition is indisputably true, and I will deliver it as written.  I want to use some universally known figure, expressed in simple language as universally known, that it may strike home to the minds of men in order to rouse them to the peril of the times.

His address certainly roused men to the peril of the times, but its critics' concerns were equally well founded.  Even John Lucas Scripps, Lincoln's biographer and co-editor of the Chicago Tribune, admitted that many who heard and read the speech understood it as "an implied pledge on behalf of the Republican Party to make war upon the institution [slavery] in the states where it now exists."  This included Lincoln's future secretary of state, William H. Seward, who, five months later, predicted that an "irrepressible conflict" was now unavoidable — a prediction that soon became reality.

By March 4, 1861, seven states had left the Union, with six more threatening to leave.  In an attempt to stanch the bleeding, President Lincoln used his first inaugural address to assure the nation that he would not end slavery, or bring the states that had seceded back into the Union, by force of arms.  His assurances came too late.  The point of no return had been breached, and the address did nothing to decrease animosity, allay fears, or bridge the divide.  Instead, animosity increased, the Union dissolved, and the nation descended into four years of self-inflicted misery, death, and destruction.

In retrospect, America's pre-war house divided had only one great issue to resolve, but our task is more complex and much more difficult.  Presently, the fissures within our national edifice are so numerous that the phrase United States has become little more than a maudlin metonymy used to paper over the cracks in our politically, ethnically, morally, religiously, generationally, and geographically divided house.  Our culture is decaying, and our increasingly uncivil and ever-coarsening society is so inflexible, and attitudinally fractured, that cooperation on even the most noble of causes has become impossible.  Earlier this month, a police chief in Thousand Oaks, California canceled a benefit designed to raise money for a fallen officer's family because people with whom he disagreed politically would be on the program!  This extreme political prejudice is now the norm for the "woke" folk, who treat all their disputants like political lepers.

A sense of rebellion also hangs in the air as hamlets, villages, cities, and entire states have declared their independence from any federal law with which they disagree, while providing sympathy and sanctuary to criminal aliens.  Meanwhile, in spite of having sworn to "uphold, protect, and defend the constitution," presidents, legislators, and judges treat it more like a yellowed and moldering scrap of paper taken from an ancient suggestion box than as the supreme law of the land.  This turns the Constitution into a living document flexible enough to accommodate and approve the ever shifting views and mores of society.  If this judicial philosophy becomes the norm, the Supreme Court's axiom of Equal Justice under Law will be replaced by the old blacksmith's sign that read, All Sorts of Fancy Twisting and Turning Done Here.  Such a subjective approach is reflective of a government moving from a republic to a direct democracy, elevating rex over lex and placing those God-given unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness at risk.

This disdain for the rule of law, and the dangers inherent in a house divided, joined forces during the last presidential election, when the federal government's powers were arrayed against one candidate to insure the election of another.  After this plan to save the people from themselves failed, the Democratic Party abandoned its customary role as the loyal opposition and became the resistance, doing everything within its power to block, undermine, and remove a duly elected president.  If this continues, the government will suffer legislative gridlock.  The president will rule by executive fiat; the judicial system will become the final arbiter of all things legal and political; and "government of the people, by the people, for the people" will vanish from the Earth.  On that day, the smoldering embers of enmity will ignite, and the present cold civil war will become an all-consuming fire, thereby fulfilling yet another of President Lincoln's prophecies:

I know the American people are much attached to their government; I know they would suffer much for its sake; I know they would endure evils long and patiently before they would ever think of exchanging it for another.  Yet, notwithstanding all this, if the laws be continually despised and disregarded, if their rights to be secure in their persons and property are held by no better tenure than the caprice of a mob, the alienations of their affections from the government is the natural consequence; and to that, sooner or later, it must come. (1)

Why have we returned to this dark place?  What force has brought us here?  Have we forgotten the painful lessons of the past?  Are we willing to walk once more through the valley of the shadow of death, and destroy the Republic in the process?  For a large segment of our society, the answer is yes, and with every bit of invective, every epithet, and every insult, hurled like grapeshot against the enemy, the likelihood of our self-destruction grows.  From Hillary Clinton's "basket of deplorables" and Amy Klobachar's libelous labeling of the president as a "global gangster" to Rashida Tlaib hawking her disgusting "Impeach the MFer" T-shirts, each new salvo augments the agitation; causes the drums of hate to beat louder; and pushes those small, still voices of reason and civility deeper into the shadows.

If it is true that those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it, then every inhabitant of this nation, be he president, patrician, or plebeian, should consider this ominous alarum from our sixteenth president:

At what point shall we expect the approach of danger?  By what means shall we fortify against it?  Shall we expect some trans-Atlantic giant to step the ocean and crush us at a blow?  Never!  All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years.  At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected?  I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up among us.  It cannot come from abroad.  No, if destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher.  As a nation of free men, we must live through all time, or die by suicide. (2)

Since our situation and that of President Lincoln have much in common, it is not at all surprising that many of his pronouncements are as prescient today as when first uttered — but what if President Lincoln still walked along us?  What would he think about our house divided, and what would his counsel be?  Would he not exhort us, as he exhorted his dissatisfied brethren of long ago, to remember the following?

We are not enemies, but friends.  We must not be enemies.  Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.  The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature. (3)

Sevenscore and eighteen years ago, the better angels of our nature fled in the face of a gathering storm.  Now our better angels have been driven out, making any prospect of a reunion, the fulfillment of President Lincoln's plaintive plea, or another new birth of freedom little more than a wistful dream.


(1), (2) A. Lincoln, The Perpetuation of our Political Institutions, January 27, 1838.

(3) Abraham Lincoln's First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861.

On June 16, 1858, the Illinois Republican Party selected Abraham Lincoln to challenge Stephen A. Douglas for his seat in the United States Senate.  At 8:00 that evening, candidate Lincoln delivered his famous "House Divided" speech, during which he warned the nation about slavery's destructive effect on the Union.

If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.  We are now far into the fifth year, since a policy [the Kansas-Nebraska Act] was initiated, with the avowed object, and confident promise, of putting an end to the 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.

Even though the original author of the house-divided doctrine was Jesus of Nazareth, Lincoln knew that his application of the quote would be controversial, so he previewed the speech for several friends and associates.  With the exception of his law partner, William Herndon, they deemed it too radical and inflammatory for the times, but Lincoln was undeterred.  He insisted:

The proposition is indisputably true, and I will deliver it as written.  I want to use some universally known figure, expressed in simple language as universally known, that it may strike home to the minds of men in order to rouse them to the peril of the times.

His address certainly roused men to the peril of the times, but its critics' concerns were equally well founded.  Even John Lucas Scripps, Lincoln's biographer and co-editor of the Chicago Tribune, admitted that many who heard and read the speech understood it as "an implied pledge on behalf of the Republican Party to make war upon the institution [slavery] in the states where it now exists."  This included Lincoln's future secretary of state, William H. Seward, who, five months later, predicted that an "irrepressible conflict" was now unavoidable — a prediction that soon became reality.

By March 4, 1861, seven states had left the Union, with six more threatening to leave.  In an attempt to stanch the bleeding, President Lincoln used his first inaugural address to assure the nation that he would not end slavery, or bring the states that had seceded back into the Union, by force of arms.  His assurances came too late.  The point of no return had been breached, and the address did nothing to decrease animosity, allay fears, or bridge the divide.  Instead, animosity increased, the Union dissolved, and the nation descended into four years of self-inflicted misery, death, and destruction.

In retrospect, America's pre-war house divided had only one great issue to resolve, but our task is more complex and much more difficult.  Presently, the fissures within our national edifice are so numerous that the phrase United States has become little more than a maudlin metonymy used to paper over the cracks in our politically, ethnically, morally, religiously, generationally, and geographically divided house.  Our culture is decaying, and our increasingly uncivil and ever-coarsening society is so inflexible, and attitudinally fractured, that cooperation on even the most noble of causes has become impossible.  Earlier this month, a police chief in Thousand Oaks, California canceled a benefit designed to raise money for a fallen officer's family because people with whom he disagreed politically would be on the program!  This extreme political prejudice is now the norm for the "woke" folk, who treat all their disputants like political lepers.

A sense of rebellion also hangs in the air as hamlets, villages, cities, and entire states have declared their independence from any federal law with which they disagree, while providing sympathy and sanctuary to criminal aliens.  Meanwhile, in spite of having sworn to "uphold, protect, and defend the constitution," presidents, legislators, and judges treat it more like a yellowed and moldering scrap of paper taken from an ancient suggestion box than as the supreme law of the land.  This turns the Constitution into a living document flexible enough to accommodate and approve the ever shifting views and mores of society.  If this judicial philosophy becomes the norm, the Supreme Court's axiom of Equal Justice under Law will be replaced by the old blacksmith's sign that read, All Sorts of Fancy Twisting and Turning Done Here.  Such a subjective approach is reflective of a government moving from a republic to a direct democracy, elevating rex over lex and placing those God-given unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness at risk.

This disdain for the rule of law, and the dangers inherent in a house divided, joined forces during the last presidential election, when the federal government's powers were arrayed against one candidate to insure the election of another.  After this plan to save the people from themselves failed, the Democratic Party abandoned its customary role as the loyal opposition and became the resistance, doing everything within its power to block, undermine, and remove a duly elected president.  If this continues, the government will suffer legislative gridlock.  The president will rule by executive fiat; the judicial system will become the final arbiter of all things legal and political; and "government of the people, by the people, for the people" will vanish from the Earth.  On that day, the smoldering embers of enmity will ignite, and the present cold civil war will become an all-consuming fire, thereby fulfilling yet another of President Lincoln's prophecies:

I know the American people are much attached to their government; I know they would suffer much for its sake; I know they would endure evils long and patiently before they would ever think of exchanging it for another.  Yet, notwithstanding all this, if the laws be continually despised and disregarded, if their rights to be secure in their persons and property are held by no better tenure than the caprice of a mob, the alienations of their affections from the government is the natural consequence; and to that, sooner or later, it must come. (1)

Why have we returned to this dark place?  What force has brought us here?  Have we forgotten the painful lessons of the past?  Are we willing to walk once more through the valley of the shadow of death, and destroy the Republic in the process?  For a large segment of our society, the answer is yes, and with every bit of invective, every epithet, and every insult, hurled like grapeshot against the enemy, the likelihood of our self-destruction grows.  From Hillary Clinton's "basket of deplorables" and Amy Klobachar's libelous labeling of the president as a "global gangster" to Rashida Tlaib hawking her disgusting "Impeach the MFer" T-shirts, each new salvo augments the agitation; causes the drums of hate to beat louder; and pushes those small, still voices of reason and civility deeper into the shadows.

If it is true that those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it, then every inhabitant of this nation, be he president, patrician, or plebeian, should consider this ominous alarum from our sixteenth president:

At what point shall we expect the approach of danger?  By what means shall we fortify against it?  Shall we expect some trans-Atlantic giant to step the ocean and crush us at a blow?  Never!  All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years.  At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected?  I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up among us.  It cannot come from abroad.  No, if destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher.  As a nation of free men, we must live through all time, or die by suicide. (2)

Since our situation and that of President Lincoln have much in common, it is not at all surprising that many of his pronouncements are as prescient today as when first uttered — but what if President Lincoln still walked along us?  What would he think about our house divided, and what would his counsel be?  Would he not exhort us, as he exhorted his dissatisfied brethren of long ago, to remember the following?

We are not enemies, but friends.  We must not be enemies.  Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.  The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature. (3)

Sevenscore and eighteen years ago, the better angels of our nature fled in the face of a gathering storm.  Now our better angels have been driven out, making any prospect of a reunion, the fulfillment of President Lincoln's plaintive plea, or another new birth of freedom little more than a wistful dream.


(1), (2) A. Lincoln, The Perpetuation of our Political Institutions, January 27, 1838.

(3) Abraham Lincoln's First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861.