The House Divided Speech
(American Memory Collection, Library of Congress)
The House Divided Speech
If we could
first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could better judge what
to do, and how to do it. 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 can not stand." I believe this Government can not 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 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.
no tendency to the latter condition? Let any one 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. Let
him consider not only what work the machinery is adapted to do, and how well
adapted; but also let him study the history of its construction, and trace, if
he can, or rather fail, if he can, to trace the evidences of design and concert
of action among its chief master-workers from the beginning.
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.
far, Congress only had acted; and an indorsement by the people, real or
apparent, was indispensable to save the point already gained and give chance for
more. This necessity had not been overlooked, but had been provided for, as well
as might be, in the notable argument of "squatter sovereignty," otherwise called
"sacred right of self-government," which latter phrase, though expressive of the
only rightful basis of any government, was so perverted in this attempted use of
it as to amount to just this: that if any one man choose to enslave another, no
third man shall be allowed to object. That argument was incorporated into the
Nebraska Bill itself, in the language which follows: "It being the true intent
and meaning of this act not to legislate slavery into any Territory or State,
nor to exclude it there from; but to leave the people thereof perfectly free to
form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way, subject only to
the Constitution of the United States."
opened the roar of loose declamation in favor of "squatter sovereignty" and
"sacred right of self-government."
said opposition members, "let us amend the bill so as to expressly declare
that the people of the territory may exclude slavery." "Not we," said the
friends of the measure; and down they voted the amendment.
Nebraska Bill was passing through Congress, a law case involving the question of
a Negro's freedom, by reason of his owner having voluntarily taken him first
into a free State and then a territory covered by the Congressional prohibition,
and held him as a slave for a long time in each, was passing through the U.S.
Circuit Court for the District of Missouri and both the Nebraska Bill and law
suit were brought to a decision in the same month of May, 1854. The Negro's name
was "Dred Scott," which name now designates the decision finally made in the
the then next Presidential election, the law case came to and was argued in the
Supreme Court of the United States; but the decision of it was deferred until
after the election. Still, before the election, Senator Trumbull, on the floor
of the Senate, requested the leading advocate of the Nebraska Bill to state his
opinion whether the people of a territory can constitutionally exclude slavery
from their limits; and the latter answered, "That is a question for the Supreme
election came. Mr. Buchanan was elected, and the indorsement, such as it was,
secured. That was the second point gained. The indorsement, however, fell short
of a clear popular majority by nearly four hundred thousand votes, and so,
perhaps, was not overwhelmingly reliable and satisfactory. The outgoing
President, in his last annual message, as impressively as possible echoed back
upon the people the weight and authority of the indorsement.
Supreme Court met again; did not announce their decision, but ordered a
re-argument. The Presidential inauguration came, and still no decision of the
court; but the incoming President in his Inaugural Address fervently exhorted
the people to abide by the forthcoming decision, whatever it might be. Then, in
a few days came the decision.
the third point gained.
reputed author of the Nebraska Bill finds an early occasion to make a speech at
this capitol indorsing the Dred Scott decision, and vehemently denouncing all
opposition to it. The new President, too, seizes an early occasion to indorse
and strongly construe that decision, and to express his astonishment that any
different view had ever been entertained!
a squabble springs up between the President and the author of the Nebraska
Bill. on the mere question of fact, whether the Lecompton Constitution was or
was not, in any just sense, made by the people of Kansas; and in that quarrel
the latter declares that all he wants is a fair vote for the people, and that he
cares not whether slavery be voted down or voted up. I do not understand his
declaration that he cares not whether slavery be voted down or voted up to be
intended by him other than as an apt definition of the policy he would impress
upon the public mind--the principle for which he declares he has suffered much,
and is ready to suffer to the end.
may he cling to that principle. If he has any parental feeling, well may he
cling to it. That principle is the only shred left of his original Nebraska
doctrine. Under the Dred Scott decision "squatter sovereignty" squatted out of
existence, tumbled down like temporary scaffolding,--like the mould 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. His late joint struggle
with the Republicans against the Lecompton Constitution involves nothing of the
original Nebraska doctrine. That struggle was made on a point--the right of a
people to make their own Constitution--upon which he and the Republicans have
several points of the Dred Scott decision, in connection with Senator Douglas's
"care not" policy, constitute the piece of machinery in its present state of
advancement. The working points of that machinery are:
no Negro slave, imported as such from Africa, and no descendant of such
slave, can ever be a citizen of any State, in the sense of that term as used in
the Constitution of the United States.
is made in order to deprive the Negro in every possible event of the benefit of
this provision of the United States Constitution which declares that, "The
citizens of each State shall be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of
citizens in the several States."
"subject to the Constitution of the United States," neither Congress nor a
Territorial Legislature can' exclude slavery from any United States Territory.
point 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.
whether the holding a Negro in actual slavery in a
makes him free as against the holder, the United States courts will not decide,
but will leave it to be decided by the courts of any slave State the Negro may
be forced into by the master.
point is made not to be pressed immediately, but, if acquiesced in for a while,
and apparently indorsed by the people at an election, then to sustain the
logical conclusion that what Dred Scott's master might lawfully do with Dred
Scott in the free State of Illinois, every other master may lawfully do with any
other one or one thousand slaves in Illinois or in any other free State.
to all this, and working hand in hand with it, the Nebraska doctrine, or what
is left of it, is to educate and mould public opinion, at least Northern public
opinion, not to care whether slavery is voted down or voted up. This shows
exactly where we now are, and partially, also, whither we are tending.
throw additional light on the latter, to go back and run the mind over the
string of historical facts already stated. Several things will now appear less
dark and mysterious than they did when they were transpiring. The people were to
be left "perfectly free," "subject only to the Constitution." What the
Constitution had to do with it outsiders could not then see. Plainly enough now,
it was an exactly fitted niche for the Dred Scott decision afterward to come
in, and declare that perfect freedom of the people to be just no freedom at all.
Why was the amendment expressly declaring the right of the people to exclude
slavery voted down? Plainly enough now, the adoption of it would have spoiled
the niche for the Dred Scott decision. Why was the court decision held up? Why
even a Senator's individual opinion withheld till after the Presidential
election? Plainly enough now, the speaking out then would have damaged the
"perfectly free" argument upon which the election was to be carried. Why the
outgoing President's felicitation on the indorsement? Why the delay of
a re-argument? Why the incoming President's advance exhortation in favor of the
decision? These things look like the cautious patting and petting of a spirited
horse preparatory to mounting him, when it is dreaded that he may give the rider
a fall. And why the hasty after-indorsement of the decision, by the President
absolutely know that all these exact adaptations are the result of
pre-concert. But when we see a lot of framed timbers, different portions of
which we know have been gotten out at different times and places and
by different workmen,--Stephen, Franklin, Roger, and James, for instance,--and
when we see these timbers joined together, and see they exactly make the frame
of a house or a mill, all the tenons and mortices exactly fitting, and all the
lengths and proportions of the different pieces exactly adapted to their
respective places, and not a piece too many or too few, not omitting even
scaffolding--or, if a single piece be lacking, we see the place in the frame
exactly fitted and prepared to yet bring such piece in--in such a case we find
it impossible not to believe that Stephen and Franklin and Roger and James all
understood one another from the beginning, and all worked upon a common plan or
draft drawn up before the first blow was struck. . . .
opinion of the court, by Chief Justice Taney, in the Dred Scott case, and the
separate opinions of all the concurring judges, expressly declare that the
Constitution of the United States neither permits Congress nor a Territorial
Legislature to exclude slavery from any United States Territory, they all omit
to declare whether or not the same Constitution permits a State, or the people
of a State, to exclude it. Possibly, this was a mere omission; but who can be
quite sure . . . Put this 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. And this may especially be expected if the
doctrine of "care not whether slavery be voted down or voted up" shall gain upon
the public mind sufficiently to give promise that such a decision can
be maintained when made.
decision is all that slavery now lacks of being alike lawful in all the States.
Welcome, or unwelcome, such decision is probably coming, and will soon be upon
us, unless the power of the present political dynasty shall be met
and overthrown. 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. To meet
and overthrow the power of that dynasty is the work now before all those who
would prevent that consummation. That is what we have to do. How can we best do
those who denounce us openly to their own friends, and yet whisper us softly
that Senator Douglas is the aptest instrument there is with which to effect that
object. They do not tell us, nor has he told us, that he wishes any such object
to be effected. They wish us to infer all from the facts that he now has a
little quarrel with the present head of the dynasty; and that he has regularly
voted with us on a single point upon which he and we have never differed. They
remind us that he is a very great man, and that the largest of us are very small
ones. Let this be granted. But "a living dog is better than a dead lion." Judge
Douglas, if not a dead lion for this work, is at least a caged and toothless
one. How can he oppose the advances of slavery? He don't care anything about it.
His avowed mission is impressing the "public heart" to care nothing about it. .
cause, then, must be intrusted to, and conducted by, its own undoubted
friends--those whose hands are free, whose hearts are in the work, who do care
for the result. Two years ago the Republicans of the nation mustered
over thirteen hundred thousand strong. We did this under the single impulse of
resistance to a common danger, with every external circumstance against us. Of
strange, discordant, and even hostile elements, we gathered from the four
winds, and formed and fought the battle through, under the constant hot fire of
a disciplined, proud, and pampered enemy. Did we brave all then to falter
now?--now, when that same enemy is wavering, dissevered, and belligerent? The
result is not doubtful. We shall not fail--if we stand firm, we shall not fail.
Wise counsels may accelerate or mistakes delay it, but, sooner or later, the
victory is sure to come.