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Tag: Dred Scott Case

House Divided Speech (June 16, 1858)


#6 on the list of 150 Most Teachable Lincoln Documents

Annotated Transcript

“If we could first know where we are….”

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HD Daily Report, June 16, 1858

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Other Primary Sources

Abraham Lincoln, “Fragment of a Speech, c. December 28, 1857

Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, “First Debate,” Ottawa, Illinois, August 21, 1858

John L. Scripps to Abraham Lincoln, June 22, 1858

Abraham Lincoln to John L. Scripps, June 23, 1858

R. P. Stevens to Abraham Lincoln, June 24, 1858

Chicago Press and Tribune, “New Orleans Delta on the Illinois Republican Convention,” July 5, 1858

Oliver P. Hall, et al. to Abraham Lincoln, January 9, 1860

Abraham Lincoln to Oliver P. Hall, Jacob N. Fullinwider, and William F. Correll,” February 14, 1860

Abraham Lincoln, “Certified Transcript of Passage from the House Divided Speech,” December 17, 1860

How Historians Interpret

“Lincoln’s other prediction – regarding a second Dred Scott decision – was not far- fetched.197 The Bloomington Pantagraph had mentioned the possibility of a second Dred Scott case less than a week after the Supreme Court ruled in the first one.198 Lincoln was probably alluding to Lemmon vs. the People, a case which had begun in New York in 1852 and dealt with the right of slaveholders to take their chattels with them into Free States. In 1841, the New York legislature had overturned an earlier statute permitting slave owners to visit the Empire State accompanied by slaves for temporary sojourns. The new law stipulated that “no person imported, introduced or brought into this State” could be held in bondage. In October 1857, it was argued before the New York Supreme Court, which upheld the statute by a 5-3 vote. As the case was being considered by the state’s Court of Appeals, opponents of slavery feared that it would eventually come before the U.S. Supreme Court, where Taney and his colleagues might overrule New York’s statute and pave the way for nationalizing slavery. The case was pending in 1858 and not argued before the New York Court of Appeals until 1860.”

Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life (2 volumes, originally published by Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008) Unedited Manuscript By Chapters, Lincoln Studies Center, Volume 1, Chapter 12 (PDF), pp. 1292-1293


“Attracting national attention, Lincoln’s house-divided speech sounded very radical.  Advanced five months before William H. Seward offered his prediction of an ‘irrepressible conflict’ between slavery and freedom, it was the most extreme statement made by any responsible leader of the Republican party.  Even Herndon, to whom Lincoln first read it, told his partner: ‘It is true, but is it wise or politic to say so?’  Lincoln’s other advisers condemned it, especially deploring the house-divided image and saying ‘the whole Spirit was too far in advance of the times.’  As the editor John Locke Scripps explained, many who heard and read Lincoln’s speech understood it as ‘an implied pledge on behalf of the Republican party to make war upon the institution in the States where it now exists.'”

—David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 209


“As a senatorial candidate in 1858, Lincoln fought Douglas on ground of the incumbent senator’s own choosing: the legitimacy of popular sovereignty as a republican principle. Lincoln’s acceptance came in the famous ‘House Divided’ speech. By the time Lincoln spoke, both antislavery and proslavery writers had used the metaphor of the house divided to argue that the United States could not be both free and slave.  One premise of Douglas’s popular sovereignty, of course, was that it could be both. Lincoln not only rejected that premise, he questioned Douglas’s sincerity in asserting it, arguing that Douglas really intended to nationalize slavery . . . ‘Popular Sovereignty, as now applied to the question of slavery, does allow the people of a Territory to have slavery if they want to, but does not allow them not to have it if they do not want it.’”

Nicole Etcheson, “A living, creeping lie”: Abraham Lincoln on Popular Sovereignty,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 29 (2008) 


“So did the charges that Republicans were disunionists. At times Lincoln fed those allegations; his House Divided speech forecast the nation split in two and division made imperative because either freedom or slavery must triumph. But the future president was quick to deny that accusation. What was at stake, he claimed, was a struggle for the minds of men over the question of whether slavery or freedom controlled the territories and hence the future. It was a debate that would be resolved not with invasion or threat, but through the political discourse that would lead the people and their government toward their original idealism. That reassurance actually only promised Dixie a slow death for slavery if people like Lincoln won office. But it did suggest how a healthy political-constitutional process could bring to life the Declaration’s egalitarian promise. That too pushed Lincoln toward redefining the meaning of 1776.”

Phillip S. Paludan, “Lincoln’s Prewar Constitutional Vision,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 15.2 (1994)


Further Reading




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Mr. PRESIDENT and Gentlemen of the Convention. 
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 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 cannot stand.”
I believe this government cannot 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.
…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.
But how can we best do it?
There are 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….
… Now, as ever, I wish to not misrepresent Judge Douglas’ position, question his motives, or do ought that can be personally offensive to him.
Whenever, if ever, he and we can come together on principle so that our great cause may have assistance from his great ability, I hope to have interposed no adventitious obstacle.
But clearly, he is not now with us—he does not pretend to be—he does not promise to ever be.
Our 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 councils  may accelerate or mistakes delay it, but, sooner or later the victory is sure to come.


Sixth Debate with Douglas (October 13, 1858)


#31 on the list of 150 Most Teachable Lincoln Documents

Annotated Transcript

“I will say now that there is a sentiment in the country contrary to me-a sentiment which holds that slavery is not wrong, and therefore it goes for the policy that does not propose dealing with it as a wrong.” 

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HD Daily Report, October 13, 1858

The Lincoln Log, October 13, 1858

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How Historians Interpret

“As for Douglas’s complaint that Lincoln would not utter in downstate Illinois what he said in Chicago, the challenger cited his address on the Dred Scott case, delivered in Springfield the previous year, which contained ‘the substance of the Chicago speech.’  He once again protested against Douglas’s contention that if people believed that blacks were incorporated in the statement that ‘all men are created equal’ in the Declaration of Independence, they must therefore support racial intermarriage. ‘He can never be brought to understand that there is any middle ground on this subject. I have lived until my fiftieth year, and have never had a negro woman either for a slave or a wife, and I think I can live fifty centuries, for that matter, without having had one for either.’ Lincoln disputed Douglas’s boast that he had voluntarily come forward when he discovered the Ottawa forgery. In fact, Lincoln argued, it was only after the Republican press had exposed the fraud that Douglas acknowledged his error, an acknowledgement that he now sought to make a virtue, though the newspapers had made it a necessity.  The Illinois State Journal regarded the Quincy debate ‘as the most damaging to Douglas in the series. Lincoln carried the war into Africa, and came off with flying colors.’  Many Iowans crossed the Mississippi River to hear the debate and returned favorably impressed with Lincoln.  The Chicago Times called Lincoln’s effort ‘the lamest and most impotent attempt he has yet made to bolster up the false position he took at the outset of the fight.'”

Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life (2 volumes, originally published by Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008) Unedited Manuscript By Chapters, Lincoln Studies Center, Volume 1, Chapter 13 (PDF), pp. 1473-1474

“In his hour and a half rebuttal, Douglas again charged that Lincoln altered his views on Negro equality to suit southern and northern audiences. He persisted in his refusal to debate the right or wrong of slavery, and where the Dred Scott decision was concerned declared more bluntly than ever that it was ‘the law of the land, binding on every citizen.’ With this new opening before him, Lincoln used his rejoinder to suggest that Douglas’s frank admission finally brought the candidates ‘a little nearer the true issue of this controversy.’ It was clearer than ever, he charged, that the Democratic party was conspiring to make slavery national and permanent. As for equality for blacks, Lincoln joked: ‘I, for my part, have lived some fifty years. And I never had a negro slave or a negro wife, and I think I can live fifty centuries for that matter without having either.’”

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The First Complete Unexpurgated Text, Ed. Harold Holzer, (New York: Fordham University Press, 2004), 279.


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Searchable Text

We have in this nation this element of domestic slavery. It is a matter of absolute certainty that it is a disturbing element. It is the opinion of all the great men who have expressed an opinion upon it, that it is a dangerous element. We keep up a controversy in regard to it. That controversy necessarily springs from difference of opinion, and if we can learn exactly-can reduce to the lowest elements-what that difference of opinion is, we perhaps shall be better prepared for discussing the different systems of policy that we would propose in regard to that disturbing element. I suggest that the difference of opinion, reduced to its lowest terms, is no other than the difference between the men who think slavery a wrong and those who do not think it wrong. The Republican party think it wrong-we think it is a moral, a social and a political wrong. We think it as a wrong not confining itself merely to the persons or the States where it exists, but that it is a wrong in its tendency, to say the least, that extends itself to the existence of the whole nation. Because we think it wrong, we propose a course of policy that shall deal with it as a wrong. We deal with it as with any other wrong, in so far as we can prevent its growing any larger, and so deal with it that in the run of time there may be some promise of an end to it. We have a due regard to the actual presence of it amongst us and the difficulties of getting rid of it in any satisfactory way, and all the Constitutional obligations thrown about it. I suppose that in reference both to its actual existence in the nation, and to our Constitutional obligations, we have no right at all to disturb it in the States where it exists, and we profess that we have no more inclination to disturb it than we have the right to do it. We go further than that; we don’t propose to disturb it where, in one instance, we think the Constitution would permit us. We think the Constitution would permit us to disturb it in the District of Columbia. Still we do not propose to do that, unless it should be in terms which I don’t suppose the nation is very likely soon to agree to-the terms of making the emancipation gradual and compensating the unwilling owners. Where we suppose we have the Constitutional right, we restrain ourselves in reference to the actual existence of the institution and the difficulties thrown about it. We also oppose it as an evil so far as it seeks to spread itself. We insist on the policy that shall restrict it to its present limits. We don’t suppose that in doing this we violate any thing due to the actual presence of the institution, or any thing due to the Constitutional guaranties thrown around it.

We oppose the Dred Scott decision in a certain way, upon which I ought perhaps to address you a few words. We do not propose that when Dred Scott has been decided to be a slave by the court, we, as a mob, will decide him to be free. We do not propose that, when any other one, or one thousand, shall be decided by that court to be slaves, we will in any violent way disturb the rights of property thus settled, but we nevertheless do oppose that decision as a political rule, which shall be binding on the voter to vote for nobody who thinks it wrong, which shall be binding on the members of Congress or the President to favor no measure that does not actually concur with the principles of that decision. We do not propose to be bound by it as a political rule in that way, because we think it lays the foundation not merely of enlarging and spreading out what we consider an evil, but it lays the foundation for spreading that evil into the States themselves. We propose so resisting it as to have it reversed if we can, and a new judicial rule established upon this subject.
I will add this, that if there be any man who does not believe that slavery is wrong in the three aspects which I have mentioned, or in any one of them, that man is misplaced, and ought to leave us. While, on the other hand, if there be any man in the Republican party who is impatient over the necessity springing from its actual presence, and is impatient of the Constitutional guaranties thrown around it, and would act in disregard of these, he too is misplaced, standing with us. He will find his place somewhere else; for we have a due regard, so far as we are capable of understanding them, for all these things. This, gentlemen, as well as I can give it, is a plain statement of our principles in all their enormity.
I will say now that there is a sentiment in the country contrary to me-a sentiment which holds that slavery is not wrong, and therefore it goes for the policy that does not propose dealing with it as a wrong. That policy is the Democratic policy, and that sentiment is the Democratic sentiment. If there be a doubt in the mind of any one of this vast audience that this is really the central idea of the Democratic party, in relation to this subject, I ask him to bear with me while I state a few things tending, as I think, to prove that proposition. In the first place, the leading man-I think I may do my friend Judge Douglas the honor of calling him such -advocating the present Democratic policy, never himself says it is wrong. He has the high distinction, so far as I know, of never having said slavery is either right or wrong. [Laughter.] Almost everybody else says one or the other, but the Judge never does. If there be a man in the Democratic party who thinks it is wrong, and yet clings to that party, I suggest to him in the first place that his leader don’t talk as he does, for he never says that it is wrong. In the second place, I suggest to him that if he will examine the policy proposed to be carried forward, he will find that he carefully excludes the idea that there is any thing wrong in it. If you will examine the arguments that are made on it, you will find that every one carefully excludes the idea that there is any thing wrong in slavery. Perhaps that Democrat who says he is as much opposed to slavery as I am, will tell me that I am wrong about this. I wish him to examine his own course in regard to this matter a moment, and then see if his opinion will not be changed a little. You say it is wrong; but don’t you constantly object to any body else saying so? Do you not constantly argue that this is not the right place to oppose it? You say it must not be opposed in the free States, because slavery is not here; it must not be opposed in the slave States, because it is there; it must not be opposed in politics, because that will make a fuss; it must not be opposed in the pulpit, because it is not religion. Then where is the place to oppose it? There is no suitable place to oppose it. There is no plan in the country to oppose this evil overspreading the continent, which you say yourself is coming. Frank Blair and Gratz Brown tried to get up a system of gradual emancipation in Missouri, had an election in August and got beat, and you, Mr. Democrat, threw up your hat, and hallooed “hurrah for Democracy.” [Enthusiastic cheers.] So I say again, that in regard to the arguments that are made, when Judge Douglas says he “don’t care whether slavery is voted up or voted down,” whether he means that as an individual expression of sentiment, or only as a sort of statement of his views on national policy, it is alike true to say that he can thus argue logically if he don’t see any thing wrong in it; but he cannot say so logically if he admits that slavery is wrong. He cannot say that he would as soon see a wrong voted up as voted down. When Judge Douglas says that whoever or whatever community wants slaves, they have a right to have them, he is perfectly logical if there is nothing wrong in the institution; but if you admit that it is wrong, he cannot logically say that any body has a right to do wrong. When he says that slave property and horse and hog property are, alike, to be allowed to go into the Territories, upon the principles of equality, he is reasoning truly, if there is no difference between them as property; but if the one is property, held rightfully, and the other is wrong, then there is no equality between the right and wrong; so that, turn it in any way you can, in all the arguments sustaining the Democratic policy, and in that policy itself, there is a careful, studied exclusion of the idea that there is any thing wrong in slavery. Let us understand this. I am not, just here, trying to prove that we are right and they are wrong. I have been stating where we and they stand, and trying to show what is the real difference between us; and I now say that whenever we can get the question distinctly stated-can get all these men who believe that slavery is in some of these respects wrong, to stand and act with us in treating it as a wrong-then, and not till then, I think we will in some way come to an end of this slavery agitation. [Prolonged cheers.]


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