Abraham Lincoln's A House Divided Speech

Instructor: James Brennan
In this lesson you will learn about the events that lead up to Abraham Lincoln's ~'A House Divided~' speech. The lesson also explains the political atmosphere of 1858 and the lasting legacy of Lincoln's monumental words.

A House Divided

On June 16th, 1858, a tall, stately man approached the podium in what would become a defining moment in his political career. At the age of 49, Abraham Lincoln had just won the Republican nomination for an Illinois senatorial seat and planned to give a speech that would lay out his framework for handling slavery.

On the day of Lincoln's 'A House Divided' speech, the Civil War was still almost three years away, but battle lines had already been drawn. The United States was in the midst of rapid expansionism, and with each application for statehood the government was forced to question the legality of the potential spread of slavery.

Lincoln in 1858
Lincoln 1858

Missouri Compromise

The delicate balance of free vs. slave states was first questioned in 1819, when the Missouri territory applied for statehood. At the time, the United States was comprised of 22 states: 11 free and 11 slave. Missouri had the potential to tip the scale in favor of free or slave states. Debates raged as Congressmen heatedly argued over slavery in the territories.

By 1820 a compromise was met. The Missouri Compromise restored the delicate balance with the admission of Maine as the 12th free state and Missouri as the 12th slave state. The compromise not only saw the admission of two states, but also banned slavery in all territories north of the 36°30' line of latitude. However, the compromise really only put a bandaid on wounds that would reemerge down the line.

Missouri Compromise
Missouri Compromise

The Compromise of 1850

For over 30 years, the Missouri Compromise calmed the tensions over the issue of slavery. These tensions surfaced again after the Mexican-American War, when the United States acquired new land in what became California, Nevada, Utah, and portions of Arizona, Wyoming Colorado and New Mexico.

In 1849, prospectors flocked to California as rumors of rich gold mines began to circulate. California's population exploded, allowing speculators to skip the territorial phase and directly apply for statehood. In the latter half of 1849, California drafted a constitution that outlawed slavery. The constitution was controversial because much of California lies south of the 36°30' line, and according to the Missouri Compromise, should have allowed slavery.

Southerners were outraged. As tensions again began to mount, another compromise was struck -- the Compromise of 1850. To pacify the North, the compromise allowed for the admission of California as a free state, and to pacify the South, it created a stronger fugitive slave law. One aspect of the compromise that both Northerners and Southerners could agree upon was the idea of popular sovereignty. Popular sovereignty allowed citizens of the territories the ability to vote for or against slavery through popular vote, regardless of their geographic location. In effect, the Compromise of 1850 overturned the Missouri Compromise.

Kansas-Nebraska Act

The concept of popular sovereignty did not bring lasting peace, however. In 1854, Congress allowed settlers in the Kansas and Nebraska territories to cast their vote on whether or not to prohibit slavery. Kansas became the center of a politically charged land grab that resulted in the death of over 200 settlers. It was the 'Bleeding of Kansas' that sparked the interest for Abraham Lincoln to reenter the political scene.

Dred Scott

In 1856, Dred Scott, a slave who lived in a free territory in Illinois and Wisconsin, began a legal battle for his freedom. The case went all the way to the supreme court, and on March 6, 1857, the court issued a landmark decision that slaves are not citizens. Because slaves are not citizens, they do not have legal rights. Furthermore, the court ruled that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional. The court said that the Missouri Compromise violated the 5th amendment of the constitution, the right to own property. The Dred Scott decision seemed to reignite the debate about the spread of slavery, and became another deciding factor for Lincoln to reenter politics.

Early Politics

Abraham Lincoln's first and only term in the US House of Representatives ended in 1849, and Lincoln stayed politically quiet until his opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Dred Scott decision rekindled his interest in politics. In 1858, Lincoln joined the newly formed Republican party and challenged Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. It was Douglas who sponsored the Kansas-Nebraska Act that allowed the expansion of slavery in the territories through popular sovereignty. Lincoln believed the Illinois United States Senate race gave him the best opportunity to challenge Douglas on the constitutionality of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Stephen Douglas

A House Divided Speech

Abraham Lincoln's years as a lawyer prepared him to deliver his moving 'A House Divided' speech. Lincoln carefully crafted a speech that was part acceptance speech as a Republican nominee, and part a prophetic warning about troubles to come.


'We are now far into the fifth year, since a policy (the Kansas-Nebraska Act) was initiated, with avowed object, and confident promise, of putting an end to slavery agitation.' The intent of the Kansas-Nebraska Act was to quell agitation, but its passage saw renewed violence and polarization of north and south. Lincoln's reference of the Kansas-Nebraska Act stresses the failings of not only the act, but also his opponent, Stephen A. Douglas.

Biblical Reference

Taking from a familiar quotation, Lincoln invoked the biblical reference, 'A house divided against itself cannot stand.' It was a bold statement that even friends of Lincoln cautioned against. Opponents insisted his speech hinted at abolition, and in 1858, abolition was considered radical. The reference to the New Testament was not lost on the crowd of more than 1,000 delegates, many of whom read the Bible daily.

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