Victor Nuovo: A house divided
Editor’s note: This is the 46th in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.
In June 1858, the Republican Party of Illinois held its state convention and nominated Abraham Lincoln to be its candidate for the United States Senate. He began his acceptance speech by calling attention to the precarious state of the nation, which was divided over slavery. Like a preacher, he began by issuing a divine warning: “A house divided against itself cannot stand” (Mark 3:25), and continued, “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave or half free. I do not expect the union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect that it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.”
I imagine that most readers will recall these lines, many may be able to recite them from memory. But I also imagine that most reading this will not recall what Lincoln said before and after. Before, he warned that the agitation against slavery would not cease until “a crisis shall have been reached and passed,” and that the crisis will only end when the nation “will become all one thing or all the other,” that is, All slave or all free. His words were prophetic.
He explained the alternatives: “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 the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.”
In retrospect, the crisis has passed, and the outcome decided: the union has been preserved and chattel slavery is no more. But in 1858, the outcome may not have seemed inevitable, and the alternatives may have seemed real: one nation, all free, or all slave, the one as likely one as the other.
Lincoln posed this question to any who might doubt this: “Have we no tendency to the latter condition?” that is, a tendency towards becoming all slave, a nation in which owning slaves and being enslaved would be permitted in every state. He devotes the remainder of his speech to proving that this possibility is real and as likely to be realized in the future as its contrary, that the United States might well become a free nation. No doubt, Lincoln had a political motive in arguing this case. The Republican Party was new and at its founding it set itself on a mission to end the institution of slavery, sooner or later. The opposite was morally unacceptable to abolitionists.
Lincoln’s Democratic opponent was Stephen A. Douglas. He disagreed. He was a strong advocate of westward expansion, as was Lincoln. Douglas was also an advocate of the doctrine of popular sovereignty, whereby the people of every state, old or new, had the right choose whether to permit slavery. He doubted that differences over slavery would divide the states and jeopardize the union.
Lincoln scoffed at the notion of popular sovereignty. He characterized it as “squatter sovereignty,” anticipating a distinction that has become commonplace, between Populism and Democratic Republicanism. As he would later put it in the Gettysburg Address, “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” is an eternal principle, yet it must be joined to other principles as well, above all, those of liberty and equality for all. Populism outlaws dissent: “if any one man, choose to enslave another, no third man shall be allowed to object.” Populism is the tyranny of the majority. Democratic republicanism requires that the people adhere to a rule of law grounded in justice. They are as different as night and day.
Did Lincoln really believe there was a possibility that the nation might become all slave? I don’t know. But consider his reasons for believing it. He mentions three events, two, which occurred in 1854, and a third in 1856.
In 1854, Congress passed of the Kansas Nebraska Act. It was sponsored by Stephen Douglas and signed into law by President Franklin Pierce. It established that whether a state or territory should be slave or free shall be decided only by the people of that place, thereby making it possible for slavery to exist in every state or territory, depending on what the majority decide.
In the same year, the Supreme Court issued the Dred Scott Decision. It was written by Chief Justice Roger Taney, and promoted by James Buchanan, who would be elected President in 1856.
Dred Scott (1799–1858) was a slave, whose master had brought him into a free territory. Scott believed that by entering a free territory, he became free. He brought suit against his owner, and his case made its way to the Supreme Court, which ruled 7–2 against him. In effect, the court dismissed the case because Dred Scott, who was a slave of African descent, had in their judgment, no legal standing.
“We think … that [black people] are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution…On the contrary, they were at that time [of the nation’s founding] considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the Government might choose to grant them.”
The Court also overruled the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which prohibited slavery in all states and territories north of latitude 36º30”. And finally, it affirmed the principle of popular sovereignty in all territories and states, and therefore prohibited the U.S. Congress from legislating against slavery.
The election in 1858 of James Buchanan, who favored these regressive policies, was the third event. Lincoln even suggested that there had been collusion between “Stephen, Franklin, Roger, and James.”
I return to the question: Did Lincoln really accept the possibility that the nation might become all slave? He was aware of powerful reasons for believing it. He feared for the worst. Perhaps, in the light of our current political crisis, we should ask this question of ourselves: Have we, as a nation, outgrown the hateful legacies of slavery, racial prejudice and intolerance? It has become a timely question, when populist politics have taken possession of the nation, and prejudices of every variety have become fashionable, infecting the public mind like a plague.
Postscript: Lincoln lost his Senate race to Douglas, whom he would face again two years later in the Presidential contest, which he would win, and through his effort, the house remained standing and slavery was abolished.
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