On this date in 1858, a former one-term congressman from Illinois delivered one of the most momentous political orations in American history. "A house divided against itself cannot stand," Abraham Lincoln told an audience of Illinois Republicans at the state capitol in Springfield. "I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free," Lincoln added. "It will become all one thing or all the other."
Lincoln was delivering an acceptance speech to a nascent political party that had nominated him to run against incumbent Sen. Stephen A. Douglas. Although history has adjudged Lincoln the winner of his famous subsequent series of debates with Douglas, "Honest Abe" did not win his 1858 Senate campaign. He did, however, establish himself as the most articulate and charismatic leader of a political party formed on the principle of limiting human bondage and extending human liberty.
I wrote about this speech three years ago. My thinking was that as our nation's political discourse devolved into name-calling, straw man arguments, and historically obtuse analogies, we could use a little more Lincoln. (And a little less Trump -- and Trump-bashing.) Well, as they say in Cajun Louisiana, the joke was on me: 2017 was the good old days. Now we're tearing down statues of abolitionists along with Confederates, holding Christopher Columbus to the standards of a doctoral dissertation on indigenous peoples, and defacing monuments to the Great Emancipator himself. What's next? Don't ask.
* * *
Although Abraham Lincoln's "house divided" address is often said to have set in motion his debates with Douglas, the two men had been going at it for years. Lincoln's famous 1854 "Peoria Speech" was actually a debate with the Democratic senator. The subject of Lincoln's orations in both Peoria and Springfield was opposition to the spread of slavery -- the animating force behind the creation of the Republican Party. In Peoria, Lincoln had detailed his reasons for that position, one of them simply being "the monstrous injustice of slavery itself."
Four years later, Lincoln had sharpened this argument considerably: Stopping the spread of slavery meant eventually ending slavery, Lincoln predicted. In this talk, we catch a glimpse of the president Lincoln would become, and -- to use an appellation applied to a later Republican president -- what a "great communicator" he was. We see also that Abe Lincoln was a politician: This was a partisan speech. In his telling, the Dred Scott decision was not just a legal abomination: It was part of a Democratic Party plot that included the Kansas-Nebraska Act and James Buchanan's inaugural address.
Abraham Lincoln was also a person who knew his Bible. The "house divided" imagery and wording, as his listeners would have known, came from the New Testament, from the Book of Matthew. ("But Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them: ‘Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand.' ")
A familiar touchstone to Americans of the 19th century, the phrasing had been used by other prominent political figures, ranging from Abigail Adams to Sam Houston. This spring, the metaphor has been employed by a host of political commentators, including Charles Lipson, a frequent RCP contributor.
Finally, Abraham Lincoln was someone who knew how to write a speech. His June 16, 1858 speech contained some of the cadences and rhetorical pacing he would later employ as a wartime president: "The election came," Lincoln said in Springfield. "Mr. Buchanan was elected, and the endorsement, such as it was, secured." Anyone who has ever been to the Lincoln Memorial can recognize in that language an evocative presage of Lincoln's second inaugural address. And no hateful graffiti could ever obscure its prescient prose.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.