A House Divided Speech at the Illinois State Capitol
delivered 16 June 1858, Illinois State Capitol, Springfield, Illinois
Mr. President, Gentlemen of the Convention:
If we could just know where we are and whither we appear to be tending, we could all better judge of what to do, and how to do it. We are now well into our fifth year since a policy was initiated with the avowed object and confident purpose of putting an end to slavery agitation.
However, 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 this further spread and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is on a course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates shall press it forward, until it shall become alike lawful in all of the States, old as well as new, North as well as South.
Have we no tendency to this latter condition?
Let any one who doubts this 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 that machinery is adapted to, but how well adapted. Also, 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, of concert of action, among its chief bosses, from the very beginning.
The new year of 1854 found slavery excluded from more than half of 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. But, so far, Congress only had acted; and an endorsement by the people, real or apparent, was indispensable, to save the point already gained, and to give chance for more.
This necessity had not been overlooked; it had been provided for, as well as might be, in the notable argument of "squatter sovereignty," and "sacred right of self-government," which latter phrase, though expressive of the only rightful basis of any government, was so perverted in this particular application of it as to amount to just this: If any one man desires to enslave another, no third man has the right to object. Well 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, or to exclude it therefrom; 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." That opened a roar of loose declamation in favor of "Squatter Sovereignty," and "sacred right of self-government." "But," said opposition members, "let us be more specific, 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.
Now, while the 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 into first a free State and then a Territory covered by that Congressional prohibition, and held him as a slave for a long time in each, was passing through the U. S. Circuit Court in the District of Missouri. Both the Nebraska bill and the 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 given in that case. Well, before 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, requests 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 answers: "That is a question for the Supreme Court."
The election came. Mr. Buchanan was elected, and the endorsement, such as it was, was secured. That was the second point gained. The endorsement, however, fell short of a clear popular majority by some four hundred thousand votes, and, I think, was not overwhelmingly reliable or satisfactory. The outgoing President, in his last annual message, as impressively as possible echoed back upon the people the weight and authority of this endorsement. The Supreme Court met again; did not announce their decision, but ordered a re-argument. The Presidential inauguration came -- 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 may be. Then, in a few days, came the decision.
The reputed author of the Nebraska bill finds an early occasion to make a speech at this capital building endorsing the Dred Scott decision, vehemently denouncing all opposition to it. The new President, too, seizes the early occasion of the Silliman letter to endorse and strongly construe that decision, and to express his astonishment that any should ever had any different view than that.
At length 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 in fact, in any just sense, made by the people of Kansas; and in the squabble the latter declares all he wants is a fair vote for the people; he don't care whether it gets voted down or voted up -- slavery, that is.
I do not understand his declaration that he cares not whether slavery is voted down or voted up, to be intended as anything other than an apt definition of the policy that he wants -- wants to impress upon the public mind -- the principle for which he declared he has suffered much and intends to suffer until the end. Well -- Well may he cling to that principle. If he has any parental feeling at all, well may he cling to it for under the Dred Scott decision "squatter sovereignty" has squatted right out of existence, tumbled down like temporary scaffolding -- like -- like the mould at a foundry served cast off into the sand -- never to be used again. It helped to carry the election and then was kicked into the winds. His late joint struggle with the Republicans, against the Lecompton Constitution -- it involved nothing of the original Nebraska doctrine. The struggle was made on a point -- the right of the people to form their own constitution -- of which we and he have never even differed.
Well the several points of the Dred Scott decision, in connection, with Senator Douglas's "don't care" policy, constitute a major piece of machinery, in its present state of advancement. And this was the third point gained. Now the working points of that machinery are:
First, no negro slave, imported as such from Africa, and no descendant of any such slave, can ever be a citizen of any State, in the sense that that term is used in the Constitution of the United States. Now this point 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 "The citizens of each State, shall be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of the citizens of the several States."
Secondly, that "subject to the Constitution of the United States," neither Congress nor a Territorial Legislature can exclude slavery from any United States territory. This point was made in order that individuals may fill up the Territory with slaves, without danger of ever losing their property in the slaves -- thus to enhance the chance of the permanency to that institution through all future.
Thirdly, that whether the holding of a negro in actual slavery in a free State, makes him free, as against the holder, the United States courts will not decide, but they'll leave it to be decided by the courts of any slave State where the master of that slave decides to take him.
This point was made, not to be pressed immediately; but, if acquiesced in for awhile, endorsed by the people apparently at an election, then to sustain the logical conclusion that what Dred Scott's master may lawfully do with Dred Scott, in the free State of Illinois, every other master may lawfully do with every other one, or one thousand of like slaves, in Illinois, or in any other free State.
And then auxiliary to all this, and working in hand with it, we have the Nebraska doctrine, or what's left of it, to educate, to mold public sentiment, to not care whether slavery is voted down or up. This shows exactly where we are, partially, also, whither we are tending.
Now it will throw additional light on the -- the latter, to go back, to run the mind over this string of historical facts already stated. Several things will now appear less dark and mysterious than they did then when they were transpiring. The people were to be left "perfectly free," "subject only to the Constitution" of the United States. What the Constitution had to do with it, outsiders could not then tell. Plainly enough now, it was an exactly fitted niche, for the Dred Scott decision afterwards to come in, and declare that perfect freedom 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 that 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: speaking out then would have damaged the perfectly free argument upon which the election was to be carried. Why the outgoing President's felicitation of the endorsement? Why the delay of the reargument? Why the incoming President's advance exhortation in favor of that decision, whatever it might be? These things look like the cautious patting and petting of a much-spirited horse, when it's a-feared that, upon mounting, he'll be thrown. Why the hasty after-endorsements of the decision by the President and others?
We cannot absolutely know that these exact adaptations are the result of preconcert. But when we see a lot of framed timbers, which we know different portions of which have been gotten out at different times and in different places by different workmen -- Stephen, Franklin, Roger, James, for instance -- and when we see these timbers joined together, and see that they exactly frame a house or a mill, all the tenons and mortices fitting exactly together, all the lengths and proportions of the different pieces exactly adapted to their respective places, and not a piece too many or a piece too few -- not omitting even scaffolding -- or, if a single piece be lacking, we can see the place in the frame where it is fitted and prepared yet to be put 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; all worked on a common plan or draft drawn before the first lick was struck.
Now, it shouldn't be overlooked that, by the Nebraska bill, the people of a State as well as Territory, were to be left "perfectly free," "subject only to the Constitution." Why mention a State? They were legislating for Territories, not for or about States. Certainly the people of a State are and ought to be subject to the Constitution of the United States; but why is the mention of this lugged into a merely Territorial law? Why are the people of a Territory and the people of a State therein lumped together, and their relation to the Constitution treated as being precisely the same? While the opinion of the court, by Chief Justice Taney, in the Dred Scott's 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 that 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, if McLean or Curtis had sought to get into the opinion a declaration of unlimited power in the people of a State to exclude slavery from their limits, just as Chase and Mace sought to get such declaration, in behalf of the people of a Territory, in the Nebraska bill; -- I ask, who can be quite sure that it would not have been voted down in the one case as it had been on the other? The nearest approach to the point of declaring the power of a State over slavery was made by Judge Nelson. He approaches it more than once, using the precise [idea], almost the language, too, of the Nebraska act. On one occasion, his exact language is, "except in cases where the power is restrained by the Constitution of the United States, the law of the State is supreme over the subject of slavery within its jurisdictions."
In what cases the power of the States is so restrained by the United States Constitution, is left an open question, precisely as the same question, as to the restraint on the power of the Territories, was left an open in the Nebraska Act. Well when you put that and that together, we have another nice little niche, which we may, ere long, see filled by 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 this doctrine of "care not whether slavery is voted down or voted up" shall gain in the public mind sufficiently to give promise that that decision will be maintained when it's made.
Such a decision is all that slavery now lacks of being alike lawful in all of the States. Welcome or [un]welcome, such decision is probably coming, and will soon be upon us, unless the power of the political dynasty at present shall be met and overthrown. We shall lie down pleasantly dreaming that the people of Missouri are about to make their State a free one, and we shall wake up to discover that the Supreme Court has just made Illinois a slave State. To meet and to 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 to us that Senator Douglas is the aptest instrument for this work...with which to effect this object. They do not tell us, nor has he told us that he wishes any such object to be affected. They wish us to infer it, you see, from all the facts that he now has a little quarrel with the present head of this dynasty; and that he has regularly voted with us on a single point, upon which we and he had never differed. They remind us that he is a very great man, and the largest of us are little ones. Well, let this be granted. But "a living dog is better than a dead lion." And 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 whether it gets voted down or voted up. His avowed mission is to impress the "public heart" to care nothing whether its voted down or voted up.
A leading Douglas democratic newspaper thinks Douglas's superior talent will be needed to resist the revival of the African slave trade. Does Douglas believe an effort to revive the African slave trade is approaching? He's not said so. Does he really think so? If it is, how can he resist it? For years he's labored to prove it a sacred right for men to take negro slaves into the new Territories. Can he possibly show that its less a sacred right to buy them where they can be bought cheaper? Unquestionably they can be bought cheaper in Africa than in Virginia. He's done all in his power to reduce the whole question of slavery to one of a right of property; and as such, how can he oppose the foreign slave trade -- how can he refuse that trade in that "property" shall be "perfectly free"? -- unless he does it as a protection to those who are home producers. Well, then, as the home producers will probably not ask for that the protection, he shall be wholly without any ground of opposition.
Senator Douglas know that a man can rightfully be wiser today than he was yesterday -- that he can rightfully change when he finds himself to be wrong. But can we, for that reason, run ahead, and infer that he will make any particular change, of which he, himself, has never given any intimation? Can we safely base our action upon some vague inference? Now, as ever, I wish not to misrepresent Judge Douglas's position or question his motives, or do aught that would be personally offensive to him. But whenever, if ever, he and we can come together on principle so that our great cause may have the assistance of his great ability, I hope to have imposed no adventitious obstacle upon him. But clearly, he is not now with us -- he does not pretend to be -- he does not promise ever to be.
Our cause, then, must be entrusted to, and conducted by, its own undoubted friends -- those whose hands are free and whose hearts are in the work -- who do care for the result. Two years ago the Republicans of this nation mustered some thirteen hundred thousand strong. We did this under a single impulse of resistance to a common danger, with every external circumstance against us. Of strange, discordant, even hostile elements, we gathered from the four winds; we fought the battle through under the constant hot fire of a pampered, proud, disciplined army. Did we brave all then only 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, but sooner or later the victory is sure to come.
Image Source: Library of Congress
Page Updated: 9/10/18
U.S. Copyright Status: Text & Image = Public domain.