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This Week in History:

June 16-22, 1858:
'A House Divided'

June 2013

Abraham Lincoln.

On June 16, 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Glass Steagall bill into law. FDR stood on the shoulders of the great President Abraham Lincoln, who, seventy five years earlier, on June 16, 1858, as the just-nominated Republican candidate for U.S. Senate from Illinois, gave an acceptance speech to the Republican Convention in Springfield, which helped decisively shape the history of the nation. It came to be entitled "A House Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand." The oft-quoted opening to this speech went as follows:

"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 newNorth as well as South."

When put into historical context, this speech represents the launching of a great public debate over the threat which the "popular sovereignty" Democrats, allied with the hard-core slaveholders of the South, represented to the principles upon which the United States was founded. Lincoln sought throughout this election campaign, including the famous debates between himself and his opponent, Democrat Stephen Douglas, to demonstrate that Americans had to return to the principled commitments of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, whereby all men are judged to have been created equal, or face the destruction of the American republic as it was originally conceived.

The context of the speech is crucial to understanding it. The 1850s had seen an escalating series of compromises and decisions that were all ostensibly aimed at restricting the spread of slavery, but ultimately were resulting in its expansion. Most crucial within this process was the 1857 Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court, which resulted in the validation of the Fugitive Slave Law's (1850) application anywhere in the nation, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. Kansas-Nebraska, which passed by a close 113-100 margin in the House, permitted each territorial government to decide by "popular sovereignty" whether to permit or prohibit slavery.

Yet, as Lincoln pointed out in the body of the "House Divided" speech, the argument for popular sovereignty was then totally vitiated by the Dred Scott decision. In fact, the Dred Scott decision prevented a state from exercising its popular sovereignty against slavery, because there was no way to protect free black people from being re-enslaved. The fact that the Congress voted down an amendment seeking to permit a state to explicitly exclude slavery, made it clear to Lincoln, if it had not been clear before, that the Democrats, who controlled the Presidency in the person of James Buchanan, were intending that slavery be spread, unstoppably.

(I am reminded, in writing this, of our ignominious Democratic Party leadership today, which shares the slaveholder values of those Democrats of yore. They too, claim to champion the idea of "popular sovereignty"—the people's will—but then move to exclude those who would challenge their pro-banker ethic, in this case, Lyndon LaRouche and his supporters. "What the people want" is almost always a fraudulent ruse, used to cover up clashes of principle.)

As is well known, of course, Lincoln lost the 1858 Senate election to Douglas, although he went on to mobilize and build the Republican Party, to the point that it won the 1860 election, in which Lincoln was the successful candidate for President. Immediately, the pro-slavery forces challenged President Lincoln's willingness to defend the Union, a challenge which he successfully rebuffed, both militarily and eventually, by means of enacting the 13th Amendment, in January 1865, banning slavery altogether.

But, contrary to popular opinion, Lincoln's victory was not simply one of using superior might to impose a solution. As our greatest President said in his "House Divided" speech, what we were looking at is a clash of principles which could not coexist forever. Having taken the principled position that slavery was against our nation's very raison d'etre (although not its practice), Lincoln fought and prevailed.


The original article was published in the EIR Online’s Electronic Intelligence Weekly, as part of an ongoing series on history, with a special emphasis on American history. We are reprinting and updating these articles now to assist our readers in understanding of the American System of Economy.

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