the imaginative conservative logo

Screen Shot 2016-07-14 at 6.20.17 PMThe “House Divided Speech” is the wa­tershed of Abraham Lincoln’s political career.[56] In this address, given to the Republican state conven­tion that nominated their tall compatriot from Springfield to take the Little Giant’s place, there are no echoes of Henry Clay. It was the opening gun of Lincoln’s campaign to deprive Stephen Douglas of his seat. Here he begins to reach after the biblical note. He calls for the first time for the “ultimate extinction” of slavery—which Southerners, upset by the propaganda of the serious abolitionists, translated to mean their absolute subjection to government by a hostile majority. Slavery was a way of marking a boundary between political philosophies and ways of life. It could mean very little else in a debate between cultures which agreed on the inability of the Negro to become a part of the political, economic, or social life of the na­tion.[57] The central passage in this address flies directly in the face of the Northwest Ordinance and the letter of the Constitution.[58] For, as Lincoln had earlier admitted, there was no provision for the ultimate extinction of slavery there. But the Emancipator leaves as the alter­native to war on slavery possibilities even worse than those outlined at Peoria: The spread of bondage (and Negroes) throughout the free states and, therefore, the political and social subjection of the North to Slave power. For, as he had suggested four years earlier, if slaves (hateful in their own right, in being Negroes) entered Nebraska and Kansas, the spirit of despotism would come with them, excluding other people who did not own slaves, increas­ing the influence of the South in Washington. And this influence could, in its turn, be con­verted into control of the entire country. The equation came down to this: Where slavery went, power followed.

This amounts, to be sure, to a dreadful il­lustration of scare tactics. It led to Douglas’ charge that Lincoln was trying to “abolitionize the old-line Whigs.”[59] And Douglas was cor­rect, though Lincoln would accomplish that purpose with an anti-abolitionist electorate only by his usual conflation of one thing with another. In particular, his scenario frightened foreign immigrants to the upper Midwest, and the new settlers from the Northeast who were, unlike the early inhabitants of this region, eas­ily alarmed by the proximity of Southern modes and orders, the prospect of a Southern hegemony.[60] For, as Lincoln recognized, Il­linois and the other states above the Ohio were rapidly changing in their political composition. The Southernization of the Democratic Party under Pierce and Buchanan accelerated the process. As did the High Court’s decision in the case of Dred Scott. But to finish the job of alienating them from a Democratic position owing too much to the influence of the South, he sharpened the dilemma of his intended au­dience even further, and finally forced it upon them by predicting that a failure to confine and abolish the institution of slavery would result in the enslavement of white men.[61] Reinforcing these demagogic humbugs was the lofty flavor of the speech’s opening lines:

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 new—North as well as South.

Have we no tendency to the latter condi­tion?

After such a notable beginning, it seems curious that Lincoln devotes most of the re­mainder of the speech to an unfolding of his theory of conspiracy.[62] But not when we look back at the progression of effects and sequence of masks or personae which are the underlying structure in this analysis of his political development. For proof of the conspiracy justifies the outrage which through a metastatic process transforms the vir bonus of Peoria into an Old Testament prophet publicly declaring, by manner and by content, that “God is with us.”[63] This is the Lincoln which we hear in the central passages of the debates with Douglas in the summer of 1858: “It is the eternal struggle between these two principles—right and wrong—throughout the world. They are two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle.”[64]

And the Lincoln who writes in his “Fragment on Sectionalism” that accommodation such as made the Union, in the form of a few additional Southern senators, would now degrade it, and that moral considerations should obtain, what­ever the cost.[65] The new Lincoln of the House Divided address is, by the agreement of most authorities, the most “radical” and “Garriso­nian” to have appeared thus far.[66] If we are to believe the accounts of reliable witnesses, the shift leftward embodied in these remarks was a matter of conscious choice. For in the weeks prior to the convention where it was delivered, Lincoln “warned friends… he might fatally damage the Republican Party by making its existence synonymous with a destruction of the government…. But he was persistent…. He believed he could discern the scope and read the destiny of impending sectional con­troversy. He was sure he could see far beyond the present and hear the voice of the future.”[67] Hence the word crisis in the lines which I have quoted, what he calls elsewhere the “tug.”[68] A “destruction of the government” as it had been would indeed be necessary, perhaps a small war. But Lincoln as Man of Destiny could not scruple at such slight inconveniences. All that remained of his evolution was a claim to direct communication with the god of history, of which we hear a great deal once Lincoln got the crisis which he wanted.

I will not dwell here on the overt and implicit blasphemy of portions of Lincoln’s Presidential oratory. Though my remarks on this subject that are now a matter of record are not the complete treatment which I intend.[69] It is enough for this occasion to observe that the affected Puritanism of the period after 1854 was quite likely to propel Lincoln as Lord Protector and Judge over a Northern Israel into believing his own prophecies—especially when we remember that the powers of calcula­tion which had brought him to the highest office of the Republic did not seem to suffice once he was there and that his own image for his situa­tion as war leader, summoned up from the depth of his dreams, was that of a man moving through darkness in a ship under another’s control, heading toward a destination he could not foresee.[70] But one Puritan device remained in his arsenal: In the midst of his ordeal the technique of sorting out or discerning the prov­idences after the fact. In the months preceding the Emancipation Proclamation, and again at the very end of the War Between the States, Lincoln’s faith that he was able to perform this prophetic, teleological task took hold of his mind.[71]

Much of the evidence of Lincoln’s direct attribution of the decision to free those slaves still in Southern possession to a sign or a lead­ing from God appears in his correspondence of 1862-63.[72] Some of the rest is in private memoranda to himself and in records of con­verstaions.[73] But though he also spoke of the Proclamation as a gambit in the games of war and international politics, we should take seri­ously the reports of members of his cabinet and leaders of the Republican Party in Congress that he saw in the Union victory at Antietam a direct communication from on high.[74] Prior to that event, his language echoes Cromwell’s in the period leading up to the execution of Charles I. As did his prototype, the Emancipator declares that he has “preconsulted nothing” and that “whatever shall appear to be God’s will, I will do.”[75] And again, after the decision has been made, he sounds the Crom­wellian note, echoing Old Noll’s disclaimer, “I have not sought these things; truly, I have been called unto them by the Lord.”[76] Long before Lincoln in his Second Inaugural discusses the providential meaning of the chapter of history completed at Appomattox and sets himself as the “godded man,” beyond most of the radical Republicans in his understanding of these events as part of “universal history,” the direc­tion of the United States toward whatever is meant by “finish the work” has fallen into the hands of “God’s new Messiah,” the “homemade Jesus” of the Lincoln myth.[77] Lin­coln’s apotheosis through martyrdom served only to put a divine seal of approval on his understanding of himself. Or so we should be persuaded by what his fellow Americans made of the assassination and funeral, coming as they did at the end of a civil war[78] and sur­rounded as they were in a language promising salvation through social and political change.[79]

What then are the final implications of the political example of Abraham Lincoln? And what the enduring consequences of his sanctification as our only Father and preceptor in times of national crisis? The preceding nar­rative of his development as rhetorician in­tends to suggest that his public career must be subdivided if we are to make a proper reply. The Lincoln of the Whig years is clearly the heir of Enlightenment intellectuality as de­scribed for us by Professor Voegelin and Pro­fessor Niemeyer.[80] While in this role he re­mained within the boundaries established in 1688 and 1776: a part of the Anglo-American tradition of “aristocratic parliamentism.”[81] For this Lincoln, law is law and scripture scripture, with no conflation of the two.[82] It is possible to contend with him on the ordinary political grounds, within the forensic and deliberative modes. But there are two elements in this Lin­coln which mark him as a dangerous man. The first is his faith in necessity, and his suspicion that he knows its disposition for the future. This pseudo-philosophical reduction of the old Calvinist doctrine surfaces at regular intervals throughout his life. The second ingredient is a streak of rhetorical dishonesty, located primar­ily in his use of an ad hominem mask.

The second Lincoln, the artificial Puritan of the period between 1854-1861, is altogether gnostic in his purchase on American politics. He has become the dreadful Caesar warned of in his Springfield Lyceum address, the man who writes and speaks “wholly for effect.” His political idiom is drawn from the England of the 1640s, and no constitutional order could survive under its unremitting pressure. Here the manner of Lincoln’s speaking becomes its mat­ter. Social peace and gradual reform become impossible; and the core of policy which is hidden beneath the sense of destiny, the false dilemma, and the righteous mask is difficult to perceive. Yet, on reflection, we should recog­nize the operation of a formula which draws upon the mixture of Christian and democratic feeling in his audience. By implication, says this Lincoln, “I am an ordinary, humble man. And if this be so, my ideas are not the product of my own intellect or sensibility. Hence they must come from some other source, either the common feeling of my peers or the leadings of a higher authority.”[83]

But the final Lincoln is the worst. For by him, the real is defined in terms of what is yet to come, and the meaning of the present lies only in its pointing thither. This posture, when linked to one of the regnant abstractions of modern politics, can have no other result than a totalitarian order.[84] In its train it has left us, as a nation, with a series of almost insoluble prob­lems in our social, economic, and political policy, to say nothing of our foreign affairs: with a series of promises impossible to keep. For approaching these dilemmas, Lincoln leaves us with nothing but deformations of ex­perience, cut off forever from the real—and with an inability to call a political question by its proper name. It is a peculiar characteristic of Anglo-American politics since the begin­ning of the modern era that our leaders tend so often, when put to the test, to revert from the mild and materialist meliorism or gnosticism of the New Whigs to the activist and sectarian arrogance of their forefathers of that other Is­rael; though they rightly sense that in that role they are, for an electorate formed within a tradition of bibliolatry, difficult to resist.[85] Re­grettably, whenever they succumb to this temp­tation, to take the easy way to power, they partake as heirs in the legacy of Abraham Lin­coln and join with him in once again dividing the house.

This is the third essay in a three-part series; the first part may be found here, and the second part may be found here. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Winter 1979).


[56] Roy P. Basler’s edition of The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953) vol. II, pp. 461-469: “‘A House Di­vided’: Speech at Springfield, Illinois,” June 16, 1858.

[57] On the racial attitudes of the North in the 1850’s, I recommend V. Jacque Voegeli, Free But Not Equal: The Midwest and the Negro During the Civil War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967); Eugene H. Ber­wanger, The Frontier Against Slavery: Western Anti-Negro Prejudice and the Slavery Extension Controversy (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1967); James A. Rawley, Race and Politics: Bleeding Kansas’ and the Coming of the Civil War (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincoll Company, 1969); and Leon F. Litwack, North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961). This is only a sample of a growing literature, all of it demonstrating how non-egalitarian and racist all of the effective American political opponents of slavery had to appear to be in the years before the conflict came. Which raises serious questions as to what the antislavery cause was all about. With only a few apolitical abolitionists as exceptions. The problem of the Republican was in being against both the slave-owner and the slave—the latter in particular, should he become free; the former in that he must be forced to free the latter, and still keep him in the South. Their posture shifted between 1854 and 1877, depending on which of these two they hated most. Hence abolition could be only a war measure.

[58] Max Farrand writes on p. 130 of his The Fathers of the Constitution: A Chronicle of the Establishment of the Union (New Haven : Yale University Press, 1912) that the architects of the Republic “regarded slavery as an accepted institution, as part of the established order.” Lincoln’s argument that the Fathers put slavery on the road to extinction rests on almost nothing.

[59] Douglas, as quoted on p. 5 of Collected Works, Ill: from the Aug. 21, 1858, debate at Ouawa, Illinois.

[60] Even though they had lived under such an hegemony­ unknowingly—throughout the antebellum period.

[61] The kind of thing he could most easily tell immigrants­ especially through his German language newspaper, the Illinois Staats Anzeiger, whose support Lincoln bought in 1859. See Collected Works, II, pp. 341, 385, and 553; III, p 95. On the impact of immigrants on Midwestern politics, see Donna) V. Smith’s “The Influence of the Foreign-Born of the Northwest in the Election of 1860,” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, XIX (Sept., 1932), 192-204.

[62] An interesting discussion of the divisions of the speech appears on pp. 82-83 of Don E. Fehrenbacher’s Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850’s (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1962).

[63] Collected Works, II, p. 385.

[64] Collected Works, III, p. 315. Lincoln’s kind of “argument from definition” belongs properly only to the inception­ the planning stage in the history of a regime. Its successful introduction into the political discourse of a people always means that a refounding is in prospect.

[65] Collected Works, II, pp. 349-353. He later backed away from this—when it was too late—and accepted the idea of the Indian ter­ritories as a slave state, plus a plan to admit New Mexico on the same terms. But these concessions were only modifica­tions of a basic hostility to the South—part of his pretense of moderation, the mask which he never dropped entirely. See Oates, p. 124.

[66] See Richard H. Luthin, The Real Abraham Lincoln (New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1960), pp. p. 193; also Fehren­bacher’s Prelude to Greatness, p. 72; and pp. 107-109 of Vol. I of James G. Randall’s Lincoln the President: Springfield to Gettysburg (NewYork: Dodd, Mead and Company, Inc., 1945). Voegelin describes the develop­ment of this species of persona on pp. 135-136 of The New Science of Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952).

[67] Quoted from p. 146 of Vol. I of James G. Blaine’s Twenty Years of Congress: From Lincoln to Garfield (Norwich, Conn.: The Henry Bell Publishing Company, 1884). Benjamin P. Thomas quotes Orville H. Browning to the same effect on p. 61 of his Portrait for Posterity: Lincoln and His Biographers (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1947): “I know Mr. Lincoln was a firm believer in a supernatural and overrul­ing Providence and in supernatural agencies and events. I know that he believed the destinies of men were, or at least, that his own destiny, was shaped and controlled by an intelligence greater than his own, and which he could neither control nor thwart.” Browning, however, can attri­bute no other religious beliefs to his friend.

[68] See Benjamin P. Thomas, Abraham Lincoln: A Biog­raphy (New York: Modern Library, 1968), p. 230. Lincoln admonishes Senator Trumbull, “The tug has to come.” A small rebellion, easily subdued, Lincoln may have ex­pected as early as 1858. Or at least Southern misconduct of a sort that would ruin the Democrats for years to come. And make possible a “refounding.” The question of Lincoln’s part in bringing on Secession is central to the reading of his career. There is no evidence that he expected so large a struggle as the one that occurred. Which reflects to the credit of his character—and to the discredit of his judg­ment. For a criticism of the impact of Lincoln’s Presidency on constitutional government in the nation’s subsequent history, see pp. 17-62 of Goufried Dietze’s America’s Political Dilemma (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1968).

[69] I refer to the chapter “Lincoln, the Declaration, and Secular Puritanism: A Rhetoric for Continuing Revolution” in my collection, A Better Guide Than Reason: Studies in the American Revolution (La Salle, Illinois: Sherwood Sugden & Company, 1978). There I detail other elements of my objection to Lincoln’s reading of the American Revolution. Plus certain observations on the irrational appeal of quasi-biblical, epideictic rhetoric—the attempt at Gettysburg to imitate the tone of Holy Scripture. On Lincoln and biblical rhetoric, see also Cushing Strout, The New Heavens and the New Earth: Political Religion in America (New York: Harper and Row, 1974) pp. 193-200; and p. 194 of William J. Wolf, Lincoln’s Religion (Boston: Pilgrim Press, 1970).

[70] Discussed by Stephen B. Oates, With Malice Toward None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1977), p. 316

[71] See my remarks on Lincoln and “scanning the providences” in 1865 in “Heresy of Equality: Bradford replies to Jaffa,” Modern Age, XX (Winter, 1976), 64-73.

[72] See Collected Works, V, p. 478; VII, p. 282; p. 535; VIII, p. 536.

[73] Collected Works, II, pp. 403-404. “Meditation on the Divine Will”: “…God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet.” See p. 156 of William J. Wolf’s Lincoln’s Religion for a passage from L.E. Chittenden’s Recollections of President Lincoln and His AdministrationThere Lincoln is quoted: “I am satisfied that, when the Almighty wants me to do or not to do, a particular thing, he finds a way of letting me know it.”

[74] Collected Works, V, p. 343: letter of July 26, 1862, “To Reverdy Johnson”; also Oates, pp. 318-323. Lincoln meant the Proclamation as a war measure; he framed it to be minimally pro-Negro, but profoundly anti-Southern; and he offered the freedman almost nothing to go with it, even in his plans for Reconstruction. Yet he still drew upon it for moral capital. On Lincoln’s indifference to what would happen to the former slaves, see his remark at the Hampton Roads conference of 1865 as reported on p. 615, Vol. II, of Alexander H. Stephens, A Constitutional View of the War Between the States; Its Causes, Character, Conduct and Results, Presented in a Series of Colloquies at Liberty Hall (Philadelphia: National Publishing Company, 1870).

[75] Collected Works, V, p. 425: “Reply to Emancipation Memorial Presented by Chicago Christians of All Denominations,” Sept. 13, 1862. There Lincoln asserts that God would tell him, if He told any American of His particular will (p. 420). See The New Science of Politics, p. 93. On the parallel of Lincoln and Cromwell, see my “A Writ of Fire and Sword: The Politics of Oliver Cromwell,” Occasional Review, Issue 3 (Summer, 1975), 61-80, especially pp. 66, 69-71.

[76] “A Writ of Fire and Sword,” p. 66. I quote from p. 364 of Antonia Frazer’s Cromwell: The Lord Protector (New York: Knopf, 1974).

[77] On the “godded man,” see pp. 92-97 of Science, Politics and Gnosticism; also the earlier discussion in The New Science of Politics, pp. 110-113. Lincoln is both prophet and leader of his “third age” of America. But he is serious about the “holiness” of his politics. “God’s new Messiah” is another quote from James Russell Lowell—this time from “The Present Crisis,” line 23.

[78] For a fine summary of this first stage in the evolution of the Lincoln legend, I recommend Lloyd Lewis’s Myths After Lincoln (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1929).

[79] See Vogelin on Comte and Turgot in From Enlightenment to Revolution (Durham: Duke University Press, 1975), edited by John H. Hallowell. This promise of course leads to “continuous workfare,” conducted by men who profess an “ardent desire for peace,” described on pp. 171-173 of The New Science of Politics. 

[80] See in particular pp. 44-75 of Niemeyer’s Between Nothingness and Paradise (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971)

[81] The New Science of Politics, p. 188. The language of this passage describes rather well Lincoln’s political enemies—the antebellum conservative Democrats, who were the least gnostic of American political parties.

[82] Ibid., p. 143. Puritans always replace the common law by the scriptural law.

[83]Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradi­tion (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1948), p. 111.

[84] The New Science of Politics, p. 132: “Totalitarianism, defined as the existential rule of Gnostic activists, is the end and form of progressive civilization.” The result of imposed freedom or equality is always enslavement of both former slaver and former slave—enslavment by the state.

[85] This entire essay is in obvious debt to Professor Vogelin’s discussion of Richard Hooker’s critique of the Puritan mind, The New Science of Politics, pp. 133-152. For a contrary view of Lincoln’s neo-Puritan civil theology, see Glen E. Thurow, Abraham Lincoln and American Political Religion (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1976).

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."

Leave a Reply