Having just viewed Steven Spielberg’s "Lincoln," and knowing that Lincoln’s
birthday is approaching, it seemed fitting to ponder one of Lincoln’s most
famous speeches, and perhaps a lesson for Americans today.
On June 17, 1858, Lincoln gave his famous "House Divided" address while being
nominated to run for the U.S. Senate seat in Illinois. Lincoln told his friends,
who objected to that phrase, that he chose it because it was a biblical idea
familiar to the American public. Lincoln quoted Jesus Christ: "A house divided
against itself cannot stand" (Mark 3:25). Lincoln went on to say, "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 of the
At the time of the speech, Lincoln had already been intimately involved in
national debates about the nature of the Union for more than a decade. He was
prescient about many things, including the coming of war.
How did the Civil War come about and how did Lincoln understand it? What was the
basis of this struggle that divided the nation? What prompted Lincoln to speak
of a "house divided?"
The Founders had not settled the questions of black slavery and of
sovereignty—both at the state and national levels. They did not because these
issues were intimately tied together and at the heart of how the nation defined
As for sovereignty, each state had claimed it fully under the Articles of
Confederation. That document did not work well, so a convention was called to
create a wholly new document—the federal Constitution of 1789. But, the new
Constitution did not deal directly with the questions of slavery and sovereignty
either. The Founders, and their successors for several generations, were
content to deal with these issues by a series of compromises. As we say today,
they "kicked the can down the road." Typically, these compromises were like
"The Compromise of 1820," whose principle feature was to admit two new states at
the same time—one with and one without slavery. Many, like Lincoln, had no
difficulty with this practice because they believed that slavery as an economic
system was failing and would die out in the face of the growing industrial
By 1850 the compromise system was breaking down as many Southern leaders began
to vigorously advance the doctrine of the supremacy of state sovereignty.
Moreover, the difference between an emerging industrial North and a continuing
cotton-based, agrarian South revealed that the North and the South had different
visions of what the nation ought to be. Lincoln understood this and spoke about
The election of 1860 was crucial in deciding whether the house divided would
stand or fall. Republican Lincoln was one of four presidential candidates in
that election. He won. Southern states seceded. The war came. The primary issue
was not slavery, but, as Lincoln said, the preservation of the Union. The Union
won, and the house was no longer divided, or so it seemed.
During the war, and after, congressional statutes, constitutional amendments,
and a reconstruction program abolished slavery and defined national sovereignty,
all through the exercise of unprecedented federal power. This is a very
important point. Reconstruction ended in 1877, and national leaders turned their
attention to the settlement of the West and a rapidly expanding industrialism.
It took a long time—decades—but that expansive federal power used to end the
Civil War continued to grow and eventually became an important political issue,
even a defining one.
Historians routinely point out that the two World Wars, the New Deal, Square
Deal, Fair Deal, and Great Society all steadily expanded federal power. More
recently, President Obama and his supporters have sought to dramatically
increase federal power to achieve their new vision for America.
It seems to some that Obama’s agenda includes a use of power that echoes
European-style socialist states. But, there is one huge difference: The
American system grants considerable power to the president—which Obama’s
followers seem eager to use, or threaten to use.
Perceptive observers see that the Founders’ view conflicts with Obama’s.
Recent political gridlock in Congress and in the states is evidence of this
fundamental division. This division has not yet reached crisis proportions,
but it may not be far away. There are murmurings in some states to secede in the
face of massive and growing federal power. Moreover, it is possible that the
federal government may spend itself into oblivion.
If Lincoln were with us today, he might ask: "Is America’s house divided
again?" He might suggest, too, that it cannot stand unless the conflicting
visions are resolved, one way or another.
— Dr. L. John Van Til is a fellow for humanities, faith, and culture with
The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.
© 2013 by The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. The views &
expressed herein may, but do not necessarily, reflect the views of Grove City
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