A House Divided
State Republican Convention
June 16, 1858
Mr. President and Gentlemen of the Convention:
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 the 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?
Let any one who doubts, carefully 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 the machinery is adapted to
do, and how well adapted; but also, let him study the history of its
construction, and trace, if he can, or rather fail, if he can, to trace
the evidence of design and concert of action, among its chief
architects, from the beginning.
But, so far, Congress only, had acted; and an indorsement by
the people, real or apparent, was indispensable, to save the point
already gained, and give chance for more.
The new year of 1854 found slavery excluded from more than
half 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.
This necessity had not been overlooked; but had been provided
for, as well as might be, in the notable argument of "squatter
sovereignty," otherwise called "sacred right of self government,"
which latter phrase, though expressive of the only rightful basis
of any government, was so perverted in this attempted use of it
as to amount to just this: That if any one man, choose to enslave
another, no third man shall be allowed to object.
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, not
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."
Then opened the 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.
While the Nebraska Bill was passing through congress, a law
case involving the question of a negroe's freedom, by reason of his
owner having voluntarily taken him first into a free state and
then a territory covered by the congressional prohibition, and held
him as a slave, for a long time in each, was passing through the
U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Missouri; and both Nebraska
bill and law suit were brought to a decision in the same month of
May, 1854. The negroe's name was "Dred Scott," which name now
designates the decision finally made in the case.
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 indorsement,
such as it was, secured. That was the second point gained.
The indorsement, however, fell short of a clear popular majority
by nearly four hundred thousand votes, and so, perhaps, was not
overwhelmingly reliable and satisfactory.
The outgoing President, in his last annual message, as impressively
as possible, echoed back upon the people the weight and
authority of the indorsement.
The Supreme Court met again; did not announce their decision,
but ordered a re-argument.
The Presidential inauguration came, and 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 might 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 indorsing the Dred Scott Decision,
and vehemently denouncing all opposition to it.
The new President, too, seizes the early occasion of the Silliman
letter to indorse and strongly construe that decision, and to express
his astonishment that any different view had ever been
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 or was not, in any just sense, made
by the people of Kansas; and in that squabble the latter declares
that all he wants is a fair vote for the people, and that he cares not
whether slavery be voted down or voted up. I do not understand his
declaration that he cares not whether slavery be voted down or
voted up, to be intended by him other than as an apt definition of
the policy he would impress upon the public mind -- the principle
for which he declares he has suffered much, and is ready to suffer
to the end.
And well may he cling to that principle. If he has any parental
feeling, well may he cling to it. That principle, is the only shred left of his original Nebraska doctrine. Under the Dred Scott decision,
"squatter sovereignty" squatted out of existence, tumbled
down like temporary scaffolding -- like the mould at the foundry
served through one blast and fell back into loose sand -- helped to
carry an election, and then was kicked to the winds. His late joint
struggle with the Republicans, against the Lecompton Constitution,
involves nothing of the original Nebraska doctrine. That struggle
was made on a point, the right of a people to make their own
constitution, upon which he and the Republicans have never differed.
The several points of the Dred Scott
decision, in connection with Senator Douglas's
"care-not" policy, constitute the piece of
machinery, in its present state of advancement. This
was the third point gained. The working points of
that machinery are:-
First, that no negro slave, imported as
such from Africa, and no descendant of such slave,
can ever be a citizen of any State, in the sense of
that term as used in the Constitution of the United
States. This point is made in order to deprive the
negro, in every possible event, of the benefit of
that provision of the United States Constitution,
which declares that: "The citizens of each State
shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of
citizens in the several States."
Second, 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
is made in order that individual men may fill up the
Territories with slaves, without danger of losing
them as property, and thus to enhance the chances of
permanency to the institution through all the future.
Third, that whether the holding a negro in
actual slavery in a free State makes him free, as
against the holder, the United States courts will not
decide, but will leave to be decided by the courts of
any slave State the negro may be forced into by the
master. This point is made, not to be pressed
immediately; but, if acquiesced in for a while, and
apparently indorsed by the people at an election,
then to sustain the logical conclusion that what Dred
Scott's master might lawfully do with Dred Scott, in
the free State of Illinois, every other master may
lawfully do with any other one, or one thousand
slaves, in Illinois, or in any other free State.
Auxiliary to all this, and working hand in
hand with it, the Nebraska doctrine, or what is left
of it, is to educate and mold public opinion, at
least Northern public opinion, not to care whether
slavery is voted down or voted up. This shows exactly
where we now are; and partially, also, whither we are
It will throw additional light on the
latter, to go back, and run the mind over the string
of historical facts already stated. Several things
will now appear less dark and mysterious than they
did when they were transpiring. The people were to be
left "perfectly free," subject only to the
Constitution. What the Constitution had to do with
it, outsiders could not then see. Plainly enough now,
it was an exactly fitted niche, for the Dred Scott
decision to afterward come in, and declare the
perfect free freedom of the people to be just no
freedom at all. Why was the amendment, expressly
declaring the right of the people, voted down?
Plainly enough now: the adoption of it would have
spoiled the 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- the
speaking out then would have damaged the perfectly
free argument upon which the election was to be
carried. Why the outgoing President's felicitation on
the indorsement? Why the delay of a re-argument? Why
the incoming President's advance exhortation in favor
of the decision? These things look like the cautious
patting and petting of a spirited horse, preparatory
to mounting him, when it is dreaded that he may give
the rider a fall. And why the hasty after-indorsement
of the decision by the President and others?
We cannot absolutely know that all these
exact adaptations are the result of preconcert. But
when we see a lot of framed timbers, different
portions of which we know have been gotten out at
different times and places, and by different workmen-
Stephen, Franklin, Roger, and James, for instance-and
when we see these timbers joined together, and see
they exactly matte the frame of a house or a mill,
all the tenons and mortices exactly fitting, and all
the lengths and proportions of the different l pieces
exactly adapted to their respective places, and not a
piece. too many or too few,-not omitting even
scaffolding-or, if a single piece be lacking, we see
the place in the frame exactly fitted and prepared
yet to bring such piece 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 and all worked upon a common plan or
draft drawn up before the first blow was struck.
It should not be overlooked that, by the
Nebraska Bill, the people of a State, as well as a
Territory, were to be left "perfectly
free," "subject only to the
Constitution." Why mention a State? They were
legislating for Territories, and 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 mention of this lugged into this
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
therein treated as being precisely the same? While
the opinion of the court, by Chief-Justice Taney, in
the Dred Scott 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 the same Constitution
permits a State, or the people of a State, to exclude
it. Possibly this is 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,
into the Nebraska Bill-I ask, who can be quite sure
that it would not have been voted down in the one
case as it ad been in the other? The nearest approach
to the point of declaring the power of a State over
slavery is made by Judge Nelson. He approaches it
more than once, using the precise idea, and 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 g jurisdiction." 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 open in the Nebraska Act
Put this and that together, and we have another nice
little niche which we may ere long see filled with
another Supreme Court decisions 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 the doctrine of
"care not wether slavery be voted down or voted
up," shall gain upon he public mind sufficiently
to give promise that such a decision an be maintained
Such a decision is all that slavery now
lacks of being alike lawful in all the States.
Welcome, or unwelcome, such decision is probably
coming, and will soon be upon us, unless the power of
the present political dynasty shall be met and
overthrown. We shall lie down pleasantly dreaming
that the people of Missouri. are on the verge of
making their State free, and we shall awake to the
reality instead, that the Supreme Court has made
Illinois a slave State. To meet and overthrow the
power of that dynasty is the work now before all
those who would prevent that consummation. This is
what we have to do. How can we best do it ? There are
those who denounce us openly to their own friends and
yet whisper us softly, that Senator Douglas is the
aptest instrument there is with which to effect that
object. They wish us to infer all from the fact that
he now has a little quarrel with the present head of
the dynasty; and that he has regularly voted with us
on a single point, upon which he and we have never
differed. They remind us that he is a great man, and
that the largest of us are very small ones. Let this
be granted. But "a living dog is better than a
dead lion." Judge Douglas, if not a dead lion,
for this work, is at least a caged and tooth. less
one. How can he oppose the advances of slavery? He
does not care anything about it. His avowed mission
is impressing the "public heart" to care
nothing about it. 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 that
trade is approaching ? He has not said so. Does he
really think so? But if it is, how can he resist it?
For years he has labored to prove it a sacred right
of white men to take negro slaves into the new
Territories. Can he possibly show that it is less a
sacred right to buy them where they can be bought
cheapest? And unquestionably they can be bought
cheaper in Africa than in Virginia. He has done all
in his power to reduce the whole question of slavery
to one of a mere 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 the home production? And as the home
producers will probably not ask the protection, he
will be wholly without a ground of opposition.
Senator Douglas holds, we know, that a man
may rightfully be wiser today than he was
yesterday-that he may rightfully | change when he
finds himself wrong. But can we, for that reason, run
ahead, and infer that he will make any particular
change, of which he, himself, has given no
intimation? Can we safely base our action upon any
such vague inference? Now, as ever, I wish not to
misrepresent Judge Douglas's position, question his
motives, or do aught that can be personally offensive
to him. Whenever, if ever, he and we can come
together on principle so that our cause may have
assistance from his great ability, I hope to have
interposed no adventitious obstacle. 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 intrusted to, and
conducted by, its own undoubted friends-those whose
hands are free, whose hearts are in the work-who do
care for the result. Two years ago the Republicans of
the nation mustered over thirteen hundred thousand
strong. We did this under the single impulse of
resistance to a common danger, with every external
circumstance against us. Of strange, discordant, and
even hostile elements, we gathered from the four
winds, and formed and fought the battle through,
under the constant hot fire of a disciplined, proud,
and pampered enemy. Did we brave all them 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 it, but, sooner or later, the victory
is sure to come.