This month marks the 160th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech, which was delivered on June 16, 1858, in Springfield, Ill., at the state convention of the still very new Republican Party. Lincoln scholar Harry V. Jaffa, author of “Crisis of the House Divided” and “A New Birth of Freedom,” called it “The Speech That Changed the World” in an essay for the Claremont Review of Books that was posted on their site in 2009.
By Harry V. Jaffa
“Of all Lincoln’s speeches, whether greater or lesser, the only one that can be said truly to have changed the course of history, was delivered to the Republican State Convention in Springfield, Illinois, June 16, 1858.
“The utterances that have come down to us, graven in bronze and in stone, like the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural, are profound meditations on human experience. In the midst of the horrors of destruction and death, and amidst the turmoil of the passions of war, they are designed to reconcile us to our fate by discerning the hand of God in events that might otherwise seem merely chaotic. Although these speeches arise out of particular events at particular times, they draw back the curtain of eternity, and allow us, as time-bound mortals, to glimpse a divine purpose within a sorrow filled present, and tell us how our lives, however brief, can nonetheless serve a deathless end. The House Divided speech, however, was — perhaps more than any political address of the time — a causal agent in bringing about the terrible events over which Lincoln was destined to preside. Its theme is expressed in the biblical admonition that ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ In it Lincoln declared that he believed that this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.
“He said that he did not expect the Union to be dissolved, or the house to fall, but he did expect it to become all one thing or all another. Slavery might become lawful in all the states, North as well as South, or slavery might be so placed that the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in course of ultimate extinction.
“However, a point of decision had been reached, one path or the other would have to be followed, because no middle ground existed any longer. That was Lincoln’s message. …”
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