In his “House Divided” Speech, Abraham Lincoln argued that the United States cannot remain permanently half-slave and half-free; he did not expect the Union to be dissolved, but he did expect it to cease to be divided. Either, through the “machinery” of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Dred Scott decision, slavery would be extended throughout the country, or it would be strictly contained to where it currently is and die out there. Lincoln believed that the advocates of popular sovereignty had perverted the meaning of “the right of self-government” to mean “that if any one man chose to enslave another, no third shall be allowed to object,” but even this doctrine would soon give way to an outright requirement to tolerate slavery everywhere.
For Lincoln, the Dred Scott decision was a step away from requiring the toleration of slavery in all the states; it is only a small step from saying that Congress or a territorial legislature cannot exclude slavery from the territories to saying that neither the state legislature nor the people of a state can exclude slavery therefrom. To defend against this possibility, Lincoln advised letting the Declaration’s principle that all men are created equal be as nearly reached as possible; if we cannot give equality to every creature, we should at least do nothing that will impose slavery on any other creature. Thus he argued against strictly limiting slavery to where it already existed.
In his Ottawa Debate with Lincoln, Stephen Douglas identified the “house divided” doctrine as “revolutionary,” since the Union had existed thus divided for 70 years and yet has endured. Douglas believed that the Framers understood that the diverse geographical and social conditions of the various localities in the Union require different laws and institutions and therefore allowed each state to retain its own legislature and the power to do as it pleased within its own limits in all matters that were local and not national. Furthermore, if Lincoln’s doctrine of uniformity had been applied at the time of the Founding, when 12 out of 13 states had recognized slavery, there would be uniformity of slavery everywhere.
Douglas opposed negro citizenship in every form and sought to restrict citizenship to persons of European descent, since Douglas did not “regard the negro as his equal or his brother or any kin.” But simply because Douglas regarded the negro as the white man’s inferior did not mean that he thought the negro should be the white man’s slave. Rather, Douglas thought that the negro should “have and enjoy every right, privilege, and immunity consistent with the safety of the society in which he lives,” which is a question particular to each state and territory and which the people of such a state or territory must decide for themselves. Douglas advocated each state’s right to protect or abolish slavery as the people saw fit.
In response to Douglas, Lincoln denied that he wanted to interfere with the institution of slavery where it already existed; he also denied the accusation that he (Lincoln) wanted to impose uniformity of institutions on all the states. For Lincoln, the great variety of institutions among the states do not make the house divided, but rather unite it; for example, goods are produced in one section of the country which are consumed by the people in another, thereby uniting the two regions. But the specific institution of slavery has historically always been a source of disunion and discord.
The reason why the Union had hitherto endured was because diligent attempts had been made to restrict the expansion of slavery—for example, through the Northwest Ordinance, the ban on slave importation in 1808, and the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Once the latter restriction was nullified by the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Dred Scott decision, the slavery issue was once again let loose to bring about discord and threaten the Union. Lincoln furthermore responds to Douglas’s idea of popular sovereignty that it amounts to allowing the people of a territory to have slavery if they want to, but does not allow them to not have slavery if they do not want to.
G. Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist, independent philosophical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician, composer, contributor to Enter Stage Right, Le Quebecois Libre, Rebirth of Reason, and the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Senior Writer for The Liberal Institute, weekly columnist for GrasstopsUSA.com, and Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, a magazine championing the principles of reason, rights, and progress. Mr. Stolyarov also publishes his articles on Helium.com and Associated Content to assist the spread of rational ideas. His newest science fiction novel is Eden against the Colossus. His latest non-fiction treatise is A Rational Cosmology. Mr. Stolyarov can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.