A bit of history
Last updated 5/23/2023 at 2:45pm
A bit of history goes a long way to explain today’s politics.
Abraham Lincoln stood before a crowd at the Illinois Republican State Convention in Springfield, Illinois on the evening of June 16, 1858. The occasion was momentous — an endorsement like no other. Earlier that day, the Illinois Republicans had rallied behind Lincoln, a local attorney and former congressman, declaring him their “first and only choice” in the upcoming campaign to unseat Senator Stephen A. Douglas, the incumbent.
This endorsement was unprecedented. Back then, campaigning publicly for a U.S. Senate seat was not the norm. Before the 17th Amendment came into effect in 1912, state legislatures held the power to select senators, and candidates typically carried out their efforts discreetly, after the fall legislative elections. However, Lincoln’s Republican allies recognized the urgency of organizing an early public campaign, positioning him as the official nominee to counter the mounting pressure to support Douglas, a prominent Democrat.
The pressure on the Republicans stemmed from a bitter feud between Douglas and President James Buchanan, the staunchly pro-slavery leader of the Democratic Party. Some Republicans, particularly influential figures from New York, saw this internal strife as a rare opportunity to turn an old political adversary to their side. However, Lincoln and the Illinois Republicans were well aware that Douglas did not share their unwavering commitment to anti-slavery principles, especially their belief in halting slavery’s expansion into the western territories, like Kansas.
With this knowledge in mind, Lincoln took to the stage on June 16, not just to accept the nomination but also to articulate the grave dangers that Douglas and his controversial doctrine of “popular sovereignty” posed to the Republican Party and the nation as a whole. According to Douglas, the settlers in the territories themselves should decide whether to allow slavery or not. Lincoln saw this approach as a direct threat to the Republican Party’s future and the very fabric of the nation.
In his speech, Lincoln sought to explain why Douglas’ stance on “popular sovereignty” endangered the core principles of the Republican Party and the nation’s unity. He eloquently argued against the idea of leaving such a momentous decision to individual settlers, emphasizing the need for a unified national stance on slavery’s expansion. Lincoln’s words were intended to rally his supporters, to galvanize them in the fight against the spread of slavery and to make it clear that he was the candidate who would champion their cause.
Abraham Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech on that June evening was not just an acceptance of the Republican nomination but a rallying cry for a party and a nation facing a critical crossroads in history. It marked the beginning of a fierce campaign, one that would shape the course of American politics and ultimately lead Lincoln to the presidency.