Lessons from Lincoln on America’s Discord

This President’s Day, it is fitting to remember that American history is replete with instances when the people and their political communities have experienced disunity instead of unity. Separation from the British was the first significant episode that resulted in real discord, culminating in the dramatic events of declaring independence and then gradually unifying around a new set of principles as articulated in the Declaration of Independence. Regrettably, a war was fought, lives were lost, and property was ruined, but a new nation emerged. 

Abraham Lincoln presided over the country as the deep divisions of slavery and secession worsened. It was a serious question if America would survive the Civil War. Lincoln had long looked to the documents of the American Founding to understand the principles that unified the country and to stem the divisions. His actions can guide how our nation combats the growing divide present in America today. 

Lincoln understood the two founding documents as intertwined and supporting the liberty of the people:  

[The prosperity of the United States] is not the result of accident. It has a philosophic cause. Without the Constitution and the Union, we could not have attained the result; but even these are not the primary cause of our great prosperity. There is something back of these, entwining itself more closely about the human heart. That something, is the principle of “Liberty to all”—the principle that clears the path for all—gives hope to all—and, by consequence, enterprise and industry to all.

Lincoln continued,

The expression of that principle, in our Declaration of Independence, was most happy, and fortunate. Without this, as well as with it, we could have declared our independence of Great Britain; but without it, we could not, I think, have secured our free government and consequent prosperity. The assertion of that principle, at that time, was the word “fitly spoken” which has proven an “apple of gold” to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple—not the apple for the picture.

He added a final thought,

So let us act, that neither picture, or apple shall ever be blurred, bruised or broken. That we may so act, we must study, and understand the points of danger.

Lincoln had already recognized the dangers.

Slavery was among the issues that brought Lincoln back to politics. He laid out the stakes in grave terms in his House Divided speech on June 16, 1858, in Springfield, Illinois to an audience of 1,000 attendees at the Republican state convention, the new political party that argued against the expansion of slavery. 

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.

Lincoln was stark in his warning about the divide caused by the presence of slavery in the nation, but the deeper division was how to achieve the principle of equality stated in the Declaration. In seven debates between Lincoln and Stephen Douglas prior to the 1858 Illinois U.S. Senate election, the contentious question of slavery and equality was on full display. It is ironic that the Declaration of Independence contained the phrase that highlighted what was to become one of the greatest divisions in the nation: the self-evident truth that all men are created equal. The interpretation of the phrase brought division. Those in the Southern states who denied the humanity of the men and women whom they enslaved rejected the universal nature of the statement. Douglas argued the following in the seventh debate: 

I hold that the signers of the Declaration of Independence had no reference to negroes at all when they declared all men to be created equal. They did not mean negro, nor the savage Indians, nor the Fejee Islanders, nor any other barbarous race. They were speaking of white men. They alluded to men of European birth and European descent—to white men, and to none others, when they declared that doctrine.

The words of Douglas represent how the United States was severed in two with the divide between states prohibiting slavery and states permitting it worsening as time passed.

Lincoln had already responded to Douglas in the first debate. “There is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man.” He added, “I agree with Judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects—certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.” 

In his speech on the Dred Scott decision, Lincoln articulated similar sentiments with respect to black women. “In some respects she certainly is not my equal; but in her natural right to eat the bread she earns with her own hands without asking leave of any one else, she is my equal, and the equal of all others.”

Lincoln’s appeal to the natural rights in the Declaration of Independence is clear. The urgency evident in his speeches can be understood if we refer to Lincoln’s imagery of a house. Whether the South in its embrace of slavery was building a separate house or rebuilding the house that was originally supported by the Declaration and the Constitution, either type of building would prevent the proposition that all men are created equal from ever prevailing. This would no longer be a democratic republic striving for equality and liberty, but instead something very different, as Lincoln clearly stated in his final debate with Douglas:

It is the eternal struggle between these two principles—right and wrong—throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, ‘You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.’

The self-evident, universal truths articulated in the Declaration of Independence that Lincoln invoked—“that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”—were truths that had never been used as the foundation of government. The Declaration and the structure of the Constitution as informed by the republican form of government, the separation of powers, the bicameral legislature, and federalism lay the foundation for a just political community and was directly contrary to the divine right of kings. The citizens gave their consent to this government. Debate and persuasion are a means to maintain, defend, and perpetuate these institutions.

Lincoln’s remarks in his 1838 Lyceum Address speak of a means to preserve. In response to discord that took the form of increasing disregard for law, the prevalence of mobs, and the risk of the alienation of affections from the government, Lincoln counseled: 

Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws for the country . . . As the patriots of seventy-six did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and Laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor . . . let it become the political religion of the nation.

Lincoln’s reverence for the documents that inform the posture of the nation and framed a government for the citizenry hold a key to unifying the nation. He also saw them as binding one generation to the next as expressed in one of his most famous phrases from the 1858 speech at Chicago: “the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.” The principles of liberty and equality were among the ideas that unified the American people and served as part of the foundation of the American political community. This does not mean that perfect harmony exists or that the ideals have been fully realized. In a democratic republic, disagreements abound, compromises are reached, new issues arise, and old issues resurface, but Lincoln’s focus on the freedom that binds is a means to remedy discord because it points to something greater. 

We are no longer in Lincoln’s America of the 1850s and 1860s, but his House Divided Speech is an entrée to considering the state of our own country and the divide that has emerged. To realize the parallels that exist between Lincoln’s time and ours, remove the words slave and free from the phrase “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free” and rewrite it to read “this government cannot endure, permanently embracing the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and permanently rejecting them.” This represents a far greater disunity in America because some call into question and reject the very foundation while others defend it.

No political community is perfect, nor will any political community ever perfectly achieve its ideals. Some see America as a failed political community and have as a solution tearing down the country that began in 1776. Lincoln’s battle against those whose actions were directly contrary to the founding principles is instructive. His belief that neither picture nor apple shall ever be blurred, bruised, or broken gave him the clarity to guide his actions; his reverence for America’s political institutions served as a foundation to perpetuate them; his vigorous debate and argument to defend American institutions against those who rejected or distorted them served to teach and persuade others; and his stark contrast between the notions of the divine right of kings and the liberty of the people prompted the citizenry to defend their freedoms. America is currently experiencing a new formulation of the divine right of kings that takes the form of tyrannical suppression of freedom and speech, which must be stopped.

Lincoln concluded his House Divided speech by recalling the strength of the Republicans two years prior: 

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 then 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 councils may accelerate or mistakes delay it, but, sooner or later the victory is sure to come.

We must look to our fellow citizens and engage them as Lincoln did his own. Americans must fight for a country that is based upon institutions that support liberty, that allow a free exchange of ideas, and that embrace the lofty ideals of the Declaration, and they must live lives that are worthy of these aims. 

About Elizabeth Eastman

Elizabeth Eastman holds a Ph.D. in political science from Claremont Graduate School, an M.A. in liberal education from St. John’s College, and a B.A. in French literature and civilization from Scripps College. She has taught in the political science and history departments at Chapman University and Azusa Pacific University, and in the liberal studies programs at Roosevelt University in Chicago and at California State University, Fullerton. She is the 2020-21 senior scholar in residence at the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization in Boulder, Colorado.

Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

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