Abraham Lincoln is one of the most revered figures in American history, and only relatively recently have scholars dared to challenge the “Lincoln as martyr” image in the public eye. As historians, we are used to nuanced, complex arguments; we challenge each other and accept that there is room for multiple interpretations of primary sources. However, most students and, as I was reminded recently, most of the American public do not see evidence this way. Particularly when they involve figures who are widely revered and admired, documents are often read to reinforce preexisting beliefs, rather than to attempt to understand the various ways the document might be interpreted. Lincoln is the man who “freed the slaves” and “saved the Union” to most Americans. He is a heroic figure, martyred on Good Friday, and revered as “Father Abraham” to many in his own time. A more complex interpretation of the man and his presidency, which involves raising issues of racial attitudes, personal relationships, and political ambitions, has the potential to shatter such a rosy view of the “Great Emancipator.”
I ran into this while working with a colleague who, while an academic, is not a historian. He was very disturbed by the idea that there could be multiple interpretations of Lincoln’s legacy; in his mind, one had to be right, and he was determined to find the “right” one. I find this in the classroom as well; students are sometimes frustrated that there is no one single “correct” answer to complex questions involving interpretation of documents. A brief look at the “House Divided” speech helps illustrate this problem. Lincoln gave this speech on the final day of the 1858 Republican State Convention in Illinois after he was nominated as the party’s candidate for U.S. Senate, and it has become one of his most famous addresses.
First of all, the context of the speech is important. Lincoln had run for senate in the previous election, in 1854-55. Back then, elections were very different from today. The public did not elect senators; the Illinois General Assembly members did. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 opened a hornet’s nest of political discord, so the voting in the Assembly was indicative of members’ opinions regarding that legislation. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, sponsored by Stephen A. Douglas, allowed the residents of those territories to decide whether or not slavery would be permitted. Its passage ended the fragile balance of free and slave states crafted by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The 1854 senatorial election was dominated by this issue. Lincoln, who had the most votes of all of the candidates but not the majority, eventually released his delegates to another candidate, breaking a deadlock at the meeting. Lincoln clearly engaged in a remarkable act of sacrifice.
It would not be out of line to suggest that Lincoln’s previous experience might have played a role in his political strategy when he ran again in 1858. Lincoln received the newly formed Republican Party’s nomination, where he would run against the Democrats’ Douglas, the author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The “House-Divided” speech was his acceptance speech, and, like most of Lincoln’s speeches, was carefully crafted. At the time Lincoln gave it, this speech was highly controversial; he was warned by his own party that it was too forward-thinking for the time. The “house divided” rhetoric, taken directly from the New Testament of the Bible, is contained in the first paragraph. Because this rhetoric is so striking and occurs early in the speech, the document has entered public consciousness as a work about ending slavery. That is one possible interpretation. Another interpretation is that Lincoln used this speech as the beginning of his campaign against Stephen Douglas.
There is no reason that both interpretations cannot be correct. Lincoln clearly took a position regarding slavery in this speech. However, the “house divided” imagery usually is interpreted to mean that Lincoln sought to end slavery entirely: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” This classic read of the document results in the conclusion that Lincoln, from day one, sought to emancipate the slaves. Actually, in the “House-Divided” speech, Lincoln proposes two alternatives: “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.” Emancipation is not an alternative presented here. Rather, Lincoln argues for the prevention of the extension of slavery into new territories. This was conducive with more moderate Republican positions of Lincoln’s era; abolitionists were considered more radical by most in Lincoln’s party. In this speech, Lincoln clearly states the more moderate view: slavery should be prevented from expanding and thus will eventually fade away. He does not advocate abolition by any stretch of the imagination; he, in fact, believed that those states in which slavery was an established practice were protected by the Constitution and thus could not be subject to abolition.
It is fascinating that most Americans know this document only by its first paragraph. The remainder of the speech is a highly political case against the Democratic Party and Douglas in particular. Lincoln argues that Douglas and his party have launched a pointed campaign to make slavery legal throughout the United States; in essence, this speech compels the listener/reader to believe that a vote for Douglas is a vote for ensuring that the United States will be a nation united under slavery. It is a campaign speech. Yet it endures in public memory as a document that advocates the end of slavery—the end of a “house divided.”
My colleague’s distress with the fact that Lincoln could have been human instead of a martyr beyond reproach reminds me that the study of primary sources is crucial to our understanding of history in all its complexity and contradictions. Lincoln’s “House-Divided” speech is a wonderful example of a document that, upon close study, reveals the possibility of multiple interpretations of historical events. Lincoln can remain the president of public admiration while still being a man of his political context and developing attitudes about slavery. The danger is when we don’t study these documents but instead merely rely on what is passed on second hand.
Karen Linkletter is lecturer in American studies at California State University, Fullerton.