Is America’s House Divided Again?

By L. John Van Til

Is America's House Divided Again?
Is America’s House Divided Again?
The Center For Vision & Values
The Center For Vision & Values

Grove City, PA –-( Having just viewed Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” and knowing that Lincoln’s birthday is approaching, it seemed fitting to ponder one of Lincoln’s most famous speeches, and perhaps a lesson for Americans today.

On June 17, 1858, Lincoln gave his famous “House Divided” address while being nominated to run for the U.S. Senate seat in Illinois.

Lincoln told his friends, who objected to that phrase, that he chose it because it was a biblical idea familiar to the American public. Lincoln quoted Jesus Christ: “A house divided against itself cannot stand” (Mark 3:25).

Lincoln went on to say, “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 of the other.”

At the time of the speech, Lincoln had already been intimately involved in national debates about the nature of the Union for more than a decade. He was prescient about many things, including the coming of war.

How did the Civil War come about and how did Lincoln understand it? What was the basis of this struggle that divided the nation? What prompted Lincoln to speak of a “house divided?”

The Founders had not settled the questions of black slavery and of sovereignty—both at the state and national levels. They did not because these issues were intimately tied together and at the heart of how the nation defined itself.

As for sovereignty, each state had claimed it fully under the Articles of Confederation. That document did not work well, so a convention was called to create a wholly new document—the federal Constitution of 1789. But, the new Constitution did not deal directly with the questions of slavery and sovereignty either. The Founders, and their successors for several generations, were content to deal with these issues by a series of compromises. As we say today, they “kicked the can down the road.” Typically, these compromises were like “The Compromise of 1820,” whose principle feature was to admit two new states at the same time—one with and one without slavery. Many, like Lincoln, had no difficulty with this practice because they believed that slavery as an economic system was failing and would die out in the face of the growing industrial revolution.

By 1850 the compromise system was breaking down as many Southern leaders began to vigorously advance the doctrine of the supremacy of state sovereignty. Moreover, the difference between an emerging industrial North and a continuing cotton-based, agrarian South revealed that the North and the South had different visions of what the nation ought to be. Lincoln understood this and spoke about it often.

The election of 1860 was crucial in deciding whether the house divided would stand or fall. Republican Lincoln was one of four presidential candidates in that election. He won. Southern states seceded. The war came. The primary issue was not slavery, but, as Lincoln said, the preservation of the Union. The Union won, and the house was no longer divided, or so it seemed.

During the war, and after, congressional statutes, constitutional amendments, and a reconstruction program abolished slavery and defined national sovereignty, all through the exercise of unprecedented federal power. This is a very important point. Reconstruction ended in 1877, and national leaders turned their attention to the settlement of the West and a rapidly expanding industrialism. It took a long time—decades—but that expansive federal power used to end the Civil War continued to grow and eventually became an important political issue, even a defining one.

Historians routinely point out that the two World Wars, the New Deal, Square Deal, Fair Deal, and Great Society all steadily expanded federal power. More recently, President Obama and his supporters have sought to dramatically increase federal power to achieve their new vision for America.

It seems to some that Obama’s agenda includes a use of power that echoes European-style socialist states. But, there is one huge difference: The American system grants considerable power to the president—which Obama’s followers seem eager to use, or threaten to use.

Perceptive observers see that the Founders’ view conflicts with Obama’s. Recent political gridlock in Congress and in the states is evidence of this fundamental division.

This division has not yet reached crisis proportions, but it may not be far away. There are murmurings in some states to secede in the face of massive and growing federal power. Moreover, it is possible that the federal government may spend itself into oblivion.

If Lincoln were with us today, he might ask: “Is America’s house divided again?” He might suggest, too, that it cannot stand unless the conflicting visions are resolved, one way or another.

— Dr. L. John Van Til is a fellow for humanities, faith, and culture with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.

© 2013 by The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. The views & opinions expressed herein may, but do not necessarily, reflect the views of Grove City College.

  • 3 thoughts on “Is America’s House Divided Again?

    1. The problem with federalism is that it provides a top-down, one-size-fits-all solution to all problems. Fifty nominally sovereign states, each working on their own problems (no matter whether their systems function under capitalist or socialist ideals) would provide fifty sets of economic and social experiments. Their results could be analyzed and the “best practices” of each state could be applied in those states that wished to adopt those practices to their own situations. This would result in continuous evolution and improvement; a constant cycle of action, analysis, and adoption of best practices over time.

      The problem with a federal, top-down solution is that if it’s wrong and doesn’t work, we’re all screwed. Because it can never provide a best solution, tailored for the needs of individual states, the probability of it providing correct solutions is practically nil.

      “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying all the wrong remedies.”
      Groucho Marx

    2. Please explain “The American system grants considerable power to the president…”. Exactly what considerable power does the Constitution grant to the President on internal matters? If you read the Constitution it limits the President’s power on internal matters. The “federal government” has taken power by ignoring the Constitution.

    3. Lincoln not only said the Civil War was about slavery, he wrote it down, gave the note about that to the Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, Keeping the Union together, as you will see, was the only way to stop the spread of slavery.

      Tearing the Union apart, as you will see, was the only way to spread slavery.

      Stephens went to see Lincoln just before the Civil War started – to give Lincoln the Five Ultimatums,. Do you know about Stephens trip to DC just after he became VP of the Confederacy?

      Of course you don’t.

      Do you know about the Southern War Ultimatums he carried with him, five ultimatums, each one about the same thing — the spread of slavery.

      These war ultimatums were not a secret — in fact Richmond newspapers headlines were about the war ultimatums, the headline read “THE TRUE ISSUE”.

      Do you know what the true issue was, according to Southern newspapers at the time?

      The spread of slavery into Kansas and the west.

      No one was surprised in the slightest — this was the issue for at least 10 years already. New York papers reprinted the South’s war ultimatums, and suggested Lincoln obey them. Let them spread slavery into Kansas and the West.

      But Lincoln could not, would not, and was not even given the chance to allow the spread of slavery in Kansas in the West — the Southern states seceded before he got to DC, and the killing was already going oo in Kansass, led by US Senator Davis Rice Atchison.

      Do you know who David Rice Atchison is? US Senator, who got Kansas Act passed for “voting rights” for Kansas whites, who then immediately left for Kansas, and started terrorizing and killing to stop anyone from voting against slavery. You should read Atchison speech bragged he was killing to spread slavery “for the entire South” and would spread slavery all the way to the Pacific Ocean He didn’t admit it, he boasted of it.

      Just like the Richmond headlines did not admit the spread of slavery was their war ultimatm, they boasted of it.

      Until they lost. After the war, the exact same folks who previously bragged they were killing to spread slaveyr, the exact same editors who boasted before, were silent about their previous war ultimatums. Not one word.

      Their children, and grandchildren, would write glorious histories about that time, claiming their fathers and grandfathers were for states rights. No one hated states rights more than the Southern leaders, when Kansas rejected slavery. They did not just send killers to Kansas to force slavery down their throats, when that did not work, they issued war ultimatums. When that did not work, the started a civil war.

      When that did not worked, like the cowards they always were, they then pretended they were for state’srights all along.

      Only, their own newspapers, their own documents, their own books at the time, still existed. Never mind, lets just hope people are so stupid they wont notice.

      Lincoln’s House Divided SPeech was about the killngs in Kansas. Did you know that? About how Atchison (Lincoln does not use his name, but that is who he was talking about() got the Kansas Act passed, it was part of a plan to spread slavery into Kansas and the West. Exactly what Atchison, and others, admitted to at the time.

      The Dred Scott decision — which came about to justify Atchison’s killings in Kansas ( Atchison met resistance in Kansas and needed legal back up, after the fact, which Dred Scott essentially was). was another part of the plan to spread slavery, said Lincoln. Lincoln called in “machinery” set in motion for one purpose, to spread slavery, and spread it against the will of the people.

      House Divided speech was Lincoln’s polite way of exposing what everyone already knew – the South was spreading slavery all through the US. By the “logic” of Dred Scott, no one could stop slavery from spreading. Blacks were declared not persons, but property. And the Dred Scott decision specifically ordered the federal government to protect those “property rights” in slaves. Blacks were “so inferior” said the court nine times in that decision, that no white man could reasonably believe God gave them inalienable rights.

      By ordering – yes the Dred Scott court ordered — that blacks be seen as property, and ordered the federal government to protect that property (read the decision if you don’t believe me) the machinery, started by Kansas Act (a child of David Rice Atchison himself ) made it impossible to reject slavery, even by vote of the people.

      Kansas people proved that — they voted 90% against slavery — to which Jefferson Davis replied, that a majority of the people did not rule, and never did rule. I bet you know that Davis quote — quite famous — he was talking about the Kansas votes against slavery.

      In fact Jefferson Davis in his own book, wrote that the resistance to the spread of slavery into Kansas was the “intolerable grievance”. Did you know that, or not? And Davis specifically and at length claimed the Dred Scott decision gave the South the right to spread slavery there. Davis was boasting of exactly the machinery Lincoln spoke about — LIncoln condemned it, Davis boasted of it.

      So learn what was going on, when Lincoln have his House Divided Speech.

      So when LIncoln wrote that famous three sentence to Greeley — in 1862 — he was saying artfully, what he had said so many times before. Either slavery would spread or the Union would stand. Keeping the Union together meant the South could not force slavery — by killing or otherwise . One had to go. One had to stay.

      Slavery was a cancer, Lincoln said, to top that cancer, you stop the spread, and the cancer dies.

      Again, Southern leaders agreed with Lincoln, but in a different set of words — stop the spread of slavery and you end the white race, said Robert Toombs. Just stopping the spread of slavery is like “burning us to death slowly” said the Southern Declaration of Causes, in Florida.

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