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Adam Carrington: How Abraham Lincoln’s ‘house divided’ speech does and doesn’t apply to today

Adam Carrington

Adam Carrington

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” So said Abraham Lincoln in his “House Divided” speech, given 165 years ago.

Many describe contemporary America in the same terms. We’re a house divided against itself and in danger of collapse. We see dire prognostics about America’s future due to an array of differences — religious, racial and economic. Assessing the accuracy of these dark prophesies requires understanding Lincoln’s words and the state of America’s division today.

When Lincoln used the phrase “a house divided,” he did not intend to equate it with all distinction and disagreement. Our political principles and structures presuppose that we won’t all hold the same principles or draw the same conclusions.

While defending the Constitution, Publius, the pen name for Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, in Federalist No. 10 argues that people’s different circumstances, fallible reason and selfish passions always birth disagreement. A polity could achieve full conformity only through tyrannical means that infringe on liberty and equality.

As free beings, we can and must live with some level of divergent views. That’s one reason to have elections, using them as an orderly and peaceful way to work out our disagreements.

But while we can’t hope for perfect unity, we can’t exist with its opposite. Every political community must hold something in common, or it’s not a community at all. And without some common fundamental purpose, competing ones will work against each other.

What kind of disagreements, then, signal a house divided instead of normal, acceptable differences occurring within a political community? Lincoln pinpointed slavery as marking a fundamentally divided America.

Slavery is clearly a more essential issue than, say, a few percentage points in a tax rate. A position toward slavery deals with the question of human equality, a question that’s essential to politics. If humans are unequal, then the superior have some unilateral justification for ruling their inferiors — up to owning them. But if people are equal, then rule should result only from common consent.

Political communities must choose between these options. In saying that the country could not remain forever half-enslaved and half-free, Lincoln declared that either America would be a republic based in human equality or a monarchy or aristocracy grounded in superiority and subservience. No logical middle ground existed.

Today, we must ask what differences we hold truly rise to the level of slavery — to the level of threatening the structural integrity of America’s house. Debates about particular spending levels do not fit the bill. Americans always have argued about these things without putting the country in existential crisis.

But we do now have conflicts about the nature of people and the purposes of government. On both, we must have some basic unity, or we don’t know who our fellow citizens are or what we’re trying to accomplish together.

Fundamentally different views on human biology are being debated in America’s public square. What makes someone a man or a woman? When does human life begin and end? We see deep divisions about the purposes of government. Do they exist to protect natural rights given by God, to enshrine fashionable dogmas into law, or to support personal libertinism often described as “self-actualization?”

America does resemble two if not three or four peoples when taking these questions into account. We are in those senses a “house divided.”

What, then, does our future hold? If Lincoln is right (and he is) that a house divided cannot stand, will we collapse or renew? History would argue for the latter. Fundamental clashes have occurred before, and in every one, America has remained. And only once — in Lincoln’s time — did those disagreements result in actual civil war. More likely, we will work out a new consensus on the basis of elections, social pressures and cultural influences.

That does not mean the new baseline will be better than what preceded it. Many who celebrate the North’s triumph in 1865 lament President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. Some who thank God for the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s bemoan the sexual revolution. Victories, too, can be somewhat partial, in which one side might gain the essential win but not without some real concessions to their opponents.

Lincoln opened his famous speech by saying, “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, too, must judge America’s current state and tendencies. We, too, must ask what to do and how to do it. A house divided against itself cannot stand. Let us strive for a renewal of our old foundations. Let us so renew for the sake of a better future.

Carrington is an associate professor of politics at Hillsdale College in Michigan.

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