This is the first essay in a three-part series commemorating the history surrounding theLincoln-Douglas debates and their relevance today.
One hundred and forty-five years ago this month, Abraham Lincoln rose from his seat to address a packed house at the Illinois State Capitol building. In front of a thousand hopeful delegates, he delivered perhaps one of the most powerfully forgotten speeches of his career and, perhaps, our nation’s history.
It was not his address at Gettysburg, it was not his proclamation of emancipation, it was not his first or second inaugural speech. For all intents and purposes, the context did not require any historic words to be uttered. Nevertheless, in true Lincoln fashion, his content superseded the occasion.
It was his acceptance speech for the Republican Senate nomination in Illinois that roused a lanky, unorthodox Abraham Lincoln to thunderously deliver his “House Divided Speech”, which served as an appetizer to his historic bouts with Stephen Douglas a few months later. Referring to the country’s blatant divide over the issue of slavery, Lincoln cited a well-known Biblical phrase as his thesis,
“A house divided against itself cannot stand”
He proceeded to argue that the nation stood at a crossroads, those in favor of slavery and those opposed. As a result, its people must decide which road to take or risk the potentially fatal consequences. Lincoln reassured his audience of his confidence that the “Union” would not fall, but it would surely choose a path. A path begotten from contention, conflict, and “crisis”.
Lincoln then mapped out the uphill battle that he and those present must face in order to blaze a new path of freedom for those enslaved under the supposed constructs of liberty. Verdicts had been made, statutes had been passed, and norms had been established, each posing their own unique obstacles. But his firm words laced with moral fortitude seemed to render the odds obsolete. With a bold conclusion exposing the truth of his rival Douglas’ plans to merely leave slavery up for each state to decide, Lincoln called upon his party to remember their roots, remember their original purpose, and adamantly oppose both a compromise of practicing slavery as well as its outright exercise.
Our nation currently stands at a similar crossroads. With the ever-intrusive hand of the federal government relentlessly regulating, mandating, and manipulating its way into millions of its citizens’ lives, it is clear that our house is not united. Apart from the usual debates between Democrat and Republican which forge strong policy, we have seen an administration blatantly disregard the wishes of its people and states in favor of a predetermined agenda.
For example, the Affordable Care Act has received overwhelming backlash from the states, many of which have opted to not even participate in the lose-lose exchange programs offered by the policy. In fact, just weeks after the policy passed the House, polls found that close to half of voters were opposed to it. An unprecedented law, shrouded in controversy, unread by most of its supporters, and opposed by nearly half of the American public still managed to squeeze by our nation’s legislature and become the law of the land.
So what is our response? How do we make sense of such monstrosities to freedom? Shall we look to our respective parties? Even Lincoln’s fellow Republicans did not fully agree with his notions. Shall we wait and hope for a fearless leader to emerge? History has proved the pitfalls of such power. What then? Perhaps the words of a lanky, unorthodox, one-time grocer familiar with defeat but never influenced by its suggestions can provide some guidance as to which path we shall take.
This path cannot be chosen by the poetic advice of Robert Frost, nor can it be chosen merely by the words of a persuasive orator. Perhaps it takes a unified body with a clear purpose and unwavering sense of right to correctly lay a new path. Perhaps it takes a house.
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