Classic Leadership Wisdom: Lincoln and “a House Divided”

We’re all familiar with Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (“Four score and seven years ago …”) and his Second Inaugural Address (“With malice toward none; with charity for all …”). But there are many lesser-known jewels among Lincoln’s hundreds of letters, speeches, and proclamations–all worthy of study by leaders.

One of them is a speech he gave in 1858 to a state political convention in Springfield, Illinois, several months before his famous series of debates with Senator Stephen Douglas. In it, we can hear him shaping the case against the institution of slavery.

Perhaps surprisingly, he did not start the speech with a direct attack on slavery itself. Rather, he pointed to the weakness and transiency of “a house divided” and sought to disabuse his listeners of the belief (which many politicians of the time held) that things could simply continue as they were, with slavery legal in the South and illegal in the North.

“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.

“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 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.”

–Abraham Lincoln, June 16, 1858



About Jocelyn R Davis

Jocelyn Davis is Principal of Seven Learning, a leadership development firm that creates a lasting lift in leaders' effectiveness using classic books, films, and stories.
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