The James Wilson Foundation on Natural Rights and the American Founding

“Lincoln’s House Divided and Ours”: Justin Dyer in Starting Points

by James Wilson Institute on December 7, 2020

James Wilson Institute Affiliated scholar Justin Dyer published an article in Starting Points. This article was originally presented as remarks for a panel discussion on race, protests, and justice. In his article, Prof. Dyer analyzes Lincoln’s House Divided speech and his principled fight against slavery. He lays out the wisdom that Lincoln can offer to us today. Dyer explains the need that we have for the study of history, a firm belief in the truth, and substantive civic friendship.

Some excerpts from the article:

In what became known as his House Divided speech, Lincoln famously said: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” We often forget what he said next: “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.”

The rest of Lincoln’s speech was an analysis of why he thought that was the case, why the country could not permanently exist half slave and half free. For Lincoln, this was because of the irreconcilable conflict between the principles of the American founding – that we are all created equal and endowed by our creator with unalienable rights and that the just powers of government are derived from the consent of the governed  – and the way those principles are denied by the institution of slavery. 

There were many reasons for that war – economic and geo-political – but we must not forget that it was marked foremost by deep and irreconcilable differences of principle.

We have focused here on Lincoln’s House Divided speech. Together with his Inaugural Addresses and the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln provided a powerful, extended meditation on the meaning and tragedy and hope of America. And so it is fitting to conclude with the final lines of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, delivered at the close of the Civil War and a month before his own death at the hands of one of his fellow countrymen. “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in . . . to do all which may achieve a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

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Law and liberty cannot rationally become the objects of our love, unless they first become the objects of our knowledge.
— James Wilson, Lectures on Law, 1790