The uses of polarization

n 1858 Abraham Lincoln attained national prominence in the Republican Party as the result of the contest for the Senate seat held by Stephen Douglas. It was Lincoln’s losing campaign against Douglas that made him a figure of sufficient prominence that he could be the party’s 1860 presidential nominee.
At the convention of the Illinois Republican Party in June, Lincoln was the unanimous choice to run against Douglas. After making him its nominee late on the afternoon of June 16, the entire convention returned that evening to hear Lincoln speak. Accepting the convention’s nomination, Lincoln gave one of the most incendiary speeches in American history.
Lincoln electrified the convention, asserting that the institution of slavery had made the United States “a house divided against itself.” Slavery would either be wiped out or become lawful nationwide, Lincoln predicted, provocatively quoting scriptural authority to the effect that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Lincoln did not assert that the house would fall, only that it would cease to be divided. Demonstrating how the speech “changed the course of history,” Harry Jaffa calls it “The speech that changed the world.”
Lincoln’s speech had a notable personal element. Lincoln essentially charged that Douglas was part of a conspiracy to legalize slavery throughout the United States. In Crisis of the House Divided, Jaffa explores Lincoln’s charge at pages 275-293. Jaffa characterizes the charge as “the rhetorical heart of the speech.” Other key conspirators in Lincoln’s account were Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney and Presidents Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan.
NEH Chairman Jim Leach cites Lincoln and and the “House Divided” speech in opposing “polarization” and supporting “civility” in American politics and political discourse. Lincoln’s speech and the related debates of 1858 nevertheless belie Leach’s bromides about as decisively as any historical episode can refute a rule of etiquette. You might almost think Leach doesn’t have any idea what he’s talking about.


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