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


Starting Points Journal: “Lincoln’s House Divided and Ours”

By Justin Dyer


“All three of the synoptic Gospels tell a story in which Jesus says, “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” Abraham Lincoln alluded to this at the close of the 1858 Illinois Republican Party Convention, where he had just been nominated as the Republican Party candidate for U.S. Senate in a race against the Democratic incumbent, Stephen Douglas.

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. That institution stood as a contradiction and scandal in light of our founding affirmation of natural equality, natural rights, and government by consent…”

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Justin DyerJustin Dyer is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri. His research spans the fields of American political development, political philosophy, and constitutional law. He is particularly interested in the interaction between the American political tradition and the perennial philosophy of natural law. Ongoing research projects examine the role of classical and modern natural-law philosophy in early American political thought and constitutional theory.  He is the author or co-author of several books, including C.S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law (Cambridge University Press, 2016), Slavery, Abortion, and the Politics of Constitutional Meaning (Cambridge University Press, 2013), and Natural Law and the Antislavery Constitutional Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

Professor Dyer is a JMC faculty partner.

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