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What happens when a small-town lawyer goes through a midlife crisis, decides to run for president on the most outrageous platform imaginable, and then actually succeeds?

Abraham Lincoln was halfway into his 50th year in the summer of 1858, and he couldn’t help wondering if his achievements would forever fall short of his dreams. He had been practicing law in Springfield, Illinois, for two decades, and had achieved most of what an able attorney could hope for in a small town in rural America. His fees for representing the Illinois Central Railroad allowed him to indulge his wife, Mary, in her incessant social climbing; she had just added a second story to the family’s Greek Revival house in Springfield, and had unveiled her remodeling efforts at a grand party for 300 of the people she most hoped to impress. Lincoln himself had earned a reputation for professional competence and offbeat humor; his improbable anecdotes occasioned groans as often as laughter, but listeners generally stuck with him till the end and appreciated his point.

Yet he wanted more. Indeed, he often felt he needed more. Lincoln’s friends and close associates knew he was prone to depression—“melancholy,” as that era dubbed it. Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon would watch him enter the office, start to work and then drift into aimless distraction, till he could do nothing but stare out the window in a blue funk. “Gloom and sadness were his predominant state,” Herndon recalled.

Henry Clay Whitney rode the lawyers’ circuit with Lincoln and occasionally shared a hotel room with him. Whitney remembered one of Lincoln’s spells: “I was awakened early, before daylight, by my companion sitting up in bed, his figure dimly visible by the ghostly firelight, and talking the wildest and most incoherent nonsense all to himself. A stranger to Lincoln would have supposed he had suddenly gone insane.” Lincoln woke himself up with his talking, Whitney added. “He sprang out of bed, hurriedly washed, and jumped into his clothes, put some wood on the fire, and then sat in front of it, moodily, dejectedly, in a most sombre and gloomy spell, till the breakfast bell rang.”

Lincoln’s state of mind worsened as he reached middle age, aggravated by a nagging fear that life was passing him by. The practice of law left him unfulfilled. His marriage had lost its spark. He had tried his hand at politics, and his minor triumphs briefly mitigated his melancholy. But he never found a consistent formula for reaching voters. His two-year stint in Congress, now a decade past, had been undistinguished, unappreciated and unrepeated.

He didn’t lack talent or ambition, or at least he didn’t think he did. Looking around, Lincoln felt himself as capable as many who passed him on the political ladder. He publicly mocked those “great and good men sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake…whose ambition would aspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair.” But his ridicule cut close to home, and all the closer as the years slipped by. He wanted another opportunity to make a name for himself on the national stage.

William Herndon recognized the ambition beneath Lincoln’s melancholy. “He was always calculating, and always planning ahead,” Herndon said. “His ambition was a little engine that knew no rest.” What Lincoln agonized over, and what oppressed his soul, was how to put that engine on the track to success.

Abraham Lincoln would prove to be the greatest president in American history. Yet he wasn’t born great, and there was nothing inevitable about his ascent to American pantheon. He was an ordinary human being who had to base critical decisions on intuition and incomplete information, and he could never know until after the fact if he was doing the right thing. When he discovered he wasn’t, he altered course and carried on.

In the summer of 1858, an ambitious small-town lawyer facing a midlife crisis, Lincoln dropped a bombshell on a country experiencing a midlife crisis of its own. In the process, he not only vaulted to political prominence, but also became acutely aware of the provocative power of his words in a nation on the verge of tearing itself apart.

America’s midlife crisis had been building for some time. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 triggered a bloody battle between proslavery and antislavery forces in Kansas. The act allowed settlers of both persuasions to enter the territory and promised that whoever attained a majority would write the laws of the state Kansas would become. The competition for Kansas produced numerous incidents of murder and arson in the territory, and it engaged the passions of the entire nation as pro- and antislavery forces sent moral, financial and material support to their Kansas proxies. The Supreme Court’s landmark Dred Scott decision of 1857 inflamed American passions more. The high court ruled that slavery could not be barred from the federal territories, and it did so with reasoning that suggested that it might determine that slavery could not be barred from the states either. The opponents of slavery were appalled, and vehemently said so.

They also organized, primarily in the nascent Republican Party. Two principles united the new party: opposition to slavery and support for business. The balance between the two principles varied from state to state, depending on the personalities of the local leaders and the relative importance they placed on preaching to the choir and trying to expand the congregation. Pro-business platforms were inclusive but did little to stir the souls of the faithful; strong antislavery statements thrilled those on the inside but frightened those on the outside and gave pause to many hesitating at the door.

The founding of the Republicans promised Lincoln a chance to revive his political career. A new party needed new men, and Lincoln judged that he was as capable as any. He tried to appeal to the new group with his humor. Most of his fellow Re – publicans were better known than he was, he admitted at an early gathering of the Illinois party. He said he felt like an ugly man who met a woman on the road. “You are the homeliest man I ever saw,” she declared. The man replied, “I can’t help it.” She rejoined: “I suppose not. But you might stay home.”

In May 1856 in Bloomington, Lincoln delivered a rousing address at the inaugural convention of the Illinois Republicans on the need to resist the expansion of slavery and to preserve the Union against the threats of secession-minded slaveholders. “Liberty and Union,” he quoted Daniel Webster, “now and forever, one and inseparable.”

The remarks electrified the convention delegates. “His speech was full of fire and energy and force,” William Herndon remarked. “It was logic; it was pathos; it was enthusiasm; it was justice, equity, truth, and right set ablaze by the divine fires of a soul maddened by the wrong; it was hard, heavy, knotty, gnarly, backed with wrath….If Mr. Lincoln was six feet, four inches high usually, at Blooming ton that day he was seven feet.”

Lincoln, gratified at the response, followed up his convention address with stump speeches on behalf of the Republican candidate for president that year, John C. Frémont. Although Frémont lost, Lincoln continued to impress Republicans in Illinois, and as they looked to the 1858 state and congressional elections, many deemed Lincoln their strongest candidate. When the party gathered at Spring – field that June, it nominated him for the U.S. Senate.

Lincoln had often been compelled to think on his feet in the courtroom, but he never learned to enjoy the experience. He preferred, when possible, to write out his speeches in advance, choosing his words carefully, weighing his phrases for felicity and likely impact on the minds of his listeners.

In composing his acceptance ad – dress to the Springfield convention, he appreciated that he had never delivered a more important speech in his life. He knew that if he didn’t make this moment count, there might never be another. The political fates had awarded him a second chance; he couldn’t reasonably expect a third.

Lincoln considered his audience. His first listeners were the Republicans at the Springfield convention. The delegates had honored him with the Senate nomination; he must acknowledge the honor and repay it.

Beyond Springfield and the state Republican Party was the Illinois electorate. Most Illinois voters weren’t Republicans, but some who weren’t might be drawn to the party if he made its cause appear compelling. Beyond Illinois was the country. Lincoln would have been dreaming to conceive a national role for himself; he hadn’t even gotten out of Spring – field, let alone Illinois. But he did dream. Someone must speak for the Republican Party, for its interpretation of freedom and equality. And if the country responded, there was no telling how far that person might go.

It was a risky business. For half a decade the country had verged on explosion. The South was hyper – sensitive on the subject of slavery; Southerners scrutinized the statements of every Northern leader of note, looking for signs that they wished ill to the institution of slavery not simply in the territories but in the South itself.

Yet the Republican rank and file sought precisely such statements. For public consumption, Republican office holders frequently felt obliged to tiptoe around the moral question at the heart of the slavery debate, lest the South take offense and threaten— again—to secede. But ordinary Republicans, and even those officeholders in private, understood slavery as preeminently a moral problem, and almost to a man they believed that the issue wouldn’t be finally resolved until the last slave had been freed.

Lincoln had long cast himself as a moderate, a reasonable person no one need fear. But as he weighed his words that June, and as he looked back over his life and career, he had to ask himself where moderation had gotten him. Another moderate speech might well leave him stuck where he was, in the rut of a dismal road to a hopeless future.

He determined to break out of his rut and blaze a new trail for himself. Republicans wanted to hear moral truth; he would give them moral truth, no matter the danger of provoking the South. He drafted his opening lines and tested them on Herndon and a few others. Herndon thought he went too far. “It is true,” Herndon said of Lincoln’s interpretation of the slave question. “But is it wise or politic to say so?”

Lincoln refused to be deterred. Having made his choice, he plunged ahead. He addressed the convention calmly, scarcely raising his voice. But the content of his phrases couldn’t have been louder.

A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe that this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.

This was explosive language, and Lincoln knew it. He let the message sink in as he elaborated:

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 the 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.

Listeners who knew Lincoln as a moderate could hardly believe their ears. He had stolen the language of the radicals—the language of the Northern abolitionists.

Lincoln reviewed the record. For three decades slavery had been forbidden in most of the western territories, under the terms of the Missouri Compromise. But the Kansas-Nebraska law repealed the compromise, opening the territories to the possibility of slavery. Then the Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott that slavery could not be barred from the territories. Given the trend of events, Lincoln argued, a man didn’t have to be a radical, or even an alarmist, to wonder if the court would soon rule that slavery must be reinstated in the North.

Lincoln’s words stole the breath from his Springfield listeners, who wondered that the modest man they had known had become such a bomb-thrower. They stared, rapt, as he drove on to his finish. The slaveholder plot must be resisted, Lincoln said, and it would be defeated.

Two years ago the Republicans of the nation mustered over thirteen hundred thousand strong. We did this under the single impulse of resistance to a common danger, with every external circumstance against us….Did we brave all then, to falter now?…The result is not doubtful. We shall not fail….The victory is sure to come.

Lincoln had intended to cause a sensation with his speech, but even he didn’t foresee the response it stirred. The Chicago Daily Tribune printed the address, drawing attention from all around the state. John L. Scripps, the editor of the rival (but soon amalgamated) Daily Democratic Press, wrote Lincoln requesting clarification. Scripps liked the speech, but he worried that it might give the wrong impression to the less convinced, including “some of my Kentucky friends who want to be Republicans but who are afraid we are not sufficiently conservative.” Scripps quoted the house-divided passage back to Lincoln, with its prediction that slavery would either be banished from America or take over the country. “This they hold is an implied pledge on behalf of the Republican party to make war upon the institution in the States where it now exists.” Could Lincoln reassure these people?

Lincoln feigned surprise that his words were so interpreted. “I am much flattered by the estimate you place on my late speech,” he wrote Scripps. “And yet I am much mortified that any part of it should be construed so differently from any thing intended by me….I have declared a thousand times, and now repeat, that in my opinion neither the General Government nor any other power outside of the slave states can constitutionally or rightfully interfere with slaves or slavery where it already exists.” All the same, Lincoln refused to retract what he had said. And he didn’t wish Scripps to do so on his behalf. “I do not intend this for publication,” he told the editor.

Lincoln’s bombshell instantly made him a figure to contend with. His opponent for the Senate was Democratic incumbent Stephen Douglas, a man Lincoln had watched advance while his own career stagnated. Douglas fancied himself the “Little Giant,” with the adjective measuring his physical stature (5 feet 4 inches tall, a full head shorter than Lincoln) and the noun the political significance he attained. On the issue of slavery, he had also assumed the mantle of the Senate’s compromiser-in-chief. Douglas had intended to ignore Lincoln—to brush him aside as the upstart he was and waltz to reelection for a third term. But the provocative words of the House Divided speech won the upstart sudden notice, and Douglas was compelled to consent to a series of debates.

The Douglas-Lincoln debates (the order of nomenclature was reversed later) galvanized the country. The autumn of 1858 was a slow season in American politics, by contrast to the turmoil of the previous years, and with no presidential race to cover, no landmark legislation and no controversial Supreme Court decisions, the national press turned to Illinois. “Messrs. Douglas and Lincoln had a grand tilt at Ottawa, Ill., last week,” the reporter for The New York Times sent to cover the debates recounted in a typical dispatch. A correspondent stuck in Washington wished he were in Illinois. “The engrossing topic of conversation,” he said of the political classes in the capital, “is the fierce contest in Illinois, and how it will end….The politicians of all sorts are agog to see a report of the encounter between Douglas and Lincoln.”

Douglas got the better of the debates, if the outcome of the Senate campaign was the measure. Once again, he would represent Illinois in the Senate. National Democrats all but anointed Douglas to bear the party’s standard in the 1860 presidential race. “He will have the whole Democratic Party of the North, and the conservative portion of that party at the South, at his back,” The New York Times predicted. “He can scarcely fail to secure the nomination for the Presidency.”

Yet Lincoln benefited as well. In debating Douglas he earned a national platform, and though he remained an outsider heading toward 1860, the searing clarity of his forecast for the country gave him moral standing that other prominent Republicans had difficulty matching. William Seward of New York, once considered the party’s most likely presidential nominee, spoke of an “irrepressible conflict” between slavery and freedom— but only after Lincoln had made the same point with better imagery.

All the same, the nearer Lincoln got to the nomination the more circumspectly he spoke. Southerners condemned Republicans as abolitionists bent on triggering rebellion among slaves and pointed to John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, Va., in October 1859 as evidence of what incitements like Lincoln’s House Divided speech inevitably led to.

Lincoln answered by softening his tone. At the Cooper Institute in New York in February 1860, he disavowed any desire to tamper with slavery in the South. “Wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is,” he said. He accused Southerners of being the extremists, for demanding Northern complicity in their slaveholding practices. “Silence will not be tolerated; we must place ourselves avowedly with them,” Lincoln paraphrased the Southern demands. “We must arrest and return their fugitive slaves with greedy pleasure. We must pull down our Free State constitutions. The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us.”

In moments of reflection Lincoln realized he had made a devil’s bargain—or perhaps merely a politician’s bargain—in his House Divided address. His provocative words had served his narrow purpose of winning him the attention he craved and the second chance he coveted. “I have never professed an indifference to the honors of official station,” he wrote shortly after the Springfield speech. “Were I to do so now I should only make myself ridiculous.” Lincoln was neither ridiculous nor indifferent, and before long his political career was back on track, with greater momentum than ever.

But those same words incited the South, as he knew they would. Southerners discounted Lincoln’s subsequent disclaimers about leaving slavery alone in the states where it existed; these, they judged, were the obvious insincerities of a candidate seeking office. The closer Lincoln got to the presidency, the more they feared for the future of their section and its institutions, and the more parlous the condition of the Union grew.

Lincoln never retreated from the message of his House Divided speech. He never thought slavery was anything but evil, and he never doubted that someday, somehow, it would disappear from America. But neither, as the slavery crisis drew to a reckoning, did he repeat himself in such stark terms. An unknown aspirant to the Senate might throw a political bomb and get away with it. A man considered for the presidency had to be far more careful.


Originally published in the February 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.