Lincoln, “A House Divided,” Teaching-Learning Materials

Classroom Activities 

  1. Did Lincoln make the conspiracy argument credible?  Why or why not?  If not, how could it have been improved?
  2. Was there a real threat of “Dred Scott II“?  Why or why not?
  3. What are some contemporary examples of conspiracy arguments?  How are they similar to and different from the ones Lincoln employed?
  4. Was Lincoln wise to pose the asymmetric alternatives of national slavery and containment (rather than abolition)?  Should he have selected different alternatives?  Why or why not?
  5. In what ways was Lincoln’s historical reconstruction selective?  Was his conclusion about the course of history plausible?
  6. How strong was Lincoln’s critique of the Dred Scott decision?  Should he have acknowledged that it seemed to undermine not only “squatter sovereignty” but also the Republican platform?
  7. Suppose that Lincoln could have foreseen that the speech would have been a political liability in the short run.  What if anything should he have changed in the speech in an attempt to avoid this problem?
  8. On balance, was the “House Divided” speech more helpful or more harmful to Lincoln? Please explain.
  9. The danger of arousing an indifferent public is that individuals can become influenced by a demagogue.  Is this a greater or lesser threat than public apathy?  Why?

Student Research

  1. Research Stephen Douglas’s response to the Dred Scott decision and write a paper that discusses the differences between Douglas’s response compared to Lincoln’s.
  2. Research the history of the Illinois Republican Party in 1858, tracing its genesis as well as the varying divisions within the party. In addition, discuss the relationship between the Republican Party and the Whig Party that is traced to the 1830s and the era of Jacksonian Democracy. In addition, discuss the demise of the Whig Party in Illinois as well as the reasons for its downfall.
  3. Write a paper that discusses the Lecompton constitution controversy and the role it served in the 1858 election, particularly its impact on the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
  4. Was there a significant danger that Douglas might leave the Democratic Party or that Illinois Republicans might support him? Research this question and write a short paper that defends your position.
  5. This research project asks you to trace the origins of the antislavery vs. proslavery arguments back to the American Republic. In the process, be sure to identify those political leaders who spoke in favor of slavery, those who spoke against it, and those who featured more compromised positions on the controversial issue.
  6. Research the recurrent features of conspiracy arguments. In particular, synthesize those studies that feature the existence and tenor of conspiracy arguments within the nineteenth century surrounding the issues of slavery.
  7. Analyze the “House Divided” speech according narrative theory? What are important conclusions you can draw about Lincoln’s use of narrative? What distinguishes his narratives within this particular speech?
  8. Analyze the scriptural references in the “House Divided” speech. What do such religious references tell us about Lincoln’s arguments on slavery within the speech? What do such scriptures tell us about Lincoln’s religious convictions—a topic of considerable debate among Lincoln scholars.
  9. Read Lincoln’s past speeches to determine if he uses “house divided” images prior to June 16, 1858. If so, what are the similarities and differences among his uses of such house divided imagery? In particular, assess the echoes of the “House Divided” speech in the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

Citizenship Resources

  1. Lincoln was concerned that the public was becoming tranquilized by Douglas’s “don’t care” advocacy.  Is an indifferent public a threat to citizenship?  Why or why not?
  2. Can today’s public be described as indifferent? What are the similarities and/or differences between the public of Lincoln’s era and the public of today?
  3. Compare Lincoln’s strategies to arouse the public with those that are often employed today by more contemporary political leaders.
  4. By what standards should citizens evaluate Lincoln’s arguments and evidence?  Would those same standards of judgment be effective in evaluating contemporary political arguments?
  5. Lincoln clearly objected to the Dred Scott decision.  How well did he express his objections?  How can citizens today effectively express their disagreement with Supreme Court decisions, especially while maintaining respect for the Court?
  6. Although the issues differ, the polarization of contemporary American politics sometimes is compared to the period before the Civil War.   How can citizens effectively speak out in the face of political polarization?  Are our challenges today easier or harder than Lincoln’s?