House Divided Speech Analysis
by Abraham Lincoln

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House Divided Speech Analysis

Alliteration and Parallel Structure

Lincoln uses alliteration to establish a rhythmic cadence as he assesses the current problematic national situation: “If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do. . . .”  The first problem is the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Lincoln presents its failure in parallel structure, stating that “the avowed object, and confident promise” that it would put an end to the divisive national debate over slavery has not come to fruition. Instead, the debate “has not only not ceased, but has [been] constantly augmented.”  


Lincoln builds credibility through an appeal to ethos by situating his argument in Christian principles with a biblical allusion from the three synoptic gospels: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” He follows with another rhythmic cadence, stating, “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.” He presents two possibilities for the future of the United States: “Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it. . . or its advocates will push it forward. . .” Following this fairly benign “either/or” structure, Lincoln confronts his non-slaveholding Illinois audience with a startling possibility that had until recently seemed impossible: “till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new, North as well as South. Have we no tendency to the latter condition?”  

Lincoln sets out to prove the possibility of this once unthinkable scenario. He reminds his audience that the damage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act began with its overturn of the Missouri Compromise, which had rendered slavery illegal north of the 36° 30’ line since 1820. Through a metaphor well-suited to the nation’s continued industrialization, he suggests that the Kansas-Nebraska Act (or Nebraska doctrine, as he calls it) and the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Dred Scott decision are a machine that has been constructed specifically to create a certain product. In other words, he believes there has been conspiratorial activity, although he stops short of using the term conspiracy.


Lincoln appeals to logos by retracing the debates that led to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which “opened all the national territory to slavery and was the first point gained,” alongside the Dred Scott decision. He characterizes the use of the phrase “sacred right of self-government” to describe the Kansas-Nebraska Act as “perverted” and provides a logical sequential reasoning: “That if any one man choose to enslave another, no third man shall be allowed to object.”

Transitioning to the Dred Scott case, he continues outlining events leading up to the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott ruling, including questionably timed endorsements by outgoing President Pierce, incoming President Buchanan, and Democratic senatorial candidate Stephen Douglas. He reminds the audience that Douglas’s only real interest in the slavery issue has to do with allowing owners to protect their property. Although Douglas sold the Kansas-Nebraska Act as allowing self-government through popular sovereignty, the Dred Scott case, which Douglas also favors, clearly betrays his pro-slavery beliefs. Lincoln then explains how the eradication of the popular sovereignty principle in the Kansas-Nebraska Act created “an exactly fitted niche for the Dred Scott decision to afterward come in, and declare the perfect freedom of the people to be just no freedom at all.”

Lincoln’s statements are presented a step at a time, grounded in logos. He presents multiple rhetorical questions, all beginning with the common interrogative “Why,” in order to encourage his audience to consider the motivations of his political opponents. He then employs hypophora, or the act of answering one’s own rhetorical question, to emphasize his points:

“Why was the amendment expressly declaring the right...

(The entire section is 977 words.)