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Houses Divided: Lincoln, Douglas, and the Political Landscape of 1858


The Nominating Process

This Teaching the JAH segment was created by Allen C. Guelzo

The prize for which Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas were bidding in 1858 was one of the two U.S. Senate seats from Illinois. Douglas was the incumbent and a prominent figure in the Democratic party. Not only had he had held that seat since 1848, but he had used the influence and leverage that went with being a U.S. Senator to build a formidable Democratic backing in Illinois to ensure his regular reelection. But the process by which candidates for the Senate were put forward was quite different from the way it works today.

In the 1850s, candidates for political offices were nominated by interlocking levels of local, county, and district conventions, called by each political party’s state, county, and local central committees. Democratic candidates for the state legislature would be nominated by a convention drawn from Democrats of each state legislative district; candidates for the U.S. Congress would be nominated by a convention of Democrats from each U.S. Congressional district; and so forth. But the nomination process for candidates for U.S. Senate was different. Until 1912, U.S. Senators were elected, not directly by the people of each state, but by the state legislature. Because most state legislatures sat for two-year terms and U.S. Senators sat for six-year terms in Washington, state legislatures were choosing Senators two out of every three times a newly elected legislature met. In Illinois in 1858, state legislators elected in the November elections would vote for a U.S. Senator when the new legislature convened for the first time in January 1859. Senate nominations would be made between the November election and the January meeting of the legislature. The vote-getting would take place, not among the people at large or in a nominating convention, but among candidates who announced their own candidacy and the new members of the state legislature. An exception to this process could occur for incumbent Senators, such as Douglas, who had their performance over the preceding six years “approved” by the party’s state convention. Otherwise, all the activity for electing Illinois Senators took place after the November elections.

Lincoln broke from that system in 1858. The Republican party, Lincoln’s party, was a new political player in Illinois and the nation. The first Republican organization had taken place in 1854, and Lincoln would be the first candidate Illinois Republicans would run for the Senate. As a new party, the Republicans were very loosely organized. If they wanted to succeed against an opponent as formidable as Stephen A. Douglas, they needed to clearly and strongly indicate their choice for candidate for the Senate and discourage other ambitious Republicans from dividing the party’s strength with Senate campaigns of their own. The Illinois Republican state committee used their state nominating convention in June 1858 not only to nominate the usual candidates for state offices but to put forward Lincoln as “the first and only choice of the Republicans of Illinois for the U.S. Senate, as the successor of Stephen A. Douglas.” This unusual gesture made two things clear: First, the Illinois Republican leadership would not tolerate any Illinois Republicans running themselves for Douglas’s Senate seat; and, second, Illinois voters were on notice that their votes in the November legislative elections would also be votes, by proxy, for either Lincoln or Douglas.

Lincoln was invited after the nomination to deliver a speech that would set out his principles. It became famous as his “house divided” speech, one of the most famous of Lincoln’s utterances, but also one of the strangest, since it accused President James Buchanan, President Franklin Pierce, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, and Senator Douglas of conspiring to force slavery onto the free states.

Questions

  • What purpose was served by making this speech at the Republican state convention?
  • What are the sources of its biblical allusions?
  • How would this speech sound to Illinois voters?

Sources

A. Excerpt from “Republican State Convention,” Jacksonville (Ill.) Sentinel, June 25, 1858.

B. Excerpt from “The Republican Convention,” Quincy Daily Whig and Republican, June 21, 1858.

C. Charles S. Wilson to Abraham Lincoln, May 31, 1858, in The Lincoln Papers, ed. David C. Mearns (2 vols., Garden City, 1948), I, 208.

D. Abraham Lincoln, “‘A House Divided’: Speech at Springfield, Illinois,” June 16, 1858, in Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler (8 vols., New Brunswick, 1953), II, 461.

E. Abraham Lincoln to John L. Scripps, June 23, 1858, in Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler (8 vols., New Brunswick, 1953), II, 471.

F. “Mr. Lincoln Showing His Spots,” Springfield Illinois State Register, June 26, 1858.