ABRAHAM LINCOLN’S SPEECHES
THE “HOUSE DIVIDED” SPEECH
In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act opened all the remaining territories of the United States
to slavery, according to the will of their inhabitants (to be decided by vote). Even this was not
enough to satisfy many leaders in the Southern States, who wanted to extend slavery
throughout the free states as well. In 1858, Abraham Lincoln was endorsed as the Republican
Party Senatorial candidate for the state of Illinois. On June 16th of that year, he delivered this
speech to the Illinois Republican Convention.
Mr. President and Gentlemen of the Convention: If we could first know where we
are, and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it.
We are now far into the fifth year since a policy was initiated with the avowed
object and confident promise of putting an end to slaver agitation. Under the
operation of that policy, that agitation has not only not ceased, but has constantly
augmented. In my opinion, it will not cease until a crisis shall have been reached
and passed. “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” 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. 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 the States, old as well as new,
North as well as South.
Have we no tendency to the latter condition?
1. What did Lincoln mean when he said “A house divided against itself cannot stand”?
2. What solution did Lincoln propose to solve the conflict over slavery?
3. What did Lincoln expect would happen?
LINCOLN’S FIRST INAUGURAL ADDRESS
Abraham Lincoln was elected president in November 1860. By the time he delivered his
Inaugural Address on March 4th the following year, seven states had seceded from the Union.
Four others soon followed suit. In his speech, Lincoln attempted to reassure the Southern
states that they had nothing to fear from him. (The Inaugural Address is traditionally
delivered by the incoming president immediately before taking office.)
… Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States that, by
the accession of a Republican Administration, their property and their peace and
personal security are to be endangered. There has never been any reasonable cause
for such apprehension. Indeed, the most ample evidence to the contrary has all the
while existed, and been open to their inspection. It is found in nearly all the
published speeches of him who now addresses you. I do but quote from one of
those speeches when I declare that “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to
interfere with the institution of Slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have
no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”…
…A disruption of the Federal Union, heretofore only menaced, is now formidably
attempted. I hold that, in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution,
the Union of these States is perpetual….no State upon its own mere motion can
lawfully get out of the Union; that resolves and ordinances to that effect are legally
void, and that acts of violence within any State or States against the authority of the
Unites States are insurrectionary or revolutionary according to circumstances.
I therefore consider that, in view of the Constitution and the laws, the Union is
unbroken; and, to the extent of my ability, I shall take care, as the Constitution
itself expressly enjoins upon me, that the laws of the Union be faithfully executed
in all the States…. I trust this will not be regarded as a menace, but only as the
declared purpose of the Union that it will constitutionally defend and maintain
In doing this there needs to be no bloodshed or violence, and there shall be none,
unless it be forced upon the national authority….
Physically speaking, we cannot separate – we cannot remove our respective
sections from each other, nor build an impassable wall between them. A husband
and a wife may be divorced and go out of the presence and beyond the reach of
each other – but the different parts of our country cannot do this.
…In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the
momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have
no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in
Heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to
“preserve, protect and defend” it.
I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.
Though passion may have strained, it must not break, our bonds of affection. The
mystic chords of memory stretching from every battlefield and patriot’s grave to
every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus
of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our
1. Why was Lincoln determined to reassure the Southern states that he would not try to
abolish slavery throughout America?
2. What reasons did Lincoln give for not abolishing slavery?
3. What was Lincoln’s view on the legality of secession?
4. What did Lincoln promise to do, in the event of Southern secession?
5. According to Lincoln, who would be the aggressor in the event of civil war breaking out?
THE EMANCIPATION SPEECH
During the first two years of the war, the Union suffered a series of massive defeats,
inflicted at the hands of the brilliant Confederate commander Robert E. Lee. Opposition to the
war was growing in the North, and Lincoln faced the possibility that he might fail in his bid to
hold the country together. In September 1862, Lincoln made the most important decision of
the war – to emancipate the slaves. As of January 1st 1863, all slaves living in states that had
rebelled against the United States, would be free. Of course, this law could not be
implemented until the Union had defeated the South, but it did give the North a powerful
reason for continuing the conflict. In December 1862, Lincoln made a speech to Congress
justifying his actions.
The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. As our case is
new, so we must think anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save
Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. The fiery trials through which we pass
will light us down in honour or dishonour to the latest generation. We say we are
for union. The world will not forget that we say this. In giving freedom to the slave,
we assure freedom to the free. Honourable alike in what we give and what we
preserve, we shall noble save or meanly lose the last best hope on Earth.
1. What reasons might Lincoln have had for freeing the slaves?
2. What did Lincoln mean by saying “we cannot escape history”?
3. Who did Lincoln believe would judge him on the wisdom of fighting the Civil War and
freeing the slaves?
4. What did Lincoln mean by saying that “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure
freedom to the free”?
5. What, according to Lincoln, was “the last best hope on Earth”?
THE GETTYSBURG ADDRESS
On November 19th, 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered a speech commemorating those who
had died in the Battle of Gettysburg. Read the speech, and answer the accompanying
Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new
nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all me are created
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any
nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great
battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final
resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is
altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But in a larger sense, we can not dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot
hallow – this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have
consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little
note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did
here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work
which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to
be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honoured
dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full
measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have
died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and
that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from
1. In the second paragraph, Lincoln explained why it was so important that the Union win
the Civil War. What reason did he give? What other reasons did he have for wanting to
win the war?
2. Lincoln’s speech is regarded as the most important ever given by an American leader. (It
may well be the most important given by any leader.) What did he say that made the
speech so memorable?
3. In the speech, Lincoln said that victory in the Civil War would give America a ‘new birth
of freedom’. What did he mean by that?
4. On meeting Abraham Lincoln in March 1865, General William T. Sherman said of him:
“Of all the men I ever met, he seemed to possess more of the elements of greatness and
goodness than any other.” What was it that made Lincoln such a great leader?
LINCOLN’S SECOND INAUGURAL ADDRESS
On March 4, 1865, Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address to the
American people. At this time, the war was almost over.
Fellow countrymen: At this second appearing to take the oath of the presidential
office, there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first….
Four years ago, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All
dreaded it – all sought to avert it…. Both parties deprecated war; but one of them
would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war
rather than let it perish. And the war came.
One eighth of the whole population were coloured slaves, not distributed
generally over the Union, but localised in the Southern part of it. These slaves
constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was,
somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest
was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while
the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial
enlargement of it.
Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has
already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with,
or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph,
and the result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray
to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other. It may seem strange
that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from
the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The
prayers of both could not be answered – that of neither has been answered fully….
Fondly do we hope - fervently do we pray - that this mighty scourge of war may
speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled up by
the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and
until every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the
sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, "The
judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God
gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the
nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow,
and his orphan - to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace
among ourselves, and with all nations.
1. In the first paragraph, Lincoln gives his view on why the Civil War began. Why did he
believe the southern states went to war? Why did the northern states go to war?
2. In the second paragraph, Lincoln tells the American people what he believed the South’s
aim was with regard to slavery (in the period before the war). What was this aim? Why
were the southern states so determined to pursue it? According to Lincoln, what was the
North’s aim with regard to slavery?
3. According to Lincoln (third paragraph), what made the Union’s cause correct? What
threat did he make to the South, if its government did not surrender immediately?
4. What attitude did Lincoln take towards the South in the last paragraph? To which groups
of people was this part of the speech directed? Why did Lincoln adopt this attitude? Why
might some Northerners have opposed him in this view?