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“If a kingdom be divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.” That is what he said. That is what a Prophet said two thousand years ago to a people in turmoil, yearning to be free and whole.
“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Yes, that is what he said. That is what a president said some one hundred years ago to a nation moving toward destruction.
America divided against itself cannot stand.
A World divided against itself cannot stand.
East/West, North/South, Rich/Poor divided cannot stand.
Earth’s people divided against themselves cannot stand.
We, divided against ourselves, cannot stand when the winds and the rains beat upon us and our house.
We mark in the memory those moments in the epic of humanity when one appears who is united with the wholeness of creation, one in whom the creatively holy Whole is founded and focused on the peace/war issues of this hour. As Carl Sandburg said to a joint assembly of the legislators of these United States:
Not often in the story of mankind does someone arrive on earth, who is both steel and velvet, who is hard as rock and soft as drifting fog, who holds in his heart and mind the paradox of terrible storm and peace unspeakable and perfect. Here and there across centuries come reports of people alleged to have these contrasts. Abraham Lincoln is an approach, if not a perfect realization, of this character.
Yes, this Person of Power is a creative union of opposites. Edwin Markham reveals this in these lines:
When the Norn Mother saw the Whirlwind Hour
Greatening and Darkening as it hurried on,
She left the Heaven of Heroes and came down
To make a man to meet the mortal need.
She took the tried clay of the common road—
Clay warm yet with the genial heat of Earth,
Dasht through it all a strain of prophecy;
Tempered the heap with thrill of human tears;
Then mixt a laughter with the serious stuff.
Into the shapes she breathed a flame to light
That tender, tragic, ever-changing face;
And laid on him a sense of Mystic Powers,
Moving—all husht—behind the mortal veil.
Here was a man to hold against the world,
A man to match the mountains and the sea.
And when the judgement thunders split the house,
Wrenching the rafters from their ancient rest,
He held the ridgepole up, and spiked again
The rafters of the home.
This is who he was, and this is what he said: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
The larger context of this text has been portrayed by Carl Sandburg in Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years:
Early in September of 1848 Lincoln stumped New England for the national Whig ticket. He rode into new territory, and saw the factories, mills, shops, and foundries that made the Middle Atlantic states and New England rich and powerful; regions that were almost nations by themselves; the white faces of thousands of wage-workers…
In Boston he saw Faneuil Hall and looked up some of its avenues and its rows of mansions past which Boston mobs, carrying ropes, had dragged agitators of the public peace.
At Lowell, he spoke, and saw there the incessant movement of its thousands of power looms and spindles translating raw cotton fabrics to be moved on the new steam cars and the new steamships into far home and world markets.
At Worcester, he was introduced by an ex-Governor of the state, Levi Lincoln; the two of them traced back to a Samuel Lincoln who had come two hundred years before to Hingham, Massachusetts. He told the State Whig Convention at Worcester that the new Free Soil Party reminded him of the Yankee peddler who offered for sale a pair of pantaloons ‘large enough for any man, small enough for any boy.’
Speaking of this address made at Worcester, The Boston Dailv Advertiser described Lincoln as follows:
…a very tall and thin figure, with an intellectual face, showing a searching mind, and a cool judgement…who spoke in a clear and cool, and very eloquent manner, for an hour and a half, carrying the audience with him in his able arguments and brilliant illustrations—only interrupted by warm and frequent applause. He began by expressing a real feeling of modesty in addressing an audience ‘this side of the mountains,’ a part of the country where, in the opinion of the people of his section, everybody was supposed to be instructed and wise.
Mr. Lincoln then passed to the subject of slavery in the States saying that the people of Illinois agreed entirely with the people of Massachusetts on the subject, except perhaps that they did not keep so constantly thinking about it. All agreed that slavery was an evil, but that we were not responsible for it and cannot affect it in States of the Union where we do not live. But, the question of the extension of slavery to new territories of this country, is a part of our responsibility and care.
At the close of this truly masterly and convincing speech, the audience gave three enthusiastic cheers for Illinois, and three more for the eloquent Whig member from that state.
Other places in Massachusetts received Lincoln in ways not unlike that of Worcester, though there were dimensions of uneasiness well noted as follows in my condensation of the Sandburg narrative:
At Cambridge a reporter sized him up as a ‘capital specimen of a Sucker Whig, six feet at least in his stockings.’ There were halls where his head almost scraped the ceiling. ‘They were struck with his height, as he arose in the low-studded hall.’
A young Whig, George H. Monroe, and others called at the Tremont House in Boston to take Lincoln to Dedham for a day speech.
Monroe said, “In the cars he scarcely said a word to one of us. He seemed uneasy. I should say the atmosphere of Boston was not congenial to him. We took him to one of the most elegant houses in the town of Dedham, and here he seemed still less at home. But at last he arose to speak, and almost instantly there was a change.
“His indifferent manner vanished as soon as he opened his mouth. He went right to work. He turned up the cuffs of his shirt. Next, he loosened his necktie, and soon after it he took it off altogether. All the time, he was gaining upon his audience. he soon had it as by a spell. I never saw men more delighted. He began to bubble out with humor. For plain pungency of humor, it would have been difficult to surpass his speech. The speech ended in a half-hour. The bell that called to the steam cars sounded. Mr. Lincoln instantly stopped. ‘I am engaged to speak at Cambridge tonight, and I must leave.’ The whole audience seemed to rise in protest. ‘Go on! Finish it!’was heard on every hand. One gentleman arose and pledged to take his horse and carry him across country. But Mr. Lincoln was inexorable.”
He left Boston on the steam cars one Saturday morning, and from the windows as he traveled he saw the walls of the cotton mills, with their powerdriven looms, their miles of spindles, with their bobbin boys and girls.
Yes, this is what he did, and this is what he said as conflict increasingly imperiled the Union of these States: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
“I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave, 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.”
Yes, he did say that; he also said this in writing to a friend: “I must, in candor, say I do not think myself fit for the Presidency.” Nevertheless, the people of this land, seeking in utter earnestness to preserve the Union, begged to differ with him. They thought and voted otherwise. Somehow sensing his worth, they said to him: thou art the one to lead this nation in its midnight-midwife hour.
In departing from the prairies for the White House, Abe Lincoln said:
“My friends: Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when or whether ever I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of that Divine Being who ever attended in him who can go with me, and remain with you, and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.”
Arriving in Washington, D.C., President Lincoln said in the Inaugural Address:
“My Countrymen, one and all, think calmly and well upon this whole subject. Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him who has never yet forsaken this favored land, are still competent to adjust in the same way all our present difficulty. In your hands, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. And we are not enemies, but friends. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory stretching from every battlefield to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of Union when again touched, as they surely will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
And then struck war! Rebel War! Civil War! War Demonic! Lincoln sent these lines to Horace Greeley:
“I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.”
To a crowd on the White House lawn, he said, “I have not willingly planted a thorn in any man’s bosom.” To a military Governor he said, “I shall do nothing through malice; what I deal with is too vast for malice.” To the Congress of the United States of America he said:
“In times like the present, men should utter nothing for which they would not willingly be responsible through time and eternity.
“Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. We will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the last generation.
“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate for the stormy present. We must think anew, we must act anew, we must disenthrall ourselves.”
Sandburg described the deed beneath these words:
“The President took to himself the powers of a dictator; he commanded the most powerful armies till then assembled in modern warfare; under imperative necessity, he abolished the writ of habeas corpus; he enforced conscription of soldiers for the first time in American history; he directed politically and spiritually the wild, massive turbulent forces let loose in civil war.”
Then, faithful to the teaching that ‘A house divided against tself cannot stand,’ President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed: “That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any state shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” The three hundred year legal chain of chattel slavery, reducing men, women, and children to thinghood, to property, now bound no human being North or South.
Quickly came the battle of decision: Gettysburg—July 1, 2, & 3—“Three of those days which decide a nation’s history.” The missing, the wounded, the dead: forty-three thousand men in gray and blue. This is what he said then:
“We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have concecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. From these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”
Fifteen months later, in his Second Inaugural Address, this is what he said:
“Both parties 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. The Almighty has His own purpose.
“Fondly do we hope—fervertly do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet if God will that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with 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 judgements 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 do all which may achieve a just and a lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”
And then he said no more. Our Novelist of Power, Herman Melville, speaks plain truth when he cries:
Good Friday was the day
Of the prodigy and crime,
When they killed him in his pity,
When they killed him in his prime
Of clemency and calm—
When with yearning he was filled
To redeem the evil willed,
And, though the conqueror, be kind;
But they killed him in his kindness,
In their madness and their blindness;
And they killed him from behind.
Edwin Markham adds:
And when he fell in whirlwind, he went down
As when a lordly cedar, green with boughs,
Goes down with a great shout upon the hills,
And leaves a lonesome place against the sky.
Though the president could speak no more, the nation spoke; it spoke through North and South alike, and it spoke through one who spoke and speaks for all, our Poet of Power, Walt Whitman, chanting:
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
Ever-returning spring, Trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.
* * * *
Over the breast of spring, the land, amid cities:
Carrying a corpse to where it shall rest in the grave,
Night and day journeys a coffin.
Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,
Though day and night with the great cloud darkening the land,
With the pomp of the inloop’d flags with the cities draped in black
With the show of the States themselves as of crepe-veiled women standing,
With processions long and winding and the flambeaus of the night,
With the countless torches lit, with the silent sea of faces and the unbared heads,
With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the somber faces,
With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices rising strong and solemn,
With all the mournful voices of the dirges pour’d around the coffin,
The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs—where amid these you journey,
With the tolling bells’ perpetual clang,
Here, coffin that slowly passes,
I give you my sprig of lilac.
* * * *
O western orb sailing the heaven,
Now I know what you must have meant.
As I saw you had something to tell as you bent to me night after night
As the night advanced, and I saw on the rim of the west full you were of woe,
As I stood on the rising ground in the breeze in the cool transparent night,
As I watch’d where you pass’d and was lost in the netherward black of the night,
As my soul in its trouble dissatisfied sank, as where you sad orb,
Concluded, drops in the night, and was gone.
* * * *
Come lovely and soothing death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later delicate death.
Prais’d be the fathomless universe,
For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious,
And for love, sweet love,—but praise! praise! praise!
For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death.
Dark mother always gliding near with soft feet,
Have none chanted for thee a chant of fullest welcome?
Then I chant it for thee.
I bring thee a song that when thou must indeed come, come unfalteringly.
* * * *
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
* * * *
The dust was once the man,
Gentle, plain, just and resolute, under whose cautious hand,
Against the foulest crime in history known in any land or age,
Was saved the Union of these States.
* * * *
A house divided against itself cannot stand.
A nation divided against itself cannot stand.
An America divided against itself cannot stand.
North & South divided against itself cannot stand.
The Earth divided against itself cannot stand.
I divided against myself cannot stand.
You divided against yourself cannot stand when the winds and rains beat upon you and your house. Therefore, be one with yoursel£ Be one with the Family of Life. Be one with the ever living Power sustaining you now and forever, sharing your pain and your joy.
Become a union of opposites.
Become steel and velvet!
Click here for supplemental reading about Abraham Lincoln on Amazon.