A ‘Kingdom Divided Against Itself’: America’s ‘Two Nations’ and the Future

‘And Jesus … said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.’  Matthew 12:25. [1]

South Argyle, N.Y.: Presbyterian Cemetary, Union Veteran’s Grave 4/24/11

I thought of that when I saw the lead headline in Sunday’s Boston Globe, ‘Between Haves, Have-Nots, An Ever Greater Gulf’ and below it, a picture of a woman doling out to her children fries she’d brought home from her job at MacDonald’s, like a bird feeding her chicks.

The second headline, below the picture – and the fold – was as disturbing: ‘The state’s poorest make less than in 1979, new study finds, while upper incomes climb’. [2]

When we hear ‘a house divided’, most Americans think not of Jesus but of Abraham Lincoln.  On June 16, 1858, he spoke to the state Republican convention in Springfield, Illinois, about efforts by the South to end anti-slavery agitation. [3]  Here are, in part, his opening sentences:

 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….  In my opinion, it [agitation against slavery] 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 all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South. [Paragraphing added.]

Lincoln was not alone among great politicians of the mid-nineteenth century in thinking about houses divided, kingdoms divided.  The future three-time Conservative prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli (older than Lincoln by eight years), had published a novel in 1845, Sybil, or the Two Nations which caused an immediate sensation and altered the terms of British political debate to this day.

Like George Orwell 100 years later on The Road to Wigan Pier, to learn what agitated the poor Disraeli’s hero, Egremont wanders roiling industrial England.  A working class radical opens his eyes when he tells of:

 “Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.” “You speak of — ”said Egremont, hesitantly. “ THE RICH AND THE POOR.” [4]

Said Lincoln, ‘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.’  In terms of the American haves and the American have nots, we know – and no one can dispute – ‘where we are and whither we are tending’, as stories like the Globe’s show every day.

We have the power – legislative, economic, social, political – to bring ‘the two nations’ closer together.  What we lack is the will.

Lincoln pulled his punch by talking about ‘a house divided’ and ‘a crisis [that] shall have been reached and passed.’  But his audience in 1858, hearing the Bible quoted in every discourse, knew Lincoln’s real text: ‘Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation….’



1.  In context, this quotation is much more difficult to understand than this first verse of a sequence of six.  It is especially troubling for its last verse, ‘He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad.’  Matthew 12:30.  Nonetheless, Lincoln made a brilliant choice of phrase, one that resounded with his audience and echoed for the ages.

2.  In print edition, Aug. 21, 2011, p. A1; not used in online version of story.

3.  It bears remembering that a significant portion of Northerners, including the man to whom Lincoln lost the 1858 Senate run, Stephen A. Douglas, wanted agitation over slavery ended almost as much as Southerners – and on the Southerners’ terms.

4.  In a superb article, Dr Andrzej Diniejko, Senior Lecturer in English Literature and Culture, Warsaw University, describes Disraeli’s books.  I’ve borrowed from him for the plot description and the Sybil quotation.  The emphasis is Disraeli’s.