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The House That Abe Built: The "House Divided" Speech and Republican Party Politics Michael William Pfau Lincoln's House Divided speech has received considerable critical attention from historians, as well as literary and rhetorical critics.1 Of the literature concerning the House Divided two readings in particular have significantly contributed to a uniquely rhetorical understanding of the speech. Don Fehrenbacher's authoritative analysis has contributed most substantially to our understanding of the House Divided speech as Lincoln's engagement with a particular set of concerns relating to the political context in which it was delivered. Fehrenbacher, however, while exhibiting a clear recognition of the speech as a response to exigence, lacked the rhetorical sensitivity that would have allowed him more fully to explain how the speech text was a response to the occasion in question.2 Michael Leff, on the other hand, has contributed to our understanding of the House Divided speech in the particular mode of a rhetorical critic—providing a close reading of the speech that reveals the intricacies of the action within the text. As a rhetorically minded close reading of the text, Leff's criticism is unsurpassed.3 However, even the fruitful dialogue between text and context represented by the intersection of the Leff and Fehrenbacher pieces is far from exhausting the hermeneutic possibilities of the House Divided speech. In this article I propose that it is possible to supplement, expand, and at times adjust, the solid interpretive foundation for the House Divided speech laid by Fehrenbacher and Leff by enriching and complicating particular aspects of the speech's context. I begin with the assumption that the text is but a trace of a complex rhetorical transaction that took place at the Illinois Republican state convention on June 16, 1-858; a trace that was once "inextricably interwoven with its world."4 Careful attention to the House Divided speech as such a transaction embedded within its own many-faceted context will enable a better appreciation of what actions Lincoln was performing in delivering the speech, and offer one way of achieving a more "exacting reading of texts as they are situated in history."6 The task of "expanding the hermeneutic burden of context" in relation to the House Divided Michael William Pfau is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Communication Studies at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. © Rhetoric & Public Affairs Vol. 2, No. 4, 1999, pp. 625-651 ISSN 1094-8392 626 Rhetoric & Public Affairs speech is complicated, however, by the breadth and vagueness of the concept of "context" in rhetorical studies. One recent commentator has gone so far as to suggest that rhetorical studies has "failed in finding a way to conceptualize context."6 While it may not be possible or desirable to develop a conceptualization of context applicable to all texts in all times and places, it is nevertheless important to determine , on a case-by-case basis, what aspects of context are especially salient to understanding particular rhetorical texts. In the case of the House Divided speech, the concept of political party and the particularities of the Illinois Republican Party in 1858 provide one mode of mediating the text-context divide that promises to expand our understanding of the speech in important ways. This mode of contextualizing the House Divided is initially validated by the fact of its delivery at the Illinois state Republican convention of 1858. Here Lincoln addressed an audience of party leaders, operated within the generic constraints of partisan conventions, and invoked partisan ideologies of several kinds as he acted to build and unify the Illinois Republican Party. Careful attention to the partisan component of the House Divided's original context will not only allow me to better negotiate disputed portions of the text, but also has implications for the issue of how what most agree was such a masterful speech became "an albatross for Lincoln during the ensuing Senate campaign."7 The puzzle regarding the speech's reception context becomes clearer if we follow Celeste Condit in asking "why, for a given time, and specific peoples, a given speech was particularly masterful."8 When considered in the light of its partisan context and immediate partisan audience the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-5238
Print ISSN
1094-8392
Pages
pp. 625-651
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-24
Open Access
No
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