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September 18, 2009

SEPTEMBER 18 - Was Lincoln a Great Emancipator or a Great Obfuscator?

An Abraham Lincoln quotation that is often noted in modern, clear-eyed accounts of his life comes from one of his debates with Stephen Douglas, during their 1858 contest for an Illinois Senate seat in Congress.

At the time, white male voters were the only voters and most were racist. So, Douglas had been doing his best to scare them into thinking Lincoln was an unqualified abolitionist and an advocate of “mixed race” marriage.

In the fourth Lincoln-Douglas debate, held on September 18, 1858, Lincoln responded. He said:

“I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.”

Lincoln went on to say: “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.”

How does this now oft-cited quote square with the old traditional image of Lincoln “The Great Emancipator” who “freed the slaves” with his Emancipation Proclamation?

Well, in a nutshell, the Civil War wasn’t really a war to free the slaves. And, the Emancipation Proclamation was a wartime strategy employed by Lincoln. It only “freed” slaves in Confederate states, to encourage them to leave their Southern masters and hopefully disrupt the Southern economy and war effort.

In the Northern states, slavery wasn’t legally abolished until the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1865.

Lincoln’s pandering speech to voters on September 18, 1858 doesn’t mean he wasn’t a great man. It just means that he was complex – like real people and real politics really are. 

It’s a fitting time to read more about this great and complex man, since 2009 is the 200th anniversary of his birth.

Here are some of the other famous quotes and phrases linked to SEPTEMBER 18:

“Bring ‘em Back Alive.” - Wildlife collector Frank Buck’s signature catchphrase, which he used as the title of a best selling book copyrighted on September 18, 1930.

“Hit the road, Jack, and don't you come back no more...” - The hit song by Ray Charles (written by Percy Mayfield) which entered Billboard’s Top 40 music chart on September 18, 1961.

“Men Behaving Badly.” - The title of a British TV sitcom that ran from 1992 to 1998. It was creeping into American vernacular, but was fully embedded in our language here when an Americanized version of the show started airing on September 18, 1996.

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