Overrated – Underrated

Way back in the mists of time (well, about 20 years ago, which is ancient history as far as the Internet is concerned), American Heritage magazine had an annual feature they called “Overrated, Underrated”. Historians and other experts contributed short essays on things in their field that they believed needed a reappraisal. They had to pair something that they felt was overrated with one that was underrated (e.g. Aviatrix: Overrated – Amelia Earhart, Underrated: Harriet Quimby). The series gave fascinating historical and cultural insights, and spread a little to other magazines. I recall Sports Illustrated did their own version….

Anyway, the idea is always a good discussion starter. Provided you can pen a short essay explaining your choices. Anyone can say Shakespeare is overrated; not everyone can explain why, as well as offer an example of an underrated English playwright.

Here’s my favorite example:

American Historical Document


Ask anyone what ended slavery in the US, and it’s a safe bet they’ll blurt out “The Emancipation Proclamation“. That’s not correct. Slavery was finally banned by the Thirteenth Amendment, which was ratified on December 6, 1865. The Proclamation (issued on January 1, 1863) was a wartime executive order which, to put it simply, said that the Union would not consider slaves who escaped to their lines as “property” whose fate would be decided after the war. While this did immediately “free” those Confederate slaves already in Union-held Confederate territory, and launch a mass exodus, it did not end slavery altogether. There was this little matter of slave states that did not secede. A decree outright ending slavery, in addition to being beyond the legal powers of the presidency (even in wartime), would likely have caused those four states (Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri) to join the Confederacy. Other areas (Tennessee, New Orleans, and what would become West Virginia) were specifically exempt from the Proclamation.

What the Proclamation did do was in effect make slavery the one and only issue of the war. It was a notice to everyone, especially European nations who were considering getting involved on the side of the Confederacy. With this Proclamation, Lincoln seized the moral high ground in the war.

Yes, the Emancipation Proclamation was important. But it’s overrated because it didn’t do what everyone thinks it did.


Maybe you’ve looked out the airplane window while flying over the Midwest and wondered why everything – roads, farms – seemed to line up on right angles. Or noticed that most counties in those states are roughly square in shape. Maybe you’ve even wondered why the states – once you’re away from the ones in the east – are generally the same size. There’s a reason for that.

The peace treaty at the end of the Revolutionary War had Britain giving up all claims to the territory northwest of the Ohio River, up to the Great Lakes. In an attempt to keep the settlement of that area from turning into a free-for-all scramble, the Confederation Congress (the US government before the Constitution was ratified) came up with a plan. The Northwest Territory would be divided into as many as five individual territories, and they could apply for admission as states when they reached a certain population. Meanwhile, settlements would be organized along specified rules, and the form of the territorial governments was laid out. Slavery was prohibited in the area. A number of other legal and property rights were specified, which would soon appear in the Bill of Rights. When the US acquired more territory, this plan carried over to those new lands.

The Northwest Ordinance was ratified in 1787. In effect, it was the blueprint for the growth of the United States. But coming as it did between the Revolution and the Constitution, it gets unfairly overlooked.

Oh, and all the squares? Congress soon authorized a survey to map all that new land so it could be easily divided into lots and townships. Marking things off into squares was the easiest way to go.


One thought on “Overrated – Underrated

  1. Pingback: Juneteenth | Pure Blather

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