first rate second rate man


Senior Member
Hello everyone

I'm reading an article about the abolition of slavery:
In a widely reported speech in the summer of 1862, Phillips had castigated Lincoln as “first-rate second rate man” who had failed to grasp that the United States would “never have peace until slavery is uprooted”

What does the highlighted part mean?
Does it mean " a good mediocre man"?

Please tell me your opinion.
  • Uncle Jack

    Senior Member
    British English
    "Mediocre" might be too negative a term. The impression I get from nineteenth-century British books (I haven't read enough nineteenth century American writing to have much of a feel for the language at the time) is that the meaning is more moderate or average rather than mediocre, and it might even refer to someone something rather good, just not of the first rate.


    Senior Member
    English - U.S.
    I think the speaker has a very clear line that divides first rate from second rate. If you understand slavery the way he does, you have the potential to be first rate. If you don't, like Lincoln didn't, in Phillips' opinion, the best you can do is be an excellent second rate thinker. It sounds like he thought well of Lincoln on most accounts, but on the most critical issue, the issue of slavery, he saw Lincoln's thinking as fundamentally flawed.


    Senior Member
    English - U.S.
    The terms "first-rate" and "second-rate" come from the Royal Navy, which divided all but its smallest ships into six rates. While the exact criteria for each rate changed over time, the system laid down in 1677 was used, with few other changes, until 1876 when steam propulsion and other advances made it obsolete. Speakers of that era would have thought in terms of a precise line dividing first-rate from second-rate, and would also have considered second-rate to be better than average.
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