Abraham Lincoln Used "Michigander" as an Insult
By Doug Marrin
In Michigan, we love our nicknames. Residents of the Upper Peninsula refer to themselves and are referred to by others as "Yoopers," stemming from the phonetic pronunciation of "UPers." Residents of the Great Lake State in the Lower Peninsula, that is, living below the Mackinac Bridge ("Big Mac," or "Mighty Mac") in terms of latitude are sometimes referred to as "Trolls" by the Yoopers. Those of us living in the Winter Wonderland down under would never call ourselves that.
Collectively, residents of Pure Michigan have utilized many monikers to identify themselves—Michiganer, Michiganite, Michiganese, Michiganine, Michiganians, and even Mittenite, which sounds like a religious order. In 2017, the state government officially settled the confusion over what residents should call themselves. A bill was passed updating the 1913 statute that created the Michigan Historical Commission. The amended bill redacted a reference to "Michiganians," replacing it with "Michiganders."
Surprisingly, it was Abraham Lincoln who made the soubriquet "Michigander" famous. However, he did not use it as a compliment.
It began with Lewis Cass, second governor of the Michigan Territory from 1813-1831. After Michigan, Cass's political star continued to rise, and he procured the Democratic nomination to run for president in 1848. He split the Democratic party by running on a platform that would allow states conquered in the Mexican-American War to decide whether to legalize slavery. Another rising star at the time in the opposing Whig Party, Abraham Lincoln representing the Seventh District of Illinois, took umbrage with the Democrat’s exaggeration of their military prowess, bestowing their accomplishments on their current candidate, Cass.
In a speech to Congress on July 27, 1848, Lincoln stated,
"But in my hurry I was very near closing on the subject of military tales before I was done with it. There is one entire article of the sort I have not discussed yet; I mean the military tale you Democrats are now engaged in dovetailing onto the great Michigander [i.e. Lewis Cass]."
Lincoln intended for the pejorative label to make Cass sound foolish like a goose. Fortunately for the sharp-witted Lincoln, Cass was a male. Michi-gander rolled off the tongue so much easier and funnier than Michi-goose.
Despite their aggressive nature, geese have long been proverbially associated with foolishness. The idiom, "Stop being a silly goose," means "stop being childish and get on with it." In ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, the goose (or gander) could represent a drunk, probably because of its waddle. The flightless geese on the farm tend to dodder around and honk a lot. Maybe Lincoln saw a comparison on the floor of Congress.
Lincoln is often credited with coining the term "Michigander." And while he did make it a famously sick burn toward a bloviating political opponent, the demonym actually appeared before Lincoln's 1848 speech.
The Hampshire Gazette in 1838 printed,
"I came..the last thirty miles to Detroit by rail road. This is part of one which the Michiganders are making across St. Joseph's."
In 1842, the Bellows Falls Gazette printed a humorous article on creating newspaper names by adding "er" at the end of a place name.
"The Vermonter' does well enough,..but come to the New Hampshirer, or Massachusettser, or Connecticutter, or Michigander--'a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."
Like many things of our Great Lake State, our demonym has a rich history. And while the citizens of the Mitten State may not always agree on what to call themselves or each other, perhaps we can look to our state motto to find our common ground and, in our common ground, strength.
Si Quaeris Peninsulam Amoenam, Circumspice.
"If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you."
"Michiganders or Michiganians? Lawmakers settle it" Detroit Free Press, Nov 2, 2017
"Actually, 'Michigander' was used before Abraham Lincoln's speech." www.mlive.com, Feb. 15, 2015.