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I came across the phrase, “Let’em up easy,” in the following sentence in the section of “1864 Reelection” of “Abraham Lincoln” in Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

"Reconstruction began during the war, as Lincoln and his associates anticipated questions of how to reintegrate the conquered southern states, and how to determine the fates of Confederate leaders and freed slaves. Shortly after Lee's surrender, a general had asked Lincoln how the defeated Confederates should be treated, and Lincoln replied, "Let 'em up easy, General.”---Determined to find a course that would reunite the nation and not alienate the South, Lincoln urged that speedy elections under generous terms be held throughout the war."

As I was unable to get an idea of "Let 'em up easy,” I consulted English dictionaries at hand. None of them registers “let sb / stg up easy,” nor did Google Ngram show the incidence of the phrase since 1840, more than a quarter century earlier than the President used it.

Is this famous line, “Let’em up easy,” inscribed in the history, a just one-off phrase used by President Lincoln, or then-current-but-now-an-obsolete phrase?

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NGram seems to only refer to that text – mplungjan Jul 12 '13 at 7:45
This didn't register with me earlier, but I think your usage of the word "register" is slightly at odds with the common usage (whether or not it is technically correct). – hunter2 Jul 16 '13 at 7:45
up vote 4 down vote accepted

It's a bit of a pun. While the phrase let them up easy may be rare, the phrase let him down easy is not.

Let him down easy could refer to a man who is fainting – catch him, and lay him gently on the ground – but it could also refer to an emotional blow. For example, one might advise a woman who intends on breaking up with her boyfriend, a soldier who has been deployed for six months, “Don't just break up with him the moment he gets of the plane – let him down easy.”

At the end of the Civil War, many in the Union were still bitter toward their enemies. Lincoln, however, was a proponent of reconstruction; he felt that the Southern states needed to be gradually welcomed back into the Union in a non-punitive manner.

I've not heard the quote before, but it sounds Lincolnesque. Lincoln was rather fond of quips and puns; this one is attributed to him:

The man who can't make mistakes, can't make anything.

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The phrase “Let ’em up easy” probably is drawn from a wrestling or rough-and-tumble fighting context. With the opponent pinned down, or with the loser underfoot, the winner has a choice: extract onerous concessions or promises from the loser, or let them up with some dignity still attached.

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jwpat7. I guess he meant the latter. But I wonder why there is no standard interpretation of this famous line. – Yoichi Oishi Jul 12 '13 at 18:26
@YoichiOishi: (1) It's not all that famous. In fact, I don't recall ever seeing it before you put it in this question. (2) I think there is a standard interpretation; the phrase simply means, now that our enemies have been defeated, it's time to be gracious, and help them stand up. – J.R. Jul 13 '13 at 8:57

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