Colonization/Relocation/Resettlement

Not too long ago we had a rather lively exchange in the comments section in which a commenter saw much in common between Lincoln’s plans for colonization, Grant’s plans for annexation, and a series of proposals to relocate African Americans within the United States (somewhere in the South).  My position was (and continues to be) that the differences in these plans are critical to understanding them, and that while Lincoln publicly supported the relocation of freed blacks outside of the United States, he was far quieter about resettlement within the United States: what we have on that issue is based largely on the recollections of others some time after the fact.  Lincoln himself seemed rather non-committal about the notion, and as of now we lack the documentation on his views about internal relocation that we have for his views on colonization outside the United States.  Moreover, many of those people who developed resettlement plans within the boundaries of the United States opposed Grant’s plan of annexation, suggesting that they saw the two ideas as vastly different.

One should note that the resettlement/relocation schemes within the United States really take off after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation and the open enlistment of blacks in the United States military.  They die at the end of the 1860s; I see the Exoduster movement as a response to the end of Reconstruction, and thus part of a different discussion.  Lincoln’s public silence is understandable: his argument on behalf of colonization rested upon the desirability of blacks to remove themselves outside the borders of the United States, while these internal relocation proposals looked to simple segregated states within the United States (and not even the federal territories).  Moreover, his private activities on behalf of external relocation after January 1, 1863 seem at best to have been half-hearted and propelled by the thought that perhaps blacks might still welcome the option of relocation: it would be hard to ask blacks to fight for a country they would then leave.  Lincoln recognized that for any proposal to stand a chance of being successful, blacks had to buy into it.  As he said in his August 1863 “Conkling letter”:

But negroes, like other people, act upon motives. Why should they do any thing for us, if we will do nothing for them? If they stake their lives for us, they must be prompted by the strongest motive–even the promise of freedom. And the promise being made, must be kept.

That explanation helps explain why Lincoln beseeched black ministers to take the lead in supporting colonization in August 1862; note that when Lincoln meets Frederick Douglass, who had opposed colonization, the president did not bring it up, and did not bring up the idea again in conversations with blacks.  Nor can it be said that he could have spoken about black enlistment and enfranchisement if at the same time he adhered to a notion of relocation outside the boundaries of the United States.

One should look at the positions occupied by proponents of internal relocation after the war.  Jim Lane became a supporter of Andrew Johnson; the Blair family were Johnson supporters; James Doolittle deserted his fellow Republicans to support Johnson; and Jacob D. Cox, who offered a relocation proposal in 1865, was at best a moderate Republican, seemingly acceptable to Johnson, whose time in Grant’s cabinet proved short and stormy, in part because of Cox’s opposition to annexation.  Eli Thayer nearly disappeared completely from public view, although he did make a run for a congressional seat during Grant’s administration.  Of these advocates, only Thayer seems to have had any sincere interest in the fate of black people, while the evidence for Lane is at best mixed.

In short, timing, motive, and context help us make critical distinctions between Lincoln’s plan for colonization, various plans floated about for resettlement within the United States, and Grant’s annexation proposal.

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One thought on “Colonization/Relocation/Resettlement

  1. I noticed your comment about Jacob D. Cox, and I thought I should respond.
    My dissertation (Ohio State 1969) was a life of Cox, and I am currently in the process of writing the biography of Cox which is long overdue. (As you noted in your commentary on the re-issued books by Cox about Sherman’s campaigns, Cox was not only a skilled general but an insightful chronicler and historian).
    One of the themes of the book will be that whereas Cox had an open door to a great political career after the war, he consciously took politically-unwise steps which ended his career abruptly by 1871. One of those was his his proposal in his “Oberlin Letter” (as he was running in his successful campaign for governor of Ohio) to create, in effect, a “homeland” for blacks to protect them from what he saw as an inevitable race war.

    We can debate whether Cox “was at best a moderate Republican” and whether his departure from Grant’s cabinet related in any degree to the connection between annexation of Santo Domingo and colonization. However, I disagree firmly with your statement that only “Thayer seems to have had any sincere interest in the fate of black people.”

    Cox’s New England-honed antislavery roots and his firm connections to Oberlin College provided a foundation for his being a strong Radical Republican in the Ohio Senate before the war. At the same time, he was ideologically more of a Whig (his first party affiliation) and a believer in Anglo-Saxon superiority. The two combined, ideologically, in the “Oberlin Letter,” which did show a sincere interest in the fate of black people. Cox had concluded, after his war experiences in Georgia and North Carolina, that whites would repress the freedmen and this could lead to “race war.” Thus his plan, to be sure a paternalistic and racially-focused one, showed that he did care about the fate of the freedmen.

    At the same time, it helped to dig his political grave because of its controversial nature. But that in turn is one of the reasons why Cox is such an interesting character. Despite advice from every corner that publishing the idea was impolitic, he said the people needed to know his views and he would pull no punches in putting them forward. He always wanted to be “intellectually honest,” and for a politician with a great future, that was not always the wisest approach.
    In sum, thanks for letting me put these ideas on your blog about Mr. Cox. I would also appreciate your thoughts about my planned biography.

    Best wishes, Gene Schmiel

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