There has been some buzz lately about a new book that takes yet another look at Abraham Lincoln’s continuing interest in “colonization,” meaning the relocation of African Americans outside the United States.
Contrary to what is sometimes asserted, historians have long been aware of Lincoln’s interest in colonization. After all, Lincoln did not conceal his preference for the idea through 1862. They disagree over why Lincoln advocated colonization (some historians see it as little more than a public relations exercise to quiet some opposition to emancipation) and how long he advocated it. Although Lincoln did not press for colonization in public after he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, several historians believe he continued to work for it behind the scenes, and one of the authors of Colonization After Emancipation: Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement (University of Missouri Press, 2011), Phillip W. Magness, has recently challenged Mark Neely’s contention that Benjamin F. Butler’s recollection of a conversation with Lincoln in 1865 in which colonization was a subject of discussion was fabricated. Moreover, in Colonization After Emancipation, Magness and coauthor Sebastian N. Page detail private actions by Lincoln concerning colonization after January 1, 1863, activity also noted by Lerone Bennett and Eric Foner.
It’s important to understand that while Magness and Page challenge the accounts of historians who tend to dismiss Lincoln’s colonization initiatives, one should take the prepublication buzz with a grain of salt. They are not the first scholars to discuss Lincoln and colonization after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation (having not read the book, I can’t pass judgment on it). The most valuable contribution may be uncovering in detail some post-proclamation initiatives through uncovering documents in foreign repositories. But we’ll see.
I believe that Lincoln was serious about colonization. I think that after January 1, 1863, he no longer saw it as an essential component of his policy, but as an option some blacks might want to explore. There’s a reason he did not push the policy in public pronouncements from 1863 on, and that’s because it would be hard to recruit blacks for military service to save a republic from which they would then be removed. Moreover, for all the talk about how colonization reflected Lincoln’s own racial attitudes, I think other concerns were foremost in his mind, although the emphasis on those concerns may have changed over time.
Lincoln’s political idol, Henry Clay, was also an advocate of colonization. Lincoln used the occasion of Clay’s death in 1852 to make his first extended case for colonization. During the next ten years he developed an approach to emancipation that emphasized that it should be a gradual process, that slaveholders should be compensated, and that blacks should be given the option of emigrating away from the United States. He outlined that approach in both his first and second annual messages, the second coming less than a month before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued; he argued in favor of his plan in several public meetings in 1862. However, he had precious few takers, whether they be slaveholders, the enslaved, or free blacks.
I believe that Lincoln was an advocate of orderly social change and progress. His plan sought to address several of the obstacles in the way of emancipation. First, by making it a gradual process, he would minimize disruption. Second, by offering compensation, he would offset at least some of the immediate cost of emancipation for slaveowners. Third, by pushing for voluntary relocation, he hoped to address the image of postemancipation society offered by proslavery advocates, who painted a lurid picture of what would happen with the end of slavery to non-slaveholding whites (indeed, fear of the impact of emancipation vied with support for slavery in the minds of non-slaveholding whites as a prime cause for concern).
Colonization was thus designed in part to quell those fears, rooted as they were in racism. But I also think Lincoln believed that blacks would continue to be the victims of white racism, and that, if anything, that racism and its manifestations would intensify once blacks were no longer classified as property but simply people. It was one thing to do harm to someone else’s property: remove that restraint, and who knew what might happen? In short, whatever Lincoln’s own views, it was Lincoln’s recognition of the durability and intensity of white racism and his concern of how it would manifest itself that contributed to his decision to urge emancipation. As he said in his interview with a delegation of black ministers on August 14, 1862:
Perhaps you have long been free, or all your lives. Your race are suffering, in my judgment, the greatest wrong inflicted on any people. But even when you cease to be slaves, you are yet far removed from being placed on an equality with the white race. You are cut off from many of the advantages which the other race enjoy. The aspiration of men is to enjoy equality with the best when free, but on this broad continent, not a single man of your race is made the equal of a single man of ours. Go where you are treated the best, and the ban is still upon you.
I do not propose to discuss this, but to present it as a fact with which we have to deal. I cannot alter it if I would. It is a fact, about which we all think and feel alike, I and you. We look to our condition, owing to the existence of the two races on this continent. I need not recount to you the effects upon white men, growing out of the institution of Slavery. I believe in its general evil effects on the white race. See our present condition—the country engaged in war!—our white men cutting one another’s throats, none knowing how far it will extend; and then consider what we know to be the truth. But for your race among us there could not be war, although many men engaged on either side do not care for you one way or the other. Nevertheless, I repeat, without the institution of Slavery and the colored race as a basis, the war could not have an existence.
It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated. I know that there are free men among you, who even if they could better their condition are not as much inclined to go out of the country as those, who being slaves could obtain their freedom on this condition. I suppose one of the principal difficulties in the way of colonization is that the free colored man cannot see that his comfort would be advanced by it. You may believe you can live in Washington or elsewhere in the United States the remainder of your life [as easily], perhaps more so than you can in any foreign country, and hence you may come to the conclusion that you have nothing to do with the idea of going to a foreign country. This is (I speak in no unkind sense) an extremely selfish view of the case.
But you ought to do something to help those who are not so fortunate as yourselves. There is an unwillingness on the part of our people, harsh as it may be, for you free colored people to remain with us.
There’s enough unpleasantness in this statement as it is … such as Lincoln’s statement that without the presence of blacks, the whites would not be at war (and whose fault was that, Mr Lincoln?), but one sees here Lincoln’s belief that white racism might make postemancipation society rough on blacks. The appeal did not work, and Lincoln ceased to push in public for colonization after the first of January, 1863 … but maybe he just wanted to leave the door open in case some blacks did choose to leave.