Lincoln and Colonization Revisited

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 colonization.  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.

12 thoughts on “Lincoln and Colonization Revisited

  1. Daniel Sauerwein February 25, 2011 / 1:25 pm

    I am certainly going to look into this book, even if it is outside my area. Are you considering reviewing it at all for the blog?

    By the way thanks for picking up my post on Lowry the other day.

    • Brooks D. Simpson February 25, 2011 / 1:51 pm

      This blog has not gotten into the reviewing business, at least not yet. I’m sure I’ll take a good look at the book.

      As for the Lowry post, no, thank you. Actually, I wonder why Dr. Lowry has not been more aggressive in clearing his name. He knows of the existence of this blog. No matter. In seventy minutes I’ll have a little more on the matter. 🙂

  2. Sherree February 26, 2011 / 2:47 am


    I find this post, along with the one you link to written by Bob Pollock, very distressing. My “memory” of Lincoln is inextricably connected to JFK’s assassination (as was the intent of many of the time); to Walt Whitman; and to the first time I visited the Lincoln Memorial as a child. I also have Lincoln connected to Dr. King, and now President Obama. I was not aware of colonization plans until fairly recently. That is because I was simply not that interested in the Civil War. Now I am interested. Quite interested. And I wonder if this truly horrific plan and willingness of white society to deport the descendants of the men and women who were forcibly removed from Africa and who suffered so, so much, made the removal of Indigenous men and women to reservations quite a logical step. That is, it was to be a white man’s nation, no matter what the cost.

    We can’t change the past, but we can change the present and the future.

    Thanks to all for blogging. It is important. Truly it is.

    Bob, if you read this, I finally got the chance to see “Amazing Grace”. It is a tremendous movie.

    • Bob Pollock February 26, 2011 / 8:30 am

      Hi Sherree,
      If you read Blair’s speech, which I linked to in my blogpost, you will find that Blair had quite a bit to say about the “Indians.” His views are in some ways very enlightened and in other ways, to our modern sensibilities, horribly racist. I think it is important to remember that it was these men, despite their limited knowledge and imagination, who were most responsible for the abolition of slavery and the preservation of the Union.
      I’m glad you enjoyed the movie. I don’t know a lot about British history, but from what I understand, the movie is reasonably historically accurate.
      Please feel free to comment on my blog any time.

      • Sherree February 28, 2011 / 2:23 am

        Thanks, Bob. I appreciate the response and the invitation. I have started reading your blog and will comment when I have something constructive to say. I am glad you decided to blog. You are adding another needed voice to the conversation.

    • M.D. Blough February 26, 2011 / 9:32 am

      Sherree-I understand your distress, but you misunderstand President Lincoln’s position. I have yet to see any evidence, and, from what I have read about the new book, it presents no evidence that Lincoln EVER supported deportation, if you mean it in the sense of forcible removal. Rightly or wrongly, dealing with a social problem by encouraging migration instead of looking for an internal solution was a pretty common pattern in the European, especially the English speaking world, up to that point. In many ways, the meeting in the White House was extraordinary. One of the great weaknesses of the long-existing colonization movement was that it was led and dominated by whites who generally showed themselves totally uninterested in what blacks, enslaved and free(d), actually thought about it. The whites presumed they knew. Lincoln meeting with leading blacks about it was a major departure and their rejection of the concept appears to have had a serious impact on his thinking. Between the preliminary and final Emancipation Proclamations colonization, found in the former, disappears from the latter. The end of slavery became as non-negotiable a condition of peace as did the Union. Lincoln first urged the passage of what became the 13th Amendment before the bitterly contested 1864 Presidential election and pushed it through Congress in the lame duck session of Congress after the election. He even signed it before it was sent to the states for ratification (which wasn’t actually necessary, constitutionally) to show his support. In his last public address before his death, he actually indicated serious consideration of at least limited black male suffrage. This may not seem a major step by our standards, but, according to one of John Wilkes Booth’s co-conspirators, he and Booth were in the crowd that heard it. Booth was enraged and felt that it meant [racial slur] government and resolved to murder Lincoln, rather than kidnap, etc.

      I share Brooks’ qualms about some of the statements in President Lincoln’s remarks to the black leaders. However, given what actually transpired in the US after slavery offficially ended, more than a few of the effects of which are still with us, his concerns about how whites would treat blacks after slavery ended were not imaginary.

  3. Sherree February 28, 2011 / 3:10 am

    Hi Margaret,

    Thanks for your input. I have enjoyed your comments on CWM and appreciate your in depth knowledge of this period of our history.

    One point of clarification: I did not think that Lincoln supported forcible deportation. By “forcibly removed”, I was referring to African men and women who were kidnapped in Africa, brought to America in slave ships, and forced into slavery. That there were subsequently white men and women, including President Lincoln at one time, who wanted to “deport” the slaves in America who were the descendants of the men and women who were kidnapped in Africa and forced to come to America and be slaves, or to engage those men and women in voluntary resettlement, is quite a disturbing part of our history, and is best met head on, in my opinion, as Brooks has done in this post. Lincoln, in this talk, asks free black men and women to uproot themselves because it is their responsibility to take care of their brethren. Lincoln then blames the white man’s war on the black man. It was not one of Lincoln’s shining moments. Lincoln did, however, grow and evolve and do the right thing, in the end, and that is what is important. I found it distressing when I read Martin Luther’s actual words concerning Jewish men and women. Actually, I found it more than distressing; I found it devastating. Yet, I have not abandoned Luther in my thinking. I just understand him differently.

    The Internet is changing the way that we think. It is the most important invention since the printing press, as I discussed with one of Brooks’ fellow bloggers quite some time ago. For me, the issue of the potential colonization of African American men and women parallels, as an example of how race played such an important role in our history, the constant removal of Indigenous men and women from land that their ancestors had inhabited for centuries in what became the United States. This continent was not vacant when Europeans arrived. Each colony established involved a complex history with Native nations, that always ended with some form of removal, and that pattern continued until 1890, when the Civil War really ended, leaving Indigenous men and women on reservations and African American men and women on their own. I think that it is time that we all talk about this.

  4. OhioGuy June 14, 2015 / 9:44 am

    “Lincoln then blames the white man’s war on the black man. It was not one of Lincoln’s shining moments.” I don’t think that this is a fair reading of what Lincoln said. He didn’t blame the war on the black man, he simply stated an obvious fact — that is denied in certain quarters today — that without African slavery there would have been no rebellion. Lincoln was quite aware of how Africans got to North America, and he was in no way blaming them for their presence in country. I would agree that it was not one of Lincoln’s most shining moments.

    • Sherree June 14, 2015 / 12:18 pm

      “Lincoln was quite aware of how Africans got to North America, and he was in no way blaming them for their presence in country”.

      I agree that Lincoln did not blame Africans for their presence in America, but in this speech, at least, he is blaming the war on that presence:

      “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 would 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…”

      Those are pretty strong words, regardless of the context. However, I, personally, still believe that Lincoln was our greatest President. Further, I do not believe that there would be a United States of America had Lincoln not steered the country through the Civil War. He was still a product of his time, nevertheless, to a certain extent. Yet his accomplishments were great enough–his vision large enough–that his legacy can withstand scrutiny.

      Thank you for the interaction. I posted that comment over four years ago! I had to stop and try to remember what I was thinking at the time, or even if I was thinking, or just reacting 🙂

      I know who Lincoln’s major detractors are and what their motivation is. They don ‘t stand a chance. The man is huge.

  5. Michael William Stone June 14, 2015 / 10:10 am

    Would Lincoln see it as “deportation?

    His America was a highly mobile society. His own parents were born in Virginia and moved to Kentucky and Indiana, while he himself was born in Kentucky and moved to Indiana and Illinois, but none of them was deported anywhere – they just moved somewhere that they hoped would be better for them.

    Given that, whatever might temporarily happen in the wake of the war, the South was pretty well guaranteed to end up under the rule of its white population, was it not perfectly reasonable to try and provide some sort of “bolthole” for ex-slaves who found the postwar south an unappealing place to live?

  6. Kristoffer March 13, 2016 / 4:13 pm

    I personally believe that Lincoln’s hurtful statement that the black people were responsible for the Civil War was a mistake by him, and he was actually trying to say something like “But for your race being enslaved among us there could not be war”. That would be accurate, since that places the blame for the Civil War where the other evidence points: slavery. But not even Lincoln was perfect with his words, and this mistake shows that the very fine line of a single word can make the difference between the truth and a hurtful inaccuracy.

    This is supported by the fact that he went on to say “Nevertheless, I repeat, without the institution of Slavery and the colored race as a basis, the war could not have an existence.” This is the truth, since slavery by its definition needs to have defined inferiors to form it. The basis for slavery could be anyone deemed inferior, and does not single out black people.

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