A Dust-Up Over Lincoln and Colonization

For some time most Lincoln scholars have taken for granted the notion that the sixteenth president abandoned his notions about colonization with the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. One Lincoln scholar, Mark Neely, took great pains to dismiss an account by Benjamin F. Butler that detailed Lincoln’s continuing interest in colonization as late as April 1865.

Philip W. Magness and Sebastian N. Page have asserted that Lincoln continued to press for colonization after he issued the proclamation. Magness went so far as to challenge Neely’s treatment of Butler’s account, leaving the door open to the possibility that Lincoln did meet with Butler in a conversation where the subject of colonization might have come up. Magness also pursued the issue of James Mitchell’s role in Lincoln’s post-proclamation activities.

I found Magness’s work to be provocative, and I invited him to speak at the 2013 Benjamin P. Thomas Symposium of the Abraham Lincoln Association. At about the same time, Allen Guelzo offered a review of Magness and Page’s book to which Magness has taken exception. Basically, Guelzo dismisses a good deal of the book’s argument, while Magness suggests that certain documents whose existence are questioned by Guelzo do indeed exist.

As Magness has charged Guelzo with “professional misconduct” in offering a “willfully mendacious portrayal” of Magness and Page’s findings, this disagreement does not promise to fade away quickly. One hopes that those fireworks do not distract from the more important implication of Magness and Page’s work: that while Lincoln may have gone silent in public about colonization, he remained committed to it as an option (if no longer the only one) behind the scenes.

18 thoughts on “A Dust-Up Over Lincoln and Colonization

  1. John Foskett February 22, 2014 / 1:07 pm

    Focusing on a narrow issue, I’ve always had difficulty with the alleged Butler conversations in April, 1865. First, consider the source – an 1892 recollection of a verbal communication with a long-dead man by a guy who I think we can all agree did not possess a stellar reputation for telling the unvarnished truth. Like it or not, an uncorroborated account by Spoons reeks of unreliability. Then there’s the fact that, whatever the reason(s) – pragmatic hurdles, political resistance, a change in Lincoln’s moral outlook – by mid-1864 or so the topic seems to have disappeared from Lincoln’s agenda. Brian Dirck’s Abraham Lincoln and White America, among others, so suggests. Personally, it makes little sense to me that if Lincoln were still actively interested enough in this topic to broach it to Spoons in April, 1865 it would not have at least been mentioned during the 4-hour Hampton Roads conference two months previous – which apparently did cover a wide range of issues touching on emancipation (including compensation) and the newly-enacted (but not yet ratified) Thirteenth Amendment. Yet the accounts left by the three CSA commissioners don’t indicate that it came up. I take from this that it was DOA in Lincoln’s mind certainly by that date. As to the dispute between the historians, it appears to have taken an unnecessary and unfortunate turn.

  2. Mark Curran February 22, 2014 / 1:10 pm

    Since Lincoln colonization comments were in response to Southern leaders comments about possible genocide of slaves, should they free them, it’s meaningless to posit on Lincoln’s comments. When we admit the kind of vile talk about genocide of slaves, by Southern leaders, let me know. In fact, when we admit many of the vile principles of Southern leaders, let me know.

    If you don’t know, or admit, what Lincoln had to deal with, you don’t know Lincoln. Check out what Frederick Douglass said, he knew not just Lincoln, but the Southern mentality, particularly slavers. He was not fooled by 150 years of Southern narrative excusing or minimizing things rape by Southern leaders, sale of their own children from rape.

    Furthermore, check out Lincoln’s Peoria speech, a perfect example of how Lincoln seemed to agree with a given prejudice of the day, then come back a minute, or ten minutes later, and obliterate that prejudice. This is clearly over the head of most “scholars” and simply denied by Southern apologists.

    In the Peoria speech, Lincoln SEEMED to back the voluntary colonization efforts — he did not mention Southern leaders known speeches about genocide of slaves if they had to free them, but he knew about it. Then, Lincoln revisited that topic, minutes later, and explained why colonization was not just nor practical.

    What part of Lincoln’s speech do you suppose those who trash Lincoln pick? No, they don’t mention Southern leaders suggestion of genocide of slaves if they had to free them. No, can’t mention that, it would not look good to cast aspersions on men who regularly had slaves whipped and sold children, many times, their own children from rape. No, they don’t mention Lincoln strong clear and powerful explanation why colonization was not the proper remedy.

    I look forward to a time “scholars” don’t have to spend hours bashing Lincoln, to even mention what he was up against, if they admit it at all.


    • Brooks D. Simpson February 22, 2014 / 2:42 pm

      It’s interesting that you claim that Lincoln publicly said that colonization was not practicable when he spoke at Peoria in 1854 when we know that he felt differently both when he delivered his eulogy to Henry Clay in 1852 and when he transmitted his annual messages to Congress in 1861 and 1862. To what would you attribute (what must be understood from your assertion as) Lincoln’s wishywashy position on colonization? BTW, here’s the Peoria speech.

  3. M.D. Blough February 22, 2014 / 2:01 pm

    I think Guelzo makes an excellent point. If Lincoln didn’t drop the idea after the EP, the limited, at best, evidence, even of the sort to which Magness points in his rebuttal, of such interest does pretty well establish that it didn’t have much of a priority with him. Magness uses the EP itself as an event in which the original with Lincoln’s signature is lost, as a comparison. However, there is no shortage of actions and writings on Lincoln’s part that confirms the priority that ending slavery became with EP, up to and including his vigorous advocacy of the 13th Amendment to make the EP’s gains permanent and extend them to the entire country.

  4. Joshism February 22, 2014 / 8:10 pm

    As another posted noted, Butler does not seem like a very reliable source. However, Lincoln supporting colonization – at least privately – up to his death does not seem shocking to me. Regardless of his personal views, Lincoln was pragmatic. Although he recognized support for colonization was weak (especially amongst blacks themselves), he probably also recognized that removing as many blacks as possible from the United States would minimize post-war racial tension and violence. I don’t think Lincoln was under any delusion that the South (and much of the north) would suddenly stop being racist when slavery was constitutionally ended.

    • John Foskett February 23, 2014 / 8:48 am

      Which is why I posit that the Hampton Roads meeting was the ideal time to at least allude to it as a possibility. There’s a reason no one was present aside from Lincoln, Seward, Campbell, Hunter, and Stephens. Yet in the Confederate commissioners’ later accounts, which agree on all the significant details, colonization is glaringly absent. In fact, it appears that at the four hour meeting Lincoln discussed any number of controversial possibilities related to emancipation – compensation, judicial limiting of his proclamation, delayed ratification/even defeat of the 13th Amendment. Yet nothing about this topic, which he once had openly referred to in his message to Congress. And, as we agree, putting one’s eggs in the Butler basket is a risky form of the “historical method”. Butler was a prevaricator but at least he was also corrupt.

      • E.W. Sydney February 23, 2014 / 2:07 pm

        So…Butler’s story is unreliable because he’s Beast Butler. But Alexander ‘Cornerstone’ Stephens’ version of the Hampton Rhodes Conference is not just reliable. It’s so reliable and so detailed that it can even be used to rule out that Lincoln ever brought up colonization in the entire 5 hours they were there? That’s some mighty strange consistency issues you’ve just stepped into.

        Don’t hide that you’re using Stephens under the other 2 confederatos either. They wrote a couple short paragraphs, Stephens wrote pages and all the key details you use come from Stephens.

        • John Foskett February 24, 2014 / 8:46 am

          Here’s what you’ve “stepped into”. Put simply, you’re wrong. Campbell left multiple accounts, totalling 25+ pages. Hunter’s the only one who left “a couple short paragraphs”. And none of the three mentioned “colonization”. It didn’t come up during the conference. Butler’s story is unreliable for a number of reasons, which you’d be able to figure out if you did some research. It starts with the fact that he’s a guy whose reliability is indeed suspect based on historical fact. Or maybe you think that the tooth fairy increased his personal wealth from $150,000 to $3,000,000 in a short span which included his military service. Then we move on to the fact that Lincoln tolerated Butler because of his importance with northern Democrats, not because he was a personal confidante. By early 1865 Lincoln was sufficiently comfortable that he promptly acceded to Grant’s request that Spoons be deposed from his command. Then we have the content of this alleged conversation – not just colonization but colonization of freed blacks who had fought in the USCT – the very group who Lincoln had previously and very publicly held up as an example of why emancipation was the right thing to do. The notion that he would confide in Spoons his belief that these guys who had fought and bled for the Union should be effectively deported is a reach, to put it kindly. But believe in it if you want.

          • MarinersFan February 24, 2014 / 12:55 pm

            Didn’t Grant later patch things up with Butler over dumping him from command in 1865?

            And if Lincoln was so eager to be rid of him why did he invite Butler to the White House AFTER he was relieved of command?

            So Butler was personally corrupt (show us a politician from that time who wasn’t!!! Schuyler Colfax? Roscoe Conkling? Thaddeus Stevens?)

            But all of that says nothing about if we should trust his memory on this encounter with Lincoln.

            Since you seem to be so certain that Butler was lying please tell us – what was his motive for making this story up about Lincoln? What evidence do you have for that?

            Lincoln’s speech to the colonization delegates said they had been picked because they were the –leaders– of their race and he viewed them as being the most capable to lead the way in colonization and make the colony a success. Wouldn’t that also apply to the ones who servd as soldiers?

          • John Foskett February 25, 2014 / 8:07 am

            Butler’s “memory” is only one of the issues. His “veracity” is another. And yes, Grant later – several years later – “patched things up” with Spoons, but before that there had been another dustup. Ben was a very “flexible” guy and an extraordinary gymnast when it came to politics and other pursuits. He made his reputation as a lawyer representing downtrodden mill workers but he also found a way – very lucrative, I might add – to represent mill owners. Somehow the fragrant odor of corruption and mendacity seemed to eternally waft in his vicinity. Not surprisingly, after he had wended his political way to President Grant, that same stench soon followed. Not a guy you’d call as your lead witness in an important case.

          • E.W. Sydney February 24, 2014 / 1:21 pm

            Campbell’s most complete version is 6 pages long, not 25. Its also far less specific that Stephens and gave few direct quotes of Lincoln. That still leaves Stephens as the biggest component of your argument. And Stephens is a figure that many historians consider suspect.

            But even that is beside the point because you’ve shown that you are selective in whose memoirs you “count” and whose you “exclude” based on what you think they say…or in this case they don’t say (and it’s ridiculous to pretend that a 6 page or even a 25 page account written after the fact captured all words that were said in a 4 hour long meeting, and then use that to negate what was not recorded as if it’s some sort of “proof” of anything at all!).

            You also don’t offer any motives for Butler to lie – just assert it to be. Tell us – Why would he make it up if it wasn’t grounded in truth?

          • John Foskett February 24, 2014 / 5:42 pm

            Well, we’re making progress – we’ve got Campbell up to 6 pages and not a “couple short paragraphs”. I think I was clear that the multiple Campbell entries total 25+ pages. Nobody said it was a verbatim “transcript” of the meeting. You’re free to assume that Lincoln tossed colonization around at the meeting and none of the three saw fit to mention it. As for why Butler would lie, try this – to make himself look good at Lincoln’s expense. Or to make himself look important and appear as a confidante of Lincoln’s. The account first appeared in the 1880’s and in its ripened form in 1892. There was a very good post on this site a few years back which culled out several other assertions in Butler’s account which ring false. You’re free to assume that this one is accurate despite that fact.

  5. James F. Epperson February 23, 2014 / 8:34 am

    Like several others, the presence of Butler as the source of Magness’ theory is not a good starting point with me. The rebuttal to Neely only allows for the possibility that the meeting occurred. Magness seems far too willing to take Butler at his word on things. The points about Lincoln’s pragmatism seem very sound to me.

    • John Foskett February 23, 2014 / 2:49 pm

      In fact, I’d go further. Clutching Butler’s unsubstantiated “recollection” 27 years later of a conversation with a man who’s been dead for nearly three decades reveals at the least an embarrassing naivete. Any presumption ought to work strongly in the other direction. This looks like someone falling in love with his own theory to the extent that he’s putting on blinders.

  6. Tony February 24, 2014 / 5:07 am

    Very interesting, thanks for the post!

  7. Sebastian Page February 24, 2014 / 8:36 am

    “Focusing on a narrow issue, I’ve always had difficulty with the alleged Butler conversations…”

    And therein lies the problem: focusing on a narrow issue. (Or making use of those selfsame “blinders,” if you will.)

    Something remarkable happens when we stop making accusations of “liar” for a moment: it turns out that there is a consistent, lifelong, and, by the standards of the Lincoln record, large body of evidence of his attachment to colonization. Not an altogether uncritical attachment, but a very real and sincere one that, if anything, derives *more* significance from the continual setbacks and disappointments that the measure brought for the Lincoln administration.

    We have established colonization as active policy through early 1864, not only through the discovery of a second wave of schemes but also through hefty additions to the account of ostensibly well-known ones (http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14664658.2011.626160#.Uws0CfR_s3g), mostly based on manuscript accessions from no later than the 1960s. This challenges the standard narrative of Lincoln dropping the idea because of black recruitment, be it more through its practical or its ethical implications, or because of an impressive personal learning curve in policymaking.

    Moreover, we have established a pattern of evidence that, while the policy was clearly stymied until the end of the war, Lincoln did not deem it done and dusted, and probably hoped to resume it. He ignored direct appeals from radical opponents to explicitly repudiate colonization. He referred to the rider removing colonization funds in the massive end-of-session appropriations bill for summer 1864 as an “unfriendly act,” which trumps what seem to be John Hay’s vague inferences that Lincoln had “sloughed off” the policy. He sought legal advice to retain his colonization assistant James Mitchell for the policy, also asking his attorney-general whether he could still pursue colonization even with the money gone, and in late 1864 apparently suggested that it was only nascent Confederate debates about black recruitment that held him back from renewing the colonization drive.

    It doesn’t stop there. He predicted in his final annual message that “Liberia … may be expected to derive new vigor from American influence, improved by the rapid disappearance of slavery in the United States,” an ultimately cryptic remark, granted, but one with a strong sense of colonizationist import. He left Gideon Welles, a sharp critic of the impracticality of colonization who was also very keen in later years to celebrate Lincoln’s pragmatism at the expense of Seward’s reputation, obliged to admit in his reminiscences that Lincoln had by no means taken the failure of the Ile a Vache expedition as the end of the story. He left a mournful Seward ruing in April 1865 that colonization had been the only policy that ever meaningfully divided them.

    And all that is merely on top of what we know down to early 1864! So, no, an argument for Lincoln’s late interest in colonization finds many more baskets for its eggs than that of Butler … but also, Butler does look credible in view of the foregoing. The irony is that, in attempting to fend off neo-Confederate attacks on Lincoln, some of those who have commented on this thread unhesitatingly deploy all the paleo-Confederate calumnies about Benjamin Butler that they can think of. Yet Butler was actually a “kind of favorite with the President,” according to a White House secretary, and indeed generally shows up in the reminiscences of his contemporaries along the lines of “underrated” or “unfairly maligned.”

    Taking the wider picture, there has been some talk of “historical method” on this thread, and I think that that is something that we need to address. As historians, surely what we do is seek the best fit for the overall body of evidence. And I’m not sure that picking at each piece in turn, and coming up with what are basically generic objections, really hacks it. (It works well for defense lawyers – but then, if we apply their standards, pretty much everything in the history books has to be disqualified.) More helpfully, we might zoom out and ask why we’re so keen to do a demolition job on the evidence for a topic that we find so awkward, perhaps as much for its impracticality as its immorality. Why do we dismiss Butler’s recollections “because they’re recollections,” but unquestioningly accept, say, Frederick Douglass’s reminiscences of the dignity with which Lincoln treated him? Just who are these dark forces out to discredit Lincoln by leaving evidence that makes him look bad by what were then unforeseeable post-1960s standards of race relations, and – here’s the kicker – why did it take us until the 1960s or so to discover their evil doings?

    In truth, the argument that Lincoln abandoned colonization never has had evidence, correctly understood, on its side, apart from an overworked and chronologically superseded Hay diary reference. (There are a couple of other memoirs out there that suppose that he gave up the policy, but they are indeed in the realm of supposition, which comports with the latterly tight secrecy of administration colonization policy; like Hay, they cite nothing explicitly to Lincoln.) The argument for abandonment aspires to be a modestly non-evidentiary one – “well, Lincoln wouldn’t necessarily say that he’d given up colonization” – but as long as it disparages and dismisses perfectly consistent evidence in favor of a rejection recorded nowhere, it’s actually an *anti*-evidentiary argument, and one going round in circles at that.

    What *passes* for evidence turns out to be colonization’s presumed relationship with other policies, taken with a heavy dose of mutual exclusion. It shows up each and every time. “Lincoln sought the electorate’s support for colonization, so it was really a public relations exercise” – but don’t politicians normally seek support for their policies, and don’t we also have to account for most of his colonization dealings occurring behind closed doors? “But from 1863, the Lincoln administration [temporarily] enlisted [a minority of] the black population” – and so that solved the problem of meaningful, long-term, nationwide racial integration? “Lincoln gave up colonization because he grew on matters of race” – but how on earth does one grow out of others’ racism, the rationale for colonization that he clearly presented in August 1862, especially the racism of vengeful white southerners in whose vicinity nine-tenths of African Americans would find themselves post-war? “Lincoln cannot have believed in colonization until his death because he latterly supported [tentative, limited] black enfranchisement” – right, assuming that he was too simple-minded to juggle multiple ideas, or that we can safely view his policy in terms of a single stance for some kind of homogenous African American population, an assumption that carries at least a whiff of racial tokenism alongside its dubious factual basis. Weak. Weak.

    Time to move on, folks. You don’t have to agree with all that we say, but you do need to hit the “reset” button and to move the burden of proof when it becomes apparent that nobody has known the half of Civil War colonization policy until very recently. Especially when it has been arguments exactly like those seen in this thread that have discouraged scholars from doing focused research in the primary sources since the 1950s.

  8. Tony February 24, 2014 / 1:12 pm

    It seems worth noting that the fate of the 13th Amendment was still very much up in the air at the time of Lincoln’s assasination. If the 13th Amendment had failed ratification, the slave states could have demanded under the rules of war the return of their “property” confiscated by the federal armies during the war. USCT who had fought to ensure their freedom potentially could have found themselves once again under the yoke of slavery. This was a very real possibility … could it be that Lincoln was retaining colonization on the back burner as a last resort that would remove the USCT beyond the threat of their owners’ repossession attempts?

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