Sebastian Page, who with Philip Magness wrote a recent study on Lincoln and colonization that stressed Lincoln’s continuing interest in colonization after the release of the Emancipation Proclamation, left a rather lengthy comment on this blog. Posting it there, I’ve also decided to post it as a separate blog post to call attention to it.
“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.