Readers of this blog have read this past week about how several historians differ over the question of whether Lincoln continued to pursue initiatives that would provide for the colonization of free blacks abroad after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Basically, the dominant view at present is that he did not do so; a rather spirited minority position is that he did continue to do so. The reason the recent work of Philip Magness and Sebastain Page has made such a splash in some circles is that the authors offer additional evidence that suggests that Lincoln never quite abandoned colonization after all.
Several aspects of this argument intrigue me. First is the continuing debate over the accuracy of Benjamin Butler’s postwar recollections of a meeting he had with Abraham Lincoln in April 1865 where Lincoln supposedly pushed for colonization on the very day where he made public his preference for seeing suffrage extended to some African Americans in the postwar South (a comment that helped seal his fate three nights later). Mark Neely dismissed this account some time ago, while Magness has revived it, and I’ve presented on this blog additional reasons to question Butler’s account in the aftermath of Magness’s article (the advocates of Butler’s account in some shape or form seem reluctant to address that discussion). One can’t attribute my position to standing up for one person or the other, because I’ve butted heads with Neely before and I welcomed Phil Magness as a speaker at last year’s Abraham Lincoln Association.
What I’d like to suggest is that while the debate over Butler’s account may be of interest to students of the historical method, one can address the argument put forth by Magness and Page while setting Butler aside. Butler’s account is highly problematic, as all agree, and so its usefulness as evidence is rather limited. Besides, a more profitable route for those who find Magness and Page persuasive is to look at the other documentary evidence they have presented.
That leads to the other big question raised by this discussion: so what? Let’s stipulate the Magness and Page are correct, and that Lincoln maintained an interest in colonization after January 1, 1863. So what? Does that deliver a fatal blow to the “Lincoln grew and changed” argument (voiced recently by Eric Foner) or to the notion that colonization was no more than a lullaby or a sedative designed to placate white racists (an opinion voiced by Gabor Boritt and Allen Guelzo)?
Probably not. As with Reconstruction (and indeed with emancipation), Lincoln seemed quite willing to entertain and even promote multiple paths toward the same conclusion. What we do know is that Lincoln ceased publicly promoting colonization after December 1862: in his later utterances, he seemed perfectly willing to accept the notion of a biracial America (we can talk about his policy toward indigenous peoples at another time). It is well within the boundaries of the possible that Lincoln wanted to continue to provide free and freed African Americans with the option of emigration as an option, not as the only (or even primary) option. After all, the same reasoning, in a different context, was behind Ulysses S. Grant’s interest in the annexation of the Dominican Republic, even if there were other critical differences (and there were).
One problem here is that we have to be willing as historians to allow the evidence to point in directions we did not anticipate and to suggest interpretations we have not considers (and some may not want to consider). One of the reasons I’ve said that it’s a bad business to fall in love with dead people is that you might develop a rooting interest in the evidence that leads you to consider what you uncover (and perhaps where you choose to look and not to look) in light of those “rooting interests.” The same reasoning holds for the notion that it’s also a bad business to hate dead people: you may not be dispassionate in your consideration of the evidence.
I’ve addressed this issue before in discussing the oft-cited Lincoln comment saying that he could not spare Grant because “he fights.” Sorry, folks, the evidence makes that a highly unlikely utterance. That biographers and others enamored of Lincoln or Grant continue to use it (even when they are aware it is highly problematic) says something about how they approach their craft.
At the same time, we need not jump to extremes when it comes to considering such stories. Accepting Butler’s story does not negate Lincoln’s April 11 remarks about suffrage (or his private remarks on the subject the previous year). It simply complicates the terrain. I’ve come across this in discussions on whether Grant got drunk on the so-called Yazoo bender of June 1863, in which one previous Grant biographer said that historians were in denial about Grant’s problems with alcohol if they rejected the story told by journalist Sylvanus Cadwallader. Indeed, it’s rather easy to punch big holes in Cadwallader’s story and assess what happened in June 1863 (an ailing Grant was advised to turn to alcohol to deal with his illness, and that was not good advice) without denying that Grant was a problem drinker (we’ve been through the issue of whether he was an alcoholic before … read the blog).
So let’s see where I am on this issue of Lincoln and colonization and what it says about my understanding of Lincoln and the place of the freedpeople in post-emancipation America … basically, I’m in the same place. I have no problem accepting that Lincoln may have continued to pursue colonization as an option after January 1, 1863. At best, it was simply an option, not the solution. More than that I would not say: it was no longer a solution Lincoln would advocate, and he now realized that he might not have many takers (recall, Lincoln always insisted that colonization be voluntary). In the last twenty-eight months of his life Lincoln came to see how blacks might be part of a postwar American society, with military service bringing with it a claim for citizenship and suffrage. He had yet to think clearly about other aspects of postwar society. That some people see with such clarity what Lincoln himself was struggling to see clearly tells me more about them than about Lincoln.