Colonization after Emancipation
Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement
By Phillip W. Magness Sebastian N. Page
University of Missouri Press
Copyright © 2011 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All right reserved.
The Curious Politics of Colonization
"Without being an enthusiast, Lincoln was a firm believer in colonization." This was the assessment given to him by presidential secretaries John Nicolay and John Hay in a duly celebrated 1890 biography of their late employer. The colonization of freed slaves, to either Africa or the tropics of Central America and the Caribbean, featured prominently in Abraham Lincoln's formative beliefs on race and slavery. Enabled by a $600,000 appropriation from Congress, Lincoln aggressively pursued the policy in the early part of his presidency.
Lincoln was by no means the first president to advocate colonization. The idea dated to the revolutionary period, when many of the nation's founding fathers grappled with the troublesome place of slavery in a country ostensibly founded on the concept of natural equality as expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Writers from Thomas Jefferson to Alexis de Tocqueville openly expressed vexation over the multiracial future of the North American continent should emancipation ever come. Many leading political figures, Jefferson among them, turned to colonization as a corollary to emancipation. Other early colonizationists included such notable personalities as James Madison, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, John Randolph of Roanoke, Francis Scott Key, and Bushrod Washington, nephew of the first president.
A variety of motives—political, economic and humanitarian—drove these men to advocate the separation of the races, imbuing the movement with an ambiguous raison d'être that confounded contemporaries no less than it does scholars today. It received an institutional face in 1816 with the founding of the American Colonization Society (ACS) whose official policy of removing consenting free blacks, dating from 1822, to its West African progeny, Liberia, gave rise to vastly differing interpretations.
The core of the movement was always self-styled moderates, particularly of the border slave states and lower North, who were quietly looking to ease the processes of gradual emancipation or individual manumissions by offering the critical quid pro quo of the expatriation of the African Americans thus freed. This would remove not only what most agreed was both a social and political evil, but also one of the stumbling blocks to conservative antislavery. The mainstream colonizationist rationale was an ambivalent one, best viewed through the lens of Enlightenment environmentalism, even into the nineteenth century. According to its misguided philanthropy, the same freedman population whose very presence inflicted only misery upon both black and white in America (due to the explosive mixture of a 'superior' and an 'inferior' race) could better itself once placed in Africa and bring Christianity and republicanism to that continent.
Not that this middling position satisfied all. Early federal sponsorship of the ACS in its labors of resettling 'recaptives,' the rescued victims of the illegal transatlantic slave trade, came under scrutiny as soon as Andrew Jackson came into office, and although it had many prominent friends, bills for U.S. government assistance in other aspects of its work would henceforth fail. Slaveholders of the lower South, who had shown some initial interest in removing the already free blacks alone, had quickly wised up to the slippery implications of the ACS's definition of "free people of color." From the 1830s their objections were backed by nascent proslavery theory, which upheld the benefits of the institution for all involved. The more painful attack on the movement though, emerging around the same time, came from the other wing, as immediatist abolitionists demanded universal emancipation without conditions attached and decried the justification of racial prejudice which underpinned colonization.
The movement survived due to some disciplined management at the society headquarters and thanks to the existence of state auxiliary organizations which had a freer hand in their work and self-presentation, but they were painful years nonetheless. One of the interesting outcomes of the sectional tension of the late 1840s and 1850s, however, was the countervailing drive for political moderation that it produced in the broad middle of the political spectrum, leading to a resurgence of interest in colonization with its appealing flavor of the apparent unanimity of idealized earlier times.
It is questionable, however, how much the ACS itself benefited politically from this. While it enjoyed increased donations, testamentary bequests of slaves for manumission on condition of removal, and a great deal of lip service, its dominant clerical and humanitarian element was still cautious about venturing into politics. Many of the key proponents of this second wave of colonization were midwesterners rather than easterners of either section, and, frequently backed by the proscriptive race legislation on their states' books, they were arguably a lot more interested in the deportationist side of the scheme, and its racial implications for the U.S., than the civilizing ones for 'benighted' Africa. Indeed, Liberia was out of favor for the geostrategic, closer prize of Central America, which also appealed more to those African Americans who had, given the grim circumstances of the decade, reopened the emigration debate in the 1850s to give greater consideration to a solution that most blacks had rejected, as a denial of their birthright, since the society's formation.
It was in this context that Lincoln inherited the colonization mantle during the formative years of his political career, most notably through the influence of his early political hero Henry Clay and the Whig Party. He advocated the concept as an Illinois legislator, and participated in the Illinois Colonization Society. In 1857 Lincoln declared the "separation of the races" to be the "only perfect preventive of amalgamation," noting that "[s]uch separation, if ever effected at all, must be effected by colonization." He reiterated this stance a year later in one of his most notorious statements from the famous debates with Stephen Douglas during their U.S. Senate campaigns:
I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races,—that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.
This embrace of colonization underwent little material change between 1858 and his election to the presidency. Even before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, Lincoln directed Elisha O. Crosby, his newly appointed minister to Guatemala, to investigate the prospects of colonization in Central America.
In his first year in office Lincoln called upon Congress to fund a larger colonization program. Notably, he forged a direct link between this proposal and the earliest forerunner of emancipation, the Confiscation Act of 1861, which permitted the Union army to seize property, including slaves, used in support of the rebellion. By this act, Lincoln declared, the "legal claims of certain persons to the labor and service of certain other persons have become forfeited." He called on Congress to provide "that such persons, on such acceptance by the general government, be at once deemed free." It was but a natural extension of this process that "steps be taken for colonizing" these freedmen "at some place, or places, in a climate congenial to them," and that appropriations be made to acquire territories for that purpose. Congress obliged Lincoln's request, providing the $600,000 colonization fund, $100,000 of which was to be specifically dedicated to the black residents of the District of Columbia.
Though authorized amidst unprecedented wartime expenditures amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars, the colonization fund was no inconsequential side project. To add some perspective, the entire federal budget for the previous year had barely topped $60 million. Beginning on July 16, 1862, the day the appropriation went into effect, Lincoln's personal attention turned to colonization. He established an Emigration Office in the Department of the Interior to administer his colonization policies, directed the State Department to begin negotiations for the acquisition of suitable territories, and pled the scheme's merits before a delegation of free black residents of the District of Columbia. The president also promoted it publicly and ensured his fledgling antislavery strategy contained provisions for the resettlement of blacks abroad. Colonization would serve as an enticement to the slave states that remained in the Union should they enact policies of compensated emancipation. His preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, announced in September 1862, also pledged to "colonize persons of African descent, with their consent, upon this continent, or elsewhere."
From the summer through December 1862, colonization was a recurring topic within the administration's inner circles, where it spawned the earliest attempts of the U.S. government to put the $600,000 fund to use. Two colonization "experiments" initiated during these months have received extensive attention from historians since the time of Hay and Nicolay. The first, a contract to purchase land from a private investor in the Chiriquí region of Panama, began in September and fell through a few months later amidst objections from the British and several Latin American governments. The second, also initiated by contract in December 1862, consisted of an attempt to settle the Île à Vache off the coast of Haiti. The Haitian colony actually received about 450 emigrants before it collapsed a year later, though it proved a disaster from the outset. The contract entrusted the colony to an unscrupulous speculator who squandered the money and left the island without supplies, leading to its abandonment and the subsequent rescue of its starving inhabitants by the United States Navy in 1864.
Here ends the standard account of President Lincoln's venture into colonization, as Hay and Nicolay wrote that the Chiriquí and Île à Vache projects were the only two schemes that "commended themselves to the special attention of the President." In fact, this most curious and controversial component of Lincoln's antislavery policy, the subject of public proclamations and intense private deliberations before the cabinet alike, seems to all but vanish from the standard historical narrative with the ringing in of the New Year in 1863. Henry J. Raymond, one of the first notable Lincoln biographers, gave a similar assessment in 1865 by noting that "[n]o further experiments were made in the matter of colonization" beyond these two attempts. Most historians since Raymond have reached similar conclusions and left the matter with Hay and Nicolay's description, only filling in the remaining details of the two projects. Lincoln's colonization program thus seems to have amounted to a brief flirtation with the policy in the latter half of 1862, the only attempts in pursuit of which ended in embarrassment or stillbirth. From there it is thought he marched forward toward emancipation as a stand-alone policy, the colonizationist inclinations of his youth and his early presidency having been set aside as unworkable, if not willfully abandoned.
It may be duly noted that colonization's apparent wane beyond the two schemes initiated in late 1862 comports well with the notion of the Civil War as an evolutionary narrative on race. Colonization strikes the modern reader as an artifact exemplar, a relic eternally chained to the historical circumstances that produced it and seldom ever a viable strain of policy in its own right. The logistics of transportation alone made the proposition inherently unworkable, as many of its advocates discovered only after trial and error. As a policy, it strays widely from the evolutionary course of race relations over time, both as a pattern of its own, and as the modern reader knows, from the reflection and hindsight offered by the Civil Rights movement.
Nor does colonization provide an easy fit with the Civil War in memory. By its nature, the policy was burdened by the technical complexities of its execution and, thus, detached from any sweeping sense of philosophical significance. Colonization defies the conclusiveness granted to the slavery narrative by the final act of emancipation, seen as a fitting cap to centuries of struggle and hardship. It is, as a result, a natural oversight within the national memory, quietly shed in the postwar years to make room for what Robert Penn Warren termed the northern "Treasury of Virtue" in Civil War iconography. For Lincoln too, colonization presents a difficult subject, either quietly noted as a remnant of early beliefs that were justly discarded as the war progressed, or pounced upon as a self-evident point of detraction for his racial legacy. With each approach and irrespective of their divergent claims, the haste of reaching a conclusion often overshadows the diligence required to fully assess Lincoln's use of colonization during his presidency, particularly its later years.
Still, Lincoln's colonization endeavors have always been a troublesome part of his legacy, though for different reasons. Early Lincoln biographers generally treated the policy as a matter of fact, noting its existence but also hesitating to pass judgment or even elucidate the reasons for its apparent decline. These topics are conspicuously absent from the biographies by Raymond as well as Nicolay and Hay, though each provide particulars of the projects in Haiti and Panama. Within Lincoln's own generation, the policy became an occasional point of mild detraction for those wishing to differentiate the late president's comparatively moderate views on slavery from the abolitionist wing of the Republican Party. In 1886 George W. Julian, a former congressman and contemporary of the sixteenth president, attempted to qualify Lincoln's antislavery reputation by recounting a link between colonization and the Emancipation Proclamation. In the 1870s Gideon Welles, Lincoln's former secretary of the navy, penned a series of essays for the Galaxy magazine in which he defended a tempered view of Lincoln's emancipation policy, colonization included. Welles specifically cautioned against judging Lincoln's moderate approach to emancipation in hindsight. The sheer complexity of the political problems surrounding the abolition of slavery made it fully comprehensible to only those who were present at the time.
Beginning in the middle of the twentieth century many historians began to differentiate between two apparent phases of Lincoln's colonization policy. The first phase encompasses his early political career through the first two years of his presidency, as evidenced by the aforementioned projects in Panama and Haiti as well as frequent references in Lincoln's speeches and writings. The second includes the final two years of Lincoln's life when it is thought that he moved away from colonization, presumably in conjunction with his own personal growth on racial equality. The resultant emphasis of historical inquiry on colonization leans toward the early features of Lincoln's policy such as the 1862 projects.
In great contrast, surprisingly little has been written about Lincoln's colonization policy after January 1, 1863, excepting accounts of the Île à Vache rescue mission on which the president made no public comment. The resultant void has become a battleground for speculation and controversy. The postemancipation colonization literature remains noticeably underdeveloped, and indeed a topic that many scholars decline to pursue for simple doubt of its existence. To quote the late Philip Shaw Paludan, the "prevailing historical narrative usually ends the story of colonization" with Lincoln's signature on the final Emancipation Proclamation. The signing of this document, which omitted the colonization clause of its precursor of the previous September, has become a symbolic event in its own right as it concerns Lincoln's racial beliefs and a turning point on the particular subject of colonization. So strong is this perception, observed by Paludan, that many leading scholars have aggressively argued against the proposition that Lincoln continued to cling to his earlier colonizationist views in the last two years of his life.
Most historians differ only on the speed with which the proclamation's effects extended to Lincoln's colonization program. Michael Vorenberg has contended that the change was immediate: "In fact, there is no reason to believe that Lincoln ever espoused colonization after he issued the Final Emancipation Proclamation." The case that he did rests upon the "flimsy" evidence of a reputed "colonization interview" in 1865 where Lincoln allegedly spoke to one of his most controversial generals, Benjamin F. Butler, about reviving the project after the Civil War. Other postemancipation evidence usually relies upon speculation about an ambiguous 1864 entry in the diary of John Hay, suggesting Lincoln had moved away from, or, as he put it, "sloughed off" colonization. Vorenberg has argued that this diary date is of little significance even if it comes from a reliable author, as the entry is far removed from any public comment on colonization by the president.
Excerpted from Colonization after Emancipation by Phillip W. Magness Sebastian N. Page Copyright © 2011 by The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.