The 'Great Emancipator' and the Issue of Race
Abraham Lincoln's Program of Black ResettlementRobert Morgan
Many Americans think of Abraham Lincoln, above all, as the president who freed the slaves. Immortalized as the "Great Emancipator," he is widely regarded as a champion of black freedom who supported social equality of the races, and who fought the American Civil War (1861-1865) to free the slaves.
While it is true that Lincoln regarded slavery as an evil and harmful institution, it also true, as this paper will show, that he shared the conviction of most Americans of his time, and of many prominent statesmen before and after him, that blacks could not be assimilated into white society. He rejected the notion of social equality of the races, and held to the view that blacks should be resettled abroad. As President, he supported projects to remove blacks from the United States.
In 1837, at the age of 28, the self-educated Lincoln was admitted to practice law in Illinois. In at least one case, which received considerable attention at the time, he represented a slave-owner. Robert Matson, Lincoln's client, each year brought a crew of slaves from his plantation in Kentucky to a farm he owned in Illinois for seasonal work. State law permitted this, provided that the slaves did not remain in Illinois continuously for a year. In 1847, Matson brought to the farm his favorite mulatto slave, Jane Bryant (wife of his free, black overseer there), and her four children. A dispute developed between Jane Bryant and Matson's white housekeeper, who threatened to have Jane and her children returned to slavery in the South. With the help of local abolitionists, the Bryants fled. They were apprehended, and, in an affidavit sworn out before a justice of the peace, Matson claimed them as his property. Lacking the required certificates of freedom, Bryant and the children were confined to local county jail as the case was argued in court. Lincoln lost the case, and Bryant and her children were declared free. They were later resettled in Liberia.1
In 1842 Lincoln married Mary Todd, who came from one of Kentucky's most prominent slave-holding families.2 While serving as an elected representative in the Illinois legislature, he persuaded his fellow Whigs to support Zachary Taylor, a slave owner, in his successful 1848 bid for the Presidency.3 Lincoln was also a strong supporter of the Illinois law that forbid marriage between whites and blacks.4
"If all earthly power were given me," said Lincoln in a speech delivered in Peoria, Illinois, on October 16, 1854, "I should not know what to do, as to the existing institution [of slavery]. My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia, to their own native land." After acknowledging that this plan's "sudden execution is impossible," he asked whether freed blacks should be made "politically and socially our equals?" "My own feelings will not admit of this," he said, "and [even] if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not ... We can not, then, make them equals."5
One of Lincoln's most representative public statements on the question of racial relations was given in a speech at Springfield, Illinois, on June 26, 1857.6 In this address, he explained why he opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which would have admitted Kansas into the Union as a slave state:
Racial separation, Lincoln went on to say, "must be effected by colonization" of the country's blacks to a foreign land. "The enterprise is a difficult one," he acknowledged,
To affirm the humanity of blacks, Lincoln continued, was more likely to strengthen public sentiment on behalf of colonization than the Democrats' efforts to "crush all sympathy for him, and cultivate and excite hatred and disgust against him ..." Resettlement ("colonization") would not succeed, Lincoln seemed to argue, unless accompanied by humanitarian concern for blacks, and some respect for their rights and abilities. By apparently denying the black person's humanity, supporters of slavery were laying the groundwork for "the indefinite outspreading of his bondage." The Republican program of restricting slavery to where it presently existed, he said, had the long-range benefit of denying to slave holders an opportunity to sell their surplus bondsmen at high prices in new slave territories, and thus encouraged them to support a process of gradual emancipation involving resettlement of the excess outside of the country.
Earlier Resettlement Plans
The view that America's apparently intractable racial problem should be solved by removing blacks from this country and resettling them elsewhere -- "colonization" or "repatriation" -- was not a new one. As early as 1714 a New Jersey man proposed sending blacks to Africa. In 1777 a Virginia legislature committee, headed by future President Thomas Jefferson (himself a major slave owner), proposed a plan of gradual emancipation and resettlement of the state's slaves. In 1815, an enterprising free black from Massachusetts named Paul Cuffe transported, at his own expense, 38 free blacks to West Africa. His undertaking showed that at least some free blacks were eager to resettle in a country of their own, and suggested what might be possible with public and even government support.7
In December 1816, a group of distinguished Americans met in Washington, DC, to establish an organization to promote the cause of black resettlement. The "American Colonization Society" soon won backing from some of the young nation's most prominent citizens. Henry Clay, Francis Scott Key, John Randolph, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Bushrod Washington, Charles Carroll, Millard Fillmore, John Marshall, Roger B. Taney, Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster, Stephen A. Douglas, and Abraham Lincoln were members. Clay presided at the group's first meeting.8
Measures to resettle blacks in Africa were soon undertaken. Society member Charles Fenton Mercer played an important role in getting Congress to pass the Anti-Slave Trading Act of March 1819, which appropriated $100,000 to transport blacks to Africa. In enforcing the Act, Mercer suggested to President James Monroe that if blacks were simply returned to the coast of Africa and released, they would probably be re-enslaved, and possibly some returned to the United States. Accordingly, and in cooperation with the Society, Monroe sent agents to acquire territory on Africa's West coast -- a step that led to the founding of the country now known as Liberia. Its capital city was named Monrovia in honor of the American President.9
With crucial Society backing, black settlers began arriving from the United States in 1822. While only free blacks were at first brought over, after 1827, slaves were freed expressly for the purpose of transporting them to Liberia. In 1847, black settlers declared Liberia an independent republic, with an American-style flag and constitution.10
By 1832 the legislatures of more than a dozen states (at that time there were only 24), had given official approval to the Society, including at least three slave-holding states.11 Indiana's legislature, for example, passed the following joint resolution on January 16, 1850:12
In January 1858, Missouri Congressman Francis P. Blair, Jr., introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives to set up a committee
Blair, quoting Thomas Jefferson, stated that blacks could never be accepted as the equals of whites, and, consequently, urged support for a dual policy of emancipation and deportation, similar to Spain's expulsion of the Moors. Blair went on to argue that the territory acquired for the purpose would also serve as a bulwark against any further encroachment by England in the Central and South American regions.13
Lincoln's Support for Resettlement
Lincoln's ideological mentor was Henry Clay, the eminent American scholar, diplomat, and statesman. Because of his skill in the US Senate and House of Representatives, Clay won national acclaim as the "Great Compromiser" and the "Great Pacificator." A slave owner who had humane regard for blacks, he was prominent in the campaign to resettle free blacks outside of the United States, and served as president of the American Colonization Society. Lincoln joined Clay's embryonic Whig party during the 1830s. In an address given in 1858, Lincoln described Clay as "my beau ideal of a statesman, the man for whom I fought all of my humble life."14
The depth of Lincoln's devotion to Clay and his ideals was expressed in a moving eulogy delivered in July 1852 in Springfield, Illinois. After praising Clay's lifelong devotion to the cause of black resettlement, Lincoln quoted approvingly from a speech given by Clay in 1827: "There is a moral fitness in the idea of returning to Africa her children," adding that if Africa offered no refuge, blacks could be sent to another tropical land. Lincoln concluded:15
In January 1855, Lincoln addressed a meeting of the Illinois branch of the Colonization Society. The surviving outline of his speech suggests that it consisted largely of a well-informed and sympathetic account of the history of the resettlement campaign.16
In supporting "colonization" of the blacks, a plan that might be regarded as a "final solution" to the nation's race question, Lincoln was upholding the views of some of America's most respected figures.
Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858
In 1858 Lincoln was nominated by the newly-formed Republican Party to challenge Steven Douglas, a Democrat, for his Illinois seat in the US Senate. During the campaign, "Little Giant" Douglas focused on the emotion-charged issue of race relations. He accused Lincoln, and Republicans in general, of advocating the political and social equality of the white and black races, and of thereby promoting racial amalgamation. Lincoln responded by strenuously denying the charge, and by arguing that because slavery was the chief cause of miscegenation in the United States, restricting its further spread into the western territories and new states would, in fact, reduce the possibility of race mixing. Lincoln thus came close to urging support for his party because it best represented white people's interests.
Between late August and mid-October, 1858, Lincoln and Douglas travelled together around the state to confront each other in seven historic debates. On August 21, before a crowd of 10,000 at Ottawa, Lincoln declared:17
Many people accepted the rumors spread by Douglas supporters that Lincoln favored social equality of the races. Before the start of the September 18 debate at Charleston, Illinois, an elderly man approached Lincoln in a hotel and asked him if the stories were true. Recounting the encounter later before a crowd of 15,000, Lincoln declared:18
Candidate for President
Though he failed in his bid for the Senate seat, the Lincoln-Douglas debates thrust "Honest Abe" into the national spotlight.19 In 1860, the Republican Party passed over prominent abolitionists such as William H. Seward and Salmon P. Chase to nominate Lincoln as its presidential candidate.
In those days, presidential contenders did not make public speeches after their nomination. In the most widely reprinted of his pre-nomination speeches, delivered at Cooper Union in New York City on February 27, 1860, Lincoln expressed his agreement with the leaders of the infant American republic that slavery is "an evil not be extended, but to be tolerated and protected" where it already exists. "This is all Republicans ask -- all Republicans desire -- in relation to slavery," he emphasized, underscoring the words in his prepared text. After stating that any emancipation should be gradual and carried out in conjunction with a program of scheduled deportation, he went on to cite Thomas Jefferson:20
On the critical question of slavery, the Republican party platform was not altogether clear. Like most documents of its kind, it included sections designed to appeal to a wide variety of voters. One plank, meant to appease radicals and abolitionists, quoted the "all men are created equal" passage of the Declaration of Independence, though without directly mentioning either the Declaration or non-whites. Another section, designed to attract conservative voters, recognized the right of each state to conduct "its own domestic institutions" as it pleased -- "domestic institutions" being an euphemism for slavery. Still another, somewhat equivocally worded, plank, upheld the right and duty of Congress to legislate slavery in the territories "when necessary."21
On election night, November 7, 1860, Abraham Lincoln was the choice of 39 percent of the voters, with no support from the Deep South. The remainder had cast ballots either for Stephen A. Douglas of the Northern Democratic Party, John C. Breckinridge of the Southern Democratic Party, or John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party. Still, Lincoln won a decisive majority in the electoral college.22
By election day, six southern Governors and virtually every Senator and Representative from the seven states of the lower South had gone on record as favoring secession if Lincoln were elected.23 In December, Congress met in a final attempt to reach a compromise on the slavery question. Senator John H. Crittenden of Kentucky proposed an amendment to the Constitution that would guarantee the institution of slavery against federal interference in those places where it was already established.24 A more controversial provision would extend the old Missouri compromise line to the west coast, thereby permitting slavery in the southwest territories.
On December 20, the day South Carolina voted to secede from the Union, Lincoln told a major Republican party figure, Thurlow Weed, that he had no qualms about endorsing the Crittenden amendment if it would restrict slavery to the states where it was already established, and that Congress should recommend to the Northern states that they repeal their "personal liberty" laws that hampered the return of fugitive slaves. However, Lincoln said, he would not support any proposal to extend slavery into the western territories. The Crittenden Amendment failed.25
Less than one third of the white families in the South had any direct connection with slavery, either as owners or as persons who hired slave labor from others. Moreover, fewer than 2,300 of the one and a half million white families in the South owned 50 or more slaves, and could therefore be regarded as slave-holding magnates.26
The vast majority of Southerners thus had no vested interest in retaining or extending slavery. But incitement by Northern abolitionists, where fewer than 500,000 blacks lived, provoked fears in the South, where the black population was concentrated, of a violent black uprising against whites. (In South Carolina, the majority of the population was black.) Concerns that the writings and speeches of white radicals might incite blacks to anti-white rampage, rape and murder were not entirely groundless. Southerners were mindful of the black riots in New York City of 1712 and 1741, the French experience in Haiti (where insurgent blacks had driven out or massacred almost the entire white population), and the bungled effort by religious fanatic John Brown in 1859 to organize an uprising of black slaves.
What worried Southerners most about the prospect of an end to slavery was fear of what the newly-freed blacks might do. Southern dread of Lincoln was inflamed by the region's newspapers and slave-owning politicians, who portrayed the President-elect as a pawn of radical abolitionists. Much was made of Lincoln's widely-quoted words from a June 1858 speech:27
During the critical four-month period between election and inauguration days, Southern Unionists strongly urged the President-elect to issue a definitive public statement on the slavery issue that would calm rapidly-growing Southern fears. Mindful of the way that newspapers in the slave-holding states had either ignored or twisted his earlier public statements on this issue, Lincoln chose to express himself cautiously. To the editor of the Missouri Republican, for example, he wrote:28
Lincoln also addressed the decisive issue in correspondence with Alexander H. Stephens, who would soon become Vice President of the Confederacy. Stephens was an old and much admired acquaintance of Lincoln's, a one-time fellow Whig and Congressman. Having seen reports of a pro-Union speech in Georgia by Stephens, Lincoln wrote to express his thanks. Stephens responded with a request that the President-elect strike a blow on behalf of Southern Unionists by clearly expressing his views. In a private letter of December 22, 1860, Lincoln replied:29
Lincoln went on to sum up the issue as he saw it: "You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub. It certainly is the only substantial difference between us."
To Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, who had passed along a report of a rabid anti-Lincoln harangue in the Mississippi legislature, Lincoln wrote that "madman" there had quite misrepresented his views. He stated he was not "pledged to the ultimate extinction of slavery," and that he did not "hold the black man to be the equal of the white."30
When a Mississippian appeared at a reception for Lincoln in the Illinois statehouse, and boldly announced he was a secessionist, Lincoln responded by saying that he was opposed to any interference with slavery where it existed. He gave the same sort of general assurance to a number of callers and correspondents. He also wrote a few anonymous editorials for the Illinois State Journal, the Republican newspaper of Springfield. Additionally, he composed a few lines for a speech delivered by Senator Trumball at the Republican victory celebration in Springfield on November 20. In those lines Lincoln pledged that "each and all" of the states would be "left in as complete control of their own affairs" as ever.31
Abraham Lincoln took the oath as President on March 4, 1861. Among the first words of his Inaugural Address was a pledge (repeating words from an August 1858 speech) intended to placate Southern apprehensions: "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so." Referring to the proposed Crittenden amendment, which would make explicit constitutional protection of slavery where it already existed, he said, "I have no objection to its being made express, and irrevocable." He also promised to support legislation for the capture and return of runaway slaves.32
At the same time, though, Lincoln emphasized that "no state, upon its own mere motion, can lawfully get out of the Union." With regard to those states that already proclaimed their secession from the Union, he said:
In his masterful multi-volume study of the background and course of the Civil War, American historian Allan Nevins attempted to identify the conflict's principle underlying cause:33
Outbreak of War
Dramatic events were swiftly creating enormous problems for the new President, who had greatly underestimated the depth of secessionist feeling in the South.34 In January and early February, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas followed South Carolina's example and left the Union. Florida troops fired on the federal stronghold of Fort Pickens. When South Carolina seceded, she claimed as rightfully hers all US government property within her borders, including federal forts and arsenals. While announcing a willingness to pay the federal government for at least a share of the cost of improvements it had made, South Carolina insisted that these properties belonged to the state, and would no longer tolerate the presence of a "foreign" power upon her soil. The other newly-seceding states took the same position.35
On the day Lincoln took the presidential oath, the federal government still controlled four forts inside the new Confederacy. In Florida there were Forts Taylor, Jefferson, and Pickens, the first two of which seemed secure, while in South Carolina there was Fort Sumter, which was almost entirely encircled by hostile forces.36 While historians do not agree whether Lincoln deliberately sought to provoke an attack by his decision to re-supply the Fort, it is known that on April 9, while the bombardment of the stronghold was underway, the new President received a delegation of Virginia Unionists at the White House. Lincoln reminded them of his inaugural pledge that there would be "no invasion -- not using force," beyond what was necessary to hold federal government sites and to collect customs duties. "But if, as now appeared to be true, an unprovoked assault has been made upon Fort Sumter, I shall hold myself at liberty to repossess, if I can, like places which have been seized before the Government was devolved upon me."37
In the aftermath of the Confederate seizure of Fort Sumter in mid-April, Lincoln called upon the states to provide 75,000 soldiers to put down the rebellion. Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas and North Carolina responded by leaving the Union and joining the newly-formed "Confederate States of America." This increased the size of the Confederacy by a third, and almost doubled its population and economic resources. Remaining with the Union, though, were four slave-holding border states -- Delaware, Missouri, Maryland and Kentucky -- and, predictably, the slave-holding District of Columbia.
The American Civil War of 1861-1865 -- or the "War Between the States," as many Southerners call it -- eventually claimed the lives of 360,000 in the Union forces, and an estimated 258,000 among the Confederates, in addition to hundreds of thousands of maimed and wounded. It was by far the most destructive war in American history.
Even after fighting began in earnest, Lincoln stuck to his long-held position on the slavery issue by countermanding orders by Union generals to free slaves. In July 1861, General John C. Främont -- the Republican party's unsuccessful 1856 Presidential candidate -- declared martial law in Missouri, and announced that all slaves of owners in the state who opposed the Union were free. President Lincoln immediately canceled the order. Because the Southern states no longer sent representatives to Washington, abolitionists and radical Republicans wielded exceptional power in Congress, which responded to Lincoln's cancellation of Främont's order by passing, on August 6, 1861, the (first) Confiscation Act. It provided that any property, including slaves, used with the owner's consent in aiding and abetting insurrection against the United States, was the lawful subject of prize and capture wherever found.38
In May 1862, Union General David Hunter issued an order declaring all slaves in Georgia, Florida and South Carolina to be free. Lincoln promptly revoked the order. An irate Congress responded by passing, in July, a second Confiscation Act that declared "forever free" all slaves whose owners were in rebellion, whether or not the slaves were used for military purposes. Lincoln refused to sign the Act until it was amended, stating he thought it an unconditional bill of attainder. Although he did not veto the amended law, Lincoln expressed his dissatisfaction with it. Furthermore, he did not faithfully enforce either of the Confiscation Acts.39
Deaths in Union 'Contraband Camps'
Slaves seized under the Confiscation Acts, as well as runaway slaves who turned themselves in to Union forces, were held in so-called "contraband" camps. In his message to the Confederate Congress in the fall of 1863, President Jefferson Davis sharply criticized Union treatment of these blacks. After describing the starvation and suffering in these camps, he said: "There is little hazard in predicting that in all localities where the enemy have a temporary foothold, the Negroes, who under our care increased sixfold ... will have been reduced by mortality during the war to no more than one-half their previous number." However exaggerated Davis' words may have been, it remains a grim fact that many blacks lost their lives in these internment camps, and considerably more suffered terribly as victims of hunger, exposure and neglect. In 1864, one Union officer called the death rate in these camps "frightful," and said that "most competent judges place it as no less than twenty-five percent in the last two years."40
The Chiriqui Resettlement Plan
Even before he took office, Lincoln was pleased to note widespread public support for "colonization" of the country's blacks.41 "In 1861-1862, there was widespread support among conservative Republicans and Democrats for the colonization abroad of Negroes emancipated by the war," historian James M. McPherson has noted. At the same time, free blacks in parts of the North were circulating a petition asking Congress to purchase a tract of land in Central America as a site for their resettlement.42
In spite of the pressing demands imposed by the war, Lincoln soon took time to implement his long-standing plan for resettling blacks outside the United States.
Ambrose W. Thompson, a Philadelphian who had grown rich in coastal shipping, provided the new president with what seemed to be a good opportunity. Thompson had obtained control of several hundred thousand acres in the Chiriqui region of what is now Panama, and had formed the "Chiriqui Improvement Company." He proposed transporting liberated blacks from the United States to the Central American region, where they would mine the coal that was supposedly there in abundance. This coal would be sold to the US Navy, with the resulting profits used to sustain the black colony, including development of plantations of cotton, sugar, coffee, and rice. The Chiriqui project would also help to extend US commercial dominance over tropical America.43
Negotiations to realize the plan began in May 1861, and on August 8, Thompson made a formal proposal to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells to deliver coal from Chiriqui at one-half the price the government was then paying. Meanwhile, Lincoln had referred the proposal to his brother-in-law, Ninian W. Edwards, who, on August 9, 1861, enthusiastically endorsed the proposed contract.44
Appointing a commission to investigate the Thompson proposal, Lincoln referred its findings to Francis P. Blair, Sr. Endorsing a government contract with the Chiriqui Improvement Company even more strongly than Edwards had, the senior Blair believed the main purpose of such a contract should be to utilize the area controlled by Thompson to "solve" the black question. He repeated Jefferson's view that blacks would ultimately have to be deported from the United States, reviewed Lincoln's own endorsement of resettlement, and discussed the activities of his son, Missouri Representative Francis P. Blair, Jr., on behalf of deportation. Blair concluded his lengthy report with a recommendation that Henry T. Blow, US Minister to Venezuela, be sent to Chiriqui to make an examination for the government.45
Lincoln ordered his Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, to release Thompson from his military duties so he could escort Blow to Central America46
Cameron was to provide Thompson with the necessary equipment and assistants. The mission was to be carried out under sealed orders with every precaution for secrecy,47 because Lincoln did not have legal authority to undertake such an expedition.
While Blow was investigating the Chiriqui area, Lincoln called Delaware Congressman George Fisher to the White House in November 1861 to discuss compensated emancipation of the slaves in that small state -- where the 1860 census had enumerated only 507 slave-holders, owning fewer than 1,800 slaves. The President asked Fisher to determine whether the Delaware legislature could be persuaded to free slaves in the state if the government compensated the owners for them. Once the plan proved feasible in Delaware, the President hoped, he might be able to persuade the other border states and, eventually, even the secessionist states, to adopt it. With assistance from Lincoln, Fisher drew up a bill to be presented to the state legislature when it met in late December. It provided that when the federal government had appropriated money to pay an average of $500 for each slave, emancipation would go into effect. As soon as it was made public, though, an acrimonious debate broke out, with party rancor and pro-slavery sentiment combining to defeat the proposed legislation.48
In his first annual message to Congress on December 3, 1861, President Lincoln proposed that persons liberated by the fighting should be deemed free and
This effort, Lincoln recognized, "may involve the acquiring of territory, and also the appropriation of money beyond that to be expended in the territorial acquisition." Some form of resettlement, he said, amounts to an "absolute necessity."49
Growing Clamor for Emancipation
Lincoln's faithful enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law not only filled Washington, DC, jails with runaway slaves waiting to be claimed by their owners, but also enraged many who loathed slavery. In an effort to appease his party's abolitionist faction, Lincoln urged that the United States formally recognize the black republics of Haiti and Liberia, a proposal that Congress accepted.50
Lincoln realized that the growing clamor to abolish slavery threatened to seriously jeopardize the support he needed to prosecute the war to preserve the Union. Accordingly, on March 6, 1862, he called on Congress to endorse a carefully worded resolution:51
In a letter to New York Times editor Henry J. Raymond urging support for the resolution, Lincoln explained that one million dollars, or less than a half-day's cost of the war, would buy all the slaves in Delaware, and that $174 million, or less than 87 days' cost of the war, would purchase all the slaves in the border states and the District of Columbia.52
Although the resolution lacked authority of law, and was merely a declaration of intent, it alarmed representatives from the loyal slave-holding border states. Missouri Congressman Frank P. Blair, Jr. (who, in 1868, would campaign as the Democratic party's vice presidential candidate) spoke against the resolution in a speech in the House on April 11, 1862. Emancipation of the slaves, he warned, would be a terrible mistake until arrangements were first made to resettle the blacks abroad. Blair spoke of shipping them to areas south of the Rio Grande.
In spite of such opposition, though, moderate Republicans and Democrats joined to approve the resolution, which was passed by Congress and signed by Lincoln on April 10, 1862. Not a single border state lawmaker had voted for the measure, however.53
In an effort to assuage such concerns, in July Lincoln called border state Congressmen and Senators to a White House meeting at which he explained that the recently-passed resolution involved no claim of federal authority over slavery in the states, and that it left the issue under state control. Seeking to calm fears that emancipation would suddenly result in many freed Negroes in their midst, he again spoke of resettlement of blacks as the solution. "Room in South America for colonization can be obtained cheaply, and in abundance," said the President. "And when numbers shall be large enough to be company and encouragement for one another, the freed people will not be so reluctant to go."54
Congress Votes Funds for Resettlement
In 1860, the 3,185 slaves in the District of Columbia were owned by just two percent of the District's residents. In April 1862, Lincoln arranged to have a bill introduced in Congress that would compensate District slave-holders an average of $300 for each slave. An additional $100,000 was appropriated 55
When he signed the bill into law on April 16, Lincoln stated: "I am gratified that the two principles of compensation, and colonization, are both recognized, and practically applied in the act."56
Two months later, as part of the (second) Confiscation Act of July 1862, Congress appropriated an additional half-million dollars for the President's use in resettling blacks who came under Union military control. Rejecting criticism from prominent "radicals" such as Senator Charles Sumner, most Senators and Representatives expressed support for the bold project in a joint resolution declaring57
Lincoln now had Congressional authority and $600,000 in authorized funds to proceed with his plan for resettlement.
Serious obstacles remained, however. Secretary of the Interior Caleb B. Smith informed the President that Liberia was out of the question as a destination for resettling blacks because of the inhospitable climate, the unwillingness of blacks to travel so far, and the great expense involved in transporting people such a vast distance. Haiti was ruled out because of the low level of civilization there, because Catholic influence was so strong there, and because of fears that the Spanish might soon take control of the Caribbean country. Those blacks who had expressed a desire to emigrate, Secretary Smith went on to explain, preferred to remain in the western hemisphere. The only really acceptable site was Chiriqui, Smith concluded, because of its relative proximity to the United States, and because of the availability of coal there.58 Meanwhile, the United States minister in Brazil expressed the view that the country's abundance of land and shortage of labor made it a good site for resettling America's blacks.59
In mid-May 1862, Lincoln received a paper from Reverend James Mitchell that laid out arguments for resettling the country's black population:60
Mitchell went on to recommend the gradual deportation of America's blacks to Central America and Mexico. "That region had once known a great empire and could become one again," he stated. "This continent could then be divided between a race of mixed bloods and Anglo-Americans." Lincoln was apparently impressed with Mitchell's arguments. A short time later, he appointed him as his Commissioner of Emigration.
A Historic White House Meeting
Eager to proceed with the Chiriqui project, on August 14, 1862, Lincoln met with five free black ministers, the first time a delegation of their race was invited to the White House on a matter of public policy. The President made no effort to engage in conversation with the visitors, who were bluntly informed that they had been invited to listen. Lincoln did not mince words, but candidly told the group:61
Organizing Black Support
The next day, Rev. Mitchell -- who had attended the historic White House meeting as Lincoln's Commissioner of Immigration -- placed an advertisement in northern newspapers announcing: "Correspondence is desired with colored men favorable to Central America, Liberian or Haitian emigration, especially the first named."62 Mitchell also sent a memorandum to black ministers urging them to use their influence to encourage emigration. Providence itself, he wrote, had decreed a separate existence for the races. Blacks were half responsible for the terrible Civil War, Mitchell went on, and forecast further bloodshed unless they left the country. He concluded:63
Rev. Edwin Thomas, the chairman of the black delegation, informed the President in a letter of August 16 that while he had originally opposed colonization, after becoming acquainted with the facts he now favored it. He asked Lincoln's authorization to travel among his black friends and co-workers to convince them of the virtues of emigration.64
While Thompson continued working on colonization of the Chiriqui site, Lincoln turned to Kansas Senator Samuel Pomeroy, whom he appointed United States Colonization Agent, to recruit black emigrants for Chiriqui resettlement, and arrange for their transportation. On August 26, 1862, Pomeroy issued a dramatic official appeal "To the Free Colored People of the United States":65
I want mechanics and labourers, earnest, honest, and sober men, for the interest of a generation, it may be of mankind, are involved in the success of this experiment, and with the approbation of the American people, and under the blessing of Almighty God, it cannot, it shall not fail.
Although many blacks soon made clear their unwillingness to leave the country, Pomeroy was pleased to report in October that he had received nearly 14,000 applications from blacks who desired to emigrate.66
On September 12, 1862, the federal government concluded a provisional contract with Ambrose Thompson, providing for development and colonization of his vast leased holdings in the Chiriqui region. Pomeroy was to determine the fitness of the Chiriqui site for resettlement. Along with the signatures of Thompson and Interior Secretary Caleb Smith, the contract contained a note by the President: "The within contract is approved, and the Secretary of the Interior is directed to execute the same. A. Lincoln." That same day, Lincoln also issued an order directing the Department of the Interior to carry out the "colonization" provisions of the relevant laws of April and July 1862.67
The President next instructed Pomeroy, acting as his agent, to accompany the proposed colonizing expedition. Lincoln authorized him to advance Thompson $50,000 when and if colonization actually began, and to allow Thompson such sums as might immediately be necessary for incidental expenses.68 Interior Secretary Smith sent Pomeroy more specific instructions. He was to escort a group of black "Freedmen" who were willing to resettle abroad. However, before attempting to establish a colony at Chiriqui, no matter how promising the site, he should first obtain permission of the local authorities, in order to prevent diplomatic misunderstandings.69
Acting on these instructions, Pomeroy went to New York to obtain a ship for the venture. Robert Murray, United States Marshall at New York, was advised of Pomeroy's status as special colonization agent, and was asked to help him secure a suitable ship.70 On September 16, Interior Secretary Smith wired Pomeroy: "President wants information ... has Murray the control and custody of the vessel? Is there order of sale; and if so, when? Is any deposit necessary to get the vessel?"71 President Lincoln's concern with black resettlement at this time is all the more significant because September 1862 was a very critical period for Union military fortunes. In spite of this, he took time to keep himself abreast of the project, even to the point of having a telegram sent to hurry the procurement of a ship for the venture.
The Emancipation Proclamation
During the winter and spring 1861-1862, public support grew rapidly for the view that slavery must be abolished everywhere. Lincoln did not ignore the ever louder calls for decisive action.72 On June 19, he signed a law abolishing slavery in all the federal territories.73 At the same time, he was quietly preparing an even more dramatic measure.
At a cabinet meeting on July 22, Lincoln read out the draft text of a document he had prepared -- a proclamation that would give the Confederate states a hundred days to stop their "rebellion" upon threat of declaring all slaves in those states to be free.
The President told his cabinet that he did not want advice on the merits of the proclamation itself -- he had made up his mind about that, he said -- but he would welcome suggestions about how best to implement the edict. For two days cabinet members debated the draft. Only two -- Secretary of State William Seward and Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase, abolitionists who had challenged Lincoln for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination -- agreed even in part with the proclamation's contents. Seward persuaded the President not to issue it until after a Union military victory (of which so far there had been few), or otherwise it would appear "the last measure of an exhausted government, a cry for help."74
Union General McClellan's success on September 17 in holding off the forces of General Lee at Antietam provided a federal victory of sorts, and the waited-for opportunity. Five days later, Lincoln issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which included a favorable reference to colonization:75
Lincoln then went on to state that on January 1, 1863,
The edict then cited the law passed by Congress on March 13, 1862, which prohibited military personnel from returning escaped slaves, and the second Confiscation Act of July 1862.
On New Year's Day, 1863, Lincoln issued the final Emancipation Proclamation.76 Contrary to what its title suggests, however, the presidential edict did not immediately free a single slave. It "freed" only slaves who were under Confederate control, and explicitly exempted slaves in Union-controlled territories, including federal-occupied areas of the Confederacy, West Virginia, and the four slave-holding states that remained in the Union.
The Proclamation, Secretary Seward wryly commented, emancipated slaves where it could not reach them, and left them in bondage where it could have set them free. Moreover, because it was issued as a war measure, the Proclamation's long-term validity was uncertain. Apparently any future President could simply revoke it. "The popular picture of Lincoln using a stroke of the pen to lift the shackles from the limbs of four million slaves is ludicrously false," historian Allan Nevins has noted.77
Lincoln himself specifically cited "military necessity" as his reason for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. After more than a year of combat, and in spite of its great advantages in industrial might and numbers, federal forces had still not succeeded in breaking the South. At this critical juncture of the war, the President apparently now hoped, a formal edict abolishing slavery in the Confederate states would strike a blow at the Confederacy's ability to wage war by encouraging dissension, escapes, and possibly revolt among its large slave labor force.78
As the war progressed, black labor had become ever more critical in the hard-pressed Confederacy. Blacks planted, cultivated and harvested the food that they then transported to the Confederate armies. Blacks raised and butchered the beef, pigs and chicken used to feed the Confederate troops. They wove the cloth and knitted the socks to clothe the grey-uniformed soldiers. As Union armies invaded the South, tearing up railroads and demolishing bridges, free blacks and slaves repaired them. They toiled in the South's factories, shipping yards, and mines. In 1862, the famous Tredegar iron works advertised for 1,000 slaves. In 1864, there were 4,301 blacks and 2,518 whites in the iron mines of the Confederate states east of the Mississippi.79
Blacks also served with the Confederate military forces as mechanics, teamsters, and common laborers. They cared for the sick and scrubbed the wounded in Confederate hospitals. Nearly all of the South's military fortifications were constructed by black laborers. Most of the cooks in the Confederate army were slaves. Of the 400 workers at the Naval arsenal in Selma, Alabama, in 1865, 310 were blacks. Blacks served with crews of Confederate blockade-runners and stoked the firerooms of the South's warships.80
Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, the legendary cavalry commander, said in a postwar interview: "When I entered the army I took 47 Negroes into the army with me, and 45 of them were surrendered with me ... These boys stayed with me, drove my teams, and better Confederates did not live."81
On several occasions, Lincoln explained his reasons for issuing the Proclamation. On September 13, 1862, the day after the preliminary proclamation was issued, Lincoln met with a delegation of pro-abolitionist Christian ministers, and told them bluntly: "Understand, I raise no objections against it [slavery] on legal or constitutional grounds ... I view the matter [emancipation] as a practical war measure, to be decided upon according to the advantages or disadvantages it may offer to the suppression of the rebellion."82
To Salmon Chase, his Treasury Secretary, the President justified the Proclamations's limits: "The original [preliminary] proclamation has no constitutional or legal justification, except as a military measure," he explained. "The exceptions were made because the military necessity did not apply to the exempted localities. Nor does that necessity apply to them now any more than it did then."83
Horace Greeley, editor of the influential New York Tribune, called upon the President to immediately and totally abolish slavery in an emphatic and prominently displayed editorial published August 20, 1862. Lincoln responded in a widely-quoted letter:84
Concern about growing sentiment in the North to end slavery, along with sharp criticism from prominent abolitionists, was apparently another motivating factor for the President. (Abolitionists even feared that the Confederate states might give up their struggle for independence before the January first deadline, and thus preserve the institution of slavery.)85
Lincoln assured Edward Stanly, a pro-slavery Southerner he had appointed as military governor of the occupied North Carolina coast, that "the proclamation had become a civil necessity to prevent the radicals from openly embarrassing the government in the conduct of the war."86
Impact of the Proclamation
While abolitionists predictably hailed the final Proclamation, sentiment among northern whites was generally unfavorable. The edict cost the President considerable support, and undoubtedly was a factor in Republican party setbacks in the Congressional elections of 1862. In the army, hardly one Union soldier in ten approved of emancipation, and some officers resigned in protest.87
As a work of propaganda, the Proclamation proved effective. To encourage discontent among slaves in the Confederacy, a million copies were distributed in the Union-occupied South and, as hoped, news of it spread rapidly by word of mouth among the Confederacy's slaves, arousing hopes of freedom and encouraging many to escape.88 The Proclamation "had the desired effect of creating confusion in the South and depriving the Confederacy of much of its valuable laboring force," affirms historian John Hope Franklin.89
Finally, in the eyes of many people -- particularly in Europe -- Lincoln's edict made the Union army a liberating force: all slaves in areas henceforward coming under federal control would automatically be free.
The Proclamation greatly strengthened support for the Union cause abroad, especially in Britain and France, where anti-slavery sentiment was strong. In Europe, the edict transformed the conflict into a Union crusade for freedom, and contributed greatly to dashing the Confederacy's remaining hopes of formal diplomatic recognition from Britain and France.90 "The Emancipation Proclamation," reported Henry Adams from London, "has done more for us [the Union] here than all our former victories and all our diplomacy. It is creating an almost convulsive reaction in our favor all over this country."91
End of the Resettlement Efforts
Lincoln continued to press ahead with his plan to resettle blacks in Central America, in spite of opposition from all but one member of his own Cabinet, and the conclusion of a scientific report that Chiriqui coal was "worthless."92
Mounting opposition to any resettlement plan also came from abolitionists, who insisted that blacks had a right to remain in the land of their birth. In addition, some Republican party leaders opposed resettlement because they were counting on black political support, which would be particularly important in controlling a defeated South, where most whites would be barred from voting. Others agreed with Republican Senator Charles Sumner, who argued that black laborers were an important part of the national economy, and any attempt to export them "would be fatal to the prosperity of the country."93 In the (Northern) election campaign of November 1862, emancipation figured as a major issue. Violent mobs of abolitionists opposed those who spoke out in favor of resettlement.94
What proved decisive in bringing an end to the Chiriqui project, though, were emphatic protests by the republics that would be directly effected by large-scale resettlement. In Central America, the prospect that millions of blacks would soon be arriving provoked alarm. A sense of panic prevailed in Nicaragua and Honduras, the American consul reported, because of fears of "a dreadful deluge of negro emigration ... from the United States." In August and September, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica protested officially to the American government about the resettlement venture. (Objection from Costa Rica was particularly worrisome because that country claimed part of the Chiriqui territory controlled by Thompson.)95
On September 19, envoy Luis Molina, a diplomat who represented the three Central American states, formally explained to American officials the objections of the three countries against the resettlement plan. This venture, he protested, was an attempt to use Central America as a depository for "a plague of which the United States desired to rid themselves." Molina also reminded Seward that, for the USA to remain faithful to its own Monroe Doctrine, it could no more assume that there were lands available in Latin America for colonization than could a European power. The envoy concluded his strong protest by hinting that the republics he represented were prepared to use force to repel what they interpreted as an invasion. Learning later that the resettlement project was still underway, Molina delivered a second formal protest on September 29.96
Secretary of State Seward was not able to ignore such protests. After all, why should Central Americans be happy to welcome people of a race that was so despised in the United States? Accordingly, on October 7, 1862, Seward prevailed on the President to call a "temporary" halt to the Chiriqui project.97 Thus, the emphatic unwillingness of the Central American republics to accept black migrants dealt the decisive blow to the Chiriqui project. At a time when the Union cause was still precarious, Secretary of State Steward was obliged to show special concern for US relations with Latin America.98
Lincoln Proposes a Constitutional Amendment
In spite of such obstacles, Lincoln re-affirmed his strong support for gradual emancipation coupled with resettlement in his second annual message to Congress of December 1, 1862. On this occasion he used the word deportation. So serious was he about his plan that he proposed a draft Constitutional Amendment to give it the greatest legal sanction possible. Lincoln told Congress:99
The President's December 1862 proposal had five basic elements:100
The 'Ile ä Vache' Project
With the collapse of the Chiriqui plan, Lincoln next gave serious consideration to a small Caribbean island off the coast of the black republic of Haiti, Ile ä Vache, as a possible resettlement site for freed blacks.
In December 1862, the President signed a contract with Bernard Kock, a businessman who said that he had obtained a long-term lease on the island. Kock agreed to settle 5,000 blacks on the island, and to provide them with housing, food, medicine, churches, schools, and employment, at a cost to the government of $50 each. About 450 blacks were accordingly transported to the island at federal government expense, but the project was not a success. As a result of poor organization, corruption, and Haitian government opposition, about a hundred of the deportees soon died of disease, thirst and starvation. In February-March 1864, a government-chartered ship brought the survivors back to the United States. After that, Congress cancelled all funds it had set aside for black resettlement.101
End of Resettlement Efforts
In early 1863, Lincoln discussed with his Register of the Treasury a plan to "remove the whole colored race of the slave states into Texas." Apparently nothing came of the discussion.102
Hard-pressed by the demands of the war situation, and lacking a suitable resettlement site or even strong support within his own inner circle, Lincoln apparently gave up on specific resettlement efforts. On July 1, 1864, presidential secretary John Hay wrote in his diary: "I am happy that the President has sloughed off that idea of colonization."103
Whatever its merits, the notion that America's racial question could be solved by massive resettlement of the black population probably never had much realistic prospect of success, given the realities of American life. Writing in The Journal of Negro History, historian Paul Scheips summed up:104
A Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which would prohibit slavery throughout the United States, was passed by the Senate on April 8, 1864. Because the House failed immediately to approve it with the necessary two-thirds majority vote, Lincoln, in his Annual Message of December 6, asked the House to reconsider it. On January 31, 1865, and with three votes to spare, the House approved it. By this time, slavery had already been abolished in Arkansas, Louisiana, Maryland and Missouri, and a similar move seemed imminent in Tennessee and Kentucky.105
On February 3, 1865, Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward met with a Confederate peace delegation that included Confederate Vice President Stephens. Lincoln told the delegation that he still favored compensation to owners of emancipated slaves. It had never been his intention, the President said, to interfere with slavery in the states; he had been driven to it by necessity. He believed that the people of the North and South were equally responsible for slavery. If hostilities ceased and the states voluntarily abolished slavery, he believed, the government would indemnify the owners to the extent, possibly, of $400 million. Although the conference was not fruitful, two days later Lincoln presented to his cabinet a proposal to appropriate $400 million for reimbursement to slave owners, providing hostilities stopped by April 1. (The cabinet unanimously rejected the proposal, which Lincoln then regretfully abandoned.)106
On April 9, General Lee surrendered his army to General Grant at Appomatox Courthouse, and by the end of May, all fighting had ceased. The Civil War was over.
Lincoln's Fear of 'Race War'
A short time before his death on April 15, 1865, Lincoln met with General Benjamin F. Butler, who reported that the President spoke to him of "exporting" the blacks.107
"But what shall we do with the negroes after they are free?," Lincoln said. "I can hardly believe that the South and North can live in peace, unless we can get rid of the negroes ... I believe that it would be better to export them all to some fertile country with a good climate, which they could have to themselves." Along with a request to Butler to look into the question of how best to use "our very large navy" to send "the blacks away," the President laid bare his fears for the future:
To his dying day, it appears, Lincoln did not believe that harmony between white and black was feasible, and viewed resettlement of the blacks as the preferable alternative to race conflict. " ... Although Lincoln believed in the destruction of slavery," concludes black historian Charles Wesley (in an article in The Journal of Negro History), "he desired the complete separation of the whites and blacks. Throughout his political career, Lincoln persisted in believing in the colonization of the Negro."108
Frederick Douglass, a gifted African American writer and activist who knew Lincoln, characterized him in a speech delivered in 1876:109
Allan Nevins, one of this century's most prolific and acclaimed historians of US history, summed up Lincoln's view of the complex issue of race, and his vision of America's future:110
To put this into effect would immensely increase the power of the national government and widen its abilities. If even partially practicable, it would mean a long step toward rendering the American people homogeneous in color and race, a rapid stimulation of immigration to replace the workers exported, a greater world position for the republic, and a pervasive change in popular outlook and ideas. The attempt would do more to convert the unorganized country into an organized nation than anything yet planned. Impossible, and undesirable even if possible? -- probably; but Lincoln continued to hold to his vision.
For most Americans today, Lincoln's plan to "solve" America's vexing racial problem by resettling the blacks in a foreign country probably seems bizarre and utterly impractical, if not outrageous and cruel. At the same time, though, and particularly when considered in the context of the terrible Civil War that cost so many lives, it is worth pondering just why and how such a far-fetched plan was ever able to win the support of a leader of the stature and wisdom of Abraham Lincoln.
About the author
Robert Morgan is the pen name of a writer who holds a bachelor degree in general studies from Indiana University-Purdue University (Indianapolis), as well as graduate certificates in Public Management (Indiana University, South Bend) and Labor Union Studies (I.U.-Purdue, Indianapolis). He is currently working toward a Master of Public Affairs degree (I.U., South Bend). He has been published more than 65 times in 15 publications including the Indiana Bar Association's Res Gestae, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency's Crime & Delinquency, Indiana University's Preface, Indiana Criminal Law Review, and the Indianapolis Star.