Abraham Lincoln and the Problem of Slavery

Edward Kerling, American Renaissance, May 1991

In 1989, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, President George Bush invited a number a black leaders to the White House. In his remarks on that occasion, the President said he looked forward to the day when Abraham Lincoln’s vision would be fully realized, and a black man would sit in the oval office.

With all due respect for President Bush, one can say with complete confidence that Lincoln never envisaged a black president. He made it clear on many occasions that he abhorred the very thought of social or political equality for blacks, and that although he considered slavery an evil, he saw no future in America for free blacks. He thought that the races should be separated, and until the very end of his life he did everything within his power to remove blacks from the territory of the United States. The Abraham Lincoln of history is vastly different from “the great emancipator” whose racial views have been increasingly shrouded in myth.

Views on Slavery

Though he did not, himself, own slaves, Lincoln showed no marked antipathy for those who did. In his legal practice, before entering politics, he represented slaveholders in cases involving runaway slaves. During his career as a Whig Congressman, he mustered party support for the slaveholder Zachary Taylor’s 1842 bid for the presidency. His wife, Mary Todd, was the daughter of one of Kentucky’s most prominent slaveholders, and when the South seceded many of his in-laws went with it.

After he switched to the newly-formed Republican party and received its nomination for the presidency, Lincoln outlined his views on slavery in the famous Cooper Union speech of February 27, 1860. He endorsed Thomas Jefferson’s view that slavery should neither be extended into new territories nor abolished in those regions where it was already practiced:

As those [founding] fathers marked it, so let it again be marked, as an evil not to be extended, but to be tolerated and protected only because and so far as its actual presence among us makes that toleration and protection necessary.” Speaking for his party, he said, “this is all Republicans ask — all Republicans desire — in relation to slavery.

From today’s perspective, such a position seems hopelessly ambiguous, and even at the time it was subject to attack. Anyone who described slavery as an evil sounded like an abolitionist, but the question all abolitionists had to answer was how to treat the slaves once they had been freed.

Lincoln had answered this question during his 1858 campaign against Steven Douglas for the U.S. Senate. Abolition was a topic of much debate, but the notion of equality for blacks was resisted by most Americans. Douglas’ supporters tried to undermine Lincoln by spreading rumors that he was an egalitarian, but on September 18 he made his position clear, in words that sound quite shocking today: “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; I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor intermarry with white people.”

The offices from which blacks were to be barred presumably included the presidency. Lincoln went on:

I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.

Lincoln, like many thoughtful people of his time, faced a serious moral and social dilemma. Chattel slavery was an abomination, but a multi-racial society of mutual equality was unthinkable. What, then, was the status of the black American to be? Was there a humane, ethical solution to this problem?

Lincoln lived in an era in which even a politician could get a nickname like Honest Abe. In his analysis of the race problem — which was then, and still is, the most sensitive and controversial one facing the nation — he lived up to his reputation. As early as 1857, in a speech at Springfield, Illinois, he had struck the theme to which he would adhere for the rest of his life:

There is a natural disgust in the minds of nearly all white people to the idea of an indiscriminate amalgamation of the white and black races. A separation of the races is the only prevention of amalgamation …

Such separation … must be effected by colonization … The enterprise is a difficult one, but where there is a will there is a way, and what colonization needs now is a hearty will. Let us be brought to believe it is morally right to transfer the African to his native clime, and we shall find a way to do it, however great the task may be.

In Lincoln’s mind, the establishment of colonies of blacks outside the territory of the United States was the only way to navigate between the twin evils of slavery and multi-racialism. After his election as President he used his office as best he could to follow this course.

War-time Colonization Policy

By the time Lincoln took the oath of office on March 4, 1861, seven southern states had already seceded. The nation faced an urgent crisis that many believed would plunge it into war. Only a month later, the Confederates captured Fort Sumpter and the conflict had begun. It is astonishing to realize that even at this time of great fear and turmoil, Lincoln was spending precious hours working out a colonization plan. The war was only a month old by the time he had prepared a five-point program to free the slaves and separate the races:

  1. The states must voluntarily emancipate the slaves, because slavery was an internal matter, subject to state authority.
  2. Slaveholders were to be paid for the loss of their property.
  3. The federal government would give the states financial aid to help compensate slaveholders.
  4. The actual freeing of slaves would be gradual, so as to prevent economic dislocation. Some states might wait until the year 1900 to free their last slaves.
  5. Free blacks were to be persuaded to leave the United States and be colonized.

Lincoln soon began looking for suitable territories for colonization. Ambrose Thompson, a wealthy shipping magnate, had gained control of several hundred thousand acres in the Chiriqui district of what is now Panama. He proposed to develop coal mines in this territory and to use colonized blacks as labor. Later, the blacks would work their own plantations of cotton, sugar, and tobacco. Lincoln appointed a special commission to investigate the feasibility of this plan.

Late in 1861, while Thompson’s plan was being studied, Lincoln personally drafted an emancipation bill for the state of Delaware. Delaware was a slave state, but it had only 1,800 slaves in 1860, and had decided to stay with the Union. Lincoln’s proposal would have offered federal compensation to slaveholders, and the President hoped that it would become a model for the three other slave states that had stayed loyal to the Union. Eventually, he hoped to persuade the Confederate states to adopt the same scheme. To his disappointment, the bill was defeated in the Delaware legislature by a combination of pro-slavery sentiment and partisan conflict.

Lincoln did not give up. In his first annual message to Congress on December 3, 1861, he proposed that all blacks who had fallen into the hands of Union forces should be deemed free. He proposed that “steps should be taken for colonies for them … at some place or places in a climate congenial to them. It might be well to consider, too, whether the free colored people already in the United States … could be included in such colonization.”

Just a few months later, in April, 1862, Lincoln succeeded in applying his freedom plan to the only portion of United States territory over which he felt the federal government had appropriate jurisdiction: Washington, D.C. The district’s slaveholders were to be compensated an average of $300 for each of their 3,185 slaves, and an additional $100,000 was appropriated “to aid in the colonization and settlement of such free persons of African descent now residing in said District, including those liberated by this act …” When he signed the bill, Lincoln noted with satisfaction that his two principal approaches to the problem of slavery — compensation and colonization — had been incorporated into the law.

In July of the same year, Lincoln signed a bill that provided $500,000 for use by the President in colonizing blacks who fell into the hands of the Union army. This was in addition to the $100,000 voted earlier. Coming at a time when the war was going very badly for the North, and when the budget was swamped with military expenses, these appropriations suggest how fervently Lincoln desired the separation of the races.

Lincoln did not hesitate to state his case directly to blacks. On August 14, 1862, he spoke to the first delegation of blacks ever to be invited to the White House:

“You and we are different races. We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any two races … [T]his physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both, as I think your race suffers very greatly, many of them, by living among us, while ours suffers from your presence.”

“It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated,” he concluded, and urged the delegation to find men who were willing to move, with their families, to Central America.

Lincoln had even appointed a Commissioner of Emigration, Reverend James Mitchell, whose job it was to organize colonization. The day after the meeting with the black delegation the commissioner placed the following ad in newspapers: “Correspondence is desired with colored men favorable to Central American, Liberian or Haytien [sic] emigration, especially the first named.” He also issued a memorandum to black ministers, urging them to promote emigration.

These measures met with some small success, and were supported by many whites. When a group of 61 blacks passed through Cleveland on its way to Boston for passage to Haiti, the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote, “We hope the remainder of our dusky brethren will follow their example.”

On September 12, 1862, five days before Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, the federal government signed a contract with Ambrose Thompson for colonization on the Thompson lands in Chiriqui. The contract included a signed statement from the President directing the Secretary of the Interior to execute the contract.

The very day before issuing the Proclamation, Lincoln signed a contract for the resettlement of 5,000 free blacks on an Island near Haiti. Tragically, the contractor turned out to be a cruel swindler, who rounded up several hundred ex-slaves and left them on an uninhabited island, where most of them died.

The Emancipation Proclamation

In the Proclamation itself, made public on September 17, Lincoln repeated his desire to compensate slaveholders within the Union for the emancipation of their slaves, and to promote colonization. However, this was only a proposal; the President made no attempt to free the slaves in the four slave states that had remained in the Union, nor in those parts of the Confederacy that were under Union control. The only slaves whom he unilaterally declared free were those in territory controlled by the Confederates, and who were therefore entirely beyond his power to free. Moreover, Lincoln promised the states of the Confederacy that their practice of slavery would remain unmolested if they stopped their “rebellion” within 100 days.

By means of the Proclamation, Lincoln was clearly adhering to a policy he had spelled out in a letter to the New York Times less than a month earlier:

“My paramount objective in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all slaves I would do it; and if I could save it be freeing some and leaving others alone I would do that.” [Emphasis in the original.]

Historians still wonder how Lincoln thought he could help save the Union by claiming to free slaves over whom he had no control. Some believe that he hoped to counteract the military benefits the Confederacy enjoyed by its efficient use of slaves. Others argue that he hoped to gain foreign credibility by giving the war a moral rather than a strictly geo-political purpose. It is also possible that he meant to head off radical abolitionists who wanted to emancipate all slaves unconditionally. In any case, it is clear that freedom for slaves was strictly subordinate to other purposes.

It is no surprise, therefore, that in his next message to Congress on December 1, 1862, Lincoln had little to say about the Proclamation, and much to say about his favored plan:

“That portion of the earth’s surface which is owned and inhabited by the people of the United States is well adapted to be the home of one national family; and it is not well adapted for two, or more.”

He continued:

I have urged colonization of the Negroes, and I shall continue. My Emancipation Proclamation was linked with this plan …

I can conceive of no greater calamity than the assimilation of the Negro into our social and political life as our equal …

We cannot attain the ideal union our Fathers dreamed, with millions of an alien, inferior race among us, whose assimilation is neither possible or desirable.

Lincoln then went on to propose an amendment to the Constitution that would give Congress the power to appropriate money and send free blacks, with their consent, to places outside of the United States

The Plan Fails

This was not to be. Nor did the Thompson plan for Colonization in Chiriqui prove feasible. On September 5, 1862, a scientist reported that the Chiriqui coal was very low grade and that the land “will always be of little or no value to its owners.”

Furthermore, no other country wanted the freed blacks. On September 19, the Washington representative of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Honduras denounced the attempt to cast upon Central America “a plague of which the United States desired to rid themselves.” The diplomat hinted that the territories he represented would use force to repel any colonizing expedition.

Lincoln was forced to set aside his plans for colonization, but they remained an important part of his thinking. General Benjamin Butler reported a conversation with the President in early April of 1865, by which time the war had been won and Lincoln’s assassination was only a few days away. Lincoln said to him, “But what shall we do with the Negroes after they are free? I can scarcely believe that the South and the North can live in peace, unless we can get rid of the Negroes.” Lincoln then spoke of Butler’s experience in moving large numbers of men by sea, and mentioned that the United States had a large navy. He asked Butler to draw on his wartime experience and devise a plan to send blacks overseas.

Throughout his presidency, therefore, Lincoln tried to implement the plan outlined by Jefferson: gradual emancipation, compensation to slaveholders, colonization of freed blacks, and the promotion of white immigration to take the place of black labor. It is only by means of the most willful disregard for the historical evidence that Lincoln can be construed as a champion of racial equality. In his mind, emancipation was linked to colonization, and he might well have opposed it if he had thought that free blacks would remain in the United States.

There is a sad irony in the fact that our current President should be so ignorant about his predecessor’s thinking as to believe that Lincoln looked forward to the day when the United States would elect a black to its highest office. To be sure, Lincoln did meet the first black delegation ever to visit the White House — but only to urge them and their brethren to leave the country forever. Today, thinking about race is so clouded that it obscures even the past.

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