Ep. 91: Lincoln the Colonizationist Part 2, with Phil Magness

Lincoln is idolized for the Emancipation Proclamation, but he also should be scrutinized for his support of colonization of freed slaves.

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Lincoln was a proponent of gradual compensated emancipation. He hoped that between 1860 and 1900 that slavery would be eliminated. However, he wanted the the dissolving of slavery to be tied to colonization abroad. He believed that slaves who would willingly move to the Caribbean and Central America would not only give the former slaves a place to go, but would also strengthen America’s present abroad.

Did Lincoln view slavery as the the irritant that culminated in the Civil War? Why did the Emancipation Proclamation not include anything about colonization? How did Lincoln’s view of colonization get taken advantage of by other political actors? What did Frederick Douglass think of colonization? Should we continue to put Lincoln up on a pedestal, when in reality, he was a proponent of relocating freed slaves to the Caribbean and Central America?

Further Reading:

Colonization After Emancipation: Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement, written by Phil Magness

Abraham Lincoln: Campaigns and Elections, written by Michael Burlingame

How Republicans went from the party of Lincoln to the party of Trump, written by Andrew Prokop

Related Content:

Lincoln the Colonizationist Part 1, with Phil Magness, Liberty Chronicles Podcast

Abraham Lincoln and the Abolitionists, written by George H. Smith

James Birney, Colonization, and Abolitionism, written by George H. Smith



00:07 Anthony Comegna: Last week we left off discussing Lincoln as colonizationist with Phil Magness, and Phil explained Lincoln’s Pennsylvania gambit in 1860, run as a tariff-man in Pennsylvania and lukewarm on the subject for the national stage, conveniently ignore the record when it is a blemish and hype it up when the sound bites play well. Let’s pick it up right there.

00:35 Anthony Comegna: Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.

00:45 Phil Magness: So, colonization is a part of Lincoln’s original plan to tackle the problem of slavery during the Civil War, and this appears at several points early in his presidency. In 1861, he delivers a message to Congress says it’s basically his first attempt at carving out a platform. By then the war’s already raging, but he see’s slavery as a component of this. He see’s slavery is to clear irritants that caused the war. Lincoln’s unambiguous about this. Even on the eve of his inauguration, he writes a secret letter to Alexander Stephens, who’s the incoming Vice President of the Confederacy and had formerly served in Congress with Lincoln as an old Whig. So they knew each other, but he writes a secret letter to Stephens and says, “I don’t think you and I personally are enemies, and in fact, I wish you well, but we have this issue of slavery, this is the rub between our two sections of the country. You see slavery as good, we see it as wrong and I don’t see a way that we can reconcile that rub.” So this message is very, very clear on Lincoln’s mind. He see’s slavery is the problem.

01:58 Phil Magness: So that provokes the question. How do you solve this irritant that caused this horrendous war that’s falling around us, that caused the whole succession movement, how you deal with this irritant? So he starts to articulate an anti-slavery policy that’s premised on that old Whig formula. So he’s bringing back the Henry Clay ideas. You see this in his speeches, and it says basically, “We need compensated emancipation done over a very gradual schedule.” In some versions of it that he proposed, they thought that they’d phase this in between about 1860 and 1900 would become the capstone date when slavery is all gone. So gradual, compensated emancipation. And then we tie it to colonization abroad. We make federal resources available to basically pay for the transport of former slaves. First, they look at Liberia is the most prominent and earliest of the colonies, but Lincoln’s also much more interested in the Caribbean and Central and South America as potential locals because, A, it’s closer so it’s a lot cheaper. It’s a lot more of a viable mechanism for the mass transport of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people.

03:14 Phil Magness: But the second thing that he wants is this is a way of expanding American influence in the tropics, in doing so, in a way that’s… Actually anti-slavery encounters the old Southern desire to acquire the Caribbean as future slave states. So that’s a part of his calculus here. He does have one stipulation that he actually adheres to pretty rigidly, he says that, “Colonization must be voluntary.” In other words, African-Americans must make this choice to move abroad themselves. We’re going to provide them the ships, we’re going to provide them the money to do so, but we want this choice to be made on their own. So he’s a little bit more moderate on that issue than some of the deportation-oriented versions of the colonization movement and that actually is adhered to pretty rigidly in his presidency. What this amounts to is in 1862, he secures a succession of legislation through Congress, to basically start pilot programs for freed slaves and this is done in conjunction with his first anti-slavery overture. So in 1862, he passes a bill through Congress. This is almost a year before the Emancipation Proclamation and this is to liberate the slaves of the District of Columbia.

04:37 Phil Magness: So it’s one area that Congress had direct domain on, they didn’t need a constitutional amendment to free the slaves of the District of Columbia because it’s the federal district. So what they do is they compensate the slave owners and they set up a colonization fund for the freed slaves of the district and this is very conscious in Lincoln’s policy. Two days after he signs the act into Law, freeing the slaves of the District of Columbia, he actually has a private meeting with two ambassadors that came from the Republic of Liberia and it’s specifically about how to launch this colonization program that now has a legal foothold because of this act that he signed a couple of days prior. And this is something that’s almost entirely missing from most historical accounts of it but it’s prominent there, in his policy once he obtains funding for it, he moves full speed ahead on trying to get a colonization policy off the ground. He actually hires a minister by the name of James Mitchell who’s a former agent of the American Colonization Society and one of those guys I mentioned that went through Springfield, Illinois in the early 1850s and they started a friendship of letters over the years.

05:57 Phil Magness: So, when Lincoln’s president, he writes Mitchell and says, “Hey, will you come to Washington and be my colonization agent for this new agency that I’m setting up?” So that gets off the ground. The next big move is the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, and this is the one that’s famously tied to the Battle of Antietam to signal that, as of January first of the next year, this war is not over, I’m going to proclaim the slaves free. Well, in that proclamation, he also indicates that colonization is the intended objective of the government to be paired with emancipation, and at the same time, he’s already engaged in negotiations with several private contractors to establish colony sites across the Caribbean and other parts of the world. Around then, he’s looking at a program in Haiti, a form of an alliance with the Haitian government, but also a contractor. He’s looking in what’s now modern day Panama, was then part of Columbia on the isthmus of Panama, he specifically thought that setting up a freed slave colony there is an American access point to the West, to the Pacific.

07:16 Phil Magness: So he gives this speech to actually a group of free African-Americans in the District of Columbia, and he says he’s urging them to embrace and join the colonization effort. We want you to go down there basically as sons of America and stake out this new colony and he says, “This colony is to be the great highway between the oceans.” Basically, he’s telling them, “We want to fund and dig a Panama canal down there, and this will be the American imprint that allows us to link the Pacific and the Atlantic, allows us to link California to the East Coast.” So all these great post-slavery, post-war plans he has associated with colonization. And this continues as a consistent theme of his presidency through the Emancipation Proclamation. Here’s where historians, for the most part, have dropped the ball and that is the dealing with the post-emancipation phase of Lincoln’s colonization ventures in his career. And what happens is, on January 1st, 1863 Lincoln signs the official final Emancipation Proclamation, the famous one, that declares the slaves forever free. He starts to execute on this immediately, sends notices out to all of his generals, all the agents in the military that you are to free the slaves, so it almost instantly transforms the war effort.

08:45 Phil Magness: The issue is that the final Emancipation Proclamation doesn’t say anything about colonization in its text and quite a few historians have misinterpreted this as, “Well, Lincoln may have shifted his views of the colonization, he decided now that slavery is ended through the proclamation. We don’t need to deal with this.” So, over most of the 20th century, they came up with these elaborate theories of why Lincoln wasn’t as sincerely committed to colonization as he has his public rhetoric seemed to be. They thought that, “Well, this is just a lullaby that will draw the public in with a moderate measure so I can execute on this more radical abolition measure for the Emancipation Proclamation.” The problem with this whole set of theories, though, is that the night before he signs the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln is up, ‘til about 10 or 11 PM at the White House in a secret meeting. We have a senator from Kansas, the Postmaster-General, Montgomery Blair and a member of one of the organizations that they were trying to contract with to establish a colony in modern day Haiti. He’s actually negotiating this that the terms of this pilot program to launch a colony immediately after the Emancipation Proclamation goes into effect.

10:20 Phil Magness: So what happens is the next day or the next morning as everything is being prepared at the White House to sign the Emancipation Proclamation at noon, this colonization agent that he was trying to contract with returns to the White House, and something like 45 minutes before he signs the Emancipation Proclamation, he also signs the contract to launch the station colony. Then the next day Lincoln’s private secretary, pins an anonymous editorial to one of the Washington DC newspapers that basically says, “It’s the White House is unofficial but intended spin on what the proclamation is supposed to do.” He says, “Through the President’s great measure signed yesterday, we’ve initiated a new phase in the anti-slavery policy of the United States,” and one of that is the emancipation of the slaves for sale, but second, we’ve committed the government to colonization and they found years later, through copies existing in the secretary’s personal papers that this actually came straight out of the White House. So the evidence is abundant that the Emancipation Proclamation is considered a component of the president’s colonization strategy. He does continue these efforts over the course of the next year.

11:43 Phil Magness: They launched a colony that did go to Haiti, it ends up in disaster. It’s mismanaged and mis-funded, succumbs to political in-fighting and it’s actually hit by a wave of small pox right after the colony lands. So all sorts of disasters that befallen, but he also continued to try to form agreements with other countries, the European empires that had Caribbean colonies. In mid-1863, he signed an agreement with Great Britain to send freed slaves to its colonies. Mostly British Honduras or Belize and than Guyana. In late 1863, the US government actually signed a treaty with the king of of the Netherlands to establish a colony in Dutch Suriname. It was never ratified because it’s succumbed again to political in-fighting. But over the course of the next year, you see him actually moving pretty aggressively on this policy peered to the execution of emancipation. What happens to it was the same thing that afflicts almost any and every large scale government program of this type is, by 1864, every colonization venture that the President has pursued and has put out on the table is more or less succumbed to political in-fighting, to corruption, and a variety of plagued disasters that are associated with programs of the skill.

13:15 Phil Magness: There are members of Congress that are getting personally rich on taking colonization contracts and basically running off with the money and never actually doing anything with it. The instance that I mentioned of the Haitian venture that actually does launch, all very quickly they find that people are embezzling funds from it. So the supply ship never arrives to support the colony after it lands in this little island off the coast of Haiti. The horror of it is as the freed slaves themselves are basically left to fend for themselves against nature with no supplies that had been promised, and they end up having to be rescued by the US Navy about a year later. So succession of disasters, political corruption, in-fighting ends up prompting Congress to suspend the funding for the colonization agenda of the President in mid-1864, and that basically puts it on hiatus as something that Lincoln would be able to execute on at least in so far as the war continued. And then the big debate among historians is, did he ever intend to revive this program after the civil war is finished? And I’m on the side that argues there is a fair amount of evidence that, yes, he did although there’s a twist on it.

14:38 Phil Magness: By this point, it’s not so much Lincoln trying to revive this retrograde old Henry Clay style scheme, but if you believe the accounts of what Lincoln saying right before his assassination when this topic reportedly comes up in a few conversations that recounted years later. What he’s saying is he’s looking out upon the the defeated self and realizing that Southerners are not going to accept free blacks as their equals. He’s recognizing racial violence on the horizon, he’s anticipating the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, and he says, “Well, maybe we should turn to colonization again,” as something of like a safety valve to allow these people to escape what’s going to be horrendous oppression, to give them the option if they so want to migrate abroad and set out on their own and have a place that will recognize their political rights, will allow them to engage in self-government, allow them basic freedoms that he fears genuinely that the South is going to deny them after the war.

15:51 Phil Magness: So in a weird way, it does revive this oddity of a retrograde policy from before the war, but by the end of his life, he is probably looking at it for reasons that are… It’s even more than benevolent, he is genuinely concerned about the problem of the racial direction that the country was going in. And he’s scrambling about for a way to make sure that this horror of Black Codes and racial violence that we actually see after his assassination doesn’t come in to be.

16:27 Anthony Comegna: Yeah but no, it seems to me at least that historians don’t want to highlight this aspect of his career, because today it smacks so much of segregation. And sure it’s anti-slavery, but it’s also definitely segregationist as opposed to the Radical Republicans in their integration-ist vision of society. And some people have even gone on to the extreme, I think of accusing you of basically not forging Lincolns signature, but passing it off on your audience as though it was Lincolns signature on some of these colonization documents. Like, you just are inventing some sort of… Oh, it looks like an L maybe that’s an I. Yeah, I can see that being in an N. Like, “Come on.” You can recognize that this man was problematic for God’s sakes. I wonder if we could close out on this. It seemed to me for a long time that maybe there’s something to this colonization idea in that it… History would look very different if you had black nation states in the Deep South or if you had American colonies that actually got the government support during reconstruction, that turned into incipient black nation states of the 20th century that could have been a focal point for what became Pan-Africanism and other sorts of ideologies of Black Power and liberation.

18:06 Anthony Comegna: I mean there’s a lot that could be said for the existence of a separate national unit specifically reserved for people who’ve been abused by the US government for so long. You could say the same thing about Native Americans. So I wonder if there’s not something… This is sort of what Lysander Spooner wanted to do. And is there not something that can be said for this colonization movement? Maybe historians just don’t want to have to say it ‘cause it feels ugly to them.

18:36 Phil Magness: Right, right. And this is the whole historiographical debate. Where does Lincoln fit in to all of this? And unfortunately, after the war, after Lincoln’s dead, he no longer has a voice to articulate his own position in it. What happens? Well, immediately, anyone and everyone tries to claim him as their own. So this is the problem that historians grapple with, and it’s also one of the reasons why I think they’ve gone astray. Yes, on the colonization idea there is actually a very vibrant African-American black immigration movement that parallels this, and it has a tenuous relationship with the white-led colonization ventures. But at times, they’re trying to seek out partnerships, trying to find common ground. One example, Alexander Crummell who is a 19th century abolitionist, basically the father of Pan-Africanism, he meets with Abraham Lincoln to discuss colonization during the middle of the Civil War, he’s an agent that’s working with the Government of Liberia. So there is a direct connection there.

19:42 Phil Magness: There’s another individual that I’ve done quite a bit of work on, is an African-American from Illinois, so free black Northerner by the name of John Willis Menard, he’s best known as the first African-American to win election to the United States Congress, which he does after the Civil War in 1868, although Congress turns around and they deny of his seat. They had an election challenge, so they used that as a racial pretext to exclude him from Congress. That’s a really horrendous type of treatment, but Menard is involved in the immigration movement, not because he wants to deport black people, which he’s one. He views it as our best chance in the world, and he says this as the most… His speech is, “As an African-American, this is our best chance in the world to set out on our own and have a country where our rights will be respected, where our humanity will be respected, where we can have self-government.” So that element is absolutely there. It continues all the way into the 20th century. Marcus Garvey, in a sense, is a descendant of that.

20:46 Phil Magness: But you also have a the counterpart, which is the Fredrick Douglas side. Douglas is a critic of colonization because he used it as this weird paternalism, coming in from abroad, a weird paternalism, coming in and being imposed by the white politicians. He’s saying we were born in America too. We have as much of a stake in this country as you do. How would you deny us? Why aren’t you colonizing yourself? You should know more expect us to leave than you would expect yourself to leave. That’s Kind of his message back to the white colonization. And so that dynamic is there. The third twist, and this is where I think a lot of the historical reputation goes in strange directions for the movement and that is around the turn of the century. There’s this other character by the name of Thomas F Dixon, and some of your listeners may recognize that. He’s the author of the book that becomes the movie ‘The Birth of a Nation’, which is this homage to the Ku Klux Klan. It basically reignites the clan as a movement in the early 20th century when this movie is made based on Dixon’s book. Dixon had a very odd view of the Civil War, very obviously he’s a racist, he’s a white supremacist, he glorifies the clan as saving and redeeming the post-war South against what he portrayed as this really awful racist caricature of freed blacks in the South.

22:21 Phil Magness: It’s horrendous, from start to finish, this book. But one thing Dixon does, and it’s not so much present in the movie, but it’s there in his book and his writings, Dixon actually liked Abraham Lincoln for all the oddities of oddities. So this militant pro-southerner clansmen guy who loves Abraham Lincoln, and he comes up with this elaborate theory that, had Lincoln not been assassinated, he would have taken the nation on a different course and part of that different course would be deporting the black people. Dixon misinterprets and twists and turns around Lincoln’s colonization speeches. So you get this vision of Lincoln by the 1920s being pushed by a white supremacist as if he’s one of their own as opposed to being the great emancipator. So that really soils and turns the direction of how historians have grappled with this issue in a very negative way. In a sense, it’s been kind of un-packaging the political propaganda that Dixon entered into the equation of how Lincoln’s been treated in colonization. You mentioned historians today, the impulse has been to disassociate him from this movement through various arguments that don’t really hold up. You mentioned this debate over documents of whether they’re authentically containing Lincoln’s signatures.

23:45 Phil Magness: The one in question is an agreement he signed with the British government in 1863 that I discovered a copy of in the US National Archives, but it’s a secretary’s copy, so it’s not the original one he signed. In fact, we don’t know exactly what happened to the original one, he signed. But as proof of its providence, the secretary’s copy’s entered in, and there are other secretary’s copies that are delivered to the British legation, the British Embassy in downtown DC. British government… The legation officer sends this back to the Prime Minister in London, so they record a copy of it. There’s a copy in the British National Archives and therefore an office, the Foreign Secretary in London, dispatches it to all the colonial governors across the Caribbean. Pretty soon, you’ve got half a dozen copies of this order, this agreement signed by Abraham Lincoln, that’s made its way across the Caribbean. And yet, historians, at least some historians have been very reluctant to even admit this into evidence because they don’t wanna believe the story. They don’t want to deal with or grapple with the complications that this does for Lincoln’s racial legacy.

25:00 Phil Magness: And I’ll end on this note that I think it’s important to deal with these complications. Lincoln is very much a figure of his time, even though he’s also kind of a figure for the ages, he’s the great emancipator, does one of the single most important acts in American history. And we’ll give him all credit in the world for that. But at the same time, you have to understand him in his own context, follow the evidence, where it leads; and that evidence adds this nuance, this dimension to him. It involves something that we do see today is racially retrograde. Although, if you start probing even a little bit deeper than that, you start seeing the motives behind it, is not something he’s pursuing out of malice so much as, here’s a guy that’s trying to grapple with the greatest problem in American history. And just like anyone else in that era, there are no clean solutions to it. There are no easy ways to fix slavery and this just so happens to be the one thing that he’s trying and one of many things that he’s trying. So, where I come down on Lincoln is I put myself in a middle category, of historians, some of was referred to as the Lincoln realist. So you have these idealists that try to champion him as a secret radical abolitionist.

26:19 Phil Magness: And then you have at this other end of the spectrum where there are neo-confederates, there are people that spend entire careers bashing and hating on Lincoln, and they distort history as well in almost the complete opposite direction. So my call is more to reorient our understanding of Lincoln to that midpoint that grapples with the complexities of the man, that grapples with some of the moral issues that are raised by his actions, but also understands him in the context of his time. And I think he emerges better than most around him. I think he emerges as someone that we can duly credit but we can also duly criticize for the nuances of his individual policies including colonization. But at the end of the day, we also recognize that he is not someone motivated by racial hatred, he’s someone that’s motivated primarily by trying to deal with and end this great problem of American history, which is slavery.


27:27 Anthony Comegna: Alright, thanks again to Phil Magness for joining us on the show. He now holds the record for most frequent guest on Liberty Chronicles and be sure to check out his books, ‘Colonization after Emancipation’, ‘What is Classical Liberal History’ and his forthcoming volume with Jason Brennan, ‘Cracks in the Ivory Tower’.


27:54 Anthony Comegna: Thanks for listening. Liberty Chronicles is produced by Tess Terrible. If you enjoy Liberty Chronicles, please subscribe to us on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts. If you’d like to learn more about libertarianism, find us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.