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What was Lincoln’s actual position on slavery and how did he use it to his advantage during the Presidential election of 1860?

Colonization was the process to actually remove the freed slaves and settle them elsewhere, other parts of the world that whites thought were more suited for the African‐​American race. Lincoln was a supporter of the Colonization Society and it is debated whether or not he helped start a chapter in Illinois. Lincoln was first and foremost a Whig who viewed Henry Clay as a hero. However, going into the 1860 election Lincoln was viewed as an underdog candidate.

What was the “Whig formula”? Why was Pennsylvania integral to the 1860 Presidential election? What was Lincoln’s tariff strategy for Pennsylvania? How did Lincoln address all the coalitions of the Republican Party? Who is Henry Charles Carey?

Further Reading:

The Confederacy and Liberty, written by Jason Kuznicki

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

Spooner and the Secret Six, with Phil Magness, Liberty Chronicles Podcast



00:09 Anthony Comegna: Here we are at the Civil War. We’ve done plenty of planter bashing along the way, and we’ve certainly been critical of the Northern political class. For the most part though, these new Republicans have turned out looking pretty good. Well, it’s time to change that. Today, historian and research fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research, Phil Magness joins us once again to talk about Lincoln as colonizationist.


00:41 Anthony Comegna: Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org. I’m Anthony Comegna. Okay, Phil, can you start us off. We’re talking about Lincoln as a colonizationist today, and now just to explain to us first what that term means, and put it in some context of the 19th century for us.

01:06 Phil Magness: Right, right. So before the Civil War, there was actually a very vibrant movement in the United States that was connected in some ways to anti‐​slavery, but it also had a little bit of baggage associated with it, and that was the idea that the freeing of the slaves, which could be attained through political processes, often they followed a proposal to compensate slave owners to essentially manumit or free their slaves at the end of their lives. The idea behind colonization was that the next step of that process was to actually remove the freed slaves and settle them elsewhere, other parts of the world that they thought were more suited for the African‐​American race. I’d say a concept that’s rooted in racial pseudo‐​science in one respect, paternalism in another respect, but at the same time, generally tends to be anti‐​slavery.

02:07 Phil Magness: And the oddity of the colonization movement is it’s a major player on the American political scene from about the 1820s through the Civil War era, including forming a national organization, the American Colonization Society. To give you an idea of how prominent this organization was, James Madison, the former president of the United States, was also a president of the Colonization Society. Several prominent figures in American politics were similarly members. Henry Clay is another president of the Colonization Society, one of its original founders. Abraham Lincoln joined the Colonization Society in the 1850s, so pretty much a who’s who of the American political scene and the antebellum is associated with this movement.

02:56 Anthony Comegna: Now, you said Lincoln joined in the 1850s. Do you know exactly what year or?

03:04 Phil Magness: There’s a little bit of uncertainty exactly when he links up. I know for certain there is a subscription he fills out to the organization, and that’s in 1855. And what the Colonization Society used to do, is they would send their agents traveling to the west and they’d go from town to town, trying to find the local prominent citizens, particularly politically engaged persons, and they’d link up with them and have them join as members of the Colonization Society, sometimes form a local or a state chapter. And in Springfield, Illinois, where Lincoln has set up shop as an attorney, he’s also active in state politics. He’s considered a prominent figure on the Illinois scene. He is recruited over the course of several of these visits. So they come through Springfield trying to set up a Colonization Society in the State of Illinois. And between about 1852 and 1855, he has several interactions with these Colonization Society agents, and eventually we found at least one receipt where he has filled out and filed a subscription with the organization.

04:16 Anthony Comegna: Now, it also perhaps should be noted that Illinois may have been the most racist state in the north, in terms of its policies, like it did forbad black people from entering the state, for example, right?

04:30 Phil Magness: Right, right, and especially the Midwest in that era. If you think of New England as the hotbed of more radical abolitionism, the Midwest is kind of a hotbed of a more moderate tempered brand of anti‐​slavery thought that very much embraces colonizationism. In some cases, they link this to black codes, they were anti‐​slavery in the sense that they see the institution as wrong, they want to get rid of it, but at the same time, they don’t want the former slaves moving into their state. They don’t want to be connected to the post‐​slavery life that necessarily follows from the abolition of this institution. In one sense, it’s good on the anti‐​slavery side, but in the other sense, it opens up all sorts of very morally trying complications of what they’re trying to do in a post‐​slavery society.

05:27 Phil Magness: And Lincoln himself is… He does not advance strong racial animosity personally. In fact, he grows quite actively over the course of the Civil War. The records that we have of his relationships with African‐​Americans are very congenial, very friendly, even to the extent that he’ll recognize their personhood in ways that other people in that era didn’t. But at the same time, he never quite makes that leap to the radical abolitionism that some of his contemporaries evinced.

06:01 Anthony Comegna: Yeah. I’m hearing you sort of describe the political situation, the ideological situation in Illinois. Lincoln’s endorsement or joining up with the colonization movement, around about 1855, shortly after the Whigs start to really disappear as a national force, and it makes me think, “Oh, this guy.” Already, this guy, it seems like such a calculated political move to offer those particular and kind of nasty constituents an opportunity to get rid of all the black people that they are gonna be freeing with his free territorial policies, right? Like, “You don’t have to worry about them. We’re not gonna let slave owners crowd them into your neighborhoods up north.” We’ll just dispel them from the country entirely.

06:57 Phil Magness: Yeah. There is certainly political opportunism in it, but it also says some things in defense of Lincoln.

07:04 Anthony Comegna: Please.

07:05 Phil Magness: The perspective he’s coming from, I have no doubt that he’s genuinely an anti‐​slavery man. We can see this as early as… There’s hints of it in some of his surviving works from the 1830s and early 1840s. He’s just a different type of an anti‐​slavery man than you find in abolitionism within… Historians, for various reasons, have kind of lost sight of this component of the American political scene, from the mid to late antebellum period. And really to understand Lincoln, you have to understand his hero and that hero is Henry Clay. So Henry Clay is the senator from Kentucky, the champion of Whig philosophy, champion of an integrated economic system that’s built around tariffs and internal improvements to prop up the nation as a whole. So he’s kind of an economic nationalist in a sense. But one thing Clay recognizes, and this is kind of odd ’cause Clay himself was a southerner and a slave owner, but one thing Clay recognized is that slave re‐​created all sorts of economic tensions with the system of thought that he articulated, it’s called the American system.

08:16 Phil Magness: So let’s say, imagine like 1840s Donald Trump‐​style tariffs in a sense, but Clay is the proponent of the system. He’d use the propping up of industry in the Northeast, is also likely to economically benefit the producers of the raw materials that happened to be plantation slave owners. And he’d use this as ethically problematic for very good reasons ’cause it expands slavery. It’s something that breathes economic life into slavery at a time when older theories about slavery would gradually dissipate and fall away. So, Clay is horrified by this, and one of the things he does is he comes up with what’s referred to in some of the literature as “the Whig” formula for dealing with the slavery problem. The Whig formula that he starts articulating is that we pair gradual compensated emancipation with colonization abroad, and this is kind of a managed political way to wean the nation off of slavery.

09:21 Phil Magness: So he articulates this several points across his career, joins the American Colonization Society as one of the many public fronts that pushes this view, and Lincoln enters into politics as an old Henry Clay Whig. So we know there’s one instance in the late 1840s, most likely 1847 or 1848, although there’s no clear date, where Lincoln actually travels to Kentucky to hear Henry Clay give a fiery anti‐​slavery speech that’s premised on colonizationism. So there’s a little bit of a hint that Lincoln is involved in this movement very early on, and then by the time that we start getting surviving copies of Lincoln speech, one of his earliest ones is a eulogy to Henry Clay, after Clay dies, and he touts Clay as an anti‐​slavery man, but he also touts him as a colonizationist.

10:13 Phil Magness: So what you see is Lincoln kind of inheriting that mantle of Henry Clay going into the Civil War as the most prominent figure in the American political scene, who touts this old Whig formula, the more moderate style of working toward emancipation, gradualist emancipation in ways that… It’s kind of a third way in between the radical abolitionists of the Northeast and then the slaveholders, the South, but it’s anti‐​slavery in character, but just kind of an oddity that is very idiosyncratic to that time in history.

10:51 Anthony Comegna: Yeah. Now, of course, we’ve covered a lot of these themes on the show to a great extent. Most of the Locofocos that we’ve covered were more on the abolition end and the anti‐​slavery end, at least the ones that we’ve featured on the show. But as voters, they tended to vote with the block that was anti‐​slavery, that was sort of tolerates slavery in the south, and find ways to compromise with the institution somehow to limit its power and influence. And Clay and Lincoln both actually played heroes of sorts in our Mexican War episode.

11:27 Phil Magness: Right, right.

11:28 Anthony Comegna: You know, when Clay was opposed to annexing more slave territory, and so is Van Buren, and so was Lincoln. But then by 1848, Lincoln’s back to being an enemy at least on the show, ’cause he refuses to support Van Buren and the Free Soil Party, and at least according to newspaper reports of a speech of his in Boston, he says, “Thanks to all his Locofocoism.” And these economic issues, his hatred for Van Buren as a Democrat, all of this stuff is just too much for a good party man like Lincoln to swallow. But then by the mid to late 1850s, he’s in the position of sort of leading arch moderate in the new Republican coalition. Could you tell us about his politics and especially his discussions of slavery leading up to his election as President?

12:25 Phil Magness: Yeah. Lincoln is first and foremost a Whig. He says several points even as late as his presidency, he says, “I was an old Henry Clay tear‐​off Whig, that’s how I made my mark into Illinois politics.” And you can go back to scraps of his speeches in the 1830s and he’s articulating the Whig platform. He’s involved in the Whig campaigns of Henry Clay when he runs for president against James Polk in 1844. He’s also a backer of Zachary Taylor in 1848. He’s pretty much of a continuous champion of the Whig party. He’s deeply ingrained in that political operation. There’s automatically a dividing line that would put him opposed to the Democrats, opposed to Locofocoism; they see them as competitors. But what you see is with the collapse of the Whig party in the mid‐​1850s, is a political realignment starts to take place, where anti‐​slavery Northerners in the Democratic Party start to link up with old Whigs. Whigs that had for the most part followed Clay on the issue as well.

13:34 Phil Magness: There’s a fairly natural coalition that emerges in the sense that both are opposed to the expansion of slavery into the territories, and less discussed but equally as prominent in the rhetoric, the expansion of slavery abroad. During that whole era, there were several attempts, mostly driven by southerners, to acquire territories in the Caribbean, Central America, moving southward where they view this as the location of where new and future slave states are gonna be added, just as the territories moving westward are gonna be adding new and future free states. So this is part of the whole political calculation, but what it does is it creates an opportunity for anti‐​slavery Democrats and anti‐​slavery Whigs to join together and form a new political party, and Lincoln emerges very prominently in his senate bid in 1858 as a very articulate spokesman for this new type of a party, for this new position.

14:38 Phil Magness: He attains national prominence running against Stephen Douglas. You have the famous set of debates, the transcripts were published all across the country, and they figured out, “Hey, this guy’s very articulate. He’s smooth and savvy in front of the voters. He does have a moral compass, he’s anti‐​slavery, he fits all of the different stipulations that we need in a party candidate.” Going into the 1860 Republican convention, Lincoln, he kind of emerges as an underdog. Everyone thought it was gonna be William Seward, the Senator and former Governor of New York, to be the standard bearer, who was probably the most prominent Republican at the time, but as always, their favorite son and coalition politics that had a portion of the party was opposed to Seward.

15:26 Phil Magness: What Lincoln does is he slips into the convention as the candidate who satisfies elements of just about every different part of the Republican coalition. And there’s this famous private letter that Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune, writes on the eve of the convention. He says, “We can’t win outright with an anti‐​slavery man.” John C Fremont proved that in 1856 in the first national Republican bid, ran on a strict anti‐​slavery ticket and got beaten badly, but Greeley says, “We can win on a tariff man, an internal improvements man, a banking man.” List of all these different components of the Republican coalition who also happens to be anti‐​slavery, and they didn’t quite realize who at the time was going to fulfill that role, but Lincoln kind of naturally fits into it, ’cause he’s got the Whig antecedence on his economics. He’s a Midwesterner so he’s not associated with political radicalism as much as some of the Northeastern Republicans were. He’s viewed as having a foot in multiple coalitions, and he’s anti‐​slavery but he’s a moderate form of anti‐​slavery. So he’s the natural candidate and that basically propels him into the nomination and eventually into the presidency.

16:52 Anthony Comegna: And now you have an article coming up to be published here soon on Lincoln’s tariff strategy in Pennsylvania in 1860. Could you tell us briefly about that as an essential component of him actually winning this election?

17:09 Phil Magness: Yeah. And so this fits really neatly into Lincoln’s position as a candidate that can satisfy all the different coalition blocks of the Republican Party. And what happened is in late 1857, 1858, in response to a financial panic, so basically a recession that set on in 1857, there’s a rebirth to the old tariff movement to enact protective tariffs as kind of a recession relief process. Now, a modern economist will tell you that that’s crazy, that that’s a recipe for economic suicide, but there were serious theorists at the time, that thought tariffs could be the macroeconomic relief to an economic downturn. One of them is an economist from Pennsylvania by the name of Henry Charles Carey, probably one of the most prominent protectionist economists in the world at the time, and Carey advances a tariff solution to this recession in 1857.

18:14 Phil Magness: What it does is it stirs the State of Pennsylvania, into almost a frenzy to acquire protection for its burgeoning iron and steel industries. And Lincoln recognizes this early on, but he also knows that other parts of the Republican coalition are free trade. A lot of the Democrats and former Locofocos that came over, when he mentions by name, I’m sure you’re quite familiar with, and that is William Cullen Bryant, as a big figure in the Republican coalition in the 1860, and there’s actually a letter where he says, “If I go to the… Send my men to the convention on a tariff platform, I’ll satisfy the Pennsylvanians, but I’ll infuriate Bryant.” Lincoln is in this position of, “How do I win an election that services all these different constituencies?” He personally was a tariff man but he knew there were anti‐​tariff men in the Republican party, just as he knew all these different styles of anti‐​slavery existed in the Republican party.

19:14 Phil Magness: What he ends up doing, is he sends out a team of surrogates to specifically target the State of Pennsylvania, which is the big swing state in the 1860 election, it’s you have to win Pennsylvania or else there’s no chance of the presidency, because they had basically written off the South for the Republican strategy. So it’s the electoral stronghold that delivers the votes that would put Lincoln over the top. There’s no way he can afford to lose the state. So what his surrogates do is they barnstorm across the state and meet with local congressional leaders and other local politicians in the Republican Party, and they start showing him this pile of documents that was Lincoln’s old tariff speeches from the 1840s in the Illinois State Legislature, and as a campaigner for Henry Clay. So these things have been kind of lost to memory, and Lincoln in some sense has the only copies.

20:08 Phil Magness: And it’s kind of a wink nod, they show it to the local congressman, said, “Here’s Lincoln’s speech on the tariff from the 1840s. He’s with you, can you signal this to your voters? But we don’t want this in the national press because then it offends the other states, and they lose parts of their coalition.” He actually successfully executes on this strategy. Pennsylvania has a local campaign on tariff protectionism, while the national campaign’s being carried out mostly on the issue of slavery in the territories, and those two together are able to bring the electoral coalition to success in both areas, like in Carey’s Pennsylvania, and that boost him basically into the presidency.


20:54 Anthony Comegna: So that’s Lincoln’s early career, but what changed once he actually held office, and opportunities for emancipation and colonization abounded? You’ll have to wait for part two next week, but in the meantime, you could read Phil’s book on the subject, Colonization after Emancipation: Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement.


21:21 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​.lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.