August 16, 2012, 12:30 PM
By RICK BEARD
On Aug. 14 1862, Abraham Lincoln hosted a “Deputation of Free Negroes” at the White House, led by the Rev. Joseph Mitchell, commissioner of emigration for the Interior Department. It was the first time African Americans had been invited to the White House on a policy matter. The five men were there to discuss a scheme that even a contemporary described as a “simply absurd” piece of “charlatanism”: resettling emancipated slaves on a 10,000-acre parcel of land in present-day Panama.
Lincoln immediately began filibustering his guests with arguments so audacious that they retain the ability to shock a reader 150 years later. “You and we are different races,” he began, and “have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races.” The African-American race suffered greatly, he continued, “by living among us, while ours suffers from your presence.” Lincoln went on to suggest, “But for your race among us, there could not be war,” and “without the institution of Slavery and the colored race as a basis, the war could not have an existence.” The only solution, he concluded, was “for us both … to be separated.”
The president next turned to what he wanted from the five-man delegation. It was selfish, he suggested, that any of them should “come to the conclusion that you have nothing to do with the idea of going to a foreign country.” They must “do something to help those who are not so fortunate as yourselves,” for the colonization effort needed “intelligent colored men” who are “capable of thinking as white men, and not those who have been systematically oppressed.” In asking them to “sacrifice something of your present comfort,” Lincoln invoked George Washington’s sacrifices during the American Revolution. He then asked for volunteers. “If I could find twenty-five able-bodied men, with a mixture of women and children,” he said, “I think I could make a successful commencement.”
It is hard to imagine what Lincoln’s guests, all well-educated, well-to-do leaders of Washington’s African-American community, made of this presidential monologue. Edward Thomas, the delegation’s chairman, merely promised to “hold a consultation and in a short time give an answer,” to which Lincoln replied: “Take your full time — no hurry at all.”
Lincoln, like several other antislavery Republicans and activists, had a long, deep attachment to colonization. Proponents of colonization included two of Lincoln’s political heroes, Thomas Jefferson and Henry Clay, as well as John Marshall, James Madison, Daniel Webster and even Harriett Beecher Stowe. Since its founding in 1816, the American Colonization Society had sought to relocate free blacks to Africa, where, it was argued, they would enjoy greater freedom.
Dominated by planters and politicians from the Upper South whose commitment to slavery was suspect, the A.C.S. enjoyed only modest success: between 1816 and 1860, the organization transported around 11,000 blacks, most of them manumitted slaves, to Africa. By contrast, as many as 20,000 African-Americans left of their own accord during the American Revolution and thousands more found their way along the Underground Railroad to Canada during the first half of the 19th century.
“For many white Americans,” the historian Eric Foner has written, “colonization represented a middle ground between the radicalism of the abolitionists and the prospect of the United States’ existing permanently half slave and half free.” Needless to say, few blacks agreed, seeing colonization efforts as, at best, a distraction from abolition and, at worst, a form of slavery by other means.
Opposition did nothing to diminish Lincoln’s belief in the merits of colonization. As early as April 10, 1861, two days before the bombardment of Fort Sumter, the new president met with Ambrose W. Thompson, head of the Chiriquí Improvement Association, to explore the creation of a colony for emigrants in Panama, where newly arrived emancipated slaves would earn a living by mining coal for the Navy. Gideon Welles, the secretary of the navy, opposed Lincoln’s scheme, but three other members of the cabinet — Interior Secretary Caleb Smith, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair and Attorney General Edward Bates — supported the plan.
As the war progressed, Union policy makers faced increased pressure to develop strategies for how to manage the growing number of slaves who fled to Union lines, were freed by the advancing federal armies or were emancipated by federal legislation, like the two confiscation acts or the abolition of slavery in the nation’s capital and the federal territories.
When Congress passed the District of Columbia Act emancipating slaves in Washington in April 1862, it also appropriated $100,000 to resettle “such free persons of African descent now residing in said District, including those liberated by this act, as may desire to emigrate.” Two months later, Congress appropriated an additional $500,000 to colonize slaves whose masters were disloyal to the United States. And on July 16, the House Select Committee on Emancipation and Colonization recommended $20 million for settling confiscated slaves beyond United States borders.
No doubt buoyed by these signs of Congressional support, Lincoln pushed forward with the Chiriquí plan and instructed Mitchell to arrange the Aug. 14 meeting. The five delegates included Edward Thomas, the delegation chair and a prominent black intellectual and cultural leader; John F. Cook Jr., an Oberlin-educated teacher who ran a church-affiliated school; Benjamin McCoy, a teacher and the founder of an all-black congregation; John T. Costin, a prominent black Freemason; and Cornelius Clark, a member of the Social, Civil, and Statistical Association, an important black social and civic organization that had recently sought to banish several emigration promoters from Washington.
Mitchell’s own views on the desirability of colonization mirrored those of the president he served. The delegates he recruited were not at all convinced. The men had been wary of the president’s intentions and had agreed to attend only after adopting two resolutions criticizing the plans, as a way to provide political cover. Lincoln’s strategy at the meeting prevented any of these men from voicing their own opinions on the matter of colonization, and the delegation never responded formally to Lincoln’s plan.
Nevertheless, the publication of Lincoln’s remarks at the meeting generated a furious response from all corners of the anti-slavery world. To Senator John P. Hale, a Radical Republican from New Hampshire, “The idea of removing the whole colored population from this country is one of the most absurd ideas that ever entered into the head of man or woman.” Lincoln’s treasury secretary, Salmon P. Chase, wrote in his diary, “How much better would be a manly protest against prejudice against color! — and a wise effort to give freemen homes in America!” On Aug. 22 William Lloyd Garrison editorialized that “the nation’s four million slaves are as much the natives of this country as any of their oppressors,” and two weeks later The Pacific Appeal noted that Lincoln’s words “made it evident that he, his cabinet, and most of the people, care but little for justice to the negro.” And Frederick Douglass said that “the President of the United States seems to possess an ever increasing passion for making himself appear silly and ridiculous, if nothing worse.”
Lincoln’s hopes for the Chiriquí venture barely outlasted the summer. On Aug. 28 he accepted an offer from Kansas Senator Samuel C. Pomeroy to organize black emigration parties to Central America, and on Sept. 11 he authorized Caleb Smith to sign an agreement with Thompson advancing money to develop the mines. But on Sept. 24, two days after issuing the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln abruptly suspended Pomeroy’s operation.
The Chiriquí venture was, in retrospect, doomed from the start. Ambrose Thompson’s title to the coal lands proved questionable, and a report by the Smithsonian Institution’s Joseph Henry found that the Chiriquí coal was almost worthless as fuel. Several Central American governments also opposed the plan: Luis Molina, a diplomat representing Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, characterized the plans as a thinly disguised effort to make Central America the depository for “a plague of which the United States desired to rid itself.”
The failed venture hurt hundreds of people who had volunteered to go on the first trip. “Many of us have sold our furniture” and “have given up our little homes to go,” wrote one emigrant. The uncertainty and delay are “reducing our scanty means” and “poverty in a still worse form than has yet met us may be our winter prospect.” In response, Lincoln could do no more than ask for their forbearance. After issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, the president never again issued any public statements on colonization
Sources: Frederick Douglass, “The President and His Speeches,” Douglass Monthly, September 1862; Paul D. Escott, “What Shall We Do With the Negro? Lincoln, White Racism, and Civil War America”; Eric Foner, “Lincoln and Colonization” in “Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World”; Doris Kearns Goodwin, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln”; Harold Holzer, “Emancipating Lincoln: The Proclamation in Text, Context, and Memory”; Abraham Lincoln, “Address on Colonization to a Deputation of Negroes, August 14, 1862” in “Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln,” vol. 5; Kate Masur, “The African American Delegation to Abraham Lincoln: A Reappraisal,” in Civil War History, vol. 56, no. 2; James Oakes, “The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics”; Benjamin Quarles, “The Negro in the Civil War”; Michael Vorenberg, “Abraham Lincoln and the Politics of Black Colonization,” in Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, vol. 14, Issue 2, Summer 1993.
Rick Beard is an independent historian and coordinator of the Civil War Sesquicentennial for the American Association for State and Local History.