January 8, 2013, 12:30 pm
By PHILIP W. MAGNESS
By late 1862 Washington was abuzz with talk of colonization. Bolstered by a $600,000 appropriation from Congress over the summer, Abraham Lincoln prepared a contract to resettle African-Americans in Panama and openly pitched the scheme to a free black delegation at the White House on Aug. 14. Few were surprised when Lincoln pledged to see colonization through in the preliminary announcement of his Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, but a lingering question remained. Lincoln stipulated that all colonization was to be voluntary, though as of yet few had indicated an interest or willingness to go.
Not long after the Panama scheme was announced, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair endeavored to warm Frederick Douglass to the policy, though the famed orator and pamphleteer was having none of it. He used the September issue of his newspaper to fire a broadside against the president’s “colonization address” a few weeks prior. “Mr. Lincoln,” Douglass charged, “assumes the language and arguments of an itinerant Colonization lecturer, showing all his inconsistencies, his pride of race and blood, his contempt for Negroes and his canting hypocrisy.”
As Douglass’s statement revealed, significant skepticism abounded in the black community. At its most generous interpretation, colonization was a paternalistic attempt to end slavery by separating the races; at its worst, an overt act of bigotry. Yet as recent scholarship has revealed, it provoked a frank discussion within the free black community over the prospects of a just and equitable future in the United States. Indeed, some blacks accepted the president’s overtures — not for any trust of their motive but rather to escape the uncertain and potentially violent future of the post-slavery United States.
A neglected though important figure in this discussion quickly emerged in the person of John Willis Menard, a free black abolitionist from Illinois who relocated to Washington in 1861 and quickly became one of Douglass’s main interlocutors on the subject of colonization. Little is known of his early life, except that he was born of free black Creole parents in the frontier town of Kaskaskia, Ill. He may have been the grandson of Pierre Menard, an early settler of the state who served as its first lieutenant governor. Notably, he received a formal education – rare for both white and black settlers on the Midwestern frontier – and was admitted to Iberia College, a small Christian school in Ohio that was among the only institutions of higher education to accept black students.
Menard joined the abolitionist cause in Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Ill., in 1859, delivering a stirring speech at a celebration of British Emancipation Day. “The whole audience was greatly deceived” by him, noted a reporter. He spoke on American slavery, “which he painted in its darkest hues, and gave able remarks in defense of Liberty… His speech was truly the best of the day.” In short order Menard, then just 21 years old, took his talents to the printing press, first as an antislavery pamphleteer in Illinois and then as a contributor to James Redpath’s abolitionist newspaper, The Pine and Palm.
Menard arrived in Washington already sympathetic to colonization. He viewed it as an opportunity for African-Americans to attain the basic rights abroad that their country of birth denied them. “Why stand here where our very being is not acknowledged, where our manhood is denied us?” he queried in a lengthy appeal to other blacks. Douglass, he contended, was naïvely optimistic: “Fred himself preaches the purity of the Constitution, which instrument declares that three” blacks “are required to constitute one of its supporters! Is this equal rights among men? No, I call it a tyrannical stipulation.” Douglass’s newspaper continued to engage the colonizationists across the winter and spring, with Menard offering his qualified defenses of the same policy in a variety of African-American newspapers, particularly The Christian Recorder of Philadelphia.
After the Emancipation Proclamation took effect in January 1863, both men turned to the condition of blacks in a post-slavery United States. Menard conceded that the war had finally destabilized the slave system – it is “now practically dead” – but he questioned both the means and outcome. Why should freed slaves place their trust in a government that eschewed a true antislavery cause for vague appeals to national unity? “This war is to consolidate the broken domain of the American Union, and to force obedience to the supreme law governing the same,” he noted, and it was a system of law that consciously deprived “republican equality to the black minority.”
Only abroad, he concluded, could equal rights and true self-government be attained. Douglass answered with cognizance of the challenges ahead, but also greater hope: “There is the same reason for believing that black and white races of men can live justly and peaceably together in the same country, as that they can so live in the same world.”
It should be noted that Menard’s interest in resettlement abroad diverged from the goals of its white supporters, many of whom saw the policy as a means of effecting “racial harmony” by simply removing the minority race. He was nonetheless able to forge a cautious alliance with moderate colonizationists including the Lincoln administration, which, for all its misguided embrace of the policy, genuinely viewed it as a means of protecting freedmen from violence in a post-slavery South. In late December 1862 or early January 1863 Menard was hired as a clerk in the office of James Mitchell, Lincoln’s colonization commissioner.
The clerkship was itself a milestone, making Menard one of the first African-Americans appointed to an administrative role in the federal government. It was also, unfortunately, short-lived. John Palmer Usher, the secretary of the interior who controlled the budget to Mitchell’s office, forced Menard’s resignation after only three months amid a barrage of complaints from white clerks that this college-educated black man was drawing an equal salary to their own. “I regret that I cannot continue you as a temporary clerk,” wrote the secretary, though he offered a lower paying messenger’s post — which Menard declined.
The young abolitionist was not deterred, though. In April 1863 Menard delivered a speech in honor of Lincoln on the first anniversary of the District of Columbia Emancipation Act and continued to support Mitchell’s ongoing colonization projects. Around this time Menard also attempted to organize a mission to Liberia on an American Colonization Society ship, though he missed the voyage after being detained by an Army provost marshal on the train to Baltimore for want of a travel pass. His perseverance finally paid off in June, when Lincoln approved a British government-backed venture to colonize freedmen in British Honduras (modern-day Belize). Mitchell tapped Menard to lead an investigative mission to the site and report back on his findings to the government.
Menard returned in September, describing himself as “highly pleased” with the colony, though only cautiously recommending it to African-Americans “of the right stamp.” More significantly he resolved after the trip to experiment with self-emigration as a means of strengthening his own political rights, this time accepting an offer of a Belizean acquaintance to settle in Jamaica in 1865.
For all the debate it spawned, the federal government’s colonization programs faltered by mid-1864, never to be revived. A complex web of corruption, administrative infighting and congressional opposition doomed the policy, though growing opposition from the black community played no small role in its eventual failure.
Menard returned to the United States from Jamaica in late 1865 and settled in New Orleans. Charging racial hypocrisy against the Radical Republican majority in Washington, he resolved to “hold them to their promises” and egalitarian rhetoric by contesting a special election for Congress in 1868. Menard ran for Louisiana’s Second District seat on a platform of equal rights for blacks, low taxation and sound currency in the payment of war debts. He carried the district by almost double the margin of his Democratic opponent.
Menard was just shy of his 31st birthday when he arrived in Washington, only to be turned away when, true to his fears, his own party refused to seat him. Charges of electoral irregularity and redistricting chaos resulted in the seat being contested, though Menard’s race also loomed over the decision. The Ohio representative and future president James Garfield reportedly justified the decision on the grounds that it was “too early to admit a Negro to Congress.”
The Republican leadership nonetheless permitted him to make an appearance in the chamber, and on Feb. 23, 1869, he became the first African-American to deliver a speech in the House of Representatives. The recognition afforded to the fiery abolitionist and former black emigration advocate proved fleeting, though the symbolic precedence was not lost. An unnamed newspaper correspondent captured the scene appropriately: “The ice is now broken.”