Did Lincoln Want to Ship Black People Back to Africa?

“Emancipation of the slaves, proclamed [sic],” J. Waeschle, 1862
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
“Emancipation of the slaves, proclamed [sic],” J. Waeschle, 1862
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Editor’s note: This article was originally published Sept. 22, 2014. For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 92: When President Abraham Lincoln met with free black leaders in 1862, what did he propose?

Today marks the anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s “shot heard ’round the world.” I’m referring, of course, to the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation he fired off from the White House on Sept. 22, 1862, five days after the real bullets had been fired 70 miles outside of Washington, D.C., at the Battle of Antietam (then and now the bloodiest day in American history, with close to 23,000 casualties). 


What little Union victory there was in Gen. Robert E. Lee’s withdrawal from Maryland gave Lincoln the opening he needed to issue the Confederacy his ultimatum: If it remained in a state of rebellion come Jan. 1, 1863, he would sign an executive order rendering “all” of its “slaves … then, thenceforward, and forever free.”

For any student of American history, this is well-trod ground. But here’s what you may not know about those crowded days of late summer 1862. While weighing emancipation, Lincoln also had a very different kind of ultimatum on his mind—for African Americans. For much of his first years in office, Lincoln was obsessed with solving America’s seemingly intractable race problem by persuading free blacks to lead the way for an exodus that would wash the United States of the original sin of slavery—without having to live alongside those it had enslaved.  

To help sell his plan, the president had a meeting convened with local black leaders in Washington. It was billed to them as a policy conversation, but Lincoln wasn’t really eager to listen. He wanted to deliver a message about a mission, and they had been chosen to receive it.

The African-American Delegation

Historian Kate Masur helps recount the strange-but-true tale in her essay “The African American Delegation to Abraham Lincoln: A Reappraisal,” in the June 2010 issue of Civil War History. The chairman of the free-black delegation was Edward M. Thomas, messenger to the House of Representatives and a respected cultural leader in Washington's black community. He was known, Masur writes, “for his collections of fine arts, coins, and a personal library of almost six hundred volumes.”  


Joining Thomas in the delegation:

  • John F. Cook Jr., a local school leader who had studied at Oberlin College.
  • John T. Costin, who, like Thomas and Cook, was a Freemason.
  • Cornelius Clark, a member of the influential Social, Civil, and Statistical Association in Washington (Cook and Thomas also were members).
  • Benjamin M. McCoy, a teacher and leader in the Asbury Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington.

Their steward was Lincoln’s emigration commissioner, the white Methodist preacher James Mitchell, who had spread the word through the black churches of Washington that Father Abraham was interested in talking.

The delegates had been chosen the afternoon of Thursday, Aug. 14, 1862, during a meeting at the Union Bethel AME Church in Washington. The temperature in the room was lukewarm, for although the congregation was honored by the president’s request, the members also were wary. By way of prayer and vigorous debate, they counseled each other to refrain from acting with haste or from giving the impression that such a select group of leaders could possibly represent the black community as a whole. More important, they pledged to remain steadfast against colonization when it came up, even passing a resolution, historian Eric Foner reports in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, “calling discussion of colonization ‘inexpedient, inauspicious, and impolitic.’ ”


With these warnings aired, the men then proceeded from Union Bethel AME Church to the executive mansion that very day. The tick-tock can be found in an editorial by the writer Cerebus (a pseudonym) in the Christian Recorder on Aug. 30, 1862:

There was held in Union Bethel, on the 9th instant, a meeting of the several pastors of the city, which was presided over by Rev. James Mitchell, who styles himself (per advertisement) as the “Commissioner of Emigration.” It was resolved at the said meeting that a delegation of five members of each church, headed by their pastor, be requested to meet in U.B. Church on the 14th instant, at 2 o’clock, P.M., to have a consultation with President LINCOLN. The President failing to appear, a committee of five were appointed to wait on him at the Presidential mansion, at 4 o’clock.


The Lincoln Treatment

Ever since working on the PBS series Looking for Lincoln, and my companion book, Lincoln on Race and Slavery, in 2009, I’ve wondered what it must have been like to stand with those five free men of color when, arriving at the White House, they heard Honest Abe tell them that Congress had already set aside funds for a colonization scheme he supported and that he was counting on their support. A stenographer was there to take down the president’s words, Foner writes, and soon Lincoln’s words would be all over the press. 


Here’s how he addressed the free black delegation: “You and we are different races. We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races. Whether it is right or wrong I need not discuss, but this physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both, as I think your race suffer very greatly, many of them by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence. In a word we suffer on each side. If this is admitted, it affords a reason at least why we should be separated.”  

This is the Abraham Lincoln they didn’t tell you about in school.

As the free black leaders soon discovered, Lincoln’s invitation to discuss policy was a pretext for a one-sided sales pitch.


“I do not propose to discuss this, but to present it as a fact with which we have to deal,” Lincoln continued. “I cannot alter it if I would. It is a fact, about which we all think and feel alike, I and you.”

Lincoln continued to unload on the delegates, even blaming their people for the Civil War at his doorstep: “See our present condition—the country engaged in war!—our white men cutting one another’s throats, none knowing how far it will extend; and then consider what we know to be the truth. But for your race among us there could not be war, although many men engaged on either side do not care for you one way or the other. Nevertheless, I repeat, without the institution of Slavery and the colored race as a basis, the war could not have an existence.”


This brought the president back to colonization, and his purpose for inviting the delegates to the White House in the first place—to get them to accept his trial balloon.

“I suppose one of the principal difficulties in the way of colonization is that the free colored man cannot see that his comfort would be advanced by it,” Lincoln reasoned. “You may believe you can live in Washington or elsewhere in the United States the remainder of your life [as easily], perhaps more so than you can in any foreign country, and hence you may come to the conclusion that you have nothing to do with the idea of going to a foreign country. This is (I speak in no unkind sense) an extremely selfish view of the case.”


Then he pivoted: “But you ought to do something to help those who are not so fortunate as yourselves.”

In Lincoln’s mind, if these free leaders stepped forward to lead the emigration of black people out of the United States, that would make it easier for white slaveholders to free the rest.


He explained: “If you could give a start to white people, you would open a wide door for many to be made free. If we deal with those who are not free at the beginning, and whose intellects are clouded by Slavery, we have very poor materials to start with. If intelligent colored men, such as are before me, would move in this matter, much might be accomplished. It is exceedingly important that we have men at the beginning capable of thinking as white men, and not those who have been systematically oppressed.”

Nothing like flattering some of the race by insulting the rest! 

“There is much to encourage you,” Lincoln continued pitching. “For the sake of your race you should sacrifice something of your present comfort for the purpose of being as grand in that respect as the white people.”


Lincoln even laid a George Washington guilt trip on them, even though, based on what he was saying, they weren’t really American enough to claim the liberties Washington had secured. “In the American Revolutionary war,” he told them, “sacrifices were made by men engaged in it; but they were cheered by the future. Gen. Washington himself endured greater physical hardships than if he had remained a British subject. Yet he was a happy man, because he was engaged in benefiting his race.”

After reviewing the pros and cons of Africa as a destination, Lincoln started pushing Central America as his destination of choice. After all, he said, Liberia was far from African Americans’ birthplace in the United States, and even if they weren’t all that fond of white people, he could understand wanting to be close to their forcibly adopted “motherland.”


“It does not strike me that you have the greatest reason to love [white people],” he said, exempting himself. “But still you are attached to them at all events.”

As crazy as it sounds now, Central America fit the bill for Lincoln, because, as he explained, “[i]t is nearer to us than Liberia—not much more than one-fourth as far as Liberia, and within seven days' run by steamers. Unlike Liberia it is on a great line of travel—it is a highway. The country is a very excellent one for any people, and with great natural resources and advantages, and especially because of the similarity of climate with your native land—thus being suited to your physical condition.”


Here was the old Thomas Jefferson canard with a Central American twist: Despite years of forced interracial mixing on Southern plantations, African Americans somehow were, in Lincoln’s estimation, more physically suited for certain geographies over white people—namely, hot places. Lincoln even had a specific industry in mind once the free black leaders and their families arrived in Central America: “rich coal mines.”  

“Coal land is the best thing I know of with which to commence an enterprise,” Lincoln argued. And one thing white and black people had in common was that they “look to their self-interest.”


It’s odd to us, obviously, that Lincoln minimized the brutal conditions of coal mining (though, at that point, Charles Dickens’ Bleak House had been out for 10 years). Yet it was no more odd than Lincoln’s way of appealing to African-American leaders based on shared American values (steeped as they were in the teachings of Benjamin Franklin and others) in an effort to get them to quit the country on which those values were founded.

For his close, Lincoln told the delegates, “If you will engage in the enterprise I will spend some of the money intrusted [sic] to me. I am not sure you will succeed. The Government may lose the money, but we cannot succeed unless we try; but we think, with care, we can succeed.” Bottom line: Lincoln needed them to enlist.


“If I could find twenty-five able-bodied men,” he said, “with a mixture of women and children, good things in the family relation, I think I could make a successful commencement.” (What he didn’t tell them was that he had already been moving the pieces into place behind the scenes for a specific landing at Chiriquí, today a province of Panama but then part of Colombia. The plan had the potential to relocate more than 10,000 free blacks to a colony the U.S. government would purchase. You can read more about Chiriquí in Foner’s book.)  

With that, the president left them to think about it … “for the good of mankind.”


The Reaction

News of the meeting was met with both outrage and despair, and divided the community. On Aug. 16, 1862, Edward Thomas, leader of the black delegation, politely wrote Lincoln, “We were entirely hostile to the movement until all the advantages were so ably brought to our view by you and we believe that our friends and colaborers [sic] for our race in [Philadelphia, New York and Boston] will when the subject is explained by us to them join heartily in sustaining such a movement.”


But this hardly reflected the views of the free black community. In fact, Cerebus was outraged that the black delegates had the gall to think they could represent anybody in the black community to the president of the United States: “We, for one, should like to know who gave that committee authority to act for us, the fifteen thousand residents of color in this District—and who requested them to represent the interests of the two hundred and ten thousand inhabitants of color in the Free States!”  

Cerebus concluded: “The subject under consideration is one of vital importance, and directly applicable to every person of African descent in these United States. And it is high time for us to arise from this criminal lethargy and suicidal enervation which enthralls us, for ostracism and expatriation under the new name of colonization as just ahead. Let us therefore, then, use every effort to defeat, contravene and oppose this most unreasonable edict that would forcibly eject us from the country for which our ancestors fought, bled and died.”


Others took Cerebus to task for jumping to conclusions. “Now this is the silliest part of the whole,” wrote H.M.T. in the Christian Recorder on Sept. 6, 1862. “I want Mr. Cerebus to remember that colored people have no representative yet in a political point of view; and, while the bogus committee was not authorized to represent the 15,000 of the District, or the 200,000 North, neither was one of these vast numbers authorized to represent the views and sentiments of the committee. And as representation is an individual thing, every man and woman is his or her own representative, and has the right of representing themselves. So let the 15,000 of the District, and the 200,000 North, all go to the President and represent themselves individually, and then they will be satisfied.”

Lincoln had lobbed a political bomb inside the black community, with Frederick Douglass, on one hand, lashing out at him for “assum[ing] the language and arguments of an itinerant colonization lecturer,” while two of Douglass’ sons voiced interest in joining the expedition to Chiriquí. Concludes Foner: “What Lincoln said on August 14 to the black delegation made the meeting one of the most controversial moments of his entire career.” 


A Change of Course, and Yet …

Then, after the Battle of Antietam, Lincoln surprised everyone by issuing his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. He also opened the door to the arming of black soldiers, a move he would formally ratify in the official Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863. Douglass’ sons Lewis and Charles enlisted. Events were moving so quickly that some, including Lincoln, sensed divine forces at play.


Yet even then, amazingly, Lincoln wasn’t through with his colonization obsession. In fact, if you read through the entire Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation of 1862, you’ll find the president making provisions to compensate slaveholders for their losses and affirming “that the effort to colonize persons of African descent, with their consent, upon this continent, or elsewhere, with the previously obtained consent of the Governments existing there, will be continued.”

In the aftermath, Foner writes, schemers for removing blacks from the country continued to approach Lincoln, and Lincoln continued to listen. Even after making good on his ultimatum to the South in the final Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln supported one black minister’s Liberian plan while funding another venture to Ile a Vache, off Haiti, which quickly turned into a humanitarian crisis when the contracted agent, Bernard Kock, made himself “governor” and swindled the 450 black men and women he had conscripted from Fort Monroe, Va., or Freedom’s Fort, you’ll remember. Instead of building them houses, Foner writes, Kock purchased shackles for their further oppression—planting cotton outside the country. Not surprisingly, the emigrants resisted and people died—“dozens,” Foner reports—with a mortified Lincoln having to send a rescue ship for the survivors the following February 1864.


History’s Judgment

“Our truly great presidents were tortured deep in their hearts by the race question,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. observed in New York at the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1962. “Lincoln’s torments are well known, his vacillations were facts.” But at least when it became clear that the only way to redeem the suffering of the country was to write freedom for all people, black and white, into law and, ultimately, the Constitution, Lincoln had come out on the right side of history. As King put it, “His hesitation had not stayed his hand when historic necessity charted but one course.” 


On this 152nd anniversary of Lincoln’s famous proclamation, his evolution on race and slavery is what we should remember. That as the Civil War raged on in those first critical years, he obfuscated and obsessed until, more than midway through the war, he realized that colonizing black people out of the land of their birth—a country they fought and died for during the Revolution and every war since—was not realistic financially or logistically; nor it was an option that the African-American community would ever embrace. The only option black people would embrace was the immediate abolition of slavery. Period.  

Yes, the Civil War changed many things in our country, not least the heart of the man at the center of the storm.


You can find more “Amazing Facts About the Negro” on The Root.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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