The Racism of Abraham Lincoln, Part 3

From Colonization to Emancipation

Thus far, we have examined Lincoln’s words to understand his racism. That’s important because statesmen (especially Lincoln) live by their words. But we must also examine his deeds—specifically, we need to look at Lincoln’s policy initiatives to understand his racism and his subsequent conversion.

I think the most racist policy of Lincoln’s career was his commitment to colonization. Colonization was the idea that freed blacks in the United States could be moved away from the states into “more suitable climes” where they would theoretically thrive. The African nation of Liberia, for example, was established as an American colony of freed blacks. Colonization was coupled with another important idea that anti-slavery men in the North and Border States (like Henry Clay, Lincoln’s political idol, perhaps the highest profile politician who advocated for colonization) favored: gradual, compensated emancipation. The idea was that slaves would become free gradually (as New York had done) as they reached a certain age, and then the federal government would use taxpayer dollars to pay the master for his loss. The only remaining factor—and the one that vexed almost all white Americans who were not named Wendell Phillips or Thaddeus Stevens—was what to do with the freedmen. (Somehow, it never occurred to white statesmen that these freedmen were all second or third or even fourth generation Americans.)

The idea of removing millions of native-born Americans to other parts of the world simply because of their skin color properly appalls us today. Lincoln’s commitment to colonization was nearly life-long, only abandoned after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. But like all else, we must understand his commitment colonization within the context of the time. Moreover, observing the transition in Lincoln’s policies as president from colonization to emancipation can help show the evolution of Lincoln’s thinking about race itself. And lastly, looking at colonization and the reasons moderates like Lincoln favored it can give us another example of racism as the cause of the Civil War.

And the issues swirling around colonization are crucial, because they cut to the heart of, not merely Lincoln’s racism, but to the stated reasons for the Deep South seceding from the Union in 1860. The obvious implication of these issues is that neither Abraham Lincoln, nor almost any of his countrymen, could envision living in a multi-racial society.

I have already written in this blog of racism as a cause of the war. The Ordinances and Declarations of Secession, coupled with the addresses of the Special Secession Commissioners, show that the seven Deep South states regarded the election of Lincoln and the “Black Republicans” as a grave threat because it promised (as they thought) an end to slavery, and therefore an end to white supremacy. These documents also make it clear that one of the forms of equality that Southern whites feared they would have to endure is the social equality of blacks; what we today call integration. Thus, we can see that when we say “slavery caused the war,” we are also saying “racism against blacks helped to cause the war.”

In the North, racism, while not as virulent as the South, was also a powerful motivating element. Most Northerners who opposed slavery (excluding the radical abolition wing) were also racist to some degree or another. The question of where newly-emancipated slaves would live seemed answered by colonization. Allen Guelzo discusses “good” colonizationists and “bad” colonizationists as the difference between those who felt blacks would never be given a fair shake in the United States, and so were better off going elsewhere to a place they could craft an equality all their own; and those who disliked slavery and blacks, and wanted to ship freedmen out because they didn’t like them. Lincoln understood this instinctively, and we can see it manifested in his presidency.

By the time Lincoln was inaugurated, seven states had already left the Union. After Ft. Sumter and Lincoln’s call for volunteers to put down insurrection, four more would leave. Suddenly, slavery was not an issue for the new president. His immediate overriding goal was to put down the rebellion and “practically restore… the constitutional relation between the general government, and…the states.” This, of course, didn’t stop abolitionists from demanding that Lincoln use the war to destroy slavery. However, he disappointed anti-slavery Republicans, since he regarded—correctly, in my view—slavery as protected by the Constitution. For Lincoln to attack slavery in 1861 would be to admit that Republicans did indeed intend black equality as a plank in their platform, when it most certainly was not. More importantly, Lincoln understood that he could not alienate Northerners who did not care about slavery. And most important of all, he must not threaten Kentucky, that crucial border slave state, with emancipation. “To lose Kentucky,” Lincoln said in 1861, “is nearly the same as to lose the whole game.”

His address to Congress in December of 1861 contained an assurance to Americans that his goal was only the restoration of the Union, not the destruction of slavery. He would take care that the war did not become a “violent remorseless revolutionary struggle.” But at the same time, the president mentioned to Congress that he might wish for financial appropriations to colonize free blacks out of the country. But why would one need to exile blacks if one was committed to preserving slavery? This suggests Lincoln was playing both ends from the middle. Of course, this was not unusual for him. As Brooks Simpson has recently pointed out, “Lincoln seemed quite willing to entertain and even promote multiple paths toward the same conclusion.” He might not have intended in the winter of ’61 to disturb slavery, but he needed to hedge his bets in case he might change his mind later.

And indeed, by the spring of 1862, Lincoln was beginning to change his view. Events forced him to reconsider slavery—as both a cause of the war and as a tool of the rebellion. After the failure of George McClellan to end the rebellion on the Peninsula in 1862, Lincoln understood stronger measures were necessary. Emancipation was already taking place by fits and starts all across the vast front of the war, and with the continued military failures in the east, Lincoln understood that to strike a fatal blow to the Confederacy, he must strike a fatal blow against slavery. By summer, Lincoln was prepared to issue the Emancipation Proclamation as a war measure to destroy the rebellion.

But he still was not prepared for a multi-racial society; or at least if he was, he knew most Americans weren’t. And so to prep the ground for emancipation, Lincoln began to push for colonization schemes. I think one of the most telling moments in his advocacy came on August 14, 1862 when Lincoln met with four free black community leaders from Washington. First, he informs them he’s asked Congress to set aside money for colonization. Then he gets to his main point:

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. You here are freemen I suppose.

A VOICE: Yes, sir.

THE PRESIDENT: Perhaps you have long been free, or all your lives. Your race are suffering, in my judgment, the greatest wrong inflicted on any people. But even when you cease to be slaves, you are yet far removed from being placed on an equality with the white race. You are cut off from many of the advantages which the other race enjoy. The aspiration of men is to enjoy equality with the best when free, but on this broad continent, not a single man of your race is made the equal of a single man of ours. Go where you are treated the best, and the ban is still upon you.

I do not propose to discuss this, but to present it as a fact with which we have to deal. I cannot alter it if I would. It is a fact, about which we all think and feel alike, I and you. We look to our condition, owing to the existence of the two races on this continent. I need not recount to you the effects upon white men, growing out of the institution of Slavery. I believe in its general evil effects on the white race. 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.

It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated. [My emphasis]

This is an exchange of remarkable frankness. Lincoln is stating a political fact: that racism prevents blacks from enjoying their liberties; and equality is out of the question. It would be better for all if blacks—voluntarily and supported by the federal government—went their own way. There is an undercurrent of pathetic wistfulness to Lincoln’s plea: it’s as if he’s saying “If it weren’t for you people, we whites would be enjoying Jefferson’s perfect liberty and equality as promised in the Declaration of Independence. But no; because of your presence (through no fault of your own, I admit), that vision of a free white republic is hopelessly complicated.”

Boy, was it ever.

But, again, as frustrated as he was, it’s important to point out here Lincoln’s complete lack of vitriol. He was noted by contemporaries again and again as being every bit as respectful to black people in the White House as whites.

Lincoln’s alleged indifference to slaves and slavery—and therefore his racism—has another source that both neo-Confederates and Libertarians cite again and again. It is Lincoln’s open letter to Horace Greeley. Greeley, the editor of the most important newspaper in the North, had written an editorial criticizing the Lincoln administration for its aimlessness in fighting the war. Lincoln seized on this as an opportunity to communicate not so much with Greeley as with the American people directly:

As to the policy I “seem to be pursuing” as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt.

I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.

I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free. [My emphasis]

Lincoln Loathers love to use this as evidence that Lincoln cared not at all for blacks, that he was as racist as any Southern slaveholder. But again, context is everything. This is Lincoln preparing Americans for the Emancipation Proclamation (which lay in a drawer waiting for a military victory to give it teeth). What critics would call callous indifference in the phrase “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that,” is actually a good description of the Emancipation Proclamation’s decree to free slaves only in states (or parts of states) in rebellion. What the loathers interpret as racism is, in truth, Constitutional conscientiousness. But they have to call it racism, don’t they? Since part of the Libertarian narrative is that Lincoln was a tyrant who ran roughshod over the Constitution, they can’t allow this letter to be interpreted correctly. And, of course, they always—always!—omit the last sentence.

Lincoln continued to hope for some sort of colonization even after he issued the preliminary proclamation after the Battle of Antietam in September of 1862. On the eve of the final Emancipation Proclamation, in his Annual Message to Congress in December of 1862, he still made some space for colonization. This address is basically his first major attempt (apart from the Greeley letter) to convince Congress (and the American people) that emancipation was essential to winning the war, and that the resulting liberation of nearly four million blacks need not cause great upheaval. To avoid the feared upheaval, a great portion of the address is dedicated to a series of proposals around compensated emancipation and colonization. But there is much more to this remarkable address than just holding out for colonization. Lincoln seems to realize that farming out blacks to foreign countries might not work:

I can not make it better known than it already is that I strongly favor colonization; and yet I wish to say there is an objection urged against free colored persons remaining in the country which is largely imaginary, if not sometimes malicious.

Lincoln is maintaining his long-held view; and yet there is a note of impatience with the irrational fear of his countrymen. He goes on at length arguing that the fear of free blacks living among white Americans is groundless. His logic is cold; it is not based on “brotherly love,” but rather on economics:

It is insisted that their presence would injure and displace white labor and white laborers…. Is it true, then, that colored people can displace any more white labor by being free than by remaining slaves? If they stay in their old places, they jostle no white laborers; if they leave their old places, they leave them open to white laborers. Logically, there is neither more nor less of it. Emancipation, even without deportation, would probably enhance the wages of white labor, and very surely would not reduce them. Thus the customary amount of labor would still have to be performed—the freed people would surely not do more than their old proportion of it, and very probably for a time would do less, leaving an increased part to white laborers, bringing their labor into greater demand, and consequently enhancing the wages of it. With deportation, even to a limited extent, enhanced wages to white labor is mathematically certain. Labor is like any other commodity in the market—increase the demand for it and you increase the price of it. Reduce the supply of black labor by colonizing the black laborer out of the country, and by precisely so much you increase the demand for and wages of white labor.

Or, as here, the logic of demographics:

But it is dreaded that the freed people will swarm forth and cover the whole land. Are they not already in the land? Will liberation make them any more numerous? Equally distributed among the whites of the whole country, and there would be but one colored to seven whites. Could the one in any way greatly disturb the seven? There are many communities now having more than one free colored person to seven whites and this without any apparent consciousness of evil from it. The District of Columbia and the States of Maryland and Delaware are all in this condition. The District has more than one free colored to six whites, and yet in its frequent petitions to Congress I believe it has never presented the presence of free colored persons as one of its grievances. But why should emancipation South send the free people North? People of any color seldom run unless there be something to run from.

In both cases, Lincoln continues to insist that colonization would benefit both white and black, but that it is not a necessary component. He equivocates. Again, this is consistent with Prof. Simpson’s argument that colonization represented one possible solution, not the only solution. 

And then, he tries to break it to Americans that the old ways of thinking are history, and that they are going to need to get over themselves:

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

Lincoln is talking about emancipation, but he might as well be speaking of reconsidering the role of blacks in America.

And after January 1, 1863, the date when the final Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, Lincoln never again publically mentioned colonization. And it made good sense to abandon colonization after issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. The Proclamation, of course, did not merely decree slaves free; it authorized these newly-freed slaves and Northern free blacks to join the Union army, and strike a blow against the slaveholders who had held them in bondage and tried to destroy the nation. Suddenly, emancipation made freedmen not a burden for negrophobe whites, but a weapon to save the Union. And that salvation could only happen by destroying slavery.

It is from this point–this realization that the old Union could not be saved, but that a “new nation” must be created–that we begin to see real transformation in Lincoln’s ideas on race, and the growth for which Foner argues. In the next post, we will see how the logic of emancipation and black military service dictated the terms which forced Lincoln to mostly abandon his racist attitudes.


About Christopher Shelley

Christopher Shelley teaches American history and American Indian history at Portland Community College. He is fond of border collies, and bleeds Dodger-blue. Any and all opinions expressed here are those of the expressors themselves, and in no way represent the views of Portland Community College.
This entry was posted in Abraham Lincoln, Civil War, Lincoln's Words, Racism, Secession, Slavery and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Racism of Abraham Lincoln, Part 3

  1. Pingback: Canister! | Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

  2. Jimmy Dick says:

    It is interesting how Lincoln literally evolved over slavery. I think this is where those that want to make Lincoln a racist miss the context of the situation. Lincoln was not alone. The entire nation evolved over slavery. Its existence dictated a way of life where it was, but not where it wasn’t. Where I think Lincoln had some problems was in what to do with four million freed slaves who had no education and no job skills in a land where they had been at the bottom of the social order. I don’t care who got that job, no one was going to get it right.

    Colonization was an option, but was it a viable option? When we look at how white Americans looked at all other races, assimilation all of a sudden seems out of the question. Let’s face it. When Native Americans adopted Christianity and all other forms of white culture they were still driven from their lands because they were not white. Assimilation was not desired by the whites. Why would anyone expect the former slaves to be assimilated into a white society?

    Here’s the real problem with this whole thing. Lincoln was assassinated and left next to no records on what he planned to do. The man was uncanny in how he read the political landscape for decades and his actions proved it time and time again. He probably had the genesis of a plan but had to see how things were going before he refined and implemented one. However, the didn’t write it down. So with his death, there is no way to say what he would have done next. I think that is what gives the idiots their real opening. Had he done something concrete they would have to come up with some other lunatic idea. Instead we get their crazy idea which fails in the face of facts, but they have never been concerned with facts.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. jarretr says:

    “For Lincoln to attack slavery in 1861 would be to admit that Republicans did indeed intend black equality as a plank in their platform, when it most certainly was not.” Exactly. This is what is known as “context” in U.S. history, and it’s why claiming that Lincoln was a racist in a (forgive me) black-and-white sense completely misses the point.


  4. Michael Rodgers says:

    Lincoln planned to enfranchise black people and announced his plan in his last public statement, heard and acted upon by his assassin.


  5. Terry Hulsey says:

    Mr. Shelley, you write that Northern racism was “not as virulent as the South”. Since you are very interested in the facts, I’m sure you will be delighted to open the account of a contemporary, de Tocqueville, and read: “Race prejudice seems stronger in those states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists.”
    You also write of Lincoln’s August 1862 meeting with a delegation of blacks that he spoke with a “complete lack of vitriol”. I suppose you don’t need vitriol when your whole purpose is jawbone the blacks into getting on a ship and getting out of the country. But you will find a way to praise that attitude as well, since it’s from that man-god Lincoln.
    You write: “after January 1, 1863 […] Lincoln never again publically [sic] mentioned colonization.” Not publicly mentioning his intentions is another mark of him as the Francis Underwood of his time, which you, like all Lincoln hagiographers, somehow turn into “uncanny” political “genius.” But the facts are clear. On June 13, 1863, Lincoln authorized negotiations with John Hodge, a representative of the British Honduras Company to send blacks to Guiana. And even up until three days before his assassination Lincoln was planning on shipping the blacks to Panama.
    I’m no great fan of Eric Foner, but at least this man is honest, and is willing to man up to facts, as his review of Lerone Bennett proves:


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