The Civil War: The Emancipation Proclamation and Lincoln, a great emancipator or great colonizer?

Lincoln considered sending thousands of freed slaves to Haiti or even to Europe. Photo: Lincoln and his cabinet: first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation Artist: Francis Bicknell Carpenter

VIENNA, Va., January 2, 2013 — The National Archives has just finished one of its rare public viewings of the Emancipation Proclamation, corresponding with its 150th Anniversary. The old manuscript was done on poor quality paper so even a brief exposure to light causes damage. Thus only a couple of pages are ever shown at one time.

And with the joy that only iconoclasts seem to be able to evince, two researchers, Phillip W. Magness at George Mason University and Sebastian Page, a junior research fellow at Oxford University, have brought to light documentation showing that while the great liberator was preparing his proclamation to the public, privately he had been pursuing a plan to send the newly freed slaves to a colony to be set up on the quasi-unified island country of Haiti and solving the “problem” anticipated by freeing thousands of newly emancipated slaves. The freed slaves had no education, bare qualifications as skilled workers in a non-plantation environment and represented a further drain on the war-torn economy of America.

Slave Population in 1860

Initially Lincoln had mentioned this in his second message to Congress on December 1, 1862, when he brought up three amendments for compensated emancipation. 

The initial two provided for federal compensation to any state that abolished slavery before 1900, as well as for the “loyal masters,” whose slaves had become free due to the disruption caused by the war.

The last one was for an affirmation by the Congress of its power to give actual support to the colonization of African-Americans. What a ringer to throw into a seemingly innocent amendment.

Lincoln softened this by agreeing that both Congress and the would-be emigrants had to consent to the resettlement. And on Jan. 1, 1863, he issued the much-vaunted Emancipation Proclamation, which mentioned nothing about resettlement.

However, friends of Lincoln, both Gideon Welles, his Secretary of the Navy, and an Indiana Congressman, George Julian, were of the opinion that Lincoln would never have issued the Emancipation Proclamation if he had known that the colonization project would fall through. Seemingly it was always on his mind.

Original Proclamation

While Lincoln had always been against slavery, he seemed to now devolve into the NIMBY philosophy so prevalent today. All those freed blacks were a great idea, but not in his back yard. And so the many colonization ideas and plans previously tossed into the political mix ceased to exist.

Page and Magness posit that this sudden change of mind might have come from an initial desire to appease emancipation opposition, since his Republican Party could be punished for it at the polls.

Those more positive about Lincoln’s thinking offer that dropping the plan merely shows that his thinking had changed — a “flip flop” in today’s political parlance. The question, however, remains, and may be in the process of being answered, by other facts Page and Magness’ research has brought to light.

Back on August 14, 1862, Lincoln had brought a committee of five African-Americans to his office for a discussion of colonization. In what appears to have been basically a rhetorical questioning session, he finally said:

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 [sic] 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.”

Lincoln had been in contact with a cotton broker and contractor named Bernard Kock, who held the lease for a potential colonization site on I’lle a Vache, or Cow Island, off the coast of Haiti, who presented the Emancipator-in-Chief with a contract for the resettlement of 5,000 “contrabands.”  Kock later advised that Lincoln had actually approved the contract the next morning, which was January 1, 1863, just before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.

Photo of plantation slaves

Liberia had been a potential relocation site, yet it seemed the blacks would only consider a site closer to America rather than faraway Africa.  Even then, Lincoln cast about for a location farther away — Europe.

And quite a few countries, including Denmark, France, and the Netherlands, all showed interest in receiving the newcomers as labor on the sugar plantations.

A hold-up with the Dutch ensued since they wanted the emigrants to promise to remain on the land for a set number of years. The Netherlands eventually made up for the loss of new inhabitants, as the Dutch were the primary ones sailing the slave ships full of unwilling emigrants from Africa to America, a lucrative income indeed. Caribbean visitors to Belize never see the area which had been set apart for a colony there, but the crumbling sugar mill can still be seen.

Some say that Lincoln was still thinking the matter over even after the Emancipation Proclamation, and in April of 1863 he signed a revamped contract and sent some 500 new “settlers” on their way to Haiti. The attempt at resettlement was not well received by Haitians, since apparently the original residents did not want the newcomers among them. There were problems with disease, leadership, and financial mismanagement. The new settlers were very unhappy, notifying Lincoln of their distress in July. They were not brought back until February of the following year, when the Navy rescued them.

Thus by 1864, it seems that Lincoln had given up on his initial focus on colonization. Although, according to Secretary Welles’ writings, Lincoln had “by no means abandoned his policy of deportation and emancipation.”

Someone once said that those who live the longest see the most, and perhaps as research continues, more on this interesting facet of the 16th President’s life and plans may well come to light.  Thousands still troop to the Archives for a rare view of the Emancipation Proclamation, never knowing how tenuous its future might have been.

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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."


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