Mark Farrell: Lincoln's Goals of Repatriating Blacks to Their Motherland

The Beginner’s American History describes a trip that Lincoln made with a neighbor’s son to New Orleans. Lincoln’s father gave Abe a warning, “Take care that in trying to see the world you don’t see the bottom of the Mississippi.”1 Lincoln’s father’s warning was well founded. According to The Beginner’s American History, Lincoln and his friend did experience some problems:

“The two young men managed to get the boat through safely. But one night a gang of negroes came on board, intending to rob them of part of their cargo. Lincoln soon showed the robbers he could handle a club as vigorously as he could an axe, and the rascals, bruised and bleeding, were glad to get off with their lives.”2

Perhaps, that incident led to Lincoln’s opinions later in life. Although Lincoln felt that slavery was an abomination—for no man, regardless of race, should ever be forced into involuntary servitude—Lincoln never supported integration, as some have claimed.3 It seems that many of the strong positions that Lincoln held are rarely, if ever, mentioned in today’s school history books. In perhaps an effort to remain politically correct, Lincoln has been made into something he never was: to use the word that was popular in his time, an “amalgamationist”—that is, a person who accepts interracial unions. Lincoln was only in favor of, said Lincoln himself, “admitting all whites to the right of suffrage, who pay taxes or bear arms, by no means excluding females.”4

Lincoln is perhaps best remembered for his role in the Civil War, in which slavery was, without a doubt, one of the important factors that led to it.5 But the interracial problems and debates were waiting for Lincoln long before he took office. The first major controversy began in Missouri. When, in 1819, congress was deciding whether Missouri should become a state, Congressman James Tallmadge proposed an amendment that would have made it a “free state”—one without slaves. His amendment caused acrimonious feelings between northern and southern members of congress. One southern congressman declared, “You have kindled a fire which all the waters of the ocean cannot put out, which only seas of blood can extinguish.”6 Although the House of Representatives felt that slavery should be excluded from Missouri, the Senate rejected it. Former President Thomas Jefferson noticed with alarm that the issue of slavery was causing a rift between the northern and southern states. “This momentous question,” Jefferson wrote, “like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed, indeed, for the moment, but this is a reprieve only.”7

A few decades later, these problems greeted Lincoln, an ambitious yet poor attorney who would become President of the United States. Although Lincoln’s main concern was saving the Union, he was vehemently against slavery. He once said, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”8 Lincoln also said that he “always hated slavery.”9 He suggested a “compensation emancipation,” in which slave owners would be paid to free their slaves; but they would not take his offer.10 He later issued a proclamation in September of 1862 that stated: “All persons held as slaves within any state, or designated part of a state, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”11 On January 1, 1863, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which named the states and parts of states in which all slaves were ordered to be freed. And, two years and one month later, on February 1, 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment was proposed, which stated, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude . . . shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”12

Unlike many politicians of today who are fearful of breaking the politically correct rules of being insensitive, Lincoln was very open about his opinions, not caring whether others agreed with him.13 He often said that his foremost goal was to repatriate Blacks to a land of their own. Lincoln said that he had hopes of sending “free negroes to Liberia.”14 In 1857, Lincoln restated those same feelings of sending Blacks to Liberia and said, “The enterprise is a difficult one . . . [but] when there is a will there is a way.”15 At another time, he made it pefectly clear what his intentions were. “What I would most desire would be the separation of the white and black races,” said Lincoln.16 In fact, the Emancipation Proclamation said that “the effort to colonize persons of African descent, with their consent, upon the continent or elsewhere, with the previously obtained consent of the government existing there, will be continued.” In one speech, Lincoln said that he did not know what to do with the problems in America but stated that the first thing that came to his mind was to help Blacks travel to Liberia. However, he noted that that solution’s “sudden execution is impossible” due to the slavery forces. Lincoln promulgated:

“If all earthly power were given to me I should not know what to do with the existing institution. My first impulse would be to free all the slaves and then send them to Liberia, to their native land. But, a moment’s reflection would convince me that whatever of high hope, as I think there is, there may be in this, in the long run, its sudden execution is impossible [Lincoln’s emphasis].”17

Lincoln was diametrically opposed to interracial relationships that resulted in children, referred to as the “amalgamation” of races at his time, from a personal perspective. On occasion, Lincoln said that although he supported the notion to free Blacks, he did not—in no uncertain terms—approve of miscegenation. On June 26, 1857, Lincoln said:

“Now I protest against the counterfeit logic which concludes that, because I do not want a black woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. I need not have her for either. I can just let her alone. In some respects she certainly is not my equal; but in her natural right to eat the bread she earns with her own hands, without asking leave of anyone else, she is my equal and the equal of all others. . . . But Judge Douglas is especially horrified at the thought of the mixing of blood by the white and black races. . . . On this point we fully agree with the Judge, and when he shall show that his policy is better adapted to prevent amalgamation than ours, we shall drop ours and adopt his. . . .”18

While debating with Senator Stephen Douglas, Lincoln often repeated those same feelings. Certainly, in today’s political context, Lincoln would be more controversial than any White politician and even more controversial than most Black politicians. Certainly, if he were President today, many newspaper headlines would be generated. Lincoln said:

“I will say that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races; that I am not in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people. . . . There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. . . . I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position that the negro must be denied everything. I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. My understanding is that I can just let her alone. . . . I have never had the least apprehension that I or my friends would marry negroes if there was no law to keep them from it; but as Judge Douglas and his friends seem to be in great apprehension that they might, if there were no law to keep them from it, I give him my most solemn pledge that I will to the very last stand by the law of this State, which forbids the marrying of white people with negroes. . . . “I am not in favor of negro citizenship. My opinion is that the different States have the power to make a negro a citizen under the Constitution if they choose. The Dred Scott decision decides that they have not the power. If the State of Illinois had that power I should be opposed to the exercise of it. That is all I have to say about it.”19

Senator Douglas, during his debates with Lincoln, would not commit himself to any issue, like most politicians of today. He was hoping to please everyone without actually doing anything. As for the slavery issue, Douglas said, “I don’t care whether slavery be voted up or voted down. . . . I don’t believe the negro is any kin of mine at all.”20 Douglas’s nonpartisan view on slavery made him unpopular for both the North and South. In that respect, things have not really changed too much. The rich southern plantation owners wanted slavery to remain for their financial benefit, just like the internationalists of today try to bring in cheap Third World labor for their businesses (or send their businesses to Third World countries to get people to work for a dime a day). The poor White southerner wanted slavery to end so that he could get a decent-paying job, just like the poor Whites of today have to compete against the Third World labor. The Black slave wanted to rid himself of his shackles, just as many poor Blacks today want to live in a land where they are not used. The free Black wanted to see his fellow Blacks freed of their chains because of a racial kinship. Many people in the North and South wanted Blacks to be freed and repatriated, as did Lincoln. Although Lincoln was diametrically opposed to the issue of slavery, he was obviously against the integration that is now forced on all people. Instead, Lincoln proposed complete and total separation by “colonizing people of African descent.”21 Lincoln spoke to a committee of free Blacks at the White House in the summer of 1862. The New-York Tribune described Lincoln’s speech:

“Washington. Thursday, [August] 14, 1862.[22] This afternoon the President of the United States gave audience to a Committee of colored men at the White House. They were introduced by Rev. J. Mitchell, Commissioner of Emigration. E. M. Thomas, the Chairman, remarked that they were there by invitation to hear what the Executive had to say to them. Having all been seated, the President, after a few preliminary observations, informed them that a sum of money had been appropriated by Congress, and placed at his disposition for the purpose of aiding the colonization in some country of the people, or a portion of them, of African descent, thereby making it his duty, as it had [been] for a long time his inclination, to favor that cause. . . .”

Clearly, what Lincoln said to the committee of Blacks who attended was the most controversial thing ever said by a President of the U.S. Lincoln suggested that Blacks would be happier if they were not subjugated under White rule. In a lengthy speech, he proposed that those Blacks who so desired should colonize other lands, apart from that of Whites. Lincoln promulgated:

“Why should the people of your race be [colonized], and where?[23] Why should they leave this country? This is, perhaps, the first question for proper consideration. 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 be admitted, it affords a reason at least why we should be separated. You here are freemen, I suppose.”24

A Black man who had attended the convention responded by saying, “Yes, sir.”25 Lincoln continued:

“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 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 . . . 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. . . . 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 a war, although many men 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, therefore, to be separated. I know that there are free men among you, who even if they could better their condition are not as much in lined to go out of the country as those who being slaves could obtain their freedom on this condition. 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. You may believe you can live in Washington or elsewhere in the United States the remainder of your life, 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.

“But you ought to do something to help those who are not so fortunate as yourselves. There is an unwillingness on the part of our people, harsh as it may be, for you free colored people to remain with us. Now, if you could give a start to white people, you would open a wide door for many to be 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.

“There is much to encourage you. 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. It is a cheering thought throughout life that something can be done to ameliorate the condition of those who have been subject to the hard usage of the world. It is difficult to make a man feel miserable while he feels worthy of himself and claims kindred to the great God who made him. In the American Revolutionary war sacrifices were made by men engaged in it; but they were cheered by the future. Gen. Washington himself endured greater hardships than if he had remained a British subject. Yet he was a happy man, because he was engaged in benefiting his race—something for the children of his neighbors, having none of his own.

“The country of Liberia has been in existence a long time. In a certain sense, it is a success. The old President of Liberia, Roberts, has just been with me—the first time I ever saw him. He says they have within the bounds of that colony between 300,000 and 400,000 people, or more than in some of our old States, such as Rhode Island or Delaware, or in some of our newer States, and less than in some of our larger ones. They are not all American colonists, or their descendants. Something less than 12,000 have been sent thither from this country. Many of the original settlers have died, yet, like people elsewhere, their offspring outnumbers those deceased.

“The question is if the colored people are persuaded[Page image viewer] to go anywhere, why not there? One reason for an unwillingness to do so is that some of you would rather remain within reach of the country of your nativity. I do not know how much attachment you may have towards our race. It does not strike me that you have the greatest reason to love them. But still you are attached to them at all events.

“The place I am thinking about having for a colony is in Central America. It is nearer to me 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 the climate with your native land—thus being suited to your physical condition.

“The particular place I have in view is to be a great highway from the Atlantic or [Caribbean] Sea to the Pacific Ocean, and this particular place has all the advantages for a colony. On both sides there are harbors among the first in the world. Again, there is evidence of very rich coal mines. A certain amount of coal is valuable in any country, and there may be more than enough for the wants of the country. Why I attach so much importance to coal is it will afford an opportunity to the inhabitants for immediate employment till they get ready to settle permanently in their homes.

“If you take colonists where there is no good landing, there is a bad show; and so where there is nothing to cultivate and of which to make a farm. But if something is started so that you can get your daily bread as soon as you reach there, it is a great advantage. Coal land is the best thing I know of which to commence an enterprise.

“To return, you have been talked to upon this subject, and told that a speculation is intended by gentlemen, who have an interest in the country, including the coal mines. We have been mistaken all our lives if we do not know whites as well as blacks look to their self-interest. Unless among those deficient of intellect everybody you trade with makes something. You meet with these things here as elsewhere.

“If such persons have what will be an advantage to them, the question is whether it cannot be made of advantage to you. You are intelligent, and know that success does not depend on external help as on self-reliance. Much, therefore, depends upon yourselves. As to the coal mines, I think I see the means available for your self-reliance. I shall, if I get a sufficent number of you engaged, have provisions made that you shall not be wronged. If you will engage in enterprise I will spend some of the money intrusted to me. I am not sure you will succeed. The Government may lose the money [if you do not succeed], but we cannot succeed unless we try; but we think, with care, we can succeed.

“The political affairs in Central America are not in quite as satisfactory condition as I wish. There are contending factions in that quarter; but it is true all the factions are agreed alike on the subject of colonization, and want it, and are more generous than we are here. To your colored race they have no objection. Besides, I would endeavor to have you made equals, and have the best assurance that you should be the equals of the best.

“The practical thing I want to ascertain is whether I can get a number of able-bodied men, with their wives and children, who are willing to go, when I present evidence of encouragement and protection. Could I get a hundred tolerably intelligent men, with their wives and children, to ‘cut their own fodder,’ so to speak. Can I have fifty? If I could find twenty-five able-bodied men, with a mixture of women and children, good things in the family relation, I think I could make a successful commencement.

“I want you to let me know whether this can be done or not. This is the practical part of my wish to see you. These are subjects of very great importance, worthy of a month’s study, of a speech delivered in an hour. I ask you then to consider seriously not pertaining to yourselves merely, nor for your race, and ours, for the present time, but as one of the things, if successfully managed, for the good of mankind—not confined to the present generation but as

“From age to age descends the lay, To millions yet to be, Till far its echoes roll away into eternity.”26

E.M. Thomas, the chairman of the delegation, responded to Lincoln’s plea. He said that “they would hold a consultation and in short order give an answer.”27 Lincoln replied, “Take your full time—no hurry at all.”28 The area in Central America in which Lincoln had hoped Blacks would colonize was New Granada. However, Lincoln later found out that Blacks would not be safe there, for there were many problems with New Granada’s government that may have endangered the lives of Blacks who would move there.29 Lincoln decided against that plan, but he held steadfast to his idea of repatriating Blacks to a land of their own.

Later, Lincoln signed an act prohibiting Black slavery in the District of Columbia. The U.S. government paid the former owners of slaves up to—but not exceeding—$200 for each slave. There was a provision in the bill that allowed any freed Black to have a free ticket on a steamship to Haiti or Liberia if he chose to go to either of those places.30

Lincoln asked Congress to pass a bill that would recognize the nations Haiti and Liberia. Congress did. However, the State Department said that a Black man “could not be received as foreign Minister.”31 The Haitian President, a Black man, was appreciative of Lincoln recognizing Haiti as a nation and said that, if it was Lincoln’s wish, he would not send a Black Haitian minister. Lincoln made it known that it would not bother him—although it was, at the time, prohibited by the State Department—if a Black was sent. Lincoln replied, “You can tell the President of Hayti [sic] that I shan’t tear my shirt if he sends a Ni99er here!”32

Some have argued that Lincoln “was unquestioningly moving toward a generous civil-rights postion toward the end of his life.”33 Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, in early April of 1865, the very month that Lincoln was assassinated, Lincoln still strongly held his plans of assisting Blacks in an effort to maintain a land of their own, as noted by Major-General Benjamin F. Butler in his lengthy autobiography, which is known as Butler’s Book. During a conversation with Butler, Lincoln described his intentions to help Blacks maintain a land that they could call their own. Lincoln said:

“But what shall we do with the negroes after they are free? I can hardly believe that the South and North can live in peace, unless we can get rid of the negroes. Certainly they cannot if we don’t get rid of the negroes whom we have armed and disciplined and who have fought with us. . . . I believe that it would be better to export them all to some fertile country with a good climate, which they could have to themselves.

“You have been a staunch friend of the race from the time you first advised me to enlist them at New Orleans. You have had a good deal of experience in moving bodies of men by water—your movement up the James was a magnificent one. Now, we shall have no use for our large navy; what, then, are our difficulties in sending all blacks away?

“If these black soldiers of ours go back to the South I am afraid that they will be but little better off with their masters than they were before, and yet they will be free men. I fear a race war, and it will be at least a guerrilla war because we have taught these men how to fight. All the arms in the South are now in the hands of their troops, and when we capture them we will of course take their arms. There are plenty of men in the North who will furnish the negroes with arms if there is any oppression of them by their late masters.

“I wish you would carefully examine the question and give me your views on it and go into the figures, as you did before in some degree, so as to show whether the negroes can be exported. I wish also you would give me any views that you have as to how to deal with the negro troops after the war. Some people think that we shall have trouble with our white troops after they are disbanded. But I don’t anticipate anything of that sort, for all the intelligent men among them were good citizens or they would have not been good soldiers. But the question of the colored troops troubles me exceedingly. I wish you would do this as soon as you can, because I am to go down to City Point shortly and may meet negotiators for peace there, and I may want to talk this matter over with General Grant if he isn’t too busy.”34

Several days later, Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. Lincoln’s goal of assisting Blacks to regain their destiny, separate from Whites, did not end with his death, however.

1 D.H. Montgomery, The Beginner’s American History (Boston: Ginn & Company, 1893), p. 203.

2 Montgomery, The Beginner’s American History, p. 203.

3 Recently, there has been a book published that dispells the belief that only Blacks were slaves. Much like Blacks during slavery, some Whites were sold for as little as 150 pounds of tobacco. In fact, the word “kidnapped” was derived from the term “kid-nabbed,” which happened to many White children in the British Isles who were used as slave labor. Many of the White slaves died in passage. The Whites who were slaves “found themselves powerless as individuals, without honor or respect, and driven into commodity production not by an inner sense of moral duty but by the outer stimulus of the whip.” Michael Hoffman II, They Were White, and They Were Slaves: The Untold History of the Enslavement of Whites in Early America (Dresden, New York: Wiswell Ruffin House, 1991).

4 James Morgan, Abraham Lincoln: The Boy and the Man (New York: Macmillan Company, 1908), p. 53.

5 There is no doubt that slavery was a problem of many that led to the Civil War. But, it was not the sole problem. Although Lincoln was against slavery, his main concern was to save the Union—that is, to keep the U.S. united. Lincoln said, “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. 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 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. . . .” Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years (New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1954), p. 316.

6 Smith Burnham and Theodore Jack, America Our Country (Philadelphia: International Press, 1934), p. 331.

7 Burnham and Jack, America Our Country, p. 332.

8 Burnham and Jack, America Our Country, p. 375.

9 Burnham and Jack, America Our Country, p. 354.

10 Morgan, Abraham Lincoln, pp. 81, 320.

11 Burnham and Jack, America Our Country , p. 376.

12 Burnham and Jack, America Our Country, p. 377. In the 1850s, about one-quarter of White southerners still had slaves. Ibid., p. 333.

13 Benjamin Cowen, who knew Lincoln, described Lincoln’s openness: “He was a splendid example of a politician of absolute intellectual honesty, indulging in no ambiguous terms, making no mental reservations, but daring to think freely and to speak and act openly.” Benjamin Cowen, Abraham Lincoln: An Appreciation by One Who Knew Him (Cincinnati: Robert Clark Co., 1909), pp. 18-19.

14 Joseph Newton, Lincoln and Herndon (Cedar Rapids, Iowa: The Torch Press, 1910), p. 263.

15 Carleton Putnam, Race and Reality: A Search for Solutions (Cape Canaveral, Florida: Howard Allen, 1967), p. 136

16 Putnam, Race and Reality, p. 135.

17 Joseph Newton, Lincoln and Herndon (Cedar Rapids, Iowa: The Torch Press, 1910), pp. 65-66.

18 Newton, Lincoln and Herndon, pp. 120-121.

19 Newton, Lincoln and Herndon, p. 213. (Ellipses, except for the very last, are Newton’s.) The following two books also have excerpts of the aforementioned speech: James Morgan, Abraham Lincoln: The Boy and the Man (New York: Macmillan Company, 1908), p. 131. Putnam, Race and Reality, p. 134.

20 Morgan, Abraham Lincoln, p. 130.

21 Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years, p. 316.

22 “The Colonization of People of African Descent," New-York Tribune (August 15, 1862), p. 1.

23 Typo corrected - said "colored" rather than "colonized." See Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years, p. 316.

24 New-York Tribune (August 15, 1862), p. 1.

25 Ibid.

26 Ibid.

27 Ibid.

28 Ibid.

29 Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years, p. 317.

30. Ibid.

31. Ibid.

32. Ibid.

33. Paul Boller, Jr., and John George, They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, & Misleading Attributions (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 87-88.

34. Butler’s Book (Boston: A. M. Thayer & Co. Book Publishers, 1892), p. 903.

Mark Farrell contributed this essay to

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