Rethinking Lincoln and Colonization

Update: Thanks to Brooks Simpson for taking the time to respond to this post.

This past week Brooks Simpson posted an interesting item concerning a dispute between Allen Guelzo and the authors of a new book about Lincoln and colonization. Philip W. Magness and Sebastian N. Page argue that Lincoln continued to push for the colonization of African Americans after January 1, 1863. I’ve known about their book for some time, but have not had a chance to read it. I love books like this because they do have a tendency to unsettle us in ways that can be uncomfortable. They remind us that history is constantly being revised via competing interpretations and perspectives. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Magness and Page are onto something. My question is what does it mean for the broader Lincoln narrative?

I ask because I just started reading Martin Johnson’s new book, Writing the Gettysburg Address, which as many of you know was a finalist for this year’s Lincoln Prize. Consider the following:

Emancipation had been a middle ground, a military strategy with deliberately limited social and political implications. By 1863 and 1864, however, Lincoln was coming to see that the new nation born of the war would include blacks and whites coexisting in a single society, as affirmed by his silent retreat from advocacy of colonization. That society, in Lincoln’s emerging vision, would be founded upon equal rights in civic life and before the law for all. This may seem an inevitable progression, but in part that is because Lincoln helped make it seem inevitable, for these issues divided Americans for the next century. In new forms, they divide us still. (pp. 7-8)

It’s an interpretive point that I’ve made over and over in my classroom in one form or another. Given everything that Lincoln said and did during the second half of the war – including pushing new governments in formation in the occupied South to enfranchise men who served in the army  – to what extent is the interpretation still warranted? Another way to put it is to what extent does Lincoln’s continued advocacy of colonization overshadow the rest of his public statements and policy decisions?

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20 comments… add one
  • Brian Sierk Mar 2, 2014 @ 7:46

    Brent Nosworthy’s _Bloody Crucible of Courage_ has a very good description of the popularity of the Zouave image, tactics, (both idealized and actually developed in the ACW) and history of popularity in the US, especially after the Crimean War.

    George McClellan had a fairly significant role in promoting the idea and image of the Zouave in the 1850’s, especially after observing the siege of Stebastopol in 1855.

  • Mike Hawthorne Mar 1, 2014 @ 15:28

    What were Lincoln’s feelings on the colonial matter? Maybe, to do both whites and blacks a favour by considering an easy way out? I guess, all blacks and all whites, as groups, didn’t share the same opinions, even in those days, so it was hard to know whom to please. Marcus Garvey’s notorious meeting with the KKK leadership explored the same question from polar opposites in the 1930s, I believe. That must have been some strange get-together. Apparently they reached an agreement; “Back to Africa it is!”

  • Phillip W. Magness Mar 1, 2014 @ 11:46

    Hi Kevin – Many thanks for the nod above, and I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on our book (& other related works). I definitely appreciate how the subject of Lincoln and colonization can make for a discomforting conversation, having seen both the best and worst tendencies it elicits.

    A point of clarification though, and I think Seb would concur though I refer readers to his comment on Brooks Simpson’s blog as well – our purpose has never been to vilify, disparage, malign, take something away from, or cast a shadow upon Abraham Lincoln (though I’m also all too aware of those who *do* use colonization as something of a club for that purpose, including the separate frustrations that can bring to the historical discussion).

    Rather, I see colonization as a humanizing characteristic of Lincoln with certainly mixed ethical implications entailed, but one which is fundamentally necessary to grapple with at a deeper level for reason of its long-running interconnectedness to what is perhaps Lincoln’s single most significant contribution to the course of world events: the abolition of slavery. The common feuding over whether it makes Lincoln a “racist” to acknowledge him as a colonizationist is entirely superficial to the project.

    My attention is much more closely invested in uncovering and developing just what colonization meant to Lincoln, and to explore its sometimes guarded but certain persistence in his presidency – regardless of the particulars of when, if ever, he abandoned it, even as I offer a theory for just that question – as an explanatory component of his emancipation project. Yes, I do propose to modify a common and popular viewpoint about Lincoln and in a way that adds complexity that some will (and have) received with unease. But it also yields what might be unexpected implications. For example Lincoln’s early Whiggish interest in Henry Clay’s distinctive brand of colonization – yet at as a free state northerner – actually establishes a formative stake in a moderate but certain antislavery cause at the outset of his career, contra Hofstadter & others who downplay the same (and in fact I have openly argued as much – that we should do more to account for Lincoln’s early antislavery commitments precisely on account of his attachment to the old Clay formula of “compensated emancipation and colonization” in ways that go unnoticed if colonization is viewed as nothing more than a discarded racist relic).

    To the extent that this produces what I consider a long overdue conversation among Lincoln specialists – even one that has been deflected by historiographical turns of the 1960s and 70s that – as I also argue – largely mistook the purpose of colonization and neglected a large body of primary sources when caught in this diversion, it is something that I sincerely hope will follow a constructive course to the benefit of historical understanding (and indeed it already is – see Robert E. May’s new book on Lincoln and the tropics).

    But there is another side of the matter, and this touches directly upon what another comment above imputed to Seb’s comment by style of argumentation. For all the productive discussion about Lincoln and colonization that has followed from our work (and the recent work of others of a complimentary even if diverse vein – e.g. May, Paul Escott, and somebody mentioned Brian Dirck’s excellent book above, which reaches a measured and provocative conclusion in its own right), it has not escaped some of the more ignoble and even even fundamentally unprofessional instincts that emerge from the academy from time to time.

    My recent blogging on this subject as well as Seb’s comment should be understood in light of the fact that we were essentially accused in print by a leading and award winning scholar in the field of indulging an act in “manufacture” – his choice of words – of both the provenance and content of a key piece of evidence from our study. This allegation is doubly abusive given that I have gone out of my way to make our source material – much of which comes from foreign archival sources – open and available to other historians and interested readers, only to have it subjected to an act of misrepresentation.

    Insinuations of intentional transgression upon historical records are no light matter, and to augment them with a base, dismissive, and unwarranted pairing to the intentionally inflammatory products of revisionist radicals and internet CSA-peddlers is fundamentally destructive to the process of scholarship. It inhibits and discourages an honest evaluation of historical sources, wherever they might lead, and with thoroughly detrimental effects upon our desire for honest and meaningful historical inquiry. With that in mind, I consider our respective responses to Allen Guelzo to be – if anything – muted given the circumstances.

    To others though with an interest in honestly and respectfully exploring a potentially controversial but also important, informative, and often misunderstood aspect of Lincoln’s life and presidency, that is a discussion I hope to see from the community of historians and in which I would be happy and eager to participate.

    Many thanks,

    Phil Magness

    • Kevin Levin Mar 1, 2014 @ 13:05


      Thanks for taking the time to comment on this subject. I just want to clarify that even without having read your book I never entertained the possibility that your project was an attempt to disparage Lincoln in the way that other scholars have set out to do. Your book is clearly an attempt to address a complex issue in Lincoln’s political life and presidency.

      My attention is much more closely invested in uncovering and developing just what colonization meant to Lincoln, and to explore its sometimes guarded but certain persistence in his presidency – regardless of the particulars of when, if ever, he abandoned it, even as I offer a theory for just that question – as an explanatory component of his emancipation project.

      That seems to me to be a worthy research project. Perhaps given the length of time that Lincoln identified with colonization up to 1863 it shouldn’t be surprising to find that he still harbored thoughts in that direction.

  • Will Hickox Mar 1, 2014 @ 10:14

    Zouave uniforms were very popular among militia companies on both sides in the years immediately before the war. Dozens of regiments advertised them as a recruiting tool, especially early in the war. It’s a common misconception, however, that the exotic outfits didn’t survive the war’s first year. Several veteran Union regiments adopted them in 1863 and ’64 to celebrate their reenlistment. (There was a zouave brigade in the Army of the Potomac during the Wilderness campaign.) There was a zouave “attitude” that went along with the uniform, a sort of dashing, devil-may-care spirit. They definitely wore their outfits in the field; the American military didn’t have a concept of dress vs. field wear at the time.

    • Brooks D. Simpson Mar 1, 2014 @ 10:48

      Several famed Union Zouave units wore their uniforms with pride on the field (and, as Winslow Homer’s paintings document, they wore the same uniforms in camp). Among those units were the 5th and 10th New York and the 23rd Pennsylvania; on Little Round Top at Gettysburg the 146th New York wore Zouave uniforms, with the other regiments of the brigade (the 140th New York and the 91st and 155th Pennsylvania) adopting them later (although the monument to the 155th on LRT shows a soldier in Zouave uniform). There were also Confederate Zouave units.

  • Brad Mar 1, 2014 @ 9:40

    Until their findings are digested and analyzed, it’s hard to say.

    Assuming it’s true, perhaps this is just one policy option Lincoln wanted to have in his arsenal. It doesn’t mean it was the favored one, maybe just one he wanted to have.

    I note from the Crossroads discussion that questions were raised about the book (and some of this may have to do with Mr. Page’s in the face style of debating) but Brian Dirck in his jacket blurb (and I know what you or Brooks have said about blurbs) had positive things to say about the book and what Brian usually has to say about Lincoln tends to be persuasive.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 1, 2014 @ 10:26

      Assuming it’s true, perhaps this is just one policy option Lincoln wanted to have in his arsenal. It doesn’t mean it was the favored one, maybe just one he wanted to have.

      That’s definitely a possibility. We shouldn’t necessarily assume that his interest in colonization was intended for the entire black population. As I understand it, colonization was always voluntary for Lincoln.

      • Phillip W. Magness Mar 1, 2014 @ 12:49

        Yes – It was always voluntary, and of just as much importance, motivated primarily by a belief that southern whites would continue to inflict racial violence upon them after slavery.

        It’s difficult to assess the intended scope of Lincoln’s colonization projects since they never yielded the promised or projected results (though the black population was more divided on the subject than most people permit – see Henry Highland Garnet – and the schemes Lincoln considered including the post 1/1/1863 project in Belize at least spoke of numbers in the “tens of thousands” range).

        There is also no doubt in my mind that Lincoln considered colonization as but one of many options of policy, including policies he had not yet fully developed at his untimely death. But there is also no reason why we should consider Lincoln’s support for colonization, black citizenship (which was already implicit in Lincoln’s retort to Dred Scott and explicit in the Nov. 1862 Attorney General’s opinion that came out when Lincoln’s public colonization advocacy was at its peak), or his plan for limited black suffrage to be inherently at odds with one another. He was always considering multiple approaches to the same problem – southern racial violence against the freedmen – and the weight of history attests that it was a huge, almost intractable problem.

        • Kevin Levin Mar 1, 2014 @ 13:07

          Yes – It was always voluntary, and of just as much importance, motivated primarily by a belief that southern whites would continue to inflict racial violence upon them after slavery.

          No doubt, but I assume you will agree that Lincoln also must have questioned whether newly freed slaves and northern whites could live in peace as well.

          • Phillip W. Magness Mar 1, 2014 @ 19:49

            Hi Kevin – Absolutely, and in fact there is evidence that one of the incidents that weighed heavily upon Lincoln’s retention of an interest in colonization was the carnage of the Draft Riots in New York in 1863.

    • Brooks D. Simpson Mar 1, 2014 @ 10:34

      So long as we understand from the beginning that all dust jacket blurbs for hardovers are by their very nature positive, or at least seen as such by the publisher (and sometimes by the author). Paperbacks draw from reviews of the cloth volume.

      • Brooks Simpson Mar 1, 2014 @ 10:44

        That’s “hardcovers,” not “hardovers.”

        • Kevin Levin Mar 1, 2014 @ 12:57

          Thanks for clarifying that Brooks. You had me concerned there for a minute.

          • Brooks D. Simpson Mar 1, 2014 @ 13:28

            A whole minute? On the other hand, at least it didn’t generate a week’s worth of ranting from Florida. 🙂

            • Kevin Levin Mar 1, 2014 @ 13:33

              I miss Connie’s Ass-Backwards FB page. 🙂

  • London John Mar 1, 2014 @ 8:48

    Frederic Church, isn’t it? Does anyone know if Zouave units actually wore that get-up in the field, or was it just for parades? The film Gettysburg shows Zouave sentries, but I suppose they had to let the re-enactors wear their best costumes.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 1, 2014 @ 8:59

      Frederic Church indeed. I believe there were Zouave units at First Bull Run.

    • Ryan A Mar 3, 2014 @ 10:20

      The Zouave units did indeed wear their flashy coats and pants in the field – they didn’t have a “normal” change of uniform unless they were issued the standard uniform at a later date. They definitely were consipcuous at Manassas on both sides but pretty much throughout the first 3 years of the war, they would sport those uniforms. A Texan at Second Manassas remarked that after they had driven off the 5th New York on Chinn Ridge, the field was covered with their dead and wounded and it looked like “a field of Texas poppies” because of their bright red pants. From what I understand, by 1864, alot of the Zouave units were switching to the standard uniform but I do know that the last man shot and killed before the truce went into effect at Appomattox was a young Zouave so they were still around in some units.

  • Mike Hawthorne Mar 1, 2014 @ 6:07

    I noticed the US army Zouave on the attractive banner headlining this blog. It is a strange irony of History that some elite Federal and Confederate volunteer units marched in Imperial French Colonial uniforms based on North African tribal designs. I have yet to see a picture of any US Colored Zouaves, who might have looked more convincing in the exotic outfits of ‘the Jackals of Oran!’

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