Breaking News: Lincoln Advocated Colonization

Thomas Ball

The American Studies class that I team teach just finished reading William Gienapp’s concise biography of Abraham Lincoln.  Of all the challenges that students coming to Lincoln struggle with is the issue of colonization.  It’s not simply that Lincoln advocated colonization before the war it’s the extent to which he pushed for it during the war itself.  It simply doesn’t mesh with the image of the “Great Emancipator” that many of my students come to class with.  The same holds true for my AP sections.  Luckily, the textbook that I use by Eric Foner does a first rate job with this particular topic. Understanding the steps that Lincoln took toward emancipation as well as the evolution of his thinking concerning race goes far to humanizing Lincoln and coming to terms with the challenges he faced during the Civil War.

Apparently, there is a new book set to be released that focuses specifically on Lincoln’s colonization policy.  According to a Washington Times review, “Newly released documents show that” Lincoln pushed for colonization, “to a greater degree than historians had previously known.”  I don’t know much about these new documents, but supposedly they show that Lincoln continued to push for colonization even after the release of the Emancipation Proclamation.  It would be interesting to know which slaves Lincoln was hoping to colonize; if I had to guess we are talking about those slaves in the border states.  I always remind my students that regardless of what Lincoln desired, African American leaders rejected his proposals.  Here is the book description:

Colonization after Emancipation: Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement explores the previously unknown truth about Lincoln’s attitude toward colonization. Scholars Phillip W. Magness and Sebastian N. Page combed through extensive archival materials, finding evidence, particularly within British Colonial and Foreign Office documents, which exposes what history has neglected to reveal—that Lincoln continued to pursue colonization for close to a year after emancipation. Their research even shows that Lincoln may have been attempting to revive this policy at the time of his assassination.

Using long-forgotten records scattered across three continents—many of them untouched since the Civil War—the authors show that Lincoln continued his search for a freedmen’s colony much longer than previously thought. Colonization after Emancipation reveals Lincoln’s highly secretive negotiations with the British government to find suitable lands for colonization in the West Indies and depicts how the U.S. government worked with British agents and leaders in the free black community to recruit emigrants for the proposed colonies. The book shows that the scheme was never very popular within Lincoln’s administration and even became a subject of subversion when the president’s subordinates began battling for control over a lucrative “colonization fund” established by Congress.

That’s an interesting scenario that Magness and Page lay out, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  Consider the following comment by one of the co-authors:

The way that Lincoln historians have grappled with colonization has always been troublesome. It doesn’t mesh with the whole ‘emancipator.’  The revelation of this story changes the picture on that because a lot of historians have tended to downplay colonization. … What we know now is he did continue the effort for at least a year after the proclamation was signed.

I would love to know which historians are being referenced here.  And what exactly is the criticism?  The authors claimed to have uncovered new documents that change the narrative of Lincoln and colonization.  O.K., I get it, but that doesn’t mean that historians have downplayed colonization.  In fact, the very opposite is true.  The story is front and center in both the biography and textbook that my students read.  It’s present in just about every recent biography that I’ve read in recent years.  Sorry boys, but this is not news.  At least it’s not news to my high school students.

Finally, agree with Richard Williams, however, in that I would love to see some kind of interpretive plaque placed at the Thomas Ball statue.

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36 comments… add one
  • Jim Jul 6, 2013 @ 21:48

    Actually, Lincoln’s feelings about freeing the slaves are very well documented, he really had no interest in doing so at all and only did so to provide enlistment of Negroes into the army. Colonization was his way of getting rid of them once used.
    Consider the so called “Emancipation Proclamation” so lovingly adored, though generally unread… In fact, the “Great Emancipator” exempted far more people from freedom than he granted it to.
    An example of his thinking is clear in the case of Missouri. In 1861 it’s US military governor Gen’l. Fremont issued an order of Negro emancipation. Lincoln had the order rescinded and Fremont relieved of duty. The “Emancipation Proclamation” of 1863 did the slaves there no better. Missouri was among the states exempted from the order.
    That was typical of it and I cringe every time I hear some under educated, if enthusiastically ignorant type, repeat the tired, worn and untrue mantra that “Lincoln freed all the slaves.”

    • Pat Young Jul 7, 2013 @ 4:48

      You don’t associate the 13th Amendment with Lincoln? How odd.

  • Craig Feb 15, 2011 @ 20:04

    Without southern secession and the war that ensued there was no real basis on which to even discuss the possibility of an emancipation proclamation. The idea of colonization had had sixty or more years of gestation as a possible solution. Jefferson knew when he acquired Louisiana that something of that sort would eventually be required. When Union forces occupied New Orleans in 1862 emancipation was on the drawing board, but the details had yet to be sorted because it was essentially a new idea only made possible by unfolding events. Butler took command in New Orleans with orders to deport all ‘foreign nationals’ and that meant confiscation of property, including slaves owned by ‘foreign nationals’, creating the issue of ‘contraband’ slaves and the need to impose martial law. Nathaniel Banks replaced Butler in New Orleans, arriving just in time to implement emancipation on the day it took effect. Lincoln’s views on the relative merits of colonization and emancipation don’t really depend on what he may have said at one time or another to one person or another. His policy is evident in the transition from Butler to Banks in New Orleans.

  • Edwin Thompson Feb 12, 2011 @ 5:46

    Kevin – How did this thread end up with a photo of the Emancipation Memorial? That statue alone created a lot of controversy. I read on Wiki that Fredrick Douglas was the keynote speaker at the dedication and felt a manlier attitude of a black man would have been indicative of freedom. Sorry for going off topic.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 12, 2011 @ 11:59

      Click on the last link in the post.

      • Edwin Thompson Feb 13, 2011 @ 6:23

        I didn’t see anything linking colonization to the Emancipation Memorial. There was a comment about interpretive plaques for memorials. I’ve seen the EmancipatiIon Memorial in Boston. As viewed from the 21st century, it’s an odd piece of work but it says volumes about how post civil war people felt about the war.

        • Kevin Levin Feb 13, 2011 @ 6:24

          Yes, that is the reason behind the choice of image.

  • Margaret D. Blough Feb 11, 2011 @ 8:31

    One thing about the Washington Times article that is seriously misleading is its use of the term “deport” which, to me, means forcible expatriation. What is quoted from the book, its description in, and in the body of the article are relatively small-scale projects for which blacks would be recruited to take part voluntarily. I don’t doubt that there were Americans would have supported forcible removal of blacks in theory, but I don’t think, particularly after a brutal and destructive war, that anyone would have had the stomach for what would have been involved in removing millions of men, women, and children against their will.

    I honestly don’t find a support for colonization as a voluntary option inconsistent with support of emancipation. As it is, even the evidence that the authors appear to have for anything after the date of the final Emancipation Proclamation is very sketchy. The fact is that Linoln stopped including colonization in his public statements, including to Congress, after that and he supported, even before the hotly contested 1864 Presidential elections, what became the 13th Amendment. Furthermore, while the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation includes this passage it does not appear in the final EP: >>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. << The Thirteenth Amendment also contains no reference to colonization either.

    Lincoln was very concerned, all along, about how freed slaves and already free blacks would be treated by whites after the fighting ended. The postwar history of the US going well into the 20th century shows that his concern was not misplaced.

  • Dave Woodward Feb 11, 2011 @ 4:43

    I wonder if there’s more than one meaning to the word ‘downplay’ here. On the one hand, it’s true that Lincoln scholars have recently referred to colonization more than ever. In fact, it’s pretty much the first charge against Abe these days.

    On the other hand, as long as the historians mentioned above all bring it up just to say that it was all a political trick, or that L. dropped it after January 1, etc. etc., then maybe there’s something in the ‘downplayed’ idea, in that they’re not giving full credit to an idea that Lincoln claimed to be committed to. Perhaps their working assumptions haven’t changed as much as they claim?

    I was just reading Eric Foner’s ‘Fiery Trial,’ and it dawned on me how most historians manage to stick with the Jan 1 date (or pretty much thereabouts), yet don’t really connect that with the fact that we (and they) also know that the Cow Island expedition *set off* in April. Maybe there *are* holdings in the US that people overlook re. colonization at a later date, then?

    As to the details released so far…well, the Times misstates the originality of colonization per se, to be sure, but headlines will be headlines, and blurbs will be blurbs. As Kevin points out, it’s an academic press, so it’s probably best to wait and see.

    Magness isn’t a new figure, though. He wrote a few years ago (freely accessible.) He says that historians haven’t ranked the Butler account highly, but it’s another of those things that suggests that there might have been leads in the US archives that scholars overlooked, be it accidentally or consciously.

  • Frank S Feb 10, 2011 @ 21:53

    “I would love to know which historians are being referenced here.”

    How about almost all of them? The truth is most Lincoln biographers HAVE most assuredly downplayed Lincoln’s colonization bug. And especially in the later years after the E.P. was signed, which is what the Times’ article is about. But don’t take it from me – take their own words, and this from just 5 minutes of searching around the web:

    “After issuing the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, Lincoln never again mentioned colonization. He also stopped using racism as a strategic diversion.” – James M. McPherson

    “In fact, there is no reason to believe that Lincoln ever espoused colonization after he issued the Final Emancipation Proclamation. Scholars who argue that Lincoln still hoped to colonize blacks after the proclamation rely on only two flimsy pieces of evidence.” – Michael Vorenberg

    “After all, Lincoln took no public steps toward advancing colonization from January 1, 1863, until the day he died. The actual sources, meanwhile, do little to undermine John Hay’s diary entry of July 1, 1864” – Sean Wilentz

    “Lincoln was not a man to be diverted from great causes by little failures. Colonization, however, was never a great cause to him…Once emancipation was a fait accompli, the lullaby had served its purpose.” – Gabor Boritt

    “The prevailing historical narrative usually ends the story of colonization and gradual emancipation with the dramatic deed that occurred after the border states turned down Lincoln the third time—the Emancipation Proclamation. One hears little about Lincoln’s abiding interest in colonizing.” – Philip Shaw Paludan

    • Kevin Levin Feb 11, 2011 @ 1:44


      Thanks for the comment, but you just helped to make my point. The claims in this book are supposedly based on newly uncovered evidence that suggests that Lincoln continued to push for colonization after Jan. 1. If this is true than historians will have to revise their interpretations about Lincoln and colonization. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they have ignored it or minimized it. They have based their claims on the available evidence. I took the blurb and interview as a means to sell books. Most academic historians that I’ve read have moved beyond the “Great Emancipator” image of Lincoln. That includes the high school students that I’ve taught over the past 10 years.

      • James F. Epperson Feb 11, 2011 @ 4:02

        The two pieces of common evidence, post-EP, are (1) a comment in John Hay’s diary that Lincoln had “soughed off” colonization, and (2) Ben Butler’s controversial claim that Lincoln still advocated it right before his death. Butler’s story has gotten some attention in recent years, first from Mark Neely, who claimed it couldn’t be true because of errors in the timing of the meeting, and then in another piece by someone whose name is elusive right now, who pointed out that the timing could be explained by a simple mistake on Butler’s part. The issue of Butler’s potential simple dishonesty is not given adequate play, IMO.

        • Marc Ferguson Feb 11, 2011 @ 6:29

          For myself, Butler’s account doesn’t pass the smell test. I just cannot imagine Lincoln confiding in Butler, who wasn’t a political ally of Lincoln’s and had even contemplated challenging Lincoln in the 1864 presidential election, a secret plan to forcibly remove blacks from the country.

          • Kevin Levin Feb 11, 2011 @ 6:33


            That’s a good point. We shall see.

          • Bob Huddleston Feb 11, 2011 @ 13:10

            According to the Washington Times’ review, Magness says he used Butler as a starting point. I agree with Marc: confiding in Butler is highly illogical.

            • Margaret D. Blough Feb 11, 2011 @ 18:09

              Bob-Especially since this would have been around the time, or even after, Butler being removed from command of the Army of the James. Butler was given military tasks to keep him in line, but he could not have been a happy camper. The odds of Lincoln confiding in Butler and Butler alone are, IMHO, about the same as finding out that Booth DIDN’T assassinate Lincoln who was, instead, taken out by a fragment of a meteor that hit Ford’s Theater.

              • Dave Woodward Feb 12, 2011 @ 5:35

                Have you read Magness, at , on this very issue of the Butler testimony and its wider significance? It’s a lot more balanced than you might assume from the Times report: in fact, it sounds pretty much the kind of note about the sheer uncertainty of race relations and the meaning of the end of the war that someone above mentioned they’d like to hear. There’s not much suggestion at all that this new book will be Lerone Bennett II, once you get beneath the hype. (Which to be fair, is probably more down to the reporter and publishers than to the authors.) You can shoot to the end of the article for the big picture, though the content in the middle points to what a large part of the book may be about, going by the blurb.

                The idea that Lincoln confided in Butler alone etc. etc. might be making a bit of a straw man of it. Most historical interactions and conversations are lost forever, I would guess, unless they have good reason to generate paperwork at the time – which can then get lost as well. Who knows, L. may well have expressed these kinds of views to others too, only we don’t know it, and have to make something closer to an educated guess based on everything he ever said/did. The assessment left us by Gideon Welles (again, near the end of Magness’ article) is pretty thought-provoking when you remember that he was a member of the Cabinet.

                I think…human beings are complex, and can’t always be reduced to easy summaries of how they think. Butler was corrupt and incompetent, but had no obvious reason to make up the basic outlines of that conversation with Lincoln (I mean…it would really be quite a kooky thing to do, for want of a better word), even if he exaggerated his role in any such project in his memoirs. For his part, Lincoln was repeating concerns that he had mentioned publicly several times in the past. No, not in the recent past, but there’s nothing to say that he couldn’t have been thinking of potential dangers coming for African-Americans – since that was where he was coming from, when you look at his words, and not hatred of blacks – whilst also being willing to try the vote. If *we’re* able to process that thought, we can’t say that it was inconceivable for a cautious, thoughtful man in the broad center of C19 politics to also have it.

              • Dirk Feb 12, 2011 @ 6:42

                Here’s your meteor:

                Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler

                Executive Mansion
                Washington, 10 April, 1865

                My Dear General,

                The President will be pleased to see you at nine o’clock tomorrow (Tuesday) morning.

                Your Obedient Servant,

                John Hay

      • Frank S Feb 11, 2011 @ 7:01

        “Most academic historians that I’ve read have moved beyond the “Great Emancipator” image of Lincoln.”

        Have they though? Because this, by a very prominent academic historian of Lincoln, says exactly the opposite:

        “For a century and more after his death, Abraham Lincoln was extolled as the greatest example of what American democracy offered in a statesman. But just as a vast skepticism about the value of democracy has darkened the American mind over the past generation, so has a skepticism about the value of Abraham Lincoln, and it has become fashionable for democracy’s despisers to cast Lincoln as a racist, a wrecker of the Constitution, a military despot, a capitalist tool, and a great fixer rather than a Great Emancipator. Nothing, however, surpasses Vindicating Lincoln in exploding the addled libels of the Lincoln-haters. One by one, in his nine chapters, Krannawitter patiently-and sometimes hilariously-disassembles the myths of Lincoln-the-tyrant, Lincoln-the-racist, and Lincoln-the-betrayer, and once more restores the epic gleam of Lincoln the defender of natural right, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Union.” – Allen C. Guelzo


  • Don Shaffer Feb 10, 2011 @ 18:32

    Hi Kevin. It seems to me that every decade or so, someone resurrects some aspect of Abraham Lincoln that is inconsistent with the “Great Emancipator” view and make a big deal about it like historians were all in a big conspiracy to conceal the truth from the public. The last time I recall this happening was when Lerone Bennett Jr. published _Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream_ (Johnson Publishing Co., 2000), which basically argued that Lincoln was a racist who had to be dragged kicking and screaming into embracing emancipation. This books sounds like another variation on this theme. Some publishers embrace it because it sells books.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 11, 2011 @ 1:46

      I am willing to give it the benefit of the doubt before treating it as I would a Gantt book. It is published by the University of Missouri Press and Lincoln scholar, Brian Dirck, had some positive things to say about it.

  • Arleigh Birchler Feb 10, 2011 @ 17:17

    If I recall correctly, Henry Clay founded the “American Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of the United States” in 1816. It was certainly not a new idea. As Kevin noted, free African Americans were not all that interested in going to Africa. This was their home. Lincoln was a Whig, and a follower of Henry Clay. It is not surprizing that he thought this might be a good idea.

    The brother of one of my ancestors freed his slaves before moving from Kentucky to Indiana Territory. He specified that they had the choice of going to Liberia or staying in North America. Perhaps this was standard at that time.

  • William Richardson Feb 10, 2011 @ 16:59

    Well Kevin I am glad to see that you are teaching a side of Lincoln that most students are never made aware of. Lincoln was indeed human but in todays terms he would have also been considered a racist. Too often only the “myth” of Lincoln is taught. It is good to see that you teach the true history.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 10, 2011 @ 17:03

      Lincoln’s views on race clearly evolved over the course of his life based on various pressures. My students have to come to terms with his views on race as expressed, for example, during his debates with Douglas as well as his consideration of limited suffrage for African Americans by the end of his life. There is so much to dig into.

    • Margaret D. Blough Feb 10, 2011 @ 22:39

      The difficulty is, of course, that one would have found very few white men in that time who wouldn’t be considered racist by modern standards, even among the immediatist abolitionists where there was very real tension between white and black male abolitionists that the white men were keeping a lock on top leadership positions (they were also undoubtedly sexist by modern standards. It was the treatment of women abolitionists at an international anti-slavery conference in London that played a pivotal role in bringing about the Seneca Convention, considered the birthplace of the modern women’s rights movement.

      What was critical about Lincoln was that once he took a stand with the EP, he made the end of slavery a war aim on a par with preserving the Union and a non-negotiable condition for peace. He also publicly addressed limited black male suffrage in favorable terms in his last speech which, according to a co-conspirator, enraged John Wilkes Booth who heard the remark.

      I believe the best discussion of the complexities of Abraham Lincoln’s relationship with blacks and civil rights for blacks is in Frederick Douglass’ s speech at the dedication of the very statue whose photograph is at the beginning of Kevin’s post.

      especially this passage:

      >>His great mission was to accomplish two things: first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin; and, second, to free his country from the great crime of slavery. To do one or the other, or both, he must have the earnest sympathy and the powerful cooperation of his loyal fellow-countrymen. Without this primary and essential condition to success his efforts must have been vain and utterly fruitless. Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible. Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined. <<

  • Robert Moore Feb 10, 2011 @ 15:32

    As already pointed out, this really should be no news for historians, but more for those who embrace the “emancipator” image alone.

    It seems to me that this aggressive approach to Lincoln, through his ideas on colonization, sounds a bit jacked-up, just to sell books. I would, however, like to see a more thoughtful approach to the topic.

    For one, I’d like to know if one can detect a difference in Lincoln’s pre-war and wartime incentives for colonization (if there was a difference). Additionally, it might be interesting to compare Lincoln’s wartime (hoped) initiative, with that of William Henry Ruffner’s from 1847. I think the motivations for colonization varied.

    On a related note, see what I found in the Hagerstown paper regarding Lincoln’s ideas of colonization and the reaction of the border states (I posted this last January)… here

    • Robert Moore Feb 10, 2011 @ 15:48

      Sorry, added one name too many… just Henry Ruffner… William Henry was his son.

  • Rob Feb 10, 2011 @ 13:54

    Another important face that many “classroom teacher historians” overlooked I think might be the most appropriate terminology. Not to discredit you, or any other history teacher (myself included), but how often do you see this on a “standard,”?

  • Bob Feb 10, 2011 @ 13:33

    I think instead of “historians” I would say that popular belief and public historical interp has ignored or downplayed the colonization issue. I appreciate you covering it on your blog. I think the idolization of Lincoln (or of any historical figure for that matter) leads our youth to learn false facts and not see the whole picture. Lincoln was not perfect, no one is and rarely is history cut and dry/black and white.

    I think most thoroughly read history buffs/historians know about Lincoln’s views on race, slavery and colonization before his Presidency and early in his first term…but it would be interesting in seeing these new sources about his ideas of colonization AFTER emancipation..

    • Kevin Levin Feb 10, 2011 @ 13:41

      Hi Bob,

      I tend to agree with you. What I find strange is that their story is built on having uncovered “new documents” that extend our understanding of Lincoln’s advocacy of colonization. You can’t blame historians for documents that they did not know about. Moreover, their argument only works because of the extensive work that historians have done on Lincoln and colonization.

      • Margaret D. Blough Feb 10, 2011 @ 19:51

        It does not sound as if they’ve found any evidence that Lincoln ever favored involuntary colonization. He was quite specific in his famous meeting with black leaders before the preliminary EP was issued as to why he saw colonization as an option. It wasn’t an either/or with emancipation. It was a very real concern as to what newly freed slaves would face from hostile and fearful whites. Given the history of the United States on civil rights after emancipation, it was not an unrealistic or unreasonable fear. What WAS extraordinary about the meeting was that Lincoln sought out the opinions and support of blacks on the issue. The history of support for colonization by former slaves was of whites presuming they knew best what was good for blacks and not being able to even consider the possibility that blacks might have their own ideas of what was best for them as individuals and as a group.

        Colonization or otherwise “dealing” with a difficult social problem by simply moving the troublesome elements somewhere else far away has a very long history in the English speaking world. It is why a common sentence in 17th and 18th century England was to give the convicted the option of death or transportation. It’s why Australia played that role after American independence. It’s even part of the internal migration patterns in the US.

        Colonization for former slaves had a very long history of white support from the very top rank of white American politicians and statesmen, especially among Whigs, Lincoln’s original party affiliation.

        This strikes me as being about as much of a non-revelation as the news that made headlines a few years back that the original major buildings of DC including the White House and the US Capitol Building were built with slave labor. Hello, people!!!! DC was carved out of two slave states and built in a swampy area that was notoriously hot and unhealthy in the summer. Of course, slave labor was the primary labor source and the sun rises in the east.

        It was never a matter of someone waving a magic wand freeing the slaves and everyone, white and black go off into the sunset, holding hands and singing Kumbaya and living happily ever after. Lincoln’s interest in colonization may have been unrealistic but it was hardly malicious or inconsistent with his beliefs on slavery being morally wrong.

  • Arleigh Birchler Feb 10, 2011 @ 13:33

    You took the words out of my mouth – this is not news.

  • Andy Hall Feb 10, 2011 @ 13:31

    At the end of last year, Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic posted a letter written in 1867 by a white woman in Georgia, married to a black man across the state line in Alabama, to the local Freedmen’s Bureau asking for assistance of any kind. It’s a poignant story. The response of the Freedmen’s Bureau is unknown, but crowd-sourced research into her ultimate fate by blog followers (see the comments section) revealed that she, her husband and the husband’s extended family eventually emigrated to Liberia the following year, under the sponsorship of the American Colonization Society. The letter helps put an individual face and story on the subject of African American recolonization.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 10, 2011 @ 13:39

      Thanks for the link, Andy. It’s very interesting.

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