There’s an Abraham Lincoln you probably know: the tall, bearded, badass President who freed the slaves with his axe while fighting off the Confederate Army, which may or may not have been made up of vampires. Other than the beard—and what a beard it was—and his stature, the Lincoln in Lincoln isn’t really Lincoln. Rather, Spielberg’s character, and the Lincoln that permeates our culture, is one of the ideal, unflawed statesman. The movie covers up his warts and makes him less interesting and less human. Oh, and it ignores the fact that he tried to convince the slaves he so famously freed to leave the country—before and even after emancipation.
Dr. Phillip Magness wrote the book on Lincoln’s true, way-more-complicated, post-emancipation relationship with slavery. While it’s not even commonly conceded that Lincoln attempted to re-colonize the freed slaves at any point (scholars generally believe that he considered and then dismissed the idea pre-emancipation, but even that's yet to take hold of the popular imagination), Magness took it a step further, digging into historical documents and finding that Lincoln actively pursued a re-colonization well after signing the Emancipation Proclamation. It’s something that should change everything about our relationship to Honest Abe—yet it’s still being roundly ignored by the public, like much of the pre-existing scholarship on our former president's racist convictions. I sat down with Magness, a friend and a colleague, to talk about his work, some of the lesser-known stories he and other scholars have written on, and about who Abraham Lincoln might’ve really been.
I’m sure you uncovered a nuanced, complicated story, which you detailed in your book, Colonization After Emancipation: Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement, but this is for the Internet. What is the Internet version of your findings?
Well, it’s the antithesis of Steven Spielberg’s portrait in many respects. The storybook version is, from roughly late 1861 onward, Lincoln was involved in some very serious policy discussions about what the post-slavery United States would look like, and one of his solutions that he offered, drawing on something that had long been a part of his political advocacy, was to colonize the slaves abroad. Historically, the most famous example of this is Liberia, which was founded in 1816 and over the course of the next 50 or 60 years, several thousand former slaves migrated to Liberia and colonized it.
Lincoln liked this model, but wanted to expand upon it, and he was willing to look in Central and South America, and across the Caribbean. He pursued this policy for the better part of his presidency, secured funding from Congress in 1862, and carried it out in conjunction with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
Previously, there was a fairly strong historical consensus that he had abandoned this idea. Some people even argued that he did it as an intentional political ruse to distract the public from his emancipation policy.
Frederick Douglass says the President of the United States has become an “itinerant colonization preacher,” who has made himself look “ridiculous” by pitching this idea that we should leave the nation of our birth.
Fitting into this Marble Man caricature.
Yes, the clever statesman where everything is a chess piece to bring the population on board with emancipation. So, my argument, and I think the evidence is fairly strong in support of this, is that was not the case at all. This was a genuine, heartfelt conviction that went to the core of his political principles. And he carried out this idea into the later years of his presidency, where he did back away from it due to administrative snags and political in-fighting.
What exactly are we talking about when you use the word “colonization?” It’s a pretty charged term.
It came from the forming organization that drove colonization policy from 1860 onward, an organization known as the American Colonization Society. They were responsible for the founding of Liberia; they were the caretakers of Liberia until essentially its independence. They’re best described as an anti-slavery centrist organization.
The movement gains significant distrust in three areas: the more radical abolitionist movement because it’s compromising the ideals of freedom; the African American community because it asks freed blacks to leave their country of birth; and the South because it’s perceived as a conspiratorial route to undermine slavery.
When Lincoln gets involved, he expands the colonization sphere to the Caribbean. He sees this, at least in part, as an American imperial opportunity to expand our region of influence to the Caribbean trading zones, and the Isthmus of Panama in particular. In fact, there’s one notorious colonization speech he gives to a black delegation where he says, I want you to go to Panama and form the highway between the oceans that we have been waiting for. Essentially, the Panama Canal.
Did any of the colonization efforts actually come to fruition?
One of them actually did come to fruition in addition to Liberia. Lincoln signed a contract with a proprietor of an island off the coast of Haiti called the Ile à Vache. The Ile à Vache was a small, uninhabited island just off the southern coast of Haiti, part of Haiti’s possessions and territory. This contractor, a former merchant, had been in Haiti and secured a paper from the Haitian government giving him ownership of this island. On December 31, 1862, the evening before he issues the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln met with this contractor and they drafted terms to get federal subsidized transit and supplies to move up to 5,000 colonists to this island.
There are a multitude of problems that hit this expedition. The first: an epidemic of smallpox breaks out aboard the ship while it’s en route to Haiti. The infected settlers were placed in a quarantine zone, but they didn’t have enough supplies to handle this from a medical perspective because they were awaiting a second supply ship that was supposed to bring food, lumber, medicine, and further workers. During the course of the intervening months, a dispute breaks out between the proprietor of the island and his financiers back in New York City, and between the financiers and the Secretary of the Interior in Washington. As a result, the second ship never comes, and in fact they cancel all the remaining ventures to send further colonists as well.
So the 500 are left on this island and the contractor Lincoln made the agreement with has certain despotic tendencies that emerge over the course of the journey. He decides, as any good autocrat does, to confiscate all metallic money the former slaves had brought with them and exchange it for paper currency he had issued on his own and then declares that he’s only going to accept his own paper currency as payment for food and supplies on the island. He refused to build sufficient dwellings, food stocks, or anything that would be necessary to sustain the colony.
After several months of this, with the smallpox epidemic still raging, the proprietor is driven off of the island almost by force of arms. This results in the New York investors coming in, who try to rescue the situation by replacing him with one of their own agents, but then the first wave of crops they had planted failed. So it’s a succession of disasters, and by late 1863, the colony is effectively abandoned. Several of the colonists flee to the mainland of Haiti, others try to start settlements on the beach, and as a result of this giant convergence of problems, in early 1864, Lincoln had to send a ship back to Haiti to rescue the survivors and bring them back to the United States. (See Magness’ recent article in The New York Times about the Ile à Vache venture for more on this incredible story.)
Is there any count of how many freed slaves were supposed to take part in the colonization movement?
I mentioned the Haiti venture, the original intended count was 5,000. Belize, they wanted to take 5,000 a year over 10 years for a total of 50,000. Panama was a one-time venture that had a total of 50,000. So these are fairly substantial numbers. You start thinking that there are other projects under consideration that never really got off the ground.
There is a shortage of willing participants in the black community. They find, especially after this first wave signs up to go to Haiti and all the problems that emerge from that, the black community is already very suspicious of this. They don’t provide the volunteers Lincoln is looking for, although he doesn’t stop from trying to convince them, and trying to give them assurances that this will be better if they get the project underway and take care of some of the problems that emerge.
What rhetorical methods does Lincoln try and use to sell this to the black community?
Lincoln takes what could be described as “a very misguided benevolence.” The best recorded instance of this was a speech he gave in 1862, when he invited a delegation of black ministers to the White House and basically told them: we’ve undertaken this colonization venture, here’s why I think you should go. He proposes Panama, he alludes to that as the primary colony of the time, but it’s a broader interest as well. He also says: we recognize that slavery is a source of this war that’s being waged, and slavery, by its very presence on this continent, has instilled violence. The way to get around that violence (which is one of the more notorious lines of the speech) is: you need to leave. You will find a peaceful existence abroad, and we will find a peaceful existence here.
There is a genuine effort on his part to market this to the black community. There are very mixed reactions to it. Some African Americans are outraged by it. Frederick Douglass calls it a silly idea. He says the President of the United States has become an “itinerant colonization preacher,” who has made himself look “ridiculous” by pitching this idea that we should leave the nation of our birth. Douglass argues they have a historical presence here the same as any other American, why should they leave? Which is a very powerful and valid argument.
There are others that say, maybe we don’t agree fully on the motive that Lincoln has offered here, but it is indeed an escape from violence. There are several African Americans, two in particular—John Willis Menard, who is the first African American elected to Congress, and Henry Highland Garnet, who is a very vocal black abolitionist minister in New York City—who are both warmer to the idea. They say maybe we can attain better political equality abroad. Maybe we can find somewhere else that will respect our rights. They liken themselves to the condition of, say, the Irish leaving the famine just a decade earlier.
What has the reaction to your research been like? I imagine some people aren’t too thrilled with the idea of Lincoln kindly asking the freed slaves to leave the country.
There is a segment of both the scholarly community and, more significantly, the public at large that has accused me of writing an indictment of Lincoln, which is not my purpose at all. I want to tease out the historical truth, I want to reveal what was really going on in his mind as he was coping with the slavery problem. But there are some who would say, “Oh here’s this historian that is besmirching the legacy of this president that we claim as our forebearer.” But it’s not a very deep resistance, in the sense that it’s more emotional than anything based in evidence, although it does lead people to routes where they’re not willing to consider new evidence.
I will mention there are other segments of the public and scholarly community that are receptive to the arguments I’ve made. I’ve received a lot of discussion, compliments, praise from other scholars that work on Lincoln and had always wondered about this issue of colonization, that something wasn’t fully drawn out, and here I’ve put forth some evidence that has furthered the discussion, that has furthered their understanding in a vague, shaded area of Lincoln’s presidency that was not really well-known up until that point.
So you can venture off in dangerous territory to either extreme, either making him into the perfect, angelic savior of American democracy and racial egalitarianism, or you can turn him into this demon figure that destroyed the republic. I’m not looking to do either. I’m trying to find out a more realistic picture of the human Lincoln that falls somewhere in between.
It seems, to me at least, the more of an understanding we gain of an individual’s complexities and flaws, the more we ought to respect them. Understanding Lincoln as a real human, rather than this caricatured ideal, ought to make him even more respectable.
It certainly filters into the Spielberg movie and popular portrayals, that Lincoln was a man who came to Washington with conviction, had all the answers, knew how he was going to end slavery from the day he arrived, and put everything on that perfect path to inevitable fruition. That is not human, that’s not realistic, and it’s not an accurate portrayal of the challenges he faced. In fact, Lincoln himself adamantly denied he ever had a plan, a master plan, going into the Civil War, to bring about the results that he did. He said, “I have not professed to be the controller of events, but have rather been controlled by events.” And he made his decisions in response to the circumstances around him. Some of those decisions were good, some of those decisions were bad, and some of them had vague gray areas that are very uncertain.
Colonization is one of those decisions that falls into greater uncertainty simply because Lincoln did not know how the end of slavery was going to emerge, or what it was going to look like. If we accept that about him, it makes him a much more complex and interesting figure, someone who is emerging from the Civil War not knowing what the future entails, but is trying to do something about it, trying to find a route that is workable, even if we can judge in hindsight that route to be fundamentally impractical, implicitly racist by some measure, certainly heavily paternalistic, and not always fully taking into account the agency of African Americans. But it’s not a malicious plan, either.