Abraham Lincoln and Colonization

Lincoln Plan to Send African Americans Abroad Was Condemned

Lithograph of Abraham Lincoln seated at a table
Abraham Lincoln. Library of Congress

In the summer of 1862 President Abraham Lincoln, during a difficult stretch in the Civil War, invited African American ministers to visit at the White House. In a meeting which was reported on newspaper front pages the following day, Lincoln informed his visitors that he hoped to settle African Americans to colonies outside the United States, in Central America.

The reaction of his visitors ranged from disbelief to puzzlement.

And newspaper reports led to an intense controversy that brought sharp criticism. Front-page headlines of New York Tribune, on August 15, 1860, the day after the White House meeting, read "Speech of the President" and "He Holds That the White and Black Races Cannot Dwell Together."

The newspaper of abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison blasted Lincoln, as did Frederick Douglass. Lincoln had not considered that many African Americans, having been born in the United States, considered it home.

Even supporters of Lincoln, who had helped him run for president two years earlier, criticized him sharply. The legendary newspaper editor Horace Greeley was prompted to launch his own scolding attack on Lincoln the following week.

The incident is often pointed to by Lincoln detractors that the 16th president Lincoln was not terribly enlightened when it came to race. And the incident, coming not long before Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, does seem puzzling.

The Concept of Colonization

What Lincoln seemed to see as a solution for slavery was, in fact, a fairly old idea. The American Colonization Society had been advocating for the resettlement of African Americans in Africa for decades.

And prominent Americans, including Henry Clay, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, and George Washington's nephew Bushrod Washington (a Supreme Court justice and the heir to Mount Vernon) had been involved in the organization.

Lincoln's political idol had been Henry Clay, and it's known that Lincoln, early on, did support Clay's vision of relocating African Americans to the colony of Liberia in on the west coast of Africa. But bringing that up in 1862 still seems odd.

The Issue of the Border States

The timing of Lincoln's talk in the White House may have had a political purpose related to the border states. Four states, Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri, were slave states but had remained loyal to the Union. And Lincoln was always mindful that if he did anything politically to inflame the pro-slavery element in those states, he risked having them secede to join the Confederacy.

The loss of the border states would have been problematic. And in the case of Maryland, it could have been disastrous, as the federal capital, the city of Washington, would be completely surrounded by rebels if Maryland seceded.

So it's entirely conceivable that Lincoln's meeting at the White House with prominent black ministers was intended for consumption by a specific audience, the citizens of the border states.

Lincoln's Proposed Plan Was Forgotten

The plan Lincoln proposed to resettle African Americans seems to have been forgotten by him, and everyone else, fairly quickly.

The exchange of public letters he had with Horace Greeley the following week overshadowed the meeting with black leaders at the White House. And after the Union repelled a rebel invasion at the Battle of Antietam in September 1862 Lincoln proceeded with his plan to announce the Emancipation Proclamation.