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Lincoln's Colonization Efforts

Lora Pearlman
Carbondale Community High School, Carbondale

Abraham Lincoln believed that "if a Negro is a man, then my ancient faith teaches me that all men are created equal." Yet he also stated that because "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," he strongly favored colonization of the blacks. He was disgusted by the thought of amalgamation of black and white races. In response to Stephen A. Douglas, he concluded that, "the separation of the races is the only perfect preventative of amalgamation."

With his background as one of eleven managers of the Illinois State Colonization Society elected in 1857, Lincoln brought with him ideas about colonization. He supported the separation of the races for several reasons. He believed that blacks were inferior to whites and therefore not entitled to live in the same society as whites. He also rationalized that the removal of the black laborers would create a market for white laborers. "Reduce the supply of black labor by colonizing the black laborer out of the country and by precisely so much you increase the demand for and wages of white labor." His basic motive, however, for his extensive efforts was to once again have a purely white America.

Lincoln was able to explore further the possibility of colonization due to Congressional action that made him the "sole trustee of colonization." All plans on the subject were therefore at the discretion of the president. Lincoln's first action was to pinpoint a suitable location to create a new colony. He initiated diplomatic relations with Liberia and Haiti, two areas likely to receive the black deportees. Liberia was eventually thought to be too distant for deportation to be economically feasible for colonization from the United States. It was also held that "migration-minded Africans" would prefer to stay on the American continent.

Keeping the Africans' wishes in mind, Lincoln's attention was brought to the Isthmus of Chiriqui in what is now Panama. The head of the Chiriqui Improvement Company, Ambrose W. Thompson, continually tried to interest the government in using Chiriqui as the site for black colonies. His persistence paid off when Lincoln suggested Central America to a live-member black committee during a meeting at the White House. He embellished the advantages of the land, including the economic aspects. Lincoln told of great coal deposits, but Joseph Henry of the Smithsonian Institution found that a box of Chiriqui coal under study was nothing more than a box of dirt. In the excitement of colonizing blacks, Lincoln overlooked this. Other complications with the plan were noticed by Secretary of State William Henry Seward. Seward convinced Lincoln that Chiriqui was not capable of successfully housing colonized blacks.

Lincoln then looked to European countries with territories in Latin America. Several countries, including Denmark, France, and the Netherlands, showed interest in receiving labor on the sugar plantations, while the Dutch wanted the Negroes to promise to remain on the land for a set number of years. Not satisfied with the choices, Lincoln turned his attention once more to Haiti.

Bernard Kock, "an anxious manipulator," immediately sent Lincoln a letter informing the president of the availability of L'lle a Vache, an island off the coast of Haiti. Despite containing greatly persuasive language, Lincoln was hesitant to fall into the same situation as with Chiriqui. Due to extensive lobbying, however, Lincoln was swayed to consider the island as a site for a black colony. After negotiating a contract with Kock, the island was ready to receive the blacks.

In the summer of 1862 a group of four hundred deportees was transported to L'lle a Vache. The experiment failed miserably due to "poor leadership, inadequate planning, want of essentials, unemployment, and the opposition of the Haitians themselves." It was eventually concluded that Haiti was too dissimilar to the United States to provide an adequate site for colonization. The differences in language, education, religion, and government prompted Lincoln to disregard Haiti entirely for future prospects.

Because of the ludicrous distance to Liberia, the aborted Chiriqui project, the unsuitable demands of the European nations, and the failed Haiti attempts, Lincoln was left with no feasible locations for colonization. He had eliminated every suitable possibility and had checked into even nonsuitable locations. He was forced to abandon the cause because of the lack of sites for black colonization, not because he had tired of the idea.

Lincoln is thought of as the Great Emancipator, but he thought of the African race as one that was inferior and unsuitable to live in a while society. Because he did not successfully carry out his plan of black colonization, it is rather easy to skip that section of his history. However, even only days prior to his assassination, he asked General Benjamin F. Butler to study the possibility of shipping the blacks to another location. Even after the failure of earlier attempts, Lincoln still desired the separation of the white and black races. During a speech at Cincinnati in September of 1859, Lincoln stated that "there is room enough for us all to be free," but he wished the blacks to live freely on another land mass.[From Earnest Sevier Cox, Lincoln's Negro

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ILLINOIS HISTORY / FEBRUARY 1997




Slave silhouette

This silhouette of a black woman in bondage was a dramatic plea for equal treatment.

Policy; Richard K. Fleischman, "The Devil's Advocate: A Defense of Lincoln's Attitude Toward the Negro, 1837-1863," Lincoln Herald (1979); David Lindsey, " 'The Only Substantial Difference': Lincoln and the Negro," Lincoln Herald (1966); James D. Lockett, "Abraham Lincoln and Colonization: An Episode That Ends in Tragedy at L'lle a Vache, Haiti, 1863-1864," Journal of Black Studies (1991); James M. McPherson, "Who Freed the Slaves: Lincoln and Emancipation," (speech), Ap. 18, 1993; Gary R. Planck, "Abraham Lincoln and Black Colonization: Theory and Practice," Lincoln Herald (1970); Thomas Schoonover, "Misconstrued Mission: Expansionism and Black Colonization in Mexico and Central America During the Civil War," Pacific Historical Review (1980).]

ILLINOIS HISTORY / FEBRUARY 1997

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