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Lincoln to slaves: go somewhere else

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DC Emancipation Act, April 1862 showing money to be set aside for deportation (ARC 299814)

The issue of slavery divided the country under Abraham  Lincoln’s Presidency. The national argument was simple: either keep slavery or abolish it. But Abraham Lincoln, known as the Great Emancipator, may have also been known as the Great Colonizer when he supported a third direction to the slavery debate: move African Americans somewhere else.

Long before the Civil War, in 1854, Lincoln addressed his own solution to slavery at a speech delivered in Peoria, Illinois: “I should not know what to do as to the existing institution [of slavery]. My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia, to their own native land.” While Lincoln acknowledged this was logistically impossible, by the time he assumed the Presidency and a Civil War was underfoot, the nation was in such duress that he tried it anyway.

By early 1861, Lincoln ordered a secret trip to modern-day Panama to investigate the land of a Philadelphian named Ambrose Thompson. Thompson had volunteered his Chiriqui land as a refuge for freed slaves. The slaves would work in the abundant coal mines on his property, the coal would be sold to the Navy, and the profits would go to the freed slaves to further build up their new land.

Lincoln sought to test the idea on the small slave population in Delaware, but the idea met fierce opposition from abolitionists when it went public.

In April 1862, Lincoln was still of the mind that emancipation and deportation was the key to a peaceful United States. He supported a bill in Congress that provided money

“to be expended under the direction of the President of the United States, to aid in the colonization and settlement of such free persons of African descent now residing in said District, including those to be liberated by this act, as may desire to emigrate to the Republic of Haiti or Liberia, or such other country beyond the limits of the United States as the President may determine.”

This would become the final portion of the DC Emancipation Act.

In August of 1862, Lincoln invited five prominent black men to the White House, the first black delegation invited on such terms. The topic was simple, that white and blacks cannot coexist and that separation is the most expedient means to peace. Lincoln encouraged these five men to rally support for an exodus.

This intent is even echoed in the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation: “… that the effort to colonize persons of African descent, with their consent, upon this continent, or elsewhere… will be continued.”

Near this same time, the results of Lincoln’s investigation into the Chiriqui lands proved the coal there was worthless, and there was also the small matter that Costa Rica claimed ownership of part of Thompson’s land.

The next area considered was a small island off the coast of Haiti. About 450 blacks were sent to the island, but after only a year, nearly 25% had died due to poor nutrition and disease. The remainder were returned to the states.

By 1863, realizing Liberia, Haiti, and the Chiriqui lands were not reasonable for resettlement (Liberia was considered too great a distance to relocate a large number of freed slaves), Lincoln mentioned moving the “whole colored race of the slave states into Texas.”

Four days before his death, speaking to Gen. Benjamin Butler, Lincoln still pressed on with deportation as the only peaceable solution to America’s race problem. “I can hardly believe that the South and North can live in peace, unless we can get rid of the negroes … I believe that it would be better to export them all to some fertile country…”

Of course this would not happen. Throughout reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, and eventually the Civil Rights Act, the country struggled for the next century to settle the problem of race–one it still struggles with today–though today the US is made stronger, not weaker, by its diversity.

For more on Lincoln and the island country of Haiti, join us tomorrow at the William G. McGowan Theater at 7 pm as a panel of experts discusses “Lincoln and Haiti: Colonization and Haitian Recognition During the Civil War.”

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