The GOP's Liberian Connection

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Like Abraham Lincoln before him, President Bush has developed a special interest in the country of Liberia. The Washington Post recently ran a front-page picture of the first American "military advisors" to arrive in the West African country to supposedly help resolve a fourteen-year civil war — just as we so successfully did in Vietnam.

As for Lincoln, Liberia was his first choice for the eventual deportation (a word he used) of all black people from the U.S. Liberia was created in 1816 by the American Colonization Society (ACS) which purchased land in West Africa for the purpose of "colonization." One of the founders of the ACS was the slave owner Henry Clay, whom Lincoln revered and idolized as "the father of Whig principles" and considered him to be his own political role model. When he died in 1852 Clay had risen to the rank of president of the American Colonization Society. Lincoln was also a member in good standing of the ACS; in 1857 he was appointed as one of the eleven "managers" of the Illinois Colonization Society and, while in the state legislature, he supported the use of Illinois state tax dollars to deport free blacks out of the state (see Webb Garrison, The Lincoln No One Knows, p. 186).

As president, Lincoln tried repeatedly to get "colonization" started. In 1862 he invited a group of free black men into the White House to request that they lead by example and leave the country ("Address on Colonization to a Committee of Colored Men, Washington, D.C.", in Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, 1859-1865, Library of America, 1989, pp. 353-357). The men were greeted by the federal Commissioner of Emigration, J. Mitchell. Lincoln then informed them that, at his request, a sum of money had been appropriated by Congress "for the purpose of aiding the colonization in some country of the people, or portion of them, of African descent . . ."

"You and we are different races," Lincoln observed. "We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races . . . . This physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both" and "affords a reason at least why we should be separated . . . . It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated."

Lincoln then made his sales pitch for Liberia: "The colony of Liberia has been in existence a long time. In a certain sense it is a success. The old President of Liberia, Roberts, has just been with me — the first time I ever saw him. He says they have within the bounds of that colony between 300,000 and 400,000 people . . . . They are not all American [black] colonists, or their descendants. Something less than 12,000 have been sent hither from this country. Many of the original settlers have died, yet, like people elsewhere, their offspring outnumber those deceased."

What an offer: Most of you will probably die, but you can be comforted in the fact that in say, fifty years, your descendants will outnumber the few of you who survive. Frederick Douglass had nothing but scorn for Lincoln’s colonization scheme, and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison began denouncing him as "the slave hound from Illinois." The leader of the delegation of free blacks, Mr. E.M. Thomas, promised a response to Lincoln’s offer, but there is apparently no record of one having been received.

This was not a one-time flight of fancy for Lincoln. He first proposed deporting blacks to Liberia in an 1854 speech in Peoria, Illinois. In his July 6, 1852 eulogy to Henry Clay, delivered in Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln approvingly quoted Clay’s statement that "there is a moral fitness in the idea of returning to Africa her children," which would supposedly be "a single blessing to that most unfortunate" region. This statement by Clay was made twenty-five years ago, said Lincoln, but "every succeeding year has added strength to the hope of its realization. May it indeed be realized!" He continued to voice such sentiments well into his presidency.

While commenting on the Dred Scott decision five years later, on June 26, 1857, Lincoln offered one reason why he so favored "colonization": In his opinion, there was "a natural disgust in the minds of nearly all white people, to the idea of an indiscriminate amalgamation of the white and black races . . ."

During his administration Lincoln allocated funds to begin a colony in Haiti — another country that was "saved" by the U.S. military in recent years. But businessman Bernard Koch, who was chosen to be the "governor" of the colony, turned out to be a crook who embezzled most of the money. In 1864 Lincoln finally concluded that the Haitian colonization experiment had failed and instructed the War Department to offer to return the Haitian colonists to Washington, D.C.

Lincoln also toyed with the idea of turning all American blacks into Panamanian coal miners. Funds were allocated to purchase land for colonization in Panama, where there were sizeable coal deposits. In the same White House meeting with the free black men, Lincoln stated that, if Liberia was not to their liking, "Room in South America for colonization, can be obtained cheaply, and in abundance . . ."

This would have been a fate much worse than that suffered by the black South African diamond miners under twentieth-century Apartheid; at the time, Panama was a malaria trap and there was virtually no knowledge of antibiotics, sanitation, and germ theory. Most colonists to Panama would surely have perished from disease. The White House delegation of free blacks wisely ignored Lincoln’s offer. Lincoln continued to privately plot for colonization until the end of his administration, according to Webb Garrison, even if he didn’t make any formal speeches on the topic.

One of the arguments being made by the Washington Post and other media elites who favor U.S. military intervention in Liberia is that the U.S. has a "special relationship" with that country. This is true but the media, as usual, are largely ignorant of just what that relationship was.

Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] is the author of the LRC #1 bestseller, The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War (Forum/Random House, 2002) and professor of economics at Loyola College in Maryland.

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