I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that 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. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.
~ Abraham Lincoln, Debate with Stephen Douglas, Sept. 18, 1858, in Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, 1832-1858 (New York: Library of America, 1989), pp. 636-637.
These are the words of the real Lincoln, who was as much a white supremacist as any man of his time. In fact, he was a much more extreme white supremacist than most, for he advocated "colonization" or the deportation of black people from America for his entire adult life. As soon as he entered politics in the early 1830s he became a "manager" of the Illinois Colonization Society which sought to use state tax funds to deport the small number of free blacks living in Illinois out of the state (the state amended its constitution in 1848 to prohibit the immigration of black people into the state, an amendment that Lincoln supported).
Lincoln followed in the footsteps of his idol, Henry Clay, who was the president of the American Colonization Society, and quoted Clay often on the subject. During his presidency he established a colonization office in the Department of Interior and funded it with $600,000, while working diligently to plan on deporting black people to Liberia, Haiti, Jamaica, Central America, the West Indies — anywhere but the U.S.
These historical facts have long presented a problem for the purveyors of the comic book/fairy tale history of Lincoln that has been taught to Americans for generations. For they suggest that, rather than being a racial saint, as the comic book/fairy tale version of history contends, the exact opposite is true. The Lincoln cult has mostly covered up these truths by seeing to it that they rarely, if ever, make it into the public school textbooks. But just in case the truth does seep out, the Cult has concocted several excuses, "justifications," and rationales for Lincoln's extreme racist language and actions.
One excuse that is associated with Princeton University historian James McPherson is that "Honest Abe" was lying when he spoke of colonization in connection with emancipation (as he always did) so as to soften Northern opposition to emancipation. This is called the "lullaby theory" among Lincoln cultists. Lincoln himself never said any such thing; McPherson simply fabricated the story out of thin air.
A second excuse is an equally unfounded theory that is not based on anything Lincoln himself ever said. It is a speculation that, sometime in 1863, Lincoln experienced some kind of divine transformation and was no longer the extreme racist and white supremacist that his speeches had established him as being for his entire adult life. Lincoln cultists naively contend that because Lincoln quit making speeches about colonization, he must have abandoned the idea.
Of course, politicians always do their best to keep the public in the dark with regard to their political machinations; they do not make public speeches announcing every bit of their strategies and conniving. It is not unusual for a politician to keep his plans to himself, and this is true of Lincoln as much as any politician. The divine transformation theory is based on an extraordinarily naïve view of the political world.
Both of these theories have been demolished in a monumental new book entitled Colonization after Emancipation: Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement, by Phillip W. Magness of American University and Sebastian N. Page of Oxford University. Based on newly-rediscovered documents in the American and British National Archives, including letters signed by Lincoln himself, these researchers have established that Lincoln continued to pursue colonization right up to the days before his assassination, when he discussed plans with General Benjamin Butler to deport the freed slaves. There was no divine transformation; and McPherson's "lullaby" is in reality a fake alibi.
Magness and Page meticulously document how, during the last two years of Lincoln's presidency, work on various colonization plans "progressed . . . often aided by the president's direct encouragement and approval" (p. 10). Lengthy discussions took place with the British and Dutch governments, which were negotiating on behalf of business interests in their own countries that were experiencing labor shortages in such places as British Honduras, Guiana, and elsewhere.
After the Emancipation Proclamation (which only "freed" slaves where the government could not do so — in "rebel territory") was issued, Lincoln was hard at work on his various colonization projects. Magness and Page cite British Foreign Minister Lord Lyons as saying in a dispatch to London that "The President of the United States sent for me yesterday, and upon my presenting myself, told me that he had been for some time anxious to speak to me in an informal and unofficial manner on the subject of promoting the emigration of colored people from this country to British colonies" (p. 26).
Shortly thereafter, Lincoln met with one Thomas Malcom of the Pennsylvania Colonization Society to discuss deporting Pennsylvania blacks to Liberia; and sent an emissary to visit the "contraband camps" (where captured Southern slaves were kept) to find "recruits" for colonization to Honduras.
The most pro-colonization member of Lincoln's cabinet, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, publicly announced that the "destined glory" of any freed slaves "is to be consummated in the American tropics" (p. 35). Interestingly, the first black man to ever hold an administrative position in the U.S. government was J. Willis Menard, who favored black colonization. He was employed as a clerk in the colonization office.
Magness and Page document that colonization remained the official policy of the Lincoln administration throughout 1864 and early 1865, with several plans being foiled by bureaucratic bungling, corruption, and political bickering. Lincoln is said to have completely lost his temper over such failures.
Late in his life General Benjamin Butler recalled a "colonization interview" that he had with Lincoln two days before the assassination. "What shall we do with the negroes after they are free?", Lincoln is said to have asked the general. According to Butler, Lincoln then said, "I can hardly believe that the South and North can live in peace, unless we can get rid of the negroes" (p. 109). Butler then proposed deporting the freed slaves to Panama to dig a canal, decades before the actual Panama Canal was dug. "There is meat in that, General Butler, there is meat in that," Lincoln reportedly said.
Early Lincoln scholars accepted that this meeting occurred, but then Lincoln cultist/excuse fabricator Mark E. Neely claimed that the meeting could not have happened because Butler was not in Washington on the day he said the meeting took place. Magness and Page disprove Neely's conjecture and conclude that "the meeting itself indisputedly happened."
Colonization after Emancipation proves unequivocally that "colonization remained on the table well beyond the Emancipation Proclamation," contrary to the "accepted wisdom" of James McPherson and other Lincoln cultists. Magness and Page conclude that "The prospect that the u2018Great Emancipator' subscribed to colonizationist beliefs, particularly at the end of his life, seems to completely dispel his popular reputation as a racial egalitarian." Yes, it does.
Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] is professor of economics at Loyola College in Maryland and the author of The Real Lincoln; Lincoln Unmasked: What You're Not Supposed To Know about Dishonest Abe and How Capitalism Saved America. His latest book is Hamilton's Curse: How Jefferson's Archenemy Betrayed the American Revolution — And What It Means for America Today.