August 14, 1862 – President Abraham Lincoln hosted a conference of black men at the White House, where he reiterated his desire that they voluntarily leave America.
This month, the demand for emancipating the slaves continued increasing among congressional Republicans, especially the Radicals. New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley wrote to Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, the leading Radical abolitionist in the Senate, complaining about Lincoln’s inactivity regarding emancipation: “Do you remember that old theological book containing this: ‘Chapter One–Hell; Chapter Two–Hell Continued.’ Well, that gives a hint of the way Old Abe ought to be talked to in this crisis.”
Unbeknownst to most politicians, Lincoln was preparing the public for an emancipation edict, but he wanted to wait for military success before announcing it. In the meantime, Lincoln continued to publicly champion his longtime commitment to black colonization (i.e., deportation) out of America.
On August 14, Lincoln became the first U.S. president to invite and receive a delegation of black people at the White House. A group of free blacks and former slaves came to hear Lincoln discuss his proposals. Lincoln hoped to garner support for his idea so the delegates could explain and promote the benefits to fellow blacks.
Announcing to the delegates that he favored deportation, Lincoln asked rhetorically, “Why should people of your race leave the country?” then answered, “You and we are different races. 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, as I think your race suffers very greatly, many of them, by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence. In a word, we suffer on each side.”
While Lincoln acknowledged that “slavery was the greatest wrong inflicted on any people,” he asserted that whites would not tolerate emancipation. He said, “But even when you cease to be (enslaved), you are yet far removed from being placed on an equality with the white race… On this broad continent, not a single man of your race is made the equal of a single man of ours.” A delegate tried to object, but Lincoln stopped him:
“I do not propose to discuss this, but to present it as a fact with which we have to deal. I cannot alter it, if I would… I need not recount to you the effects upon white men growing out of the institution of slavery… see our present condition–the country engaged in war–our white men cutting one another’s throats, none knowing how far it will extend… But for your race among us there could not be war, although many men engaged on either side do not care for you one way or the other. It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated… There is an unwillingness on the part of our people, harsh as it may be, for you to remain with us.”
Lincoln announced that Congress had appropriated the funds to set up a colony in Central America, and he needed educated black men to encourage other blacks to join the program. Lincoln noted a similarity to Africa in climate, and he suggested that the deportees work in the lucrative coal fields until “they got ready to settle permanently in their homes.” If the pilot colonies succeeded, they could pave the way for thousands of former slaves to start new lives outside America.
Although the political climate was volatile in Central America, Lincoln said the people “are more generous than we are here… To your race, they have no objections. Besides, I would endeavor to have you made equals… I ask you then, to consider seriously not pertaining to yourselves merely, nor for your race, and ours, for the present time, but as one of the things, if successfully managed, for the good of mankind—not confined to the present time, but… ‘Into eternity.’”
The delegates agreed to pass Lincoln’s plan on to their constituents, but they could not make any promises that it would be accepted. Almost immediately, most black civil rights leaders vehemently rejected the plan and denounced Lincoln for devising it. Frederick Douglass declared that Lincoln had “contempt for Negroes” and “canting hypocrisy.” He asserted that Lincoln’s plan would encourage “ignorant and base” whites to commit “all kinds of violence and outrage upon the colored people.”
Douglass stated that blacks were just as much American citizens as whites and should not be manipulated into leaving their homeland. The Pacific Appeal, influential among blacks, opined that Lincoln’s proposal made it “evident that he, his cabinet, and most of the people, care but little for justice to the negro. If necessary he is to be crushed between the upper and nether millstone–the pride and prejudice of the North and South.” Even Lincoln’s own treasury secretary, Salmon P. Chase, wrote, “How much better would be a manly protest against prejudice against color!—and a wise effort to give free(d) men homes in America!”
However, some activists agreed to promote the plan in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. Reverend Henry Highland Garnet led the minority in supporting Lincoln’s effort to save “our emancipated brethren from being returned to their former condition of slavery,” calling colonization “the most humane, and merciful movement which this or any other administration has proposed for the benefit of the enslaved.” And a prominent abolitionist conceded that deportation “is a damn humbug, but it will take with the people.”
While Lincoln had long supported black deportation, he had already begun leaning toward favoring emancipation when this conference took place. As such, this was a clever political tactic on Lincoln’s part to prepare the nation for slave liberation. It could also help Republicans’ chances in the upcoming midterm elections. Lincoln’s suggestion of deporting blacks made emancipation more appealing to the slaveholding border states, and it helped calm northern fears that massive waves of freed slaves would flood into their states.
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