Lincoln Ponders Colonization and Emancipation

President Abraham Lincoln endorsed a government contract with the Chiriqui Improvement Company, under which slaves would be sent to the Chiriqui Lagoon area in Panama to mine coal. Republican Senator Samuel Pomeroy of Kansas “was to be the sole judge of the fitness of the Chiriqui site,” with power to allocate up to $50,000 for finding a ship and collecting slave volunteers.

According to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, this was part of Lincoln’s larger effort to deport slaves, which had been ongoing “for months, almost from the commencement of this administration…” Welles called Pomeroy’s plan “a scheme, or job, for deporting slaves and colored people to Chiriqui,” and he advised Lincoln that “if anything was seriously and earnestly designed, to go to the Government of New Granada or any of the Spanish-American States and treat with them direct, and not through scheming jobbers.”

Lincoln was following in the footsteps of his political hero, Henry Clay, by supporting black colonization as a means of securing harmony between the races. Earlier this year, Congress had appropriated $600,000 for the colonization of all blacks, slave or free, who agreed to leave. Interior Secretary Caleb Smith and Postmaster General Montgomery Blair had urged Lincoln to approve the contract. Anticipating the prospect of freed slaves after he issued his Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln made the deal.

Welles was skeptical of the idea because there was no guarantee that coal would be there to mine. It was also unclear how many freed slaves would be willing to move to Central America. But Lincoln pushed the plan by asking if a treaty could be negotiated between the U.S. and Costa Rica (which owned the land) to make the region a slave refuge. Welles wrote that Lincoln “thought it essential to provide an asylum for a race which we had emancipated, but which could never be recognized or admitted to be our equals.”

Attorney General Edward Bates supported the plan but urged Lincoln to impose mandatory deportation because he believed no freed slave would voluntarily leave the U.S. Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase opposed deportation but liked the idea of expanding U.S. interests into Central America. Secretary of State William H. Seward opposed deportation because he believed the labor of freed slaves would still be needed in the South. Ultimately all members of Lincoln’s cabinet except Welles and Chase supported negotiating treaties with nations to allow the emigration of freed American slaves.

U.S. President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit:

As Lincoln pondered what to do with the slaves once they were freed, he started in early September on a draft emancipation decree. Unaware that Lincoln had already secretly decided to free the slaves, many continued to pressure him to adopt some kind of abolition plan. A group of “Chicago Christians of All Denominations” held a “War Meeting,” where many people signed a petition calling on Lincoln to issue an emancipation order. Delegates from this group presented the petition to Lincoln at the White House near mid-September.

The delegates feared that since Lincoln had reinstated George B. McClellan, he might also revert to his original policy of not interfering with slavery where it already existed. Lincoln agreed that “slavery is the root of the rebellion,” and freeing slaves would “weaken the rebels by drawing off their laborers” and “would help us in Europe, and convince them that we are incited by something more than ambition.” However, he noted that the Second Confiscation Act had not “caused a single slave to come over to us.”

Lincoln told the delegates that clergymen such as themselves had been ceaselessly trying to tell him that it was the will of God for the slaves to be freed. To this he replied, “I hope it is not irreverent for me to say that if it is probable that God would reveal his will to others, on a point so connected with my duty, it might be supposed he would reveal it directly to me.” The president added that “these are not, however, the days of miracles, and I suppose it will be granted that I am not to expect a direct revelation.”

The delegates argued that committing the North to slave liberation would cause the European powers to reconsider supporting Confederate independence. They stated that “to proclaim emancipation would secure the sympathy of Europe and the whole civilized world, which now saw no other reason for the strife than national pride and ambition, an unwillingness to abridge our domain and power. No other step would be so potent to prevent foreign intervention.”

Lincoln acknowledged that it would gain the North more sympathy in the eyes of the world, but “not so much, I fear, as you and those you represent imagine.” In fact, Lincoln feared that an emancipation order might cause Great Britain to side with the South because it could be construed as “direct encouragement to servile Insurrections.” Memories of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 were still fresh in Britain, where soldiers in India turned against their British rulers, resulting in the deaths of up to 150,000 Indians.

Lincoln then said:

“What good would a proclamation of emancipation from me do, especially as we are now situated? I do not want to issue a document that the whole world will see must necessarily be inoperative, like the Pope’s bull against the comet. Would my word free the slaves, when I cannot even enforce the Constitution in the rebel states? Is there a single court or magistrate or individuals that would be influenced by it there?

“I will mention another thing, though it meet only your scorn and contempt. There are 50,000 bayonets in the Union armies from the border slave states. It would be a serious matter if, in consequence of a proclamation such as you desire, they should go over to the rebels. Do not misunderstand me because I have mentioned these objections… I have not decided against a proclamation of liberty to the slaves, but hold the matter under advisement… It is my earnest desire to know the will of Providence in this matter. And if I can learn what it is I will do it!”

Lincoln shrewdly declined to issue an order but left open the possibility that he may do so in the future. One of the ministers said, “What you have said to us, Mr. President, compels me to say to you in reply, that it is a message to you from our Divine Master, through me, commanding you, sir, to open the doors of bondage that the slaves may go free.”

Lincoln replied, “That may be, sir, for I have studied this question by night and by day, for weeks and for months. But if it is, as you say, a message from your Divine Master, is it not odd that the only channel he could send it by was the roundabout route by way of that awful wicked city of Chicago?”

The clergymen left unsatisfied and unaware that Lincoln was simply waiting for some type of military success before he published his Emancipation Proclamation.


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