Engraving by Thomas Nast in 1865. (Source)
I recently binge-listened to “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” by David W. Blight on Audible. It clocks in at nearly 37 hours, and makes great use of every minute. While this book contains an incredible wealth of historical, social and political information I recommend reading (or listening) to it all, I want to hone in on a particular event, which, quite interestingly, does not actually involve Douglass. Instead, Blight takes us to the White House in 1862 for a meeting between Lincoln and a group of Black leaders to discuss the future of the slaves after The Civil War. First, a little background from the book:
“Lincoln, a longtime sympathizer with colonization, set in motion a multilayered effort to expatriate blacks from the country. As early as March 1861, Lincoln had instructed Elisha Oscar Crosby, the newly appointed minister-resident to Guatemala, to seek a place for black colonists in Central America. Crosby organized his mission throughout 1861, despite opposition from both the Guatemalan and Honduran governments. An ill-fated colonization scheme in Panama also emerged in the first year of the war.
“From April to August 1862, Lincoln received a great deal of advice regarding colonization. The president’s cabinet remained quite divided on the issue, while strong support still existed in many quarters of the administration and Congress for sending freed blacks to the nation of Liberia in West Africa. For a while Lincoln also entertained a scheme that would have sent ten thousand black troops into Florida to defeat Confederates, thereby seizing back the state for the Union and forming the basis of a large migration to reconstruct that state. Serious interest in black emigration also took hold in Brazil, the British West Indies, and the Danish island of St. Croix. By the end of August 1862, agents from several West Indian colonies were on their way to Washington. But due to the delicate diplomatic relationship between the United States and Britain, as well as American abolitionist resistance, the West Indian initiatives never came to fruition.”
“Contraband” slaves in Virginia in 1862. (Source)
Now moving on to the actual, now very cringe-inducing meeting that was most definitely not taught to me during my many years of U.S. History:
‘At this crucial juncture, Lincoln decided on August 14 to meet with a small delegation of black ministers at the White House to discuss colonization. This infamous meeting, Lincoln’s worst racial moment, was anything but a discussion; a nearly desperate president gave a “one-way lecture looking for self-sacrificing black men to volunteer to leave their country to assuage the fears of white people who now had to imagine the end of slavery. The delegation, all from the Washington, DC, area, was led by Edward M. Thomas, president of an organization called the Anglo-African Institute for the Encouragement of Industry and Art. This hastily assembled meeting did not include the more prominent Douglass, nor even the black emigrationists the Reverend Henry Highland Garnet or Martin Delany.
After shaking hands with his guests at this first-ever meeting of a president with black leaders, and with one or more members of the press invited to listen and record, Lincoln read a formal statement to the stunned ministers. Lincoln could not have been more forthright: “You and we are different races. We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races. Whether it is right or wrong I need not discuss, but this physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both.” Blacks and whites mutually “suffer” from each other’s presence in the same land, argued the president. For this reason, Lincoln concluded, “We should be “be separated.”
AHHHH!!! Because we look different, you with your dusky skin, should get gone. And not just to the other side of town, or even to the other part of the continent (because duh, Manifest Destiny and all, so those territories out west will eventually be states that won’t want you, either), but like to South America. Or the West Indies. Or Africa. Whatever.
“Lincoln shockingly blamed the war on the presence of blacks. “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 another.” The host acknowledged that blacks, slave or free, were enduring “the greatest wrong inflicted on any people,” but racial equality of any kind, in his view, could never be possible in America. “On this broad continent,” said Lincoln, “not a single man of your race is made the equal of a single man of ours.” He did not wish to debate this inequality, since it was “a fact, about which we all feel and think alike, I and you.” With one astonishing presumption after another, he argued that slavery had “evil effects on the white race” as well. “See our present condition—the country engaged in war!—our white men cutting one another’s throats.” Lincoln beseeched the five black representatives, who must have felt more than a little bewildered, to swallow their wishes for a future in the land of their birth and lead their people to a foreign colony. He did not wish to seem “unkind,” but for “to reject his plea to lead in voluntary repatriation would be “an extremely selfish view of the case” and not in the best interest of their race. “It is exceedingly important that we have men at the beginning capable of thinking as white men,” he bluntly continued, “and not those who have been systematically oppressed.”
He doesn’t want to seem “unkind”, but totes had no qualms about actually being unkind. It reminds of the people who go beserk if they are called a racist, but have no problem with actually being racist. Because perception is far more important than actual, you know, reality.
“Did the president really invite these men to the executive mansion to insult them? Perhaps not. But in conceiving the audience as the wider nation, he surely understood whose prejudices he stoked, and at whose expense. Lincoln concluded by putting the best possible face on Central America as the site of his colonization project. He employed the old racist canard that blacks could thrive in a “similarity of climate with your native land.” He promoted the prospect of employment in the coal mines. He suggested, against his own diplomatic intelligence, that the countries of Central America would warmly wel“come them, and as president, he pledged personally that he “would endeavor to have you made equals.” He wanted “a hundred” to start the colony, but almost like an auctioneer, he said he would take “fifty,” or even “twenty-five able-bodied men, with a mixture of women and children” to “make a successful commencement.” This wretched encounter ended with Edward Thomas saying they would get back to Lincoln with an answer.
“As before and after, this discussion of colonization turned on two fundamentally different conceptions of the future of black Americans. To Lincoln, a biracial democracy in America would never be possible. Most black leaders, however, were flushed with new hopes about a future precisely opposite from that outlined in Lincoln’s appeal.”
To be clear, Lincoln never pushed for forcible removable of African Americans. In the midst of a brutal, massively bloody war, Lincoln wanted an end to the bloodshed and a path to reunification for this young nation. After all, just days after meeting with the Black ministers, Lincoln famously wrote to New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley:
As to the policy I “seem to be pursuing” as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt.
I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.
I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.
First and foremost, Lincoln was about what was best for the US. His “struggle” was for the Union; his “personal wish” was for freedom for all. But within months, Lincoln would issue The Emancipation Proclamation. And the next time Lincoln had Black leaders at the White House, Douglass would be in attendance and that meeting was decidedly more positive.