Lincoln to Slaves: Go Somewhere Else

Today’s post comes from National Archives Office of Strategy and Communications staff writer Rob Crotty.

DC Emancipation Act, April 1862 showing money to be set aside for deportation (ARC 299814)

The issue of slavery divided the country under Abraham  Lincoln’s Presidency. The national argument was simple: either keep slavery or abolish it. But Abraham Lincoln, known as the Great Emancipator, may have also been known as the Great Colonizer when he supported a third direction to the slavery debate: move African Americans somewhere else.

Long before the Civil War, in 1854, Lincoln addressed his own solution to slavery at a speech delivered in Peoria, Illinois: “I should not know what to do as to the existing institution [of slavery]. My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia, to their own native land.” While Lincoln acknowledged this was logistically impossible, by the time he assumed the Presidency and a Civil War was underfoot, the nation was in such duress that he tried it anyway.

By early 1861, Lincoln ordered a secret trip to modern-day Panama to investigate the land of a Philadelphian named Ambrose Thompson. Thompson had volunteered his Chiriqui land as a refuge for freed slaves. The slaves would work in the abundant coal mines on his property, the coal would be sold to the Navy, and the profits would go to the freed slaves to further build up their new land.

Lincoln sought to test the idea on the small slave population in Delaware, but the idea met fierce opposition from abolitionists when it went public.

In April 1862, Lincoln was still of the mind that emancipation and deportation was the key to a peaceful United States. He supported a bill in Congress that provided money

“to be expended under the direction of the President of the United States, to aid in the colonization and settlement of such free persons of African descent now residing in said District, including those to be liberated by this act, as may desire to emigrate to the Republic of Haiti or Liberia, or such other country beyond the limits of the United States as the President may determine.”

This would become the final portion of the DC Emancipation Act.

In August of 1862, Lincoln invited five prominent black men to the White House, the first black delegation invited on such terms. The topic was simple, that white and blacks cannot coexist and that separation is the most expedient means to peace. Lincoln encouraged these five men to rally support for an exodus.

This intent is even echoed in the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation: “… that the effort to colonize persons of African descent, with their consent, upon this continent, or elsewhere… will be continued.”

Near this same time, the results of Lincoln’s investigation into the Chiriqui lands proved the coal there was worthless, and there was also the small matter that Costa Rica claimed ownership of part of Thompson’s land.

The next area considered was a small island off the coast of Haiti. About 450 blacks were sent to the island, but after only a year, nearly 25% had died due to poor nutrition and disease. The remainder were returned to the states.

By 1863, realizing Liberia, Haiti, and the Chiriqui lands were not reasonable for resettlement (Liberia was considered too great a distance to relocate a large number of freed slaves), Lincoln mentioned moving the “whole colored race of the slave states into Texas.”

Four days before his death, speaking to Gen. Benjamin Butler, Lincoln still pressed on with deportation as the only peaceable solution to America’s race problem. “I can hardly believe that the South and North can live in peace, unless we can get rid of the negroes … I believe that it would be better to export them all to some fertile country…”

Of course this would not happen. Throughout reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, and eventually the Civil Rights Act, the country struggled for the next century to settle the problem of race–one it still struggles with today–though today the US is made stronger, not weaker, by its diversity.

For more on Lincoln and the island country of Haiti, join us tomorrow at the William G. McGowan Theater at 7 pm as a panel of experts discusses “Lincoln and Haiti: Colonization and Haitian Recognition During the Civil War.”

15 thoughts on “Lincoln to Slaves: Go Somewhere Else

    1. American Whites didn’t start slavery and they certainly weren’t the only people to hold slaves. In case you forgot, most American “whites” didn’t have slaves, only a tiny percent. Your comment is ignorant and racist.

      1. Correct. The word “slave” comes from Slav, meaning people of the southwestern part of Asia. African slavers raided these areas and brought the people back to Africa to be their slaves. When the plantation owners of the Americas and Caribbean needed indentured workers, the black tribal leaders of W. Africa did the rounding up of fellow-Africans to sell to the traders who brought them to the New World. The same thing is still going on in Africa. Incidentally, of all the slaves brought to the west, only 5% came to the US. The rest went to S. America and the Caribbean.

      2. While a small component of the white population owned us- the owned ALL OF US. Most whites supported enslavement in this nation. But it was white men who murdered the Indigenous, stole their land, enslaved everyone else for the purpose of enriching themselves. Even the enslavers and insurance companies received reparations after we were manumitted. What did we receive? Another 160 years of struggling to be seen as equals while living within redlined districts and learning in separate schools and watching you guys vote on the leaders to keep it that way.

        No more whitesplaining, please.

        We are not asking you to feel guilty, we are asking you to accept history and show us compassion.

        1. Your comment is egregiously incorrect! “Most whites” did NOT support slavery in this nation! Further, “most whites” were NOT slave owners in this nation! Your insinuation that, whites as a whole, had a dirty hand in the immoral institute of slavery, and further oppression for the next 160 years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation is NOT true! You are attempting to paint ALL whites with a broad stroke brush, and THAT is immoral if YOU!!!

        2. Thats not true at all why was there a war in the country to free slaves? Really
          read what you wrote it is incorrect/

      3. Perhaps you are correct. However, the Southern White Christians made the most horrible killings of Slaves and took their children to watch these horrific scenes and take souvenirs from the dead, finger bones, a piece of the rope, a chain link, etc.. Not to mention all of the unthinkable ways they tortured their slaves for any a number of minute actions. What gave them the right to do onto slaves and then still call themselves Christians. I am ashamed to be white.
        Connie Hieb

        1. Thanks for your honesty. Simply put, this country was built on lies. The land was stolen from its original inhabitants and turned into rich land owners piggybank . . . By any means necessary and those colonizers standing on the sidelines (watching, cheering like itcwas football homecoming game . . . With their young kids), speaks to the sickness that has been allowed to metastasize into this countries DNA from its inception. What the greedy “elites” of yesterday and today have always exploited is the “notion or dream” that you can join their ranks.
          Its the american dream . . . Own your own piece of land and get rich. Purchase your own car for your garage and go wherever you want. But everything comes at a cost . . . You or someone.

  1. Of course this was not taught in school. There is always this great ideal of the Great Emancipator as if Lincoln was a super hero. The emancipation was greatly flawed, it did not free all, even after Juneteenth it did not free all living in the border states. This country is a melting pot, the idea deportation is absurd. But the true message is to educate yourself, and others that are ignorant to the facts of slavery, across the world. Love all humanity as you would want to be loved.

  2. America is the “empire of lies”. We black Americans were brought to America as slaves and there was never any intentions of making us free men what the same rights and privilege’s as white Americans. Black soldiers from the north who enlisted to fight during the Civil War were wrong in their analysis; they wanted to fight to show that blacks were deserving of citizenship that was automatically given to whites. The blacks from the south who fought for the north were fighting for the end of slavery—they knew while whites up north were sympathetic to their plight for freedom; they were not ready for equality. Abraham Lincoln was really a mixed bag–while he may have personally found slavery repugnant; he was not prepared or convinced that work to advance equality after freedom was worth the cause. Consequently, his desire to deport blacks was not a surprise given the general feelings of whites up north. They didn’t mind freeing the former slaves but granting them equality to the status of whites was something different and they weren’t prepared for that goal. 09/26/2023

    1. So, by your logic, just because the Emancipation Proclamation was not perfect in every way, and the terms therein, carried out BY OTHER PEOPLE, to perfectionism, President Lincoln was NOT, as you put it, a Super Hero??? Do you even see the absurdity of your own words???

  3. Ignorance, and selfish greed for the obtainment of free and cheap labor, wealth, famed, and status, got many in the majority white population caught up in a race to the top that would enslave black Africans using Christianity, the bible, and bogus scientific theories as a pretext and shield to justify the evil institution of slavery on black Africans that will forever stain this country by dehumanizing another human being to the status of an animal. This devaluing of a race continues to drive the racist superior nationalistic ideology and discrimination practices against black Americans throughout the world. It is ironic that many Europeans migrated to the new world for freedom, but denied black Africans their freedom. Never justify unrighteousness. Accept it, and correct it (Africa Proverb).

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