Five African Americans were escorted into the White House, past the swarm of visitors, and into the president’s office. Abraham Lincoln wanted to speak with them.
Lincoln wanted to gauge their views on colonization. A reporter was present and recorded his opening remarks.
He told them Congress had recently appropriated a sum of money to colonize freed slaves. Lincoln understood that African Americans might resist colonization. “Why should they leave this country?” he asked. The president did not expect an answer from the delegation. Instead, he provided them with an answer:
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, as I think your race suffer very greatly, many of them by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence. In a word we suffer on each side. If this is admitted, it affords a reason at least why we should be separated.
Lincoln went on to deliver a bizarre, rambling, and bigoted 1,600-word monologue on why African Americans should support colonization.
We look to our condition, owing to the existence of the two races on this continent. I need not recount to you the effects upon white men, growing out of the institution of Slavery. I believe in its general evil effects on the white race. See our present condition---the country engaged in war!---our white men cutting one another's throats, none knowing how far it will extend; and then consider what we know to be the truth. 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. Nevertheless, I repeat, without the institution of Slavery and the colored race as a basis, the war could not have an existence.
It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated. I know that there are free men among you, who even if they could better their condition are not as much inclined to go out of the country as those, who being slaves could obtain their freedom on this condition. I suppose one of the principal difficulties in the way of colonization is that the free colored man cannot see that his comfort would be advanced by it. You may believe you can live in Washington or elsewhere in the United States the remainder of your life [as easily], perhaps more so than you can in any foreign country, and hence you may come to the conclusion that you have nothing to do with the idea of going to a foreign country. This is (I speak in no unkind sense) an extremely selfish view of the case.
Lincoln told them about the successes in the colony of Liberia, where some 12,000 American slaves had settled upon being freed. But, Lincoln continued, he understood that African Americans might not want to settle across the Atlantic Ocean in Africa, so the president had an alternative:
The place I am thinking about having for a colony is in Central America. It is nearer to us than Liberia---not much more than one-fourth as far as Liberia, and within seven days' run by steamers. Unlike Liberia it is on a great line of travel---it is a highway. The country is a very excellent one for any people, and with great natural resources and advantages, and especially because of the similarity of climate with your native land---thus being suited to your physical condition.
The particular place I have in view is to be a great highway from the Atlantic or Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean, and this particular place has all the advantages for a colony. On both sides there are harbors among the finest in the world. Again, there is evidence of very rich coal mines. A certain amount of coal is valuable in any country, and there may be more than enough for the wants of the country. Why I attach so much importance to coal is, it will afford an opportunity to the inhabitants for immediate employment till they get ready to settle permanently in their homes.
Lincoln told the delegation to discuss the idea. He wanted them to see if they could get “a hundred tolerably intelligent men, with their wives and children, to ‘cut their own fodder,’” and join the government’s colonization efforts. He would even settle for “twenty-five able-bodied men, with a mixture of women and children…”
The president's remarks were printed in the newspaper the next day. The New York Tribune criticized Lincoln’s logic. If colonization was his plan, how could the government raise enough money to colonize some four million freed slaves? It was simply impractical.
Frederick Douglass was among the first to attack Lincoln’s sentiments. The president’s remarks were “characteristically foggy, remarkably illogical and untimely.” He took offense to Lincoln’s assertion that African Americans were somehow responsible for bringing on the Civil War. It was like “a horse thief pleading that the existence of the horse is the apology for his theft,” Douglass charged.
Still worse, Lincoln’s published words supported arguments made by the “ignorant and base” Americans who committed “all kinds of violence and outrage upon the colored people of the country.” Anyone with “an ounce of brain in his head” knew that white and black Americans were capable of living side-by-side in peace. Scores of communities throughout the country already provided evidence, Douglass concluded.
Historians have been bitterly divided over how to interpret Lincoln’s speech. In recent times, no one has been more outspoken than Lerone Bennett. In Bennett’s view, Lincoln was a racist with a “White dream” for America. His support of colonization was nothing more than an "ethnic cleansing plan.” (Bennett, Forced into Glory, 465).
On the other extreme, a multitude of historians have tried to sanitize Lincoln’s comments by proclaiming they represent the clearest evidence that Lincoln was a “political genius.” They say Lincoln orchestrated the entire performance for public consumption. He arranged for a reporter to record his remarks, he edited them, and made sure they were placed in the morning newspaper. He was preparing the public for his Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln was playing to public sentiment, trying desperately to make emancipation “more palatable to white racists.”
The truth often resides somewhere near the middle of two extremes. To be certain, Lincoln was a lifelong supporter of colonization. Read his eulogy on Henry Clay or any of the Lincoln-Douglas debates and you can judge for yourself whether or not he believed in colonization. That being said, I do not believe he thought it was at all possible to colonize four million freed slaves, but did he think it would be desirable? I think he did.
At the same time, I do believe Lincoln was concerned about what was coming. The Emancipation Proclamation was already written and sitting in his desk drawer. He knew it would be met with stiff opposition, not just in the Confederacy, but among Northerners as well. He had to try to “sell” the controversial proclamation. Perhaps his remarks to the delegation of African Americans are an example of Lincoln pandering to the least progressive segment of the Northern population. Perhaps these remarks on colonization should be considered a companion piece to other prep-work he did on the eve of emancipation—namely the letter he would write Horace Greeley just eight days later.