Lincoln Tries to Persuade African Americans to Emigrate
August 14, 1862. In his “Address on Colonization to a Committee of Colored Men”, Washington, DC, President Lincoln attempted to persuade a group of African American clergymen to support his plan for colonizing freed blacks in Central America. It had been at least two months since Lincoln had begun drafting the Emancipation Proclamation. His administration had opposed compulsory
emigration for blacks from the District of Columbia who were emancipated in mid-April, and yet, writes historian Ed Ayers, Lincoln thought, “at this early point in the war, that it would be better for white and black alike if the two races were separated. Lincoln wanted to see slavery end but could not imagine that former slaves and former slave owners could manage to live together in peace. The remarkable determination and forbearance of the enslaved people of the South during the war itself, along with the widely respected heroism of African American troops — including men recently held in slavery — changed Lincoln’s mind.”
Lincoln said in part:
“. . . The question is if the colored people are persuaded to go anywhere, why not there? One reason for an unwillingness to do so is that some of you would rather remain within reach of the country of your nativity. I do not know how much attachment you may have toward our race. It does not strike me that you have the greatest reason to love them. But still you are attached to them at all events.
“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. . . . it will afford an opportunity to the inhabitants for immediate employment till they get ready to settle permanently in their homes.
“. . . I shall, if I get a sufficient number of you engaged, have provisions made that you shall not be wronged. If you will engage in the enterprise I will spend some of the money intrusted to me. I am not sure you will succeed. The Government may lose the money, but we cannot succeed unless we try; but we think, with care, we can succeed.
“. . . The practical thing I want to ascertain is whether I can get a number of able-bodied men, with their wives and children, who are willing to go, when I present evidence of encouragement and protection. Could I get a hundred tolerably intelligent men, with their wives and children, to “cut their own fodder,” so to speak? Can I have fifty? If I could find twenty-five able-bodied men, with a mixture of women and children, good things in the family relation, I think I could make a successful commencement.
“I want you to let me know whether this can be done or not. This is the practical part of my wish to see you. There are subjects of very great importance, worthy of a month’s study, instead of a speech delivered in an hour. I ask you then to consider seriously not pertaining to yourselves merely, not for your race, and ours, for the present time, but . . . ‘into eternity.'”
– Submitted by Peter A. Gilbert, Executive Director, Vermont Humanities Council
America’s War, Talking About the Civil War and Emancipation on their 150th Anniversaries (2012), Edward L. Ayers, ed., p, 202.
“Address on Colonization to a Committee of Colored Men,” Washington, D.C.