Phillip W. Magness

U.S. Economic & Political History

Lincoln & Colonization: understanding the documents issue

Contrary to the recent insinuations otherwise, the colonization efforts Abraham Lincoln are reasonably well documented. We know the approximate dates of most of his active colonization experiments during the Civil War years. We have a rough time frame for several dozen recollected conversations on the topic that were recorded by Lincoln’s contemporaries. And we have evidence of active presidential involvement in colonization through at least the end of 1863 when other wartime considerations began to intrude upon its implementation and likely placed the enterprise “on ice” shortly thereafter, although not without the prospect of revival as the war shifted direction or came to an end.

Still, documentation is a pronounced problem for Lincoln’s colonization activities if only for the broad dispersal of the primary material and the incomplete nature of many surviving records. These circumstances have also proven surprisingly difficult for some Lincoln scholars to wrap their heads around because they also entail looking beyond conventional sources like the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. With this in mind, four basic pieces of knowledge should be taken into account by anyone wishing to research this subject:

#1 Colonization records in the Collected Works are very incomplete

Assembled under the direction of Roy P. Basler in 1953, the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln are the most complete compilation of his writings to date. They are far from comprehensive though, and hundreds of new Lincoln documents have since been discovered by the ongoing Papers of Abraham Lincoln project. This is also true of the colonization records, and Basler’s team missed at least 8 such documents when compiling the collected works. I compiled a list of these along with images here.

#2 The Lincoln Emigration Office papers were lost

Most of what we know about Lincoln’s colonization projects comes from the records of the Emigration Office (the bureau in charge of Civil War era colonization projects), which are housed in the Department of the Interior papers of Record Group 48 at the National Archives. The problem with this set of documents though is that it is incomplete. Many of these records – perhaps as much as half of the collection – were removed from White House sometime in 1864 amidst the political fallout around a budget dispute and repeal (you can even see a copy of the receipt for them here in Lincoln’s papers at the Library of Congress). They went from there into the personal possession of James Mitchell, the head of the Emigration Office. We also know with absolute certainty that they remained in his possession because (1) Mitchell described their contents in a letter to Ulysses S. Grant some years later and (2) they were inventoried in his will when he died in 1903, and even inspected by a newspaper reporter at the time. They have not been seen since, although I documented their journey and loss in this 2011 article for the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association.

#3 Lincoln’s wartime colonization program was controversial within his own cabinet and party

As a result of political hostility to colonization from within his own party, Lincoln became unusually tight-lipped when working on the program. At times he actively concealed it from the opposing parties in his administration, including cabinet secretaries who opposed the venture. Lincoln reportedly described fellow colonizationist Montgomery Blair as his “only friend” on the issue following a lukewarm reception to his strongly pro-colonization Second Annual Message.  He also reportedly counseled the contracted partner of the Ile a Vache colonization project to maintain utmost secrecy about the scheme, and similarly confided in Mitchell that several members of the cabinet were openly hostile to the program. While he did not obstruct colonization outright, one of the more consistently hostile parties was Secretary of State William Seward. We know of multiple instances where Seward seems to have become intentionally lackadaisical in carrying out Lincoln’s orders on colonization, which involved a heavy role for the State Department due to their international nature. Elsewhere Edwin M. Stanton is known to have engaged in open insubordination to block colonization recruiters from the wartime freedmen’s camps because he viewed them as competition for military labor. Even John Palmer Usher, the ostensible colonizationist Secretary of the Interior under whose department the program fell, began obstructing colonization in mid 1863 – possibly because he had a personal financial stake in a competitor colonization scheme that had fallen out of favor. The cumulative effect of these and numerous other instances was to force a degree of secrecy onto Lincoln’s colonization activities. He accordingly removed them from general cabinet and public discussions, turning instead to the negotiating tables of diplomacy or a select few loyal colonizationists in his administration such as Blair and Mitchell. As a result much of what happened around colonization did not involve general discussions in Lincoln’s cabinet, or close interaction with Congress.

#4 Lincoln’s pre-presidential colonization activities left a slim paper trail

Lincoln was a longtime colonizationist prior to his presidency, with a documented pattern of support for the scheme dating back to at least the 1840s. A few of his more notable pro-colonization speeches have survived. But even more did not, or only left partial records. For example, Lincoln gave at least two public speeches before the Illinois State Colonization Society though neither of them were recorded beyond a few newspaper announcements. He was also a member of the American Colonization Society, an elected officer in the the Illinois State Colonization Society, attended at multiple colonizationist meetings between its founding in 1853 and his departure for the White House, and appears to have played a major albeit neglected role in an attempt to secure colonization funding from the Illinois legislature in 1855. Yet these activities generally predated his prominence on the national political scene and are known to us only by sporadic newspaper summaries, which give us an incomplete picture of just how heavily involved he was with the colonization movement prior to his own presidency. A thorough accounting of those newspaper summaries and other related documents attests to a sustained pre-presidential pattern of involvement and support for colonization on Lincoln’s part.


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