Phillip W. Magness

Historian – 19th century United States

More on Colonization, Lincoln, and Butler

The Civil War Memory blog has weighed in to the ongoing discussion about Lincoln and colonization with an interesting inquiry, asking “to what extent does Lincoln’s continued advocacy of colonization overshadow the rest of his public statements and policy decisions?”

I’ve offered my thoughts in the comments section over there, echoing several points of my previous posts on the subject. The quick version of my answer can be summarized in the following points:

  1. Lincoln almost certainly continued to entertain an interest in colonization until the end of his life.
  2. Lincoln always considered colonization to be a voluntary proposition, and its final form almost certainly represented but one of many options under consideration for the highly uncertain and complex problem of post-war racial relations. His entire policy prescription in this area was also still in flux and his assassination precluded him from settling upon a more developed reconstruction policy.
  3. Lincoln’s motive for colonization was almost entirely rooted in his fears of racial violence against the freedmen in a post-slavery society – it was an escape valve of sorts, if you will, though also one he probably expected to develop into a larger migratory movement once established on a firmer footing and underway.
  4. There is no reason to believe that Lincoln’s continued support for colonization poses an inherent contradiction with his views on black citizenship (which had been implicitly indicated since at least his critique of Dred Scott and explicitly asserted since an important November 1862 Attorney Generals opinion, released at the peak of his public colonization advocacy) or his limited endorsement of black suffrage for those who stayed.

I’d also note that these conclusions bear little resemblance to the recent mischaracterization of my work by Allen Guelzo, which is in part why I have taken such vigorous exception to its claims.

Guelzo represents only a small part of the historical discussion though, and fortunately there is room for collegial discussion of an admittedly controversial issue elsewhere.

In answer to the aforementioned question, Brooks Simpson – who last week hosted Sebastian Page’s remarks – has also weighed in with an extended and thoughtful post of his own here. Brooks is an always-thoughtful historian of the Civil War as well as a mutual acquaintance I know through the Abraham Lincoln Association. It is a worthwhile read that hits on a number of points that further the scholarly discussion, precisely opposite of how Guelzo’s attack does not. On this note, I do diverge on some interpretive points (e.g. whether we can still place any credence in the lullaby theory when Lincoln was still pushing colonization well after the supposed lullaby ceased to have any political value) but there is much to agree with in his observation that Lincoln’s degree of clarity on what a post-slavery United States would look like has been severely overstated, and colonization is part of the mix.

Brooks also separates the issue of the Benjamin F. Butler anecdote from some of the other post-emancipation colonization evidence, echoing a similar point that Seb made last week. While we cannot strictly hold these items in mutual exclusion as they both illustrate aspects of the colonization story and – assuming one accepts Butler – reflect a larger consistency about colonization in Lincoln’s thought. But other evidence exists even outside the Butler story. Brooks also points us to a couple of remaining challenges he presented about the Butler anecdote in the wake of my 2009 article on the subject, which challenged an earlier dismissal of Butler by Mark E. Neely.

For those interested in the particulars of the Butler piece, I’ll direct you to my 2009 article for a synopsis of the event and to the post I penned the other day, following Seb’s remarks and in response to a number of issues raised in the ensuing discussion about Butler’s reliability. As many of the lingering objections raised by Brooks and other commentators fall within the discussion of this post I’ll avoid rehashing the same territory at length. But I do want to weigh in upon a handful of pressing points in evaluating Butler:

I. Most critiques of Butler’s story remain exclusively attached to the 1892 version from his autobiography.

This is a highly problematic starting point because the 1892 version is the last and furthest removed of three different accounts of the meeting. It is also the weakest of the three by far, and exhibits clear signs of both Butler’s faltering memory and his tendency toward embellishment (more on that shortly). This is not to suggest we should ignore the 1892 account – only that to focus on it exclusively results in an omission of two earlier versions that are less afflicted by the same faults and issues that are enlisted in the case against the 1892 version.

Specifically, the 1884 version is entirely consistent with the April 1865 timeline I have suggested and – being a synopsis – lacks the embellishments about Butler’s military ability. The 1886 version is mostly consistent with the timeline, a single exception being that it misplaces Seward’s carriage accident (April 5) after Lee’s surrender (April 9). It contains a few obvious embellishments such as praising Butler’s troop movements on the James River, but they are substantially subdued by comparison. The 1886 version simply states that Butler’s flotilla movements “show that you understand such matters” whereas by 1892 the description of this event becomes Lincoln’s praise for an allegedly “magnificent”  action. The problem with only examining the 1892 version when it obviously grew from at least two prior tellings should be self-evident.

II. Butler composed his story by dictation

Butler’s already poor eyesight declined dramatically in the last years of his life to the point that he composed primarily by dictation to a stenographer. This is significant because the dialogue he attributes to Lincoln differs substantially between the 1886 and 1892 versions (the 1884 version was only a synopsis with no dialogue) even as the details of the story follow a similar course. As noted, the latter version is longer and contains a significantly more embellished account of Lincoln’s alleged praise for Butler’s dubious military abilities. The differences demonstrate that Butler did NOT use the 1886 version when composing the 1892 version, but rather dictated two versions of the same story twice, separating them by a couple of years.

Coming again from dictation, Butler’s telling in each case takes on the characteristics of a raconteur relating a story of approximated dialogue as opposed to a fixed recollection of precisely considered and perfectly consistent wordings. This also lends itself directly to the aforementioned embellishments that do appear in increasingly pronounced ways by the 1892 account.

III. Butler’s declining health affected his composition, especially in the 1892 version.

Butler’s memory for specific dates was visibly failing by 1892. His autobiography, dubbed Butler’s Book, is full of errors of this sort and most consist of common events placed a few days or weeks off from when they actually happened. The colonization anecdote is simply another among them, and notably makes a jump from its mid-April date of the two prior published versions to an approximated date a few weeks earlier in March. Butler also knew of the problem with his memory, referred to it openly in the text, and conceded that he was composing without the benefit of a diary to reference for dates. He also spent the final months of his life collecting a list of corrections for the publisher that his many correspondents sent him after the book came out. They were intended for a revised 2nd edition that was never to be.

IV. There are several details that are consistent across the accounts, and others that reflect highly specific knowledge of Lincoln’s colonization program

A chart of comparison may be found on pp. 112-113 of Colonization after Emancipation,  also at this link. The overall consistency of three independent versions separated by several years suggests that Butler related some version of an actual event, as opposed to making it up on the fly.

A few specific details that lend credibility to the story include (1) a possible reference to Lincoln’s then little-known colonization scheme in Demerara, British Guiana, (2) an indication that Lincoln and Butler had spoken about colonization some years prior, making it a more likely subject for them to resume, (3) the common attribution of Lincoln’s concluding remark “there is meat in that” – a saying that Butler attached to a handful of different Lincoln anecdotes throughout the years, and (4) a reflection that Lincoln’s motive for colonization was rooted in his fears of postwar racial violence, which shows through even as Butler clearly invented much of the dialogue through which it was conveyed.

This is by no means intended as an exhaustive account of the specific issues with Butler’s story or an answer to every conceivable challenge raised about them. Some I have already addressed in my post on Butler from the other day. Others I hope to take up in due time as the discussion permits them. But the recent interest in discussing Lincoln and colonization remains a welcome one that I hope to continue in constructive ways in the coming days and weeks.

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