Phillip W. Magness

U.S. Economic & Political History

Did Lincoln really “slough off” colonization?

Most readers who have studied Lincoln and colonization in depth are familiar with John Hay’s diary entry of July 1, 1864, reporting that the president had “sloughed off” the idea of colonization. Since Lincoln is not known to have ever repudiated colonization outright, Hay’s unusual phrase has become the primary piece of evidence for the theory that he underwent a change of heart on the subject late in his presidency. So what exactly did “sloughing off” entail? The context of this cryptic passage is crucial.

Hay’s diary entry was likely spurred by the fact that the Senate had decided to repeal all federal funding for colonization a few days prior, though its decision to do so had little to do with Lincoln himself. Rather, it came about from an obscure rider attached to the massive Sundry Civil Expenses Act of 1864 – essentially the equivalent of the budget bill today. The Senate’s debate on the measure was brief and inconclusive, though their motives boiled down to three main reasons: (1) embarrassment from the Ile a Vache fiasco, a colonization attempt in Haiti that required rescue a few months prior by the United States Navy, (2) a desire to reallocate the money to other projects, including at least one competitor colonization plan put forth by Sen. James Lane of Kansas, and (3) a protracted feud between Emigration Commissioner James Mitchell and Interior Secretary John P. Usher over control of the colonization fund. This third motive in particular appears to have angered several legislators, who found their own requests to examine the financial papers of the Emigration Office impeded by bureaucratic infighting. Usher also made no secret of his willingness to give up the colonization monies if it also meant being rid of his sparring partner Mitchell.

Though he left no recorded thoughts on the colonization fund rider, Lincoln signed the full budget bill into law, apparently prompting Hay’s remark that he had “sloughed off.”  The full passage is as follows:

“I am glad the President has sloughed off that idea of colonization. I have always thought it a hideous & barbarous humbug & the thievery of Pomeroy and Kock have about converted him to the same belief. Mitchell says Usher allows Pomeroy to have the records of the Chiriqui matters away from the Department to cook up his fraudulent accounts by. If so, Usher ought to be hamstrung”

Already this paragraph shows greater complexity than its most famous phrase. Kock was the proprieter of the failed Ile a Vache venture and accordingly an obvious target of frustration, while U.S. Sen. Samuel Pomeroy of Kansas had taken on a concurrent role as an agent for another colonization proposal in the Chiriqui region of Panama. Entrusted with $25,000 from the federal fund, some of it still unaccounted for, Pomeroy had become the target not only of colonization’s critics but its supporters as well, hence Mitchell being the named source in Hay’s description.

It seems then that “sloughing off” was Hay’s way of attributing some of these same frustrations to Lincoln, who in turn allowed the colonization fund to expire, though it should also be noted that his being “about converted” away from colonization is far from the strong, decisive policy reversal that some have read into this statement. Mitchell would also later recount an 1864 conversation where Lincoln described the repeal of funding as an “unfriendly” amendment though one he could not sacrifice the budget to prevent.

If anything, experience urges caution in attributing conclusiveness to any of Lincoln’s colonization views. We now know through the evidence found in the UK National Archives and presented in Colonization after Emancipation that Lincoln continued the policy in earnest for longer than most historians had previously acknowledged. Lincoln’s colonization project in British Honduras advanced until the end of 1863, almost a year after the Emancipation Proclamation when many had assumed he had started to move away from the policy. Though it appeared to represent his silence, in reality Lincoln had only moved colonization out of the public sphere, where it met with a lukewarm reception and endless controversy, and into the private and insulated channels of diplomacy with Great Britain.

Similiar caution is in order with Hay’s diary entry. Lincoln’s subsequent interaction with the colonization issue is sparsely documented, though he did leave some clues that this reputed “sloughing off” was far from a permanent or decisive shift. When Congress repealed the colonization fund, Usher used it as a pretext to immediately discontinue Mitchell’s office and suspend his salary, some of it retroactively. The Interior Secretary’s brash action sparked an extended legal battle as Mitchell took his case for reinstatement to the Attorney General. Unfortunately many of the main records from this dispute are missing, yet in Colonization after Emancipation we present newly discovered evidence that Lincoln himself weighed in on Mitchell’s behalf. A log book at the Attorney General’s office indicates that Lincoln endorsed Mitchell’s petition and personally forwarded it to Attorney General Edward Bates. In November 1864 Bates answered Lincoln, informing the President that “you have the same right to continue Mr. Mitchell that you had to appoint him originally.” Any plans Lincoln may have had to use Mitchell’s services in his second term were cut short prematurely by his assassination at Ford’s Theater.

A second piece of evidence suggesting Lincoln’s continued pursuit of colonization comes ostensibly from 1865 only three days before his death. At several points later in his life, Gen. Benjamin F. Butler told an anecdote about a meeting he had with Lincoln at the White House in April 1865 where the president discussed reviving his colonization interests in Panama. Butler remains a controversial source for reasons I discussed at length here, and until recently most historians doubted that the claimed meeting even happened at all. We now know from a White House scheduling pass in Butler’s papers that the meeting with Lincoln did occur on April 11, 1865. The credibility of the general’s account, which he told in public at least three times in later years, is discussed at length in Colonization after Emancipation, along with newly available evidence that supports a more generous reading of Butler’s story than it usually receives.

What does this evidence tell us about Hay’s report that Lincoln “sloughed off” colonization in July 1864? At minimum, it suggests the “sloughing” was anything but conclusive. As with many policies, colonization likely had its peaks and troughs in Lincoln’s mind and Hay may have witnessed one such swing. Yet room certainly exists for Lincoln’s continued interest in black resettlement after the diary entry, and many others beyond Benjamin Butler attest to this. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles suggested as much in a lengthy essay on Lincoln’s post-emancipation plans for The Galaxy magazine. James Mitchell gave a similar assessment many times later in his life.  Though his concept of colonization changed from the time he inaugurated it almost three years prior, Lincoln at minimum kept the option available, hence his willingness to press for Mitchell’s retention at the end of his presidency. The reported “sloughing off” in July 1864 may show a wavering moment in Lincoln’s thought, undoubtedly precipitated by political frustration with those around him rather than an abstract philosophical reckoning. But it also did not conclusively shut the door on colonization as some have suggested. Rather, later evidence seems to indicate that Lincoln entertained reviving the policy.

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