New Revelations as the Emancipation Proclamation turns 150

On September 22, 1862 Abraham Lincoln issued what has since become known as the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Though less famous than its successor of January 1, 1863, this document publicly announced the president’s plan to declare “all persons held as slaves” in the states and portions of states still in rebellion “forever free” 100 days thereafter. In addition to this famous antislavery provision came two less-known stipulations – an offer “pecuniary aid” to any state that would voluntarily abolish the institution of slavery in its borders, and a corresponding pledge “to colonize persons of African descent, with their consent, upon this continent, or elsewhere.”

This old “Whig formula” of compensated emancipation and colonization was a hallmark of moderate antislavery thought in the antebellum decades, finding champions in men such as Henry Clay and, later, Abraham Lincoln himself. After attaching it to the preliminary Proclamation in September the president affirmed it once again in his annual message to Congress on December 1, 1862. Many historians have accordingly found it curious that both propositions are nowhere to be found in the text of the final Emancipation Proclamation. By January 1, 1863 the “Whig formula” simply seems to have vanished.

Where did colonization and compensated emancipation disappear to during this month-long interlude, and what then are we to make of Lincoln’s apparent decision to drop them from his final proclamation? After 150 years this question still begs historians for an explanation, with many suggesting that Lincoln took the opportunity of January 1st to move away from these moderate and highly conditional positions in favor of a more radical emancipationist stance. Others interpret it as the beginning of a gradual evolutionary move in the same direction. In both cases though, the evidence is almost entirely speculative if not outright wishful thinking.

Though Lincoln indisputably opposed slavery – the Emancipation Proclamation was indeed a move intended to ultimately extinguish the institution – his attachment to the “Whig formula” adds unsettling qualifiers to the Great Emancipator’s legacy, not the least because its provisions strike the modern reader as perplexingly retrograde. Reading its abandonment into the silence of the final Emancipation Proclamation accordingly seems to offer us an escape clause to the complexity of this earlier dual proposition in Lincoln’s thought.

As we reflect upon the 150th anniversary of the final Proclamation though, a closer evidentiary examination cautions against writing history from conjectural interpretations around “missing” words. In reality, we may conclusively say that Lincoln continued to pursue his colonization policy unabated well after the Proclamation, and quite probably still believed in it at the end of his life. He similarly held out compensated emancipation as late as February 1865, indicating that the “Whig formula” did not really disappear after all.

New clues to its disposition vis-à-vis the final Proclamation may be found in a closer examination of the events around New Year’s Day 1863, as my colleague Sebastian Page recently illustrated. Rather than dropping the provisions from the final Proclamation, Lincoln simply parsed them out for continuation – even simultaneously adding his signature to a separate colonization contract that same winter morning 150 years ago.

The context of the colonization in particular may be seen through the 24 hour period preceding the Proclamation. The president had previously distributed a draft of the document to his cabinet, which met on the morning of December 31 to offer revisions and prepare the final copy. Several officers provided stylistic suggestions, though curiously none pertained to the missing “Whig formula” from the September 22 proclamation. Not even Postmaster General Montgomery Blair – the most vocal colonizationist on the cabinet – seemed to notice its absence much less object, as one might expect if the omission was intended to signal a change in the administration’s policy. As with others on the cabinet he likely knew that this was explicitly not the case, and indeed that the president would be finishing negotiations on a colonization project later that very same evening.

For some weeks prior the White House had been engaged in discussions with Bernard Kock, a cotton trader who held a lease for a small island off the southern coast of Haiti. With the apparent blessing of the Haitian government, Kock intended to colonize the Ile a Vache with emancipated slaves from the United States and had come to Washington to seek federal assistance in the venture. He arrived at the White House on the night of December 31 in the company of Republican Sen. James Doolittle of Wisconsin, a leading colonizationist in Congress, and promptly set about negotiating a colonization contract with the president. At about 9 PM Kock presented the final agreement to Lincoln and read it aloud, after which the president gave his assent as did Doolittle.

Though the New Year’s Eve discussions were not committed to paper as indeed private conversations seldom are, Montgomery Blair was undoubtedly aware of their happening. His father Francis Preston Blair, a longtime Washington power broker, played a role in the negotiations and may have even been present for part of the conversation. The senior Blair reported the agreement to his daughter, who recorded made the following note in a letter:

“Father says the Contract was signed and sealed today for taking 5000 contrabands to Hayti – rather an adjoining Island – Des Vache or some such name. He and Mr. Doolittle think it the beginning of the 2nd great Exodus.”

The closeness of the two events reveals that colonization was still very much on Lincoln’s mind as he issued the final Proclamation the next morning – perhaps even more so than the conventional emancipation narrative acknowledges. An anecdote attributed to Lincoln’s son Robert suggests the president did not retire that evening after the conclusion of his negotiations over Haiti. While the Haiti contract officially bears the date of December 31, Kock’s little-known account of the meeting, written in 1864, reveals that it was actually finalized the next day. He evidently returned to the White House with Doolittle on the morning of the 1st and obtained Lincoln’s signature.

The remainder of Lincoln’s day on January 1st is generally well known outside of its proximity to the Ile a Vache project. With the ink barely dry on the colonization contract, Lincoln gave his promised assent to the final Proclamation. Secretary of State William Seward arrived with the official copy of this document at about 10:45 AM but had to return to the printing office after Lincoln noticed an error in wording. Starting at 11 AM and continuing for the next several hours, the president received a line of well-wishers at a White House New Year’s gathering. He was able to slip out shortly past noon though and, his arm admittedly exhausted from the handshaking line of the reception, he affixed his signature to the returned copy of the Proclamation.

Intra-cabinet politics and rumors calling Kock’s intentions into question stalled the Ile a Vache project a few days later, though Lincoln later secured its resumption under the direction of a group of New York investors in April. Nor was this his only post-Proclamation attempt at colonization. Lincoln spent much of the spring of 1863 searching for other resettlement locales. He engaged in earnest with the governments of Great Britain and the Netherlands to find a suitable colony within their Caribbean holdings, and supported similar overtures to Liberia on the west African coast. Only the project with Kock bore fruit as roughly 500 freed slaves set sail for Haiti in the late spring. Much to Lincoln’s chagrin, the colony was plagued with disease and financial mismanagement from the outset and had to be rescued by Navy the following year.

As for compensated emancipation – the other half of the formula – it continued to pepper Lincoln’s conversations for some time to come as well. Compensation played a central role in his antislavery overtures to border states that were still in the Union, and he even floated the idea as late as February 1865 to the Confederate negotiators at the Hampton Roads peace conference. Consistent with his avowed antislavery views, Lincoln held the Emancipation Proclamation immovable though he once again entertained payment as a means to end the war and ease the process of reunification. The Confederates showed no interest in his offer, not on account of the newly adopted 13th amendment as recent fictional portrayals have suggested but rather due to their own insistence upon southern independence as a term of negotiation, and Lincoln’s refusal. The following week Lincoln drafted a similar compensation proposal for his cabinet, but finding no supporters there and little chance of agreement with a South that still insisted upon separation, he quietly withdrew the measure.

Neither of these corollary policies should call Lincoln’s antislavery beliefs into doubt, and indeed it should be remembered that he pursued them both out of the belief that they would bring about the gradual but certain demise of the institution. He certainly evolved on matters of race and slavery as well, expediting emancipation as a war measure and even coming to favor a limited suffrage policy for black soldiers by the end of his life. But there was no change of heart on colonization or compensated emancipation attached to the final Emancipation Proclamation, nor is there any real “mystery” behind their apparent excision from the document.

That neither colonization nor compensated emancipation became a permanent fixture of policy following the Proclamation of January 1, 1863 is only known through the hindsight of subsequent events. Bounded by context and uncertainty, Lincoln saw a different course those two winter days 150 years ago. As his secretary of the navy Gideon Welles later summarized, “it is impossible at this day for those who were not participants to conceive the perplexities.”

But perhaps the most direct insight to Lincoln’s position appeared in an anonymous editorial on January 2nd, likely authored and placed in a Washington paper by the president’s personal secretary John Nicolay. Praising the Proclamation, he wrote of a “successful and prosperous colonization within the tropics of this continent of the black nation today liberated by the President’s wise and just decree.” Far from signaling a change in course, the Proclamation was to operate concurrently with the Haitian contract and others like it as of yet unnamed. Only events unforeseen and circumstances not yet realized altered this course, situating one document in its due place of reverence while relegating the other to its present obscurity.

Sources: Sebastian N. Page, “Lincoln, Colonization and the Sound of Silence” New York Times “Disunion,” December 4, 2012; Bernard Kock (1864), Statement of Facts; Virginia Jeans Laas, ed. (1991), Wartime Washington: the Civil War Letters of Elizabeth Blair Lee; Michael Burlingame, ed (2000), With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay; “New Light on Lincoln’s Character,” The Christian Science Monitor, February 12, 1935; Gideon Welles, “The Administration of Abraham Lincoln,” The Galaxy Vol. 24, no. 4, (1877).