In 1871, veteran Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner was a leading opponent of President Ulysses S. Grant’s proposed annexation of San Domingo. Grant intended the new island territory to become a home for the freed slaves, though he also had imperial motives for establishing a United States foothold in the Caribbean. For obvious reasons, some supporters of Grant’s proposal likened it to Abraham Lincoln’s colonization policy almost a decade earlier. Knowing the political power of the late president’s name, Senator Sumner decided to do some research and investigate the validity of the comparison. He wrote the following letter to James Mitchell, Lincoln’s former Commissioner of Emigration.
Mitchell’s response reportedly filled 11 pages, describing his knowledge of Lincoln’s beliefs on colonization in perhaps more detail than any other individual who conversed with the President on this subject. Unfortunately it has since been lost, though Mitchell published a shortened version of it in a letter to the Atlanta Constitution on March 25, 1894.
Washington, July 5, 1871
My desire was to know any opinions expressed by President Lincoln on colonization or empire in the West Indies.
(1) Did he think those islands the proper home of the colored race, rather than of the white race?
(2) Did he covet them as part of an empire?
(3) Did he think the white race would flourish there?
(4) And did he think annexation desirable?
If you have recollections or notes of his opinions on these questions I should be glad to have them. Accept my thanks and believe me, dear sir, faithfully yours.
“I answered it in a brief of eleven pages of legal cap, a copy of which now lies before me, and the substance of which I will press into a few words:
First question – He regarded the colored race as tropical men, and the tropics as their proper home, rather than that of the white race.
Second question – He did not covet them as part of our dominion, quite otherwise, but desired that England should unite with us in creating an independent colored commonwealth in the American tropics for the benefit of the colored race and the relief of the south.
Third question – He did not think the white race would flourish there, but as a just man thought we should confine ourselves to our own zone.
Fourth question – He did not think annexation desirable, as it would introduce mixed and colored races in greater quantity than the nation could well digest or assimilate, holding firmly to the view that a homogenous population was a condition precedent to republicanism, and that in a republic each citizen must be the equal of his neighbor before the law and free from all impediment or hindrance to rise socially when virtue, ability, culture and fortune combined. To this elevation he saw in the tropical race a bar hard to remove and difficult to surmount and offered the colored race the next best thing – separate nationality.”