SocraticGadfly: The complicated Mr. Lincoln and black colonization

December 07, 2012

The complicated Mr. Lincoln and black colonization

I’ve seen the new Lincoln movie twice, recommended it as a must-see, and stand by that. At the same time, after hearing Tony Kushner on NPR, I came to think that perhaps he (and Steven Spielberg) had put Abraham Lincoln on too much of a pedestal, and went on in a second blog post to further develop that idea. Per Eric Foner, I thought further that, while the movie might not be inaccurate, it is incomplete.

I want to background this somewhat.

First, I think Lincoln was the first modern president in a way that Jackson was not, namely, in the complexity, at least relatively speaking, of problems with which he had to deal. By this reckoning, the next modern president was Teddy Roosevelt.

So, it might be possible to see a president as great in some areas but still “iffy” in others. A good parallel to Lincoln might be FDR, and specifically on the issue of race relations. Did Roosevelt feel he had to go slow on how much he extended the New Deal to blacks because he felt the country as a whole, and not just Southern senators, weren’t ready to move faster, or did he have some racial “issues”?

That, then, ties back to Lincoln.

On some book reviews and other things, I’ve used the word “racialist” to note a person who is not a full-blown racialist, but who has more than just a touch of bigotry, and is willing to engage in pseudo-realistic explanatory devices to try to justify it.

Was Lincoln, by today’s standards, a racialist even in the 1850s? I’d argue yes. Was he still that way by his death? No. He had evolved that much.

Yet, and contra Foner’s comments in my second blog link, Lincoln may well have evolved little on the issue of wanting to colonize black Americans. He financially supported (he as president, not he as individual) a small colonization site in Haiti until 1864, and publicly, appears even after that to never have permanently repudiated the idea before an all-white audience.


A charitable but non-hagiographic argument is that he believed what he said in 1858, that the black and white races would simply find it too painful to live side by side.

But, if that’s true, how could he square that with his acceptance of Frederick Douglass’ statement that his ancestors had been in the US longer than Lincoln’s?

It is probably the biggest puzzler for me of just where we should rank Lincoln’s nobility and ideals.

Per one link in the second blog post of mine, Lincoln allegedly still discussed colonization with Ben Butler in April 1865, even after he had started talking about black voting rights.

I believe he would have continued to evolve, in a second term. However, I believe he may well have tried again to float colonization schemes, and that he might have been paternalistic about some aspects of Reconstruction.

In any case, perhaps Churchill’s famous quote about Russia, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” ultimately applies to where Lincoln was at, both personally and professionally, on race relations as of April 14, 1865.

At the same time, it's worth noting, that largely for the same reasons Lincoln favored it, many American blacks, whether free blacks of the North or just-freed slaves, also favored colonization. In fact, pre-Emancipation Proclamation, they included Douglass.

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