By John A. O'Brien
Sunday, August 13, 2023
Lincoln was the first president to invite African Americans to a publicly announced meeting in the White House. On August 14, 1862, five prominent Black men of Washington City accepted Lincoln’s invitation to meet with him in his office. This unprecedented gathering was to be Lincoln’s attempt to engage their support for Black colonization overseas. It is always difficult to refuse a request from the most politically powerful officer in the country. Indeed, Lincoln got his requested voluntary colonization recruits soon after the meeting. Lincoln had a journalist attend and a transcription of the meeting appeared in newspapers across the country. The manner in which Lincoln conducted the meeting and the offensive language he used toward his Black visitors stoked lively controversy at the time and ever since.
Several pointed quotes have ever been used as “proof” that Lincoln was a racist and was never interested in the welfare of Black people. Lincoln started by acknowledging the gross injustice of slavery but went on to say that people of African descent could never achieve the status of Whites in this country. “Not a single man of your race,” he said, “is made the equal of a single man of ours." He further blamed the existence of Black people in America as the cause of the war. After this devastating assessment of the lack of prospects in the U.S., Lincoln launched into a powerful argument for the benefits of starting afresh in a new land where people of their color would be equal and could advance according to their merits. Lincoln’s reputation for wanting Blacks deported would now be firmly established in the minds of his historical detractors.
Lincoln had told his cabinet on July 22, 1862, that he was going to declare emancipation in the rebel states. He did not want their opinions for he had already thought through the problem and knew his course. What steps this involved, the president did not say. He shared with the cabinet his already drafted proclamation. Lincoln’s political sense was guiding his plan. The draft proclamation cited “military necessity” to secure the loyalty of pro-slavery Gen. McClellan and limit the expected negative reaction in the army. It is likely that Lincoln had already drafted his public justification for “what I do about slavery” and was just awaiting the opportunity to publish. That was provided by newspaper editor Horace Greeley the following week. Everything was lining up to support his issuing the draft Emancipation Proclamation by the end of August. He needed one additional example to show the northern voting public that he was mindful of their concerns about the flood of formerly enslaved people coming north if he were to proclaim general emancipation.
The colonization scheme that Lincoln pitched to the “Colored Gentleman” was half-baked. He explained the hastily devised Chiriqui plan for a colony in Central America. He described a fertile land of mineral riches and a welcoming social and political environment. Lincoln later realized that none of this was true. By October, the meeting attendees notified the president that 400 families had taken all necessary steps and were ready to sail. But the government made no further attempt to support the effort. Chiriqui was exposed as a complete fraud. Fortunately, the colonists were not put through the rigors of an actual expedition. But they had liquidated their possessions and now had to reestablish their American lives without support. Lincoln would portray their sacrifice as necessary for the greater good.
Newspaper editors throughout the north opined predictably on the “Colored Gentleman” meeting. Those who espoused a view of the future multiracial society railed against this attempt for government sponsored “deportation” of the people who had already shed blood and sweat to build this country. These were the minority. Most newspapers lauded this “noble effort” to rid the country of the expected conflicts that social integration would bring. Emancipation was agreeable if it was accompanied by a colonization plan.
Historian Henry Louis Gates urges caution about placing too much weight on this meeting as a reflection of Lincoln’s complete racial attitudes. This conversation was likely evidence of the ferocious struggle Lincoln endured, Gates said, under “the shape-shifting contingencies of command during an agonizingly costly war in which he wrestled with his often contradictory feelings and ambivalences and vacillations about slavery, race, and colonization.” Lincoln was troubled by the prospect of the vast social, political, and economic conflicts that would accompany the effort to assimilate a mass of former slaves. But the lack of any further effort to mature a colonization campaign strongly suggests that this meeting was merely a public relations gambit. It played more on the public prejudices that believed it was only reasonable that Black people would certainly flee the land of their oppression, if only the government would provide the support. It was this gift for understanding opinion and how to use it constructively that allowed Lincoln to dramatically shift the nation’s attitudes and law on race and justice over the mere four-year course of his presidency.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr, Lincoln on Race & Slavery (2009)
Kate Masur, An Example for All the Land (2010)
Michael Burlingame, The Black Man's President (2021)