President Abraham Lincoln‘s (pictured left) historic issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862 began the long and arduous process of undoing the horrors of slavery. While historians have long speculated on the machinations behind Lincoln bringing the ending of slavery into law, it appears that the President hoped freed slaves would consider returning to Africa or emigrating to Central America. On this day in 1862, Lincoln met with a delegation of freedmen to lay out his suggested plan.
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With constant opposition from the Democrat-led Confederate South, the federal government’s push to end slavery was limited by the constitution (until 1865) as it was ruled that states determined their own slavery laws.
Although Lincoln has been long revered for signing the Emancipation Proclamation and credited for bringing about change, it was done with measurable reluctance.
Abraham Lincoln on issuing the Emancipation Proclamation:
My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union.
This questionable benevolence led to the August gathering, where Lincoln looked to empathize with the struggles of freemen and the enslaved and what the future held for freed slaves in the South as well as the overall Union.
Lincoln to the delegation:
Your race are suffering, in my judgment, the greatest wrong inflicted on any people. But even when you cease to be slaves, you are yet far removed from being placed on an equality with the White race. You are cut off from many of the advantages which the other race enjoy. The aspiration of men is to enjoy equality with the best when free, but on this broad continent, not a single man of your race is made the equal of a single man of ours. Go where you are treated the best, and the ban is still upon you.
Why should the people of your race be colonized, and where? Why should they leave this country? This is, perhaps, the first question for proper consideration. You and we are different races. We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races. Whether it is right or wrong I need not discuss, but this physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both, as I think your race suffer very greatly, many of them by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence. In a word we suffer on each side. If this is admitted, it affords a reason at least why we should be separated.
During the rest of the gathering, Lincoln spoke directly about the need for separation, outright suggesting that Blacks, with the help of government funds, relocate and colonize Central America while mentioning the climate was closer to the freedmen’s “native lands” and the like. Liberia at the time was a destination for many freed Blacks at the time, but Lincoln thought that going south made more practical sense.
Free Blacks in the North were angered at Lincoln for his suggestion, and prominent Black Abolitionists, such as Fredrick Douglass (pictured) and Robert Purvis, thought Lincoln’s plan was racist and divisive. Even more shocking, in Benjamin Quarles‘s 1953 book, “The Negro in the Civil War,” it was written that Lincoln’s colonization agent James Mitchell handpicked an agreeable delegation of Blacks to represent the concerns of the overall group. Quarles stated that Lincoln wanted little opposition to his emigration plans and wrote that the group’s makeup was unknown while also being difficult to determine.
In Lincoln’s speech to the delegation, it could be argued that he wanted to be done with Blacks altogether, though it it seems that he believed in the ending of the suffering of the oppressed. In fact, he famously stated that signing the Emancipation Proclamation was the right thing to do.
Even Douglass, an opponent of the emigration plan, said that he felt welcomed in the President’s presence.
This strikes Lincoln’s motives as both intriguing and mysterious: The question remains then was Lincoln following his own lead by introducing the idea of emigration in order for Blacks to have a better life? Or was it a power grab by Whites who wanted to be rid of former slaves and freemen to keep the country to themselves?
To that, historian Kate Masur answered that the event may have been nothing more than a show and that emigration could have been resisted anyway.
In fact, all five were members of Washington’s antebellum Black elite and had strong ties to local religious and civic associations. Moreover, neither Mitchell nor Lincoln chose the delegates. Rather, the delegation emerged from institutions and decision-making processes that Black Washingtonians had developed before the Civil War and put to use in the dynamic wartime context.
Masur goes on to add that the delegation faced opposition from Black Washingtonians who felt that the small group could not speak to the concerns for masses of people. Further, AME church leaders and organizers were conflicted on emigrating, with neither support or opposition to the suggestion truly ruling over the other. In the end, this so-called delegation never offered a proper response to Lincoln and the matter moved on to become nothing more than lore.
Politics have always been a game of smoke and mirrors; that much is true today as it was during Civil War times. While Lincoln’s motivations may never truly be known, what can be determined is that the complexities behind the ending of slavery ran far deeper than the signing of the document.
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