Disunion on Lincoln’s Meeting With Black Clergy

One of the strengths of Disunion in the New York Times is it in essence is cloud sourcing a good history of the Civil War, one article at a time. No matter how important or obscure the episode, somewhere an expert exists willing to write on it gratis (they don’t pay authors) for the benefit of the Times online readership. Some of the pieces can seem a little antiquarian at times, but many of the best scholars of the American Civil War, especially from the rising generation, have contributed to Disunion, often more than once (my second piece for Disunion on Congress’ role in emancipation should appear one of these days).

Since this blog more or less is following the story of emancipation in the Civil War as it happens, the topics in Civil War Emancipation and Disunion cover often overlap since they both have a roughly chronological approach to choosing material. A good recent example is my recent post on Abraham Lincoln’s unprecedented meeting with African-American leaders August 14, 1862, which generated not just one, but two different pieces in Disunion. They both complement my blog entry nicely.

The first is “Lincoln’s Panama Plan” by Rick Beard, which appeared on August 16. Beard discusses Lincoln’s effort to colonize freed slaves in present-day Panama, of which Lincoln’s August 14, 1862 meeting with black leaders was an integral part. According to Beard, Lincoln was interested in the Chiriquí region of Panama (then Colombia) as a location to colonize emancipated slaves. An American, Ambrose W. Thompson, had a 10,000 acre claim in Chiriquí and planned to mine coal there for sale to the U.S. Navy. His idea, which appealed to Lincoln, was to employ colonized former slaves as his workforce. Ultimately, the plan failed because Thompson’s claim to the coal field was questionable, the coal itself proved of too poor quality for use as fuel, and the scheme was greeted by opposition by abolitionists (who thought it inhumane) and Central Americans (who did not wish their region to become a dumping ground for ex-slaves from the United States), and did not garner much support from many African Americans, most who were attached to their homeland despite their enslavement there and continuing discrimination.

The second Disunion piece, which appeared on August 17, is “A Separate Peace” by Kate Masur. Masur, who is an expert on Washington, D.C.’s Civil War-era black community. Her highly laudable aim is to tell “the delegates’ side of the story” of the famous August 14 meeting between Abraham Lincoln and the black clergymen. According to Masur:

All five of the men who listened to Lincoln’s case for colonization were members of Washington’s free black elite, chosen by a formal meeting of representatives from Washington’s independent black churches. The delegation’s history – and more broadly, black Washingtonians’ responses to the variety of emigration proposals on offer in 1862 — reveal a vigorous and complex debate among African-Americans regarding their future in the United States.

Among the newly freed slaves in Washington, some lived in miserable camps and were open to the idea of making their lives elsewhere. Henry McNeal Turner, a prominent minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, advocated a fair hearing for proponents of emigration and signed a petition asking Lincoln to choose Chiriquí as the location of a colony. Two other local A.M.E. ministers also expressed support for emigration in some form, and in June a ship left Alexandria, Va., for Haiti with about 150 emigrants on board.

Frederick Douglass was appalled by the support emigration agents seemed to be receiving among black Washingtonians, writing in his newspaper that even a small number of voluntary emigrants helped vindicate white colonizationists “who have made the ridding of the country of negroes, the object of long years of unwearied but vain exertion.”

In the summer of 1862, it was difficult to tell which way the wind was blowing. The president had decided to issue an emancipation proclamation, but only his closest circle knew about it. The war was eroding slavery, but who was to say what the ultimate outcome would be?

Kate Masur does a service reminding readers how much the future of emancipation remained uncertain in the Summer 1862. The season had begun with President Lincoln making a last stab at convincing politicians from the loyal slaves states to embrace gradual compensated emancipation. Rebuffed, Lincoln privately turned to immediate uncompensated emancipation and the August 14 meeting shows he was exploring the practicalities of this step as he saw them. The president, however awkward and demeaning his treatment of the clergymen’s delegation, recognized that colonization would be more practical with African Americans’ cooperation than simply foisting it upon them. But the delegates and everyone else but Lincoln’s cabinet were aware of Lincoln’s plan for the Emancipation Proclamation.

In this atmosphere of uncertainty, what Masur reveals is, at least in Washington, D.C., a black community divided, sometimes bitterly about the issue of colonization and understandably so. Indeed, the five black clergy that met with Abraham Lincoln did so on behalf of an African-American leadership in the nation’s capital mostly distrustful of the President and colonization. They agreed, at the request of James Mitchell, the administration’s point man for colonization, to meet with Lincoln and hear him out, but according to Masur, “but not before they passed two resolutions expressing grave doubts about the entire enterprise. The first stated that it was ‘inexpedient, inauspicious, and impolitic’ to support emigration; the second expressed skepticism that delegates chosen at that meeting could represent ‘the interests of over four-and-a-half millions of our race.’

In the end, the meeting between Lincoln and black leaders merely fed into existing divisions of African Americans in Washington, D.C. Kate Masur writes:

African Americans’ reaction was neither simple nor unified. Two days after the meeting, Edward Thomas, the chairman of the delegation, informed Lincoln that he had changed his mind and that he was interested in pursuing emigration to Chiriquí. As plans for a government-sponsored voyage got under way, one of Frederick Douglass’s sons sought to join the expedition. Hundreds of African-Americans from the Washington area volunteered to go, hoping to rebuild their lives far outside the ambit of slaveowners and the United States government. Many sold their belongings and moved out of their homes in preparation for the trip.

Both Kate Masur and Rick Beard finish by noting that in the sometimes acrimonious debate about colonization was essentially for nothing. The whole enterprise proved to be impractical for a variety of reasons, and African Americans with only a few exceptions were left by default to carve out a future for themselves in the United States. Masur adds, “But it is well to remember, also, how many white Americans rejected the idea of a multiracial nation and how many black Americans, recognizing the implications of that rejection, took steps to build their lives elsewhere.

Well, indeed.

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About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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6 Responses to Disunion on Lincoln’s Meeting With Black Clergy

  1. Edwin Thompson says:

    Good summary.

    It is well to remember that the United States was moving toward a multiracial society in the 19th century. A multiracial society ruled by a democracy. And now in the 21st century, we watch the Middle East slowing struggling to follow our example. Perhaps the civil war was not fought in vain. It only could have been avoided if our founding fathers hadn’t written a flawed Constitution.

    • Hi Edwin. I doubt things could have been avoided, especially as the Constitution reflected the racial sentiments of white people in the late 18th century. And don’t forget what happen during Reconstruction following the Civil War, with its failed experiment in biracial democracy.

  2. Edwin says:

    Agreed – the post civil war period was also difficult. Also – these have been very good posts on the Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation.

    When we read history (of all eras), we forget that we cannot view these ideas in the context of our current 21st century thought. In the 19th century, these men had no idea that “all men were created equal”. They suspected it, but now our DNA proves it.

    As Lincoln said in the debates with Douglas: “I agree with Judge Douglas, he (black Americans) is not my equal in many respects, certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowments. But in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal, and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.”

    This doesn’t take anything away from the Lincoln legend, but only adds to our understanding of him as a man and how he viewed others. In comparison to Southern leaders and many other Americans, he was nothing short of a Saint.

  3. David M. Fishlow says:

    Living in rural Chiriquí, I am interested in the swindle from the criminal-fraud point of view. Lincoln’s views on colonization have been chewed over in many places, but little is known about Thompson and his attempted swindle. In twenty years of living here, I have never heard of any coal deposits in Chiriquí, or in the province of Bocas del Toro (which is the present name of the province known in Thompson’s time as the Caribbean coast of Chiriquí.) For one thing, I would love to know the specifics of evidence Thompson adduced to substantiate his suppositiitious holdings. The late historian Paul Scheips wrote a Master’s thesis about him, (Paul J[oseph] Scheips, “Ambrose W. Thompson: a neglected Isthmian promoter” (Unpublished MA thesis, U. of Chi. 1949; microform ed. 1978) but so far I have been unable to get anybody at the library there to agree to convert the microfilm to .pdf so I can read it here in Panama. Ironically, if the colonists had come here, they might have suffered the same fate as the Swiss pacifists who settled here in 1939 and were viciously gunned down by the Panamanian police in a bizarre incident on July 7, 1941.

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