Lincoln Meets Black Leaders

On August 14, 1862, Abraham Lincoln did something unprecedented in presidential history up to that point: he met with a small delegation of black leaders (all free black clergymen). But the meeting did not auger a decision to give African Americans a voice in government. In essence, Lincoln sought to lobby these men in essence to agree to a divorce. In other words, the President wanted to get black Americans behind his plan to colonize them abroad. The meeting’s minutes recorded:

Having all been seated, the President, after a few preliminary observations, informed them that a sum of money had been appropriated by Congress, and placed at his disposition for the purpose of aiding the colonization in some country of the people, or a portion of them, of African descent, thereby making it his duty, as it had for a long time been his inclination, to favor that cause; and why, he asked, 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.

So, in other words, Lincoln subscribed to the notion common among whites in the North as well as the South that it would be impossible for whites and blacks to live together peacefully in a United States without slavery. Lincoln’s support for colonization was long-standing, the seed planted by his political role model, Henry Clay, who also supported the idea.

The reason Lincoln took the unprecedented step of inviting black leaders to the White House was to convince them to support his murky colonization plan. While Congress had appropriated money for colonization, there was as of August 1862 no definite location decided on for where to colonize the black population after emancipation. At the meeting, Lincoln mentioned Liberia, in West Africa, founded by the American Colonization Society in the 1820s, or some place in Central America or the Caribbean. It was clear that not only did the President want to support of these black leaders for colonization, but he wanted them to sweat the details of where and how colonization would be accomplished. He left them with a charge to come up with an appropriate colonization plan and report back to him when they finished.

While the black leaders that met with Lincoln agreed to consider the idea, no plan ever was forthcoming, as it was clear colonization had little appeal among most members of their race, free or slave. While Africa might be the land of their ancestors, African Americans were as attached to the land of their birth as any white person. A small percentage of black Americans found the idea of colonization appealing or were at least willing to give it a try, but the poor record of Lincoln’s colonization initiatives during the war evaporated most of this support. What most African Americans wanted during the Civil War was freedom and equality in their home country. Given their opposition and the dawning realization over the course of the war that colonization was impractical, Lincoln and other northern leaders gradually gave up on the idea, especially as it became clear that the fears of an emancipation race war were proving unfounded.



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
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8 Responses to Lincoln Meets Black Leaders

  1. Brad says:

    It wasn’t his finest hour, but probably needs to be seen in the context of hoping for the right moment to announce Emancipation and as a possible alternative (or supplement) to Emancipation. As late as his December 1 message to the Congress, he was still flirting with the idea, possibly creating the belief that he would not sign the Proclamation on January 1.

    • I sincerely believe by pushing for colonization Lincoln sought, at least in his own judgment, to do what was best for both races. In retrospect, colonization clearly was a horrible idea, but it is important to realize where Lincoln was coming from and that his belief that whites and blacks could not live together in a United States free of slavery was a common one.


  2. Margaret D. Blough says:

    Donald-In addition, it was not an unrealistic assessment, given what actually happened after the war ended. What is extraordinary about the meeting is that the President of the United States met with leaders of the black communities to get their feelings on the issue. What is striking in the history of the colonization movement prior to this is how white dominated it was, particularly at the leadership level and how totally uninterested this white leadership was. It’s also noteworthy, that colonization received emphasis in the Preliminary EP and wasn’t mentioned in the final EP and the final EP authorized black enlistment in US armed forces but the preliminary EP didn’t mention it at all.

  3. Edwin Thompson says:

    Lincoln may have been the first President to sit down and speak with a group of Black American leaders, but was it unique? We can assume many northern abolitionists had been doing this for decades. Consider free black men like Fredrick Douglas who was not only walking around free, but publishing newspapers like the North Star. It sounds like what Lincoln did was special in that, as President, he was providing black leaders with some wiggle room to control their destinies (albeit – very little). Lincoln’s thoughts were very progressive for a man of the 19th century.

    As a reminder – in 1860, Charles Darwin published “The Origin of Species”. That set off numerous debates, of which many white people found it unimaginable that all of mankind were related. How could white and black people be related? To challenge the wisdom of the bible which claimed that God made man was heresy. I have wondered if Lincoln had read Darwin’s work – or what his thoughts were on the subject. What was he thinking when he was sitting down with these men? It sounds like he treated them as equals.

    Also – Darwin and Lincoln had the same birthday – 2 of the greatest men of the 20th century born on the same day in 1809 – 2 men who had powerful scientific and political influence on our present day view of race.

  4. Margaret D. Blough says:

    Edwin-Douglass certainly understood the significance of the act when he came to the White House as an invited guest after Lincoln’s Second Inauguration. This was only a few years after the US Supreme Court in Dred Scott said that black people had no rights that white people need respect. Abolitionists did not exactly play a leadership role in much of white Northern society.

    • Edwin Thompson says:

      Actually Margaret, I am not sure how Douglas’s visit to the White House got into this conversation. Don did not reference him. I was referring to the role of free blacks like Douglas who continuously kept the issue of slavery a primary issue. Douglas published for decades. Slavery was a primary issue when the Constitution was written, and it was the issue that elected Abraham Lincoln.

      On the abolitionist role in northern society, I’d strongly disagree. Look at the world – slavery was disappearing world wide. Uncle Tom’s cabin was the most popular book of the time. Look at the voting record. Lincoln won 50% of the popular vote in states that had him on the ballot in a 4 way race. By today’s standards – it is a landslide. As for Dred Scott, that Supreme Court decision was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Lincoln got votes from that decision.

      Don’s articles says volumes about Lincoln attitude toward his fellow man and his intention to not let this newly form democratic republic fail. Further proof why this humble man from Illinois deserves great historical credit.

  5. James Morgan III says:

    The men that met with President Lincoln were not clergymen. Three of them were leaders of the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of the District of Columbia (Prince Hall Freemasons) as well as leaders in other organizations fighting for a Unionist emancipation.

  6. Jay Collins says:

    Additionally, Lincoln gathered these men together to sort of scold & lecture them for not already being on board with this initial idea of colonization and for continuing to drive the great American divide even further. The leaders were not pleased after this meeting. It was really after this that Frederick Douglas began a crusade to harass and manipulate Lincoln into freeing the slaves as a last effort so he wouldn’t be the president to lose the “united” colonies to the confederates.

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