McLEAN, VA – Abraham Lincoln has inspired Americans for generations, but it was just revealed that he was a slave owner.
“For the sake of your race, you should sacrifice something of your present comfort for the purpose of being as grand in that respect as the white people,” Lincoln said, promoting his idea of colonization: resettling blacks in foreign countries on the belief that whites and blacks could not coexist in the same nation.
Lincoln went on to say that free blacks who envisioned a permanent life in the United States were being “selfish” and he promoted Central America as an ideal location “especially because of the similarity of climate with your native land — thus being suited to your physical condition.”
As the nation celebrates the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s first inauguration Friday, a new book by a researcher at George Mason Universityin Fairfax makes the case that Lincoln was even more committed to colonizing blacks than previously known. It even reveals that Lincoln himself owned slaves.
The book, “Colonization After Emancipation,” is based in part on newly uncovered documents that authors Philip Magness and Sebastian Page found at the British National Archives outside London and in the U.S. National Archives.
In an interview, Magness said he thinks the documents he uncovered reveal Lincoln’s complexity.
“It makes his life more interesting, his racial legacy more controversial,” said Magness, who is also an adjuct professor at American University.
Lincoln’s views about colonization are well known among historians, even if they don’t make it into most schoolbooks. Lincoln even referred to colonization in the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, his September 1862 warning to the South that he would free all slaves in Southern territory if the rebellion continued. Unlike some others, Lincoln always promoted a voluntary colonization, rather than forcing blacks to leave.
But historians differ on whether Lincoln moved away from colonization after he issued the official Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, or whether he continued to support it.
Magness and Page’s book offers evidence that Lincoln continued to support colonization, engaging in secret diplomacy with the British to establish a colony in British Honduras, now Belize.
Among the records found at the British archives is an 1863 order from Lincoln granting a British agent permission to recruit volunteers for a Belize colony.
“He didn’t let colonization die off. He became very active in promoting it in the private sphere, through diplomatic channels,” Magness said. He surmises that Lincoln grew weary of the controversy that surrounded colonization efforts, which had become enmeshed in scandal and were criticized by many abolitionists.
As late as 1864, Magness found a notation that Lincoln asked the attorney general whether he could continue to receive counsel from James Mitchell, his colonization commissioner, even after Congress had eliminated funding for Mitchell’s office.
Lincoln joins George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as U.S. President that were slaveholders despite misgivings. Washington freed his slaves when he died. Lincoln never got the chance to do that.