Lincoln Argues in Favor of Colonizing the Freed Slaves

September 26, 1862 (Friday)

The Emancipation Proclamation would not immediately free all that many slaves. That did not mean, however, that it wouldn’t be one of the first steps in freeing all of them. In whatever way it was accomplished, something had to be done with the 3.5 million slaves living in the south.

Membership certificate in the Colonization Society

Since Lincoln took office, Cabinet meeting after Cabinet meeting had been held on this very topic. This was no mere idle banter. Congress, in April and July of 1862, appropriated $600,000 to find the freed slaves (and, in fact, all persons of color) a place to live, should they wish to leave. The only stipulation, it seems, was that it should be somewhere warm and not on American soil.

Lincoln did not back away from such talk. Quite the opposite, he had long been in favor of colonizing the black population. Long a follower of Henry Clay, Lincoln spoke highly of Clay’s plan of “returning to Africa her children.” Even in his 1860 Cooper Union speech, Lincoln called for the voluntary colonization of blacks so that their jobs could be filled by white laborers.

Before the war hardly got underway, an interesting plan had developed; one that, at first, seemed to have nothing to do with freed slaves. The idea was fostered by Philadelphia businessman Ambrose Thompson, and involved the area around Chiriqui, Panama, an area rich in coal. The government of Central America was apparently offering this land to the United States. This deal was one left over from the Buchanan administration. Secretaries Caleb Smith and Montgomery Blair both urged Lincoln to take Thompson up on the offer.

Naval Secretary Gideon Welles, who related much of this tale in his diary, was coaxed to enter into a coal contract with Thompson’s corporation. Welles considered it, but soon came to the conclusion that the whole deal was a scam. Smith, however, thought it a great idea and wanted the Navy to jump on the coal contract before some other nation did.

Lincoln thought so too, and even though it was brought up two or three times, nothing came of it. That is, until the Emancipation Proclamation forced all to try to figure out what to do with the freed slaves.

Caleb Smith was the first to combine the two. What if, proposed the Secretary of the Interior, the freed slaves were made miners in Central America? With Thompson on board, Gideon Welles was approached to offer up a paltry $50,000 as start up money.

Henry Clay, Lincoln's mentor.

Welles was a bit suspicious. $50,000 for coal not yet mined? Besides, nobody was really sure how many slaves would be freed or when they might be available for this new labor. The money, it seemed to Welles, was going directly into Thompson’s pockets with little promise of any return.

Most others in the Cabinet agreed with Welles. The idea wreaked of fraud. Nevertheless, Smith and the President both pushed it. As it turned out, the government of Costa Rica (who owned the land) was even less in favor of the Chiriqui plan than Welles. The deal fell through.

But the subject was not dropped. The day after the Emancipation Proclamation was released, Lincoln brought it up again. Lincoln hoped that some sort of treaty with Costa Rica or some other country could be struck. According to Welles, Lincoln “thought it essential to provide an asylum for a race which we had emancipated, but which could never be recognized or admitted to be our equals.”

Most in the Cabinet agreed. Attorney General Edward Bates took an even harder stance. Most, including Lincoln, wanted the deportation to be voluntary – if the freed slaves wanted to leave the United States, a place would be provided,ball of their fees paidpaid. If they wanted to stay, that was their right. Bates argued that nobody of African lineage would voluntarily agree to deportation. They would have to be forcibly removed – an idea he fully supported.

Secretary Chase was more or less against colonization, but thought it would be a good way to get a foothold in Central America. Seward, the Secretary of State, like the treaty idea – that was his nature. However, he thought that with all the land the United States has, the freed slaves could be used as much-needed laborers here at home.

Gideon Welles

Lincoln adamantly spoke out against compulsory deportation. It must be voluntary and at no expense to the black population, he believed. After he again brought up the idea of a treaty, Secretary Welles reminded all that there was no need for a treaty. Anybody who wanted to leave the United States could do so any time they wanted to.

When they met again, on this date, all but Welles and Chase were in favor of treating with some country to remove the black population.1


After the morning Cabinet meeting, Lincoln turned to other, equally strange, matter. A member of General-in-Chief Henry Halleck’s staff, Major John Key, was reported to have said something treasonous.

Major Levi Turner, another Union officer, asked Key’s opinion on why the whole Rebel army wasn’t bagged after Antietam. “That is not the game,” a sarcastic Key replied. “The object is that neither army shall get much advantage of the other; that both shall be kept in the field till they are exhausted, when we will make a compromise and save slavery.”

Major Key was the brother of a member of General George McClellan’s staff. Lincoln feared that Key’s thought was just one example of treasonous beliefs held by a number of other officers. If true, an example would have to be made of Key.

Lincoln took up his pen and wrote to Major Key: “I shall be very happy if you will, within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this, prove to me, by Major Turner, that you did not, either literally or in substance, make the answer stated.”

Both Key and Turner would appear before the President the next morning.2

  1. Sources: Diary of Gideon Welles; Diary of Salmon P. Chase; The Real Lincoln by Thomas J. DiLorenzo (used VERY sparingly); Colonization After Emancipation: Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement by Phillip W. Magness; “Lincoln’s Plan for Colonizing the Emancipated Negros” by Charles H. Wesley. []
  2. Sources: Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. 5; President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman by William Lee Miller. []


View all posts by