Abraham Lincoln ‘wanted to deport slaves’ to new colonies
A new book on the celebrated US president and hero of the anti-slavery movement, who was born 202 years ago on Saturday, argues that he went on supporting the highly controversial policy of colonisation.
It was favoured by US politicians who did not believe free black people should live among white Americans, and had been backed by prominent abolitionists like Henry Clay as far back as 1816.
Mr Lincoln also favoured the idea. But he was believed to have denounced it after signing the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed of most of America’s four million slaves, in January 1863.
The notion that he came to regard it as unacceptable contributed to the legend of the 16th president, who is frequently voted America’s greatest, and is held by some to have left an impeccable record.
Yet Phillip Magness and Sebastian Page, the authors of Colonisation After Emancipation, discovered documents in the National Archives in Kew and in the US that will significantly alter his legacy.
They found an order from Mr Lincoln in June 1863 authorising a British colonial agent, John Hodge, to recruit freed slaves to be sent to colonies in what are now the countries of Guyana and Belize.
“Hodge reported back to a British minister that Lincoln said it was his ‘honest desire’ that this emigration went ahead,” said Mr Page, a historian at Oxford University.
The plan came despite an earlier test shipment of about 450 freed slaves to Haiti resulting in disaster. The former slaves were struck by smallpox and starvation, and survivors had to be rescued.
Mr Lincoln also considered sending freed slaves to what is now Panama, to construct a canal — decades before work began on the modern canal there in 1904.
The colonisation plan collapsed by 1864. The British were fearful the confederate states of the American south may win the civil war, reverse emancipation, and regard British agents as thieves. Congress also voted to remove funding.
Yet as late as that autumn, a letter sent to the president by his attorney-general showed he was still actively exploring whether the policy could be implemented, Mr Page said.
“It says ‘further to your question, yes, I think you can still pursue this policy of colonisation even though the money has been taken away’,” he said.
Mr Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865.
Dr Magness said the book would change readers’ views of Mr Lincoln. Amid sharp political division, he is repeatedly championed by modern-day politicians, including Barack Obama, as a great unifier.
“Looking back from modern perspectives, we see colonisation as a very bigoted idea,” said Dr Magness, of the American University in Washington.
“So it’s a tough issue to integrate in to Lincoln’s story.
“It’s a tough racial issue, and it raises a lot of emotional issues. It doesn’t mesh well with the emancipation legacy, and it doesn’t mesh well with Lincoln’s image as an iconic figure.”