– March 6, 2020


Since its publication last August, the New York Times’ 1619 Project has come under a barrage of withering critiques. Historians took it to task for exaggerating the role of slavery as a motivating factor behind the Revolutionary War, while economists quickly dissected its empirically suspect attempt to redefine modern American capitalism as an outgrowth of the “King Cotton” plantation economies of the antebellum period. 

In its worst instances, the 1619 Project amounts to an unscholarly mess of historical misrepresentations, economic fallacy, and an explicit anti-capitalist ideological agenda. To the project’s further discredit, the Times’ editors and main contributors have adopted a dismissive stance in response to substantive criticism, including a refusal to correct documented factual errors among its historical claims.

Not all criticisms of the Times initiative have hit their mark though. 

Consider the case of Abraham Lincoln, whose support for the colonization of former slaves in tropical locales outside of the United States came under the scrutiny of project organizer Nikole Hannah-Jones. In a speech before a group of free African Americans at the White House on August 14, 1862, Lincoln observed, “Without the institution of slavery and the colored race as a basis, the war could not have an existence.” Given the likely persistence of racial conflict, he concluded, “It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated.”

Hannah-Jones uses this lesser-known example of Lincoln’s politics to impart complexity to his reputation as a racial egalitarian, including hints that the “Great Emancipator” exhibited misgivings over the prospect of political equality in the post-slavery United States. Several of the most effective critics of the project’s faulty Revolutionary War thesis then pounced on this Civil War–era suggestion as an example of another error.

Allen Guelzo, a prominent conservative historian, dubs the characterization an “outrageous, lying slander” against Lincoln, while Sean Wilentz, a noted progressive scholar, charges that Hannah-Jones had used the issue to obscure Lincoln’s larger aim of advancing emancipation, unattached to any colonization proviso. 

In both historians’ accounts, Lincoln’s interest in colonization is relegated to its limited deployment as a temporary political tool, and possibly insincerely at that, after which it could be discarded from the emancipation story.

Wilentz achieves this dismissal by erroneously reporting that Lincoln decoupled colonization from his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation of September 1862. This document’s second paragraph actually announced the continuation of the government’s “effort to colonize persons of African descent, with their consent.” He then further excises the policy from the District of Columbia Emancipation Act, which actually contained $100,000 in colonization funding – reportedly the main factor that induced Lincoln to sign the measure.

Guelzo goes even further, recasting colonization as something of a political ruse by Lincoln to lull the Northern electorate into accepting the more radical proposition of abolishing slavery. Or as he puts it, colonization was “the great tranquilizer of white anxiety” during the months leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation. Such speculations are not new. They date to the Civil War era itself, and Guelzo quotes one such example in the journalist Frederick Milnes Edge who pondered from afar that the aforementioned D.C. Emancipation Act’s colonization fund had been promoted by Lincoln “to silence the weak-nerved.”

Though it was unknown to Edge as he penned these words and, apparently, Guelzo today, Lincoln’s own actions in the wake of the D.C. Emancipation Act contradict this suggestion. On the day after he signed the measure, Lincoln secretly summoned the African American abolitionist and Liberian missionary Alexander Crummell to the White House for an informal conversation about soliciting recruits to use the measure’s colonization provisions.

Edge’s speculative explanation for Lincoln’s many public colonization remarks has nonetheless proven a powerful intoxicant for historians who desire an exonerative explanation for their content. Thus writers such as Guelzo and Wilentz echo it today, and advance an account of Lincoln almost wholly divorced from his colonization arguments. With palliative deed complete and the tranquilizer serving its political purpose, Lincoln then supposedly abandoned the proposal and “sloughed off” colonization for good, to use an oft-quoted line from the diary of his secretary John Hay.

Both views are steeped in an older literature of Lincoln biography and commentary, including the two authors’ own work. But as we shall see, that same literature is almost 20 years out of date, having missed several subsequent archival discoveries that belie its contentions.

The first complicating factor is a succession of previously unknown records in foreign repositories revealing long-lost efforts of the Lincoln administration to secure prospective colonization sites from foreign governments. With materials in the government archives of the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Belize, Jamaica, and Denmark, these records attest to a shift in Lincoln’s colonization policies that began around January 1863. 

Having encountered the plagues of public graft and corruption in his earlier colonization ventures with private landholders, Lincoln turned to the secretive channels of diplomacy and what were seen as stable European powers with labor-starved Caribbean colonies. In sum, these State Department initiatives extend the known record of Lincoln’s colonization program over a year beyond the final Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863.

Second, and contrary to the suggestions of both Wilentz and Guelzo, Lincoln clearly envisioned colonization as a corollary policy to the more famous Proclamation. While Guelzo and Wilentz demarcate January 1, 1863, as the end of Lincoln’s colonization interests, the 16th president actually spent the evening before his most famous act in the company of colonization negotiators. They were putting the finishing touches on a pilot program to transport some 500 freed slaves from Fort Monroe, Virginia, to a prospective colony on the Île-à-Vache off the coast of Haiti. The project’s agent, Bernard Kock, returned to the White House in the company of Sen. James R. Doolittle the next day to obtain the president’s signature on the finalized arrangement only an hour before he issued his more famous Proclamation.

Although the details of Kock’s contract were intentionally obscured from the press so as to avoid the political corruption that plagued an earlier and more public colonization project the previous fall, Lincoln actually signaled his intention for emancipation and colonization to proceed hand-in-hand. The day after the Proclamation, an anonymous editorial appeared in the Washington Morning Chronicle announcing its consummation as “initial point of separation of the black from the white race” through voluntary colonization abroad. The article’s hidden author was John Nicolay, the president’s personal secretary.

Lincoln, for his own part, pitched the scheme out of a genuine concern that the post-slavery South would devolve into institutionalized racial terrorism at the hands of former plantation owners. This pessimistic appeal earned him the ire of Frederick Douglass, who denounced him as an “itinerant colonization preacher.” But his scheme also resonated with other black abolitionists including Henry Highland Garnet, a leader of New York City’s black community who barely escaped the violence of a white-supremacist mob during the New York Draft Riots of 1863, and John Willis Menard, who later became the first African American to win election to Congress. In fact, the 1862 White House speech highlighted in Hannah-Jones’s essay entailed one such attempt to sway a free black audience into accepting colonization as a safety valve from racial oppression in a post-slavery South.

Both the Haitian venture and the arrangements with the European powers would falter over the next year, though not for want of Lincoln’s own recurring efforts to breathe life into them. As the president explained to a British visitor in June 1863, colonization was his “honest desire.” Lincoln nonetheless found his “colonization hobby,” as he often referred to it, hamstrung by political setbacks.

William Seward, Lincoln’s otherwise-loyal secretary of state, opposed the project and settled into a pattern of intentionally dragging his feet when processing the president’s colonization directives. At one point in August 1863, Lincoln had to personally order Seward to transmit a signed colonization agreement to the British legation in Washington, D.C., after the secretary had sat upon it for almost two months. That same November, Seward stalled a signed colonization treaty between the United States and the Netherlands by declining to submit it to the Senate for ratification.

A series of mishaps plagued the Île-à-Vache  project, beginning with a smallpox outbreak shortly after the expedition set sail in April 1863 and culminating almost a year later when the colony collapsed from mismanagement and had to be rescued by the U.S. Navy. The publicity surrounding disaster and the political bickering it provoked as competing government officials rushed to point fingers of blame further dampened congressional enthusiasm for continuing the president’s colonization programs.

Finally, the persistent presence of political graft caught Congress’s attention during an annual review of approximately $600,000 in dedicated colonization funding in 1864. After discovering financial improprieties implicating a cabinet official and suggesting that a sitting U.S. senator had absconded with several thousand dollars from the account, legislators moved to rescind the appropriation in June 1864. This event prompted Hay’s aforementioned diary entry that the president had “sloughed off” colonization, but neither Guelzo nor Wilentz supply the context of Hay’s next passage:

Mitchell says Usher allows Pomeroy to have the records of the Chiriqui matters away from the Department to cook up his fraudulent accounts by. If so, Usher ought to be hamstrung.

John Palmer Usher was the secretary of the interior, accused of permitting illicit access to the colonization account. Samuel Pomeroy was the implicated senator, having previously held a contract on a competing colonization project in modern-day Panama. Perhaps most importantly, Hay’s named source for this information was James Mitchell, a longtime Lincoln associate who now served as the government’s colonization commissioner.

Far from signaling the abandonment of the program, Hay’s passage reveals that Mitchell was whistleblowing to the White House about corruption in the program. Mitchell himself would later record a conversation with the president from the same week. Lincoln informed his colonization commissioner that the recent congressional action constituted an “unfriendly” amendment to the budget. Lincoln, it now appears, had not experienced the change of heart that Guelzo and Wilentz imply from Hay’s comment. Rather, he was angry that his subordinates were stealing money from the colonization account and frustrated by Congress’s decision to strip away the funding.

While this setback effectively iced the remaining colonization initiatives of the administration for the duration of the Civil War, there are several signs that Lincoln intended to revive the program after the resumption of peace. After his reelection in November 1864, Lincoln moved to replace Usher in his cabinet with James Harlan, a colonization supporter and close friend of Mitchell. Lincoln also solicited his attorney general, Edward Bates, for a legal opinion that would allow him to sustain a small budget and back pay for Mitchell’s office, in lieu of the suspended funding.

The final clue came on February 1, 1865, in the form of a recently discovered memorandum. Mitchell apparently met that morning with Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, to discuss a proposal that would see the colonization office’s funding partially restored as the war wound to an end. Stevens, who had shepherded the 13th Amendment through the House of Representatives only a day earlier, appended his signature on the memorandum for intended delivery to the president. His accompanying note read simply, “I cheerfully recommend the above named settlement.”

Lincoln either never received Stevens’s note, or never had the opportunity to act upon it, as he fell to an assassin’s bullet on the evening of April 14, 1865. The question of what, if any, role colonization might have come to play in the racial policies of Lincoln’s second term is therefore necessarily unanswerable, although Capitol Hill chatter from the early spring of 1865 hinted that Lincoln intended to appoint Mitchell to an unspecified role in the newly created Freedmen’s Bureau. The former colonization commissioner’s files at the National Archives contain a long list of senators’ signatures on a statement endorsing this proposed transfer of roles.

What we do know for certain is how Lincoln’s own friends and associates understood his position on colonization in his lifetime, as several left testimonials on the subject that chafe with the two historians’ assessments. Note that Guelzo, in another critical essay on the 1619 Project, characterized the 16th president’s position thusly: “Lincoln was, at best, ambivalent about colonization.”

Contrast this dismissive assessment with the words of William Seward, conveyed to a bedside visitor during his own long recovery from a parallel assassination attempt on the night of John Wilkes Booth’s infamous deed:

“No knife was ever sharp enough to divide us upon any question of public policy,” said the Secretary, “though we frequently came to the same conclusion through different processes of thought.” “Only once,” he continued musingly, “did we disagree in sentiment … His colonization scheme.”

As we grapple with the substantive historical defects of the 1619 Project – and there are many – it is important to do so from a position of rigorous adherence to historical evidence. It is also important to temper our temptation to overinterpret the same evidence from the vantage point of the present. While Lincoln’s colonization remarks grate the modern ear, and evince a patronizing paternalism toward the program’s intended participants, they also reflect the sincerity of his anti-slavery beliefs and an accompanying recognition that white-supremacist violence would not end with the formal abolition of the institution.

This condition need not be gratuitously vilified, as the 1619 Project risks doing in the absence of temperate analysis, but nor should it be obscured with misleading and mistaken historical arguments offered for the sake of discrediting a point where the 1619 Project actually has the stronger case.

Instead we might ponder why the assessments of Wilentz and Guelzo veer so far from the evidentiary record, encompassing not only new archival discoveries but also common knowledge in Lincoln’s own lifetime. One eyewitness to the emancipation story left a final clue to the complexities of Lincoln’s thought. 

While recording his own memories after the war, Lincoln’s secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, recounted Lincoln’s simultaneous pursuit of emancipation and colonization. They “were, in his mind, indispensably and indissolubly connected.” 

Phillip W. Magness

Phil Magness

Phil Magness is a Senior Research Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. He is the author of numerous works on economic history, taxation, economic inequality, the history of slavery, and education policy in the United States.

Books by Phillip W. Magness

Get notified of new articles from Phillip W. Magness and AIER.