Lincoln on Race and Slavery

By Henry Louis Gates Jr.; Donald Yacovone et al. | Go to book overview

9

Eulogy on Henry Clay
& Outline for Speech to the Colonization Society:
CW, 2:127–129, 130–132 & 298–299

Next to temperance, colonization proved one of the most popular reform movements in America prior to the Civil War. The American Colonization Society, founded in the halls of Congress in December 1816, included men like the political powerhouse Henry Clay, Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington, and Francis Scott Key. The organization quickly recruited President James Monroe and most of the nation's political elite into its fold. To Speaker of the House Clay, colonization held out the hope of purging the nation of its free blacks, “a useless and pernicious, if not a dangerous portion of its population.” According to Clay, by resettling in Africa, blacks would Christianize the “dark continent” and help bring it into the modern world. How so “useless” a population in America could work such wonders in Africa remains unclear, but Clay and his associates saw themselves as benevolent reformers who had the best interests of all blacks and all Americans at heart. Clay, a major slaveholder, refused to consider abolition when helping to found the society, but by 1831 came to see slavery as a violation of human rights and in Kentucky and elsewhere sought ways to end the practice. He understood intimately the obstacles to emancipation and sought compromises that would gradually and painlessly move the nation away from reliance on slave labor. While many Northerners sympathized with Clay and supported gradual emancipation, Southerners increasingly saw colonization as a means to buttress the “peculiar institution” by eliminating those most likely to challenge white domination: free blacks. In his eulogy to his political hero Clay and in his notes for an 1855 speech on colonization, Lincoln expressed his lifelong commitment to the colonization of black Americans as a vital part of the plan to end slavery and keep the

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