Colonization after Emancipation: Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement

Colonization after Emancipation: Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement

Colonization after Emancipation: Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement

Colonization after Emancipation: Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement


History has long acknowledged that President Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, had considered other approaches to rectifying the problem of slavery during his administration. Prior to Emancipation, Lincoln was a proponent of colonization: the idea of sending African American slaves to another land to live as free people. Lincoln supported resettlement schemes in Panama and Haiti early in his presidency and openly advocated the idea through the fall of 1862. But the bigoted, flawed concept of colonization never became a permanent fixture of U.S. policy, and by the time Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, the word “colonization” had disappeared from his public lexicon. As such, history remembers Lincoln as having abandoned his support of colonization when he signed the proclamation. Documents exist, however, that tell another story.

Colonization after Emancipation: Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement explores the previously unknown truth about Lincoln’s attitude toward colonization. Scholars Phillip W. Magness and Sebastian N. Page combed through extensive archival materials, finding evidence, particularly within British Colonial and Foreign Office documents, which exposes what history has neglected to reveal—that Lincoln continued to pursue colonization for close to a year after emancipation. Their research even shows that Lincoln may have been attempting to revive this policy at the time of his assassination.

Using long-forgotten records scattered across three continents—many of them untouched since the Civil War—the authors show that Lincoln continued his search for a freedmen’s colony much longer than previously thought. Colonization after Emancipation reveals Lincoln’s highly secretive negotiations with the British government to find suitable lands for colonization in the West Indies and depicts how the U.S. government worked with British agents and leaders in the free black community to recruit emigrants for the proposed colonies. The book shows that the scheme was never very popular within Lincoln’s administration and even became a subject of subversion when the president’s subordinates began battling for control over a lucrative “colonization fund” established by Congress.

Colonization after Emancipation reveals an unexplored chapter of the emancipation story. A valuable contribution to Lincoln studies and Civil War history, this book unearths the facts about an ill-fated project and illuminates just how complex, and even convoluted, Abraham Lincoln’s ideas about the end of slavery really were.


As unlikely as it may seem in retrospect given the present study it produced, this inquiry began as a simple quest to locate an elusive document from Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. On June 13, 1863, an agent bearing credentials from the Brithish government sat with Lincoln for a highly secretive interview at the White House. Following a brief discussion of the agent’s dealings with a member of the cabinet, the president handed his guest an order drafted by James Mitchell, the government’s commissioner of emigration, and bearing Lincoln’s own signature. The document outlined a proposal submitted by the agent, himself a representative of a large landholding corporation in the colony of Brithish Honduras, or modern-day Belize. He sought to transport the newly emancipated slaves of the United States to a tract of his company’s land. There they would be provided with acreage, dwellings, and tools to begin life anew as free agricultural laborers under the supervision of the Brithish government.

Ten the Brithish agent apparently marched off into history, authorization in hand, leaving few indications that he ever acted on its provisions. The American records contained only a second-generation secretary’s copy of the paper, neatly tucked away into an obscure file at the Department of the Interior unseen by most historians. This document sparked a corollary discussion of the West Indies scheme in a 2008 article about Lincoln’s colonization policies by one of the authors. Still, its own story lingered in mystery and prompted a subsequent search for the original in Lincoln’s pen.

This quest led us to the United Kingdom by way of historical dispatches from the Brithish Legation in Washington, D.C., where the agent from Belize fled a report of his business. A succession of document discoveries in the BriThish and American National Archives revealed that the 1863 meeting was part of a much larger colonization project, unknown to this day, wherein the American and Brithish governments sought to populate the West Indies with ex-slaves from the United States. Equally startling, this project occurred in the latter years of Lincoln’s presidency when it is commonly believed that . . .

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