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Colonization: Some Proper External Receptacle

The subject of colonization, especially as it pertained to the views of Abraham Lincoln, is frequently brought up – often when discussing race during the Civil War. But by the time of the War, the push to colonize free African-Americans was all but over. It’s important, then, that we have a basic understanding of the multiple definitions of colonization, as well as its fluctuations throughout American history.

In its most basic forms, colonization was the idea to create a colony for black people somewhere outside of the United States. There were two main philosophies about how this should be accomplished. There was forced colonization – essentially structured deportation – and there was voluntary colonization – facilitating those black people who wished to live somewhere else. 1Lincoln, for what it’s worth, favored the latter until the middle of the war, when he, instead, favored equality. Read on, please.

Colonization as the Only Alternative to Slavery

The colonization movement began in earnest following the War of 1812, though it was pushed as early as 1790 by James Madison who wished for “some proper external receptacle” where black people could govern themselves. Like many in favor of colonization, he reasoned that it was “the prejudices of the Whites, prejudices proceeding principally from the difference of colour,” which he considered, “permanent and insuperable.” 2James Madison, “Memorandum on an African Colony for Freed Slaves,” in Papers of James Madison, ed. Rachal Hitchinson, 12:437-438. Found here.

Henry Clay - One of the founders of the American Colonization Society.
Henry Clay – One of the founders of the American Colonization Society.

This was the general sentiment at the time. Racism (what was then called “racial prejudice”) they believed, was too difficult for white people to overcome, which meant that the black people had to leave. This was the only full-scale alternative to slavery many would consider. There were some who favored a gradual emancipation spanning decades, but even they hoped that the freed slaves would move along at their own will. Even at this early stage of the nation, colonization had divided itself into two distinct camps – forced and voluntary. While this was all being debated, however, the Constitution was ratified, and slavery established as a right of the states. 3Lacy K. Ford, Deliver Us From Evil (Oxford University Press, 2009) 47-48.

Through the War of 1812, this sentiment grew, aided by several high-profile slave insurrections along the way. Slavery, at this point in history, seemed to be dying out. The land gained from the war, as well as the Mississippi Territory (encompassing modern Mississippi and Alabama) weren’t quite fully opened to full scale agriculture. Slavery was not expanding, and when slavery could not expand, it was unable to survive. Before long, they feared, these slaves now rising up in rebellion would be set free to live among the masses. 4For more information on all of this, I can’t suggest enough Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. For the slave uprisings and how they effected the colonization ideas, try Douglas R. Egerton’s Gabriel’s Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802 for a fine example.

Virginia was at the forefront of the colonization effort. They had been witness to slave revolts and, as of 1810, had a population of 970,000 – 400,000 of whom were slaves. Long had they pushed the Federal government to enact forced colonization. Following the War of 1812, they began to take a different approach, and before long the American Colonization Society was formed. By 1819, President James Monroe, acting against the wishes of everyone from the anti-slavery John Quincy Adams to the pro-slavery John C. Calhoun, sent an exploratory mission to the west coast of Africa to find such land for a colony. 5See also “Statistics of Slaves” as prepared by the United States Census, as a PDF here.

This saw the founding of Liberia. With aid from the Federal government, the American Colonization Society sent its first load of volunteer colonialists to the African coast in April of 1822. Over the next decade, the flow of voluntary colonists would increase, though would only ever be measured by hundreds. The year 1832 saw its apex when 796 were sent. 6Roy L. Brooks, Integration or Separation? A Strategy for Racial Equality (Harvard University Press, 1996) 156-158.

Two Fights Against Colonization

By that time, colonization in general was receiving a two-pronged backlash. When the American Colonization Society was founded, many northern abolitionists were in favor of their efforts. But as time went on, they began to see it as a cover for obvious racism.

The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, upon taking a closer look at the society, noticed almost immediately “entiments which seemed to me as abhorrent to humanity as contrary to reason.” He saw nothing wrong with the freedom for people to move where they like, but understood that the pro-colonization supporters were not abolitionists. Garrison argued that “they content themselves with representing slavery as an evil,—a misfortune,—a calamity which has been entailed upon us by former generations,—and not as an individual CRIME, embracing in its folds robbery, cruelty, oppression and piracy.” 7William Lloyd Garrison, “Thoughts on African Colonization” published as a pamphlet in 1832. As appearing in Selections (Boston: R.F. Wallcutt, 1852) 17, 21.

Hardly bedfellows, enslavers also found the idea of colonization as a wrong. By this time, slavery was now growing with its expansion into Alabama and Mississippi. Virginia no longer had a reason to send their excess slaves to Liberia when they could fetch a high price from a labor camp in Louisiana.8Edward Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, (Basic Books, 2014) 173, etc.

The Fall and Rise of Colonization

With such opposition, the American Colonization Society was marginalized through the 1830s and 1840s. Abolitionists viewed it as pro-slavery, while enslavers saw it as anti-slavery. African-Americans tended to side with the abolitionists with few exceptions – they were, after all, the original abolitionists. Except for the relative few volunteers who made their way to Liberia, most saw through the Society’s disguise, realizing that the white people in charge simply didn’t want to live around black people.

However, this decline abated following the Mexican War as the number of free blacks increased. Since the American Colonization Society was founded, the number of slaves in the United States more than doubled, reaching now to 3,200,000. And while the population of free blacks in 1850 was only around 438,000, the push from the abolitionists to end slavery led many to wonder what would happen when upwards of 400,000 black people were suddenly added to the white population. 9Figures from Walter F. Willcox, “The Negro Population” (US Census Bureau) 29. As found in this PDF.


As the North and South became embittered and the Republicans took center stage, the American Colonization Society sent more and more free blacks to Liberia. In the two years before the Civil War, around 4,000 made the journey. 10James Oakes, Freedom National (W.W. Norton, 2013) 278.

This was, of course, where Abraham Lincoln entered into the story. He, like the American Colonization Society, favored voluntary colonization – never once mentioning forced expulsion. Such a policy, in fact, was never put into practice. This is not to let the pro-colonization faction off the hook, but rather to explain that the notion of a mass movement to cleanse the United States of black people simply didn’t exist. The popular colonization movement, though motivated by racism and paternalism, always favored a voluntary migration to rid themselves of those they saw as undesirable. They dreamed that somehow all of the African-Americans would leave and simply become Africans again. Lincoln’s views on this subject during the 1850s and early war period were not much different from the widely-held (though by no means the majority) views of the time. 11Michael Vorenberg, “Abraham Lincoln and the Politics of Black Colonization,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Volume 14, Issue 2, Summer 1993, p22-45. This can be found here.

As we’ll see in a later post, Lincoln’s views, as with those of his Republican allies, changed considerably across the war years. He tied voluntary colonization to emancipation often for political gain, in attempts to bridge the gap between both sides and to not be seen as an emissary for equality. However, by the end of the war, in the last speech he would ever give, Lincoln gave his blessing to Louisiana “to confer the elective franchise upon the colored man.” According to John Wilkes Booth, it was this plan for “nigger citizenship” that set the assassination in motion.


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Eric has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, he wrote the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, he decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.

2 thoughts on “Colonization: Some Proper External Receptacle

  1. and his reasoning was logical which people also refuse to comment on. His two great political heroes, Henry Clay and Thomas Jefferson, had both favored colonization; both were slave owners who took issue with aspects of slavery but saw no way that blacks and whites could live together peaceably. Lincoln first publicly advocated for colonization in 1852, and in 1854 said that his first instinct would be “to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia” (the African state founded by the American Colonization Society in 1821).

    Nearly a decade later, even as he edited the draft of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in August of 1862, Lincoln hosted a delegation of freed slaves at the White House in the hopes of getting their support on a plan for colonization in Central America. Given the “differences” between the two races and the hostile attitudes of whites towards blacks, Lincoln argued, it would be “better for us both, therefore, to be separated.” Lincoln’s support of colonization provoked great anger among black leaders and abolitionists, who argued that African-Americans were as much natives of the country as whites, and thus deserved the same rights. After he issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation,

    Lincoln never again publicly mentioned colonization, and a mention of it in an earlier draft was deleted by the time the final proclamation was issued in January 1863.

    1. I’ve been reading quite a bit of pro-colonization stuff lately, and the more I read, the more it sounds disingenuous. While some (mostly from border states) wanted forced migration, most claimed to want voluntary. But the way they spoke about it made me think there was a lot more to that story.

      For instance, combine voluntary colonization with black codes, sundown towns and general segregation, and you’ve got a situation that more or less forces migration despite it being voluntary.

      This could just be a fancy pants way for me to say that it wouldn’t have worked, but honestly, it couldn’t have worked.

      Lincoln sent an emissary to Mexico to see if they’d be interested in letting the United States set up a colony on Mexican land. Needless to say, they were not down with it (Mexican War still fresh in their minds). But their big question was why can’t the United States just send the blacks into the West? The emissary had no answer. There really wasn’t one. This was always a bad idea.

      Usually, anyway. There’s the case of the African Americans from 1890s Arkansas who packed their bags for Liberia, but that’s a whole different subject.

      Lincoln, and many others, always said that it was the prejudice of the whites that wouldn’t allow the black people to live in the United States. In that, he was absolutely correct. But if you subscribe to the “nadir of race relations” theory (which I do) it didn’t have to be that way.

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