Recent scholarship portrays Abraham Lincoln, in a less than flattering light. A new book by historians Philip Magness and Sebastian Page stirs the pot by uncovering documents in Britain – communiqués between Lincoln and British diplomats – which show the president seeking cooperation with certain London officials about Belize (then known as British Honduras); sending freed African Americans to Central America to form a colony.

The compelling component of the story however, lay in the timing of Lincoln’s diplomatic notes: as in well after the Emancipation Proclamation (Jan 1, 1863). Many historians (and non-historians) have pointed out over the decades the insincerity of the Proclamation, that Lincoln waited too long, that slavery remained legal in the Northern states, that the Proclamation arrived only when it became undoubtedly obvious the South would not capitulate any time soon, and that the Proclamation was more an economic targeting aimed at the plantation elite and infrastructure of the Confederacy. That blacks were actually freed in the pronouncement, well, that was a necessary evil.

Jacket cover for a new book by Magness and Page which points to Lincoln's colonizing efforts.

However, despite this barrage of negativity toward Abraham Lincoln, his status as one of the greatest presidents in American history endured. Lincoln’s iconic ranking, built and added on over the years by nationalist historians and scholars, shielded the president’s reputation. And it doesn’t hurt that Lincoln’s portrait continues to plaster the penny and the five-dollar bill (if FDR could only get off of the dime). So what if all the naysayers surrounding the Emancipation Proclamation might be correct, the point is Mr. Lincoln freed the slaves. End of story.

Well, maybe not. With a title of Colonization After Emancipation: Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement, Professors Mangess and Page appear to pick up the battering ram of hero de-evolution.

But these appearances are misplaced. In coming to the author’s defense (not that it’s necessary), this new and apparently defaming information is actually empathy. To understand this, one must think as a historian does, or, at the least, try to let go of one known thing: the present.

Certainly, Lincoln’s attempt to remove African Americans to a foreign land seems overly racial from our present-centered perch. But to condemn a past President on the value systems of today misses what really happened, and by a wide margin.

Abraham Lincoln operated within his culture, within his times, within a country that sped toward and eventually came to injurious blows over the institution of slavery. Lincoln disliked slavery, but he was not willing to go to war over it. As candidate Lincoln, his Cooper Union Speech (February 1860) proved he was willing to live with slavery as long as a) the Union remained preserved, and b) the institution remained confined to the South.

Rather than perceiving such new information as chipping away at Lincoln’s hero-like status,   Colonization After Emancipation should make us sensitive to Lincoln’s predicament. The 1860 census counted nearly four million slaves. Where would they go if freed? How would they care for themselves? Could they be woven into the fabric of America, a country that enslaved them for two and half centuries?

Lincoln was not the first to conceive of colonizing African Americans, nor was the idea foreign to slaves and freed blacks. In 1835, Martin R. Delaney, considered the founder of black nationalism, argued at the National Convention for Men of Color, in Cleveland, that a “Black Israel” should be built on the West Coast of Africa. The Right Reverend James Theodore Holly, the first black Episcopalian minister in America, acted as a commissioner on the National Emigration Board beginning in 1851. For ten years, Reverend Holly worked to expatriate slaves to Haiti, traveling to the Caribbean island twice to negotiate terms.

That Lincoln pursued colonization after the Emancipation Proclamation must be placed within this context. And this is empathy, or, seeing from “inside another person’s worldview” (according to Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in Understanding by Design). Lincoln sought solutions to a perplexing problem. In carrying out a war and defeating the Confederacy, the President knew full well that some four million former slaves meant the coming of a logistical nightmare. Further, Lincoln operated within a culture consumed in what came to be learned, practiced, and maintained: the social, economic, and intellectual inferiority of blacks. It took more than a century for our country to unlearn, un-practice, and retool these fallacies.

But they were not fallacies then. To view Lincoln’s predicament honestly, to understand the true nature of his motivations and decisions, we must learn empathy, we must learn to look at history from somewhere different than the present.

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