Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Compensated Emancipation and Colonization

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

1862 was a year of turning points (you guessed is not all about Gettysburg). There are two extremely significant ones that immediately come to mind. First, the ascension of Robert E. Lee to the command of the Army of Northern Virginia after the battle of Seven Pines (more on that's kind of a big deal) and of course, the issuance of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, promising to free all slaves held in Confederate territory as of January 1, 1863.

The Emancipation Proclamation said nothing of slaves held in the border states. Slavery was protected in states loyal to the Union and Lincoln knew it. Since the spring 1862, Lincoln had been thinking in terms of emancipation as a measure to hasten toward an end to the war. His thinking went something like this: first, slavery was a domestic institution and it was ultimately left to the states to decide when it should end. Second, owners of those freed should be compensated. Third, the Federal government should pick up part of the tab. Fourth, any emancipation process should be gradual. And finally, freed people should be colonized.

Lincoln asked Congress and was granted funds to support compensated emancipation. Knowing that this would mean little in states currently in rebellion, he approached representatives from the border states in March and May and asked them to come up with some sort of plan following his thinking - including colonization. Such an act was the answer to forecasted labor competition and racial tensions.  Twice Lincoln was ignored.

In July, as Lincoln moved closer to implementing military action against slavery in the Confederacy, he again approached the border states warning: the war may end slavery everywhere without compensation. You should take it while you still can. Again he was refused. Well, we all know what happened. Border state slave owners missed an opportunity to recoup any losses suffered through state mandated emancipation. I don't really feel sorry for them.

But the colonization issue stands out in this story as something of a red herring. Lincoln held on to it for some time in fact. The idea of colonization went all the way back to the early 19th century and Lincoln was an enthusiastic supporter. In August 1862, after he had decided to issue a proclamation freeing slaves in the Confederate states, he invited black leaders in the abolitionist movement to the White House to discuss the proposition. In essence he told them that white Americans would never accept free blacks, and that it would be best for all involved if the two races separated. He even asked for a group of free black volunteers to lead the charge, so to speak.

Black leaders such as Robert Purvis and Frederick Douglass were incensed by such notions, arguing that black people were Americans, they had lived and worked in the country for generations, and had a stake in the country's future. Still, a small group was organized in April 1863 and sent to an island near Haiti, with the promise of schools, hospitals, infrastructure, etc. When they arrived they found nothing - and the experiment ended in disaster. Out of 500 settlers, only 386 survived and returned to the United States. Other plans for colonization eventually fizzled out.

I'll be speaking about emancipation and other turning points of 1862 - background, implications, and in comparison with other turning points in the war this summer at the Civil War Institute conference at Gettysburg. I hope to see you there!


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