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CWT Book Review: Colonization After Emancipation

By Harold Holzer
9/19/2017 • Civil War Times Magazine

Colonization After Emancipation: Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement,

by Phillip W. Magness and Sebastian N. Page, University of Missouri Press

Abraham Lincoln may have been a “Great Emancipator,” but he was a rotten colonizer—or at least a vexingly inconsistent one—ineffective, too devious for his own and the nation’s good, cavalierly racist when it suited him and painfully slow to lose interest in the whole ludicrous notion, if he ever really did. Or so recent scholarship has maintained. This fascinating little book provides the latest fuel for the fire that’s still burning in historical circles about the most controversial and elusive facet of Lincoln’s presidency and philosophy.

What makes this book exceptional is that its authors have turned to an entirely neglected archive—the lode of Lincoln material reposing in British and other European repositories—to argue that the 16th president pursued secret schemes to resettle large numbers of African Americans longer than previously understood, perhaps as long as a full year after he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and he possibly even revived the notion near the time of Appomattox and his assassination.

Phillip Magness and Sebastian Page are not the first scholars to draw similar conclusions. In a significant though controversial recent essay, historian Mark E. Neely dismissed the image of Lincoln as a reluctant colonizer, labeling his philosophical interest as pure and his political efforts in pursuit of it amateurish. But Magness and Page are the first to mine this particular stash of new material, and to consider it amid new scholarship from Neely, Eric Foner et al.

Some readers will undoubtedly be convinced that Lincoln plotted the wholesale resettlement of blacks during and after the midpoint of the war. But others will reasonably question Lincoln’s concurrent public embrace of black recruitment and the rewards that such soldiers would earn—including citizenship and the right to vote, as he made manifest in his final speech. Those who consider this book the final word in the debate cast a guilty verdict at their peril.

The authors are to be saluted for their enterprising and original research. They have made an important contribution to the literature. But the colonization discussion should continue. Nothing has yet convinced me that after 1863, Lincoln truly wanted African Americans to disappear from this country, or that he was doing more than appeasing conservatives and potential interventionists with such diversionary speculation. As Magness and Page themselves point out, Lincoln’s brand of conservatism “defies such easy labeling.”


Originally published in the October 2011 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here

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