“Precept” and Lincoln’s Surprising Views Toward Colonization
This post is an explanation (not a justification) of Lincoln’s surprising and disappointing early views toward colonization, which I learned about in “Precept” by Matthew de Lacey Davidson.
Frederick Douglass, Colonization, and “Precept”
In “Precept,” Frederick Douglass’s character refers to meetings of Americans who supported colonization, sending freed slaves back to Africa.
"I Mr. Whyte, have had the unfortunate experience of actually succeeding in the infiltration of various meetings of such individuals, as they rarely attract people other than well-to-do white men. My experiences have shown me that, while a large percentage of the supporters of colonization do profess a keen desire to end slavery, as such, they hold some very demonstrably strange and disturbing beliefs. Firstly, they believe the Negro to be morally lax. They claim that blacks are licentious and draw whites into savagery and unrestrained behavior. Secondly, they believe that the Negro has a tendency towards criminality, because, thirdly, the Negro is supposedly the mental inferior to the white man, making them unfit for duties of citizenship or any self-improvement. Finally, these white supremacists believe that free blacks might threaten the jobs of the working-class whites in the North, and, of course, the southern slave owners believe free blacks encourage revolts and slaves to run away."
This passage is interesting and disturbing for two reasons. First, there are people who believe these horrible things today, who still think colonization is a good idea. Second, as Matthew de Lacey Davidson points out in his notes on historical accuracy at the end of “Precept,” Abraham Lincoln himself thought that colonization was a good idea for some time.
Abraham Lincoln’s Views on Colonization
On NPR’s Fresh Air, Eric Foner, author of “The Fiery Trial,” explained that Lincoln did not believe that black people were violent or inferior as the supporters of colonization in the quote above did.
Instead, in Foner’s words, “Lincoln said the reason they should leave is white people are so racist that blacks will never be accorded equality in this country. They are entitled to these natural rights of mankind, but they should go somewhere where they can actually enjoy them.”
Foner made it clear that this is not an excuse for Lincoln what believed though.
Why Lincoln Changed His Mind
What’s interesting about Lincoln’s story here is that his views toward emancipation and what to do with freed slaves changed drastically with the Emancipation Proclamation.
Though there are practical and logistical reasons why Lincoln changed his mind, Foner said that the most compelling reason was the increasing number of black men serving in the Union Army. According to Foner,
by the end of the Civil War, 200,000 black men have served in the Union Army and Navy. And envisioning blacks as soldiers fighting for the Union is a very, very different vision of their future role in American society than saying, well, you should leave the country. And it's the black soldiers and their role which I think really begins as the stimulus to Lincoln's change in racial attitudes and in attitudes towards America as an interracial society in the last two years of his life…fighting for the nation gives you a stake in citizenship. Lincoln comes to believe that, as many, many Northerners do. The role of black soldiers is critical in changing attitudes about what their status is going to be after the war is over.
Foner then pointed out that “The Emancipation Proclamation was a recognition that the previous way of fighting the war had failed, the previous policy on dealing with slavery had failed, and if there's one element of greatness in Lincoln, it's this willingness to change, this ability to grow, this not being, you know, wedded to a policy once it is proven to have failed.”
The Importance of Keeping and Open Mind
In Precept , Frederick Douglas says, “Our actions must be as mutable as candle wax – so that we can constantly mold them to the shape which does the best possible service to ourselves and all those whom surround us.”
Perhaps we Americans should take this lesson, a lesson Lincoln lived by, to heart. Our beliefs and corresponding actions aren’t cliffs we must cling onto for dear life. We are humans with brains capable of processing new information, which can lead us to new conclusions about “life, the universe, and everything.”