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Edward Steers, Jr.
Edward Steers, Jr.

Emancipation Lecture
by Edward Steers, Jr.

Was Abraham Lincoln a racist or liberator? In Lincoln's own time, it's unlikely this question would have arisen. Today, however, re-writing history according to personal whim has become a cottage industry of astonishing proportions. To offer another perspective, we asked author Edward Steers, Jr., to share his insights on Lincoln as emancipator. Dr. Steers gave this presentation at Fort Ward in Alexandria, Virginia, on February 23, 2002.

In Defense of the Great Emancipator

In the latter part of 1999 a book was released whose publisher made the bold claim that it would set history on its ear.

The book is entitled Forced Into Glory - Abraham Lincoln's White Dream and its author, Lerone Bennett, Jr., has made headlines by challenging our current thinking about Abraham Lincoln and his image as The Great Emancipator.

Far from being a racial egalitarian, Mr. Bennett portrays Lincoln as a white supremacist whose real objective as President was the "ethnic cleansing" of America. According to Mr. Bennett's book, "[Lincoln} did everything he could to deport Blacks and to make America a Great White Place. If Lincoln had his way, Oprah Winfrey, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Jackson, Sr., Muhammad Ali, Maya Angelou, and even Clarence Thomas would have been born in slavery. If Lincoln had his way, there would be no Blacks in America at all. None."

Mr. Bennett sums up his view of Lincoln writing, "Unlike [Martin Luther] King, unlike [Wendell ]Phillips, unlike [Frederick] Douglass, but like [Thomas] Jefferson, Lincoln dreamed of an all-White nation, governed by White people, only for White people."

To accomplish this all-White nation, Lincoln sought to use a plan, which Mr. Bennett describes throughout his book as "DEPORTATION," more commonly known to historians as "colonization."

According to Mr. Bennett, Lincoln's real policy as President was the implementation of the age-old plan of establishing colonies in foreign lands where America's Blacks could be shipped; thus, in Mr. Bennett's words, "cleansing America of both free and freed Blacks."

Mr. Bennett is not an aberration on the historical scene. He and his thesis are real. He has become a highly sought-after speaker on the Lincoln circuit. Since publication of his book, Mr. Bennett has appeared in nearly every major publication in the country and more important, he has been invited as the featured speaker at the most prestigious Lincoln conferences throughout the country.

The Lincoln Forum, meeting each year in Gettysburg, selected Mr. Bennett as their keynote speaker in 2001; the Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the premier Lincoln museum in America, chose Mr. Bennett to deliver the prestigious Gerald R. McMurtry Lecture the same year, and the Abraham Lincoln Association, in Lincoln's own home town, Springfield Illinois, featured Mr. Bennett at their 2002 Abraham Lincoln Symposium on February 12, just two weeks ago -- proving that Mr. Bennett and his message continues to attract attention three years after publication of his strange thesis.

History associations across America seem to seek Mr. Bennett even if they do not accept his message, which is an attempt to expose America's greatest president as something of a fraud.

Organizations such as The Marfan's Foundation, Gay and Lesbian Rights, as well as over 5,000 businesses and corporations have used the positive symbol of Lincoln to further their cause and sell their products. Mr. Bennett, however, appears to be the first to use Lincoln as a negative symbol to further his cause. In spite of its tone and message, Forced Into Glory deserves our attention, for it forces us to examine more closely Lincoln's racial policies and the ways in which historians have the treated the subject.

Only by such examination will we better understand the real dynamics of the Civil War and the important role slavery had on the history of the United States -- and Lincoln's role in dealing with it.

Mr. Bennett's book is not without factual content and many of his quotations drawn from Lincoln are accurate. Where Mr. Bennett fails, in my opinion, is in ignoring the all-important concept of context. In reading Mr. Bennett's book I was reminded of a story that Lincoln liked to tell. Its message applies to our subject this afternoon.

One afternoon a young farm boy came running up to his father all out of breath. "Pa! Pa! You gotta come quick. Sis and the new farm hand are up in the loft and he's agot his pants down and she's agot her skirt up and theys getting ready to pee all over your new hay." The farmer looked down at the excited boy and said: "Son, you got your facts right -- it's your conclusions that are wrong!"

Like the young farm boy, Mr. Bennett has his facts right. It is his conclusions that are wrong. And herein lays a very important concept for students of history. Facts taken out of context rarely, if ever, lead to a true understanding of people or events.

Mr. Bennett draws his main conclusions in his book from Lincoln's policy in support of colonization. Colonization had as its objective the establishment of colonies in foreign lands where Blacks could go to rule themselves.

Lincoln had publicly expressed support for the concept of colonization as early as 1852. As President, he openly supported federal support for colonization and asked Congress in 1862 to appropriate $100,000 for the colonization of Blacks.

Mr. Bennett claims that Lincoln's support of colonization is proof of his negative racial views and his desire to rid America of all Black people. Hence his characterization of Lincoln as "dreaming of a lily-white America."

Colonization had been a popular concept among many segments in America since the early 1800's. Funds were raised by Colonization Societies and Blacks were traditionally recruited as emigres and offered passage and a small sum of money to help bridge their new life in these foreign colonies.

The nation of Liberia on the West Coast of Africa was one such "colony." It was established in 1821 on land purchased by the American Colonization Society, a society founded in 1817. Liberia remained a U.S. colony until 1846 when it gained its independence as an African nation.

At the time Liberia became an independent nation, the colonization movement in the United States had foundered, but by the 1850's it experienced a revival as a result of the Society's renewed efforts to recruit free Blacks as potential emigrants.

Mr. Bennett's thesis claims that Lincoln's primary, if not sole objective, was to use colonization to "deport" every Black from America, thereby achieving his personal dream of "a lily-white country" -- his words, not mine. This is a theme that Mr. Bennett uses as the subtitle to his book: "Abraham Lincoln's White Dream."

To help bring about this "White Dream," Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation -- not to free slaves but to forestall the freeing of slaves. Strange as this may sound to you, Mr. Bennett makes a case for his theory -- but here again, while Mr. Bennett gets his facts right it is his conclusions that are wrong.

According to Mr. Bennett, Lincoln found it necessary to issue his Proclamation to stall the liberating effect of the Confiscation Act of 1862 until Lincoln could put a "deportation plan" into effect. The use of the term "deportation" is unfortunate because it prejudices the argument. Its use by Mr. Bennett appears to be a deliberate effort to mischaracterize Lincoln's views on colonization.

Deportation has the connotation of forced removal because of illegality. It connotes an image compatible with "ethnic cleansing." It is a term closely associated with the Holocaust of World War II and is consistently used by Mr. Bennett throughout his book in place of the correct word, "colonization." The colonization plans advocated by Lincoln were never forced, they were voluntary. No Black was ever forced to leave the country under colonization. These programs were viewed by many of their supporters and by Lincoln as beneficial to freed Blacks, not harmful.

According to Mr. Bennett, Lincoln's support of colonization was seriously compromised by the Confiscation Act of 1862. That Act authorized the freeing of slaves held by those slaveowners who were actively rebelling against the United States. It was an Act meant to punish those in rebellion by taking away their property -- property normally protected by the Constitution.

Lincoln opposed the Confiscation Act as unconstitutional in certain of its provisions, leading Mr. Bennett to write that Lincoln was more interested in protecting slave owners rights than he was in freeing slaves. While Lincoln said he opposed the act because it was unconstitutional as written, Mr. Bennett believes Lincoln opposed the act because it would free slaves before Lincoln was prepared to deal with them as free men, and before Lincoln could get the government to adopt a plan of wholesale deportation.

Mr. Bennett's claim that Lincoln was a supporter of colonization is true. Lincoln was an advocate of colonization from early in his political career into his presidency.

In his first year as president, Lincoln asked the Congress to appropriate funds for the colonization of both freed slaves and free Blacks. Congress responded to Lincoln's request in April of 1862 by appropriating $100,000 to colonize the freedmen of the District of Columbia. Three months later, in July, Congress appropriated another $500,000 for colonizing those Blacks that were expected to be freed under the Confiscation act. Thus sixteen months into his presidency, Lincoln had $600,000 at his disposal for colonizing Blacks.

His advocacy of colonization has troubled some of his supporters and some historians have sought to "excuse" Lincoln as if his support of colonization betrayed an underlying racism in his character. They are usually quick to point out, however, that Lincoln "outgrew" or "matured" in his views on colonization and race -- presumably becoming more sensitive or tolerant and more in keeping with his humanitarian image.

Mr. Bennett begins his book by pointing out that Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation did not free a single slave and therefore was a fraud, and that Lincoln deliberately exempted slaves in those areas under Union control to keep slavery alive as long as possible. The Proclamation only freed slaves in those areas where the Union army and federal government had no control. Here is an example of Mr. Bennett getting his facts right.

Mr. Bennett writes in his opening chapter, "Lincoln deliberately drafted the [Emancipation Proclamation] so it would not free a single Negro -- What Lincoln did -- and it was so clever that we ought to stop calling him 'Honest Abe' -- was to free slaves in Confederate-held territory where he couldn't free them and to leave them in slavery in Union-held territory where he could have freed them."

He supports his claim by quoting Lincoln's own Secretary of State William Seward, who said, "We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and hold them in bondage where we can set them free." Seward and Mr. Bennett are correct in claiming the Emancipation Proclamation freed few if any slaves. No one can accurately estimate the number, but it was very low -- probably around 40,000 out of 4 million -- BUT -- both Seward and Mr. Bennett miss the point.

While it is true that the Proclamation had little, if any force, to free slaves within Rebel-held territory, it had a more important goal. And, like so many of Lincoln's goals, it looked to the future, not the present.

Lincoln's goal was to redefine the purpose of the war and establish the principle under which the war would be fought. The claim that the Emancipation Proclamation did not free a single slave is a bogus claim. The Declaration of Independence did not free a single American, either. It took a war to do that. BUT the Declaration of Independence established a principle under which a war would be fought and freedom would be won.

In a similar vein, the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery at the time of its release, but it did establish a principle under which the Civil War would be fought and freedom would be eventually won. It set a policy and forced the Confederacy into a position it did not want to be in. It changed the direction of the war and became, as Shelby Foote has said, "the defining document of the War."

Mr. Bennett, however, sees a different motive in Lincoln's proclamation. He believes the Emancipation Proclamation negated the Confiscation Act's thrust. No longer would slaves be confiscated and set free. Bennett believes the Act would have freed the slaves in its own right had Lincoln not put a stop to it by issuing his proclamation.

According to Mr. Bennett, behind this deliberate delay by Lincoln is his insidious scheme to deport Blacks. He writes, "The secret is out! The most famous act in American political history never happened -- the great emancipator did not intend for the [Emancipation Proclamation] to free a single Negro, for he carefully, deliberately, and studiously excluded all Negroes within 'our military reach.'" Mr. Bennett sees the Great Emancipator as the Great Enslaver.

I think most of us have heard any number of talks on what the Emancipation Proclamation was and what it was not. I don't want to cover that ground here except in summary.

The Emancipation Proclamation was NOT an executive order or a legislative act. It was a military order whose sole LEGAL justification was under the War Powers granted the President in the Constitution. The reason for this is because the President had no authority to issue such an order except as a military decree to injure the military capability of the Confederacy. Both Bennett and Seward sound as if Abraham Lincoln held the power to abolish slavery at any time he chose.

Neither the President nor the Congress of the United States had the power to abolish slavery by executive order or by legislative Act.

Lincoln had no authority, even under the War Powers, to emancipate slaves in Maryland or Kentucky or Delaware or Northern Virginia since these areas were not at war with the United States and were not enemy belligerents. Lincoln's proclamation, while a war measure, was a political document meant to have a political effect.

It blunted European recognition of the Confederacy, and most important, it ended any hope of restoration of the Union -- a deliberate move on Lincoln's part in my opinion. The ending of any hope to restore the Union as it was is an important spin-off of the Emancipation Proclamation that I believe is not appreciated by many historians.

If the Confederate states were going to rejoin the Union, they would now do so without slavery. It placed a condition on re-Union that had not existed before. Lincoln held tenaciously to this conditional requirement of total abolition.

Restoration meant turning back the clock to conditions as they existed prior to hostilities. With the issuance of Lincoln's proclamation there would be no turning back; no return to the Union as it was before secession.

While some historians fail to see this irrevocable action caused by the Proclamation, Jefferson Davis immediately realized its importance and said so. In a message delivered to the Confederate Congress on January 12, 1863, just eleven days after the Emancipation Proclamation became official, Davis said, "A restoration of the Union has now been rendered forever impossible..."

Davis went on to state that the proclamation was "A measure by which several millions of human beings of an inferior race -peaceful and contented laborers in their own sphere -- are now doomed to extermination, while at the same time they are encouraged to a general assassination of their masters by the insidious recommendation "to abstain from violence unless in necessary self-defense."

Davis boldly announced that, in retaliation for Lincoln's proclamation, he would deliver to state officials all commissioned officers of the United States Army captured within that state, and they would be dealt with in accordance with that state's laws covering individuals who incite slave insurrection. Such laws universally carried the death penalty. Union officers would now be subject to the death penalty because of Lincoln's proclamation.

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and Davis's bluster was never carried out -- perhaps because Lincoln was fully prepared to retaliate and told Davis so.

In issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln shifted the conflict from restoration to abolition -- a shift that incensed Southern leaders. The importance of the Emancipation Proclamation resided more in what it said than in what it did, a point that seems to be lost on Mr. Bennett in his analysis of it.

Three men that Mr. Bennett praises in his book as the true or real emancipators spoke up in praise of Lincoln: Frederick Douglass declared, "We shout for joy that we live to record this righteous decree." Gerritt Smith, a major critic of Lincoln, could hardly contain himself, proclaiming, "God bless Abraham Lincoln," and Wendell Phillips, Lincoln's severest critic and one of Bennett's examples of a true hero, wrote: "How decent Abe now grows." Mr. Bennett fails to mention the praise these men gave to Lincoln for issuing his Proclamation.

Mr. Bennett's claim that the Confiscation Act of 1862 would have freed the slaves before Lincoln preempted it by issuing his Proclamation brings an interesting, and new, twist to the story. Mr. Bennett is unique among all authors in raising this idea.

On July 17, 1862, Congress passed the Confiscation Act that authorized confiscating the property of anyone supporting the rebellion, but only after being given 60 days' notice, allowing sufficient time for them to return voluntarily to the Union. Failing a return, their property was to be confiscated -- but ONLY, and this is SO important -- by the Federal courts.

Since there were no longer Federal courts in the South, such proceedings were to take place in the absence of the accused. Lincoln objected to such cases being tried in absentia, believing such proceedings, along with the permanent confiscation of property, to be unconstitutional. Unconstitutional or not, such emancipation by confiscation still required Federal court action.

Each of the 350,000 slaveowners in the South were at risk to lose their slave property under the Confiscation Act, but only after a hearing in Federal court. Such hearings, if they had taken place, would have proved a legal nightmare, clogging the Federal Courts for the next 50 years.

In reality, no one was prosecuted under the law and few slaves were actually liberated by it -- mainly because it was never enforced. As Union troops moved into Rebel territory, many slaves liberated themselves by coming inside Union lines. The status of these liberated slaves was never adjudicated in court -- never.

Lincoln told a delegation of ministers shortly before issuing his Preliminary Proclamation, "I cannot learn that the law has caused a single slave to come over to us."

The Confiscation Act argument by Bennett is simply bogus. While the Emancipation Proclamation may have freed very few slaves, it freed many more than the Confiscation Act, which brings us to the main theme of Bennett's book: Lincoln's colonization policy.

While it is true that Lincoln supported colonization and even asked Congress to appropriate funds for colonizing Blacks, his support for colonization ended abruptly on January 1, 1863, with the issuance of his final Emancipation Proclamation.

One cannot find a single instance of Lincoln advocating colonization after that date, which seriously challenges Mr. Bennett's thesis that Lincoln's overriding objective was to prolong slavery until he could effect the deportation of all Blacks.

By dropping his support for colonization at the time he released the Proclamation, Lincoln uncouples the document from Mr. Bennett's theory that the two were linked solely to bring about ethnic cleansing!! This abrupt ending gives us insight into Lincoln's thinking on colonization and requires explanation.

Emancipation and colonization had become linked in Lincoln's mind. Colonization had become a political adjunct to the hoped-for success of his emancipation policy -- but only in its earliest stage when Lincoln hoped that the Border States would voluntarily accept some form of emancipation.

Lincoln's colonization policy, in my opinion, was not aimed at Blacks as most people believe -- it was aimed at whites! On July 12, 1862, Lincoln made an appeal to representatives of the Border States of Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri and Delaware, offering a plan of gradual emancipation. Lincoln said that if the Border States would adopt a plan of emancipation he would see that slave owners in those states would be appropriately paid for their loss of property.

Two days later, on July 14, Lincoln followed his appeal by introducing his own draft of a bill that would result in compensation for slave property to slave owners in the border states. (The bill still exists; a draft is on display in the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington.)

The bill called for the transfer of six-percent interest-bearing bonds of the United States Treasury to each state equal to the aggregate value of all the slaves within that state based on the census of 1860 (480,000 slaves).

The price per slave would be determined by the Congress. One day later, on July 15, the Border State representatives rejected Lincoln's proposal on the ground that "the Federal government could not stand the expense." This, of course, was a ruse.

As Lincoln asks in a letter to newspaper editor Henry J. Raymond, "Have you ever noticed the facts that less than one half-day's cost of this war would pay for all the slaves in Delaware, at four hundred dollars per head? -- that eighty-seven days cost of this war would pay for all [the slaves] in Delaware, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Kentucky, and Missouri at the same price?"

Did anyone really believe that to continue the war would cost less money, let alone fewer lives, than purchasing all of the slaves in the border states, thus isolating the Confederacy even further? The Border States had a more serious worry, however, that lay hidden beneath their claim that purchasing slaves would be too costly. Their concern was what these states would do with the 500,000 free Blacks dumped into their White society.

The infusion of this large population of newly freed Blacks into southern culture was unthinkable to the slaveocracy in the Border States and the rest of the Confederacy. Lincoln was sensitive to this. If voluntary emancipation were to become a reality, this concern had to be addressed. Colonization was the placebo to reduce the fears.

On July 22, exactly one week after his compensation offer and its rejection, Lincoln met with his cabinet and presented the preliminary draft of his Emancipation Proclamation. In one week Lincoln had apparently shifted gears and dropped his plan of compensation.

In comparing the wording of the Preliminary Proclamation with the final proclamation, a major difference stands out: The preliminary draft contains the following words that DO NOT appear in the final draft: "the effort to colonize persons of African descent with their consent, upon this continent, or elsewhere, will be continued." Lincoln had decided to strike this provision from the final version! Colonization was out!

And herein lies an important insight into Lincoln's political acumen. But it is an important insight that Lerone Bennett and his supporters have overlooked.

Lincoln had early on decided on a policy of emancipation. It was Lincoln's hope that a certain number of states -- particularly Kentucky -- would agree to accept emancipation voluntarily. To make it more acceptable to Kentucky and southern interests, he coupled it with compensation AND to allay the darkest fears of southern politicians, added a promise of government financial support for colonization. Lincoln was sitting on $600,000 for colonization projects that in today's economy is the equivalent of $7,000,000 -- funds that Lincoln never used.

Lincoln believed, rightly or wrongly, that if any of the southern states were to accept emancipation voluntarily, the plan had to include both the compensation of slave owners, and the accommodation of large numbers of freed Blacks into southern society.

Freed Blacks were always a major concern for slave-holding states. Many slave states had passed laws dealing with manumitted or free slaves by requiring them to leave the state once freed. Maryland had passed such a law in 1832, although it was never enforced. It was not repealed until after the war.

Colonization was Lincoln's remedy to allay the fear of large numbers of freed Blacks infusing Southern culture. It was an effort to soften the perceived blow of emancipating Blacks and make it more palatable. Lincoln had always, in my opinion, looked on voluntary colonization as part of his emancipation package for this reason.

The rejection of Lincoln's compensation plan by southern interests, particularly in the Border Sates, put an end to such thinking on Lincoln's part. Lincoln had extended his hand only to have it slapped away. It had taken only ten days after the proclamation was issued for Jefferson Davis to tell Lincoln what he could do with his proclamation -- with or without compensation and colonization.

On January 1, 1863, Lincoln pulled the trigger and signed his Emancipation Proclamation with no mention of colonization. It was a dead issue with Lincoln. He never again mentioned colonization in any public document. And yet Mr. Bennett would have us believe that Lincoln pushed colonization right up to the end of his life.

The real question is not why Lincoln supported colonization, but why he abandoned it so abruptly if, as Lerone Bennett claims, he envisioned it as a method of "ethnic cleansing."

In Lincoln's pragmatic view, colonization was an effective tool to defuse the politically charged issue of what to do with all of the slaves freed during the war. His views on colonization had nothing to do with a delusional dream of a "lily-white America."

If Lincoln had wanted to "deport" all of the Blacks as Mr. Bennett claims, he showed poor judgement in his subsequent policies -- especially calling for the enlistment of African-Americans into the Union army in his final proclamation.

The idea that Lincoln would favor the removal by colonization of Black males who were potential soldiers runs counter to common sense. Lincoln's support of colonization may have had several motives behind it, but Lincoln was far too brilliant a politician to believe that "a lily-white America" was obtainable or even desirable through a plan of voluntary colonization.

If the slave power in the South was intent on continuing to fight the war and reject Lincoln's hand of conciliation, it would do so at the peril of its fundamental system of slavery. The issuance of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, saw the beginning of a new war -- and a new Lincoln.

Related Links
Emancipation Proclamation Text
"Forced into Glory" Book Review by Edward Steers, Jr.

Text copyright 2002 by Edward Steers, Jr.

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