A TUB TO THE WHALE: Lincoln’s 1862 Colonization Speech to African Americans & the “Lullaby Thesis”

Black refugees at the Contraband Camp in Washington, D.C., preparing to sing for Abraham Lincoln (Library of Congress)


A TUB TO THE WHALE: Lincoln’s 1862 Colonization Speech to African Americans & the “Lullaby Thesis”

Michael Burlingame

Critics of Lincoln’s August 14, 1862, meeting with five leading Black Washingtonians reject the “lullaby thesis” that the president’s “conspicuous advocacy of colonization” was an insincere “device or ploy” designed “to make emancipation more palatable to a racist Northern electorate.” Theoretically that electorate would be more “likely to countenance freeing the slaves” if it “assumed that the black presence in the United States was only temporary,” as George Frederickson summarized the thesis. According to that eminent historian, while it “is possible that some such political calculation was involved in Lincoln’s colonizationism, . . . no direct evidence has been offered to support” the hypothesis.


Frederickson and other skeptics, including Phillip W. Magness, Sebastian Page, and Mark E. Neely Jr., have failed to consider the most revealing piece of such evidence, a contemporary report published in an African American newspaper and written by Rev. Henry McNeal Turner, a leading Black abolitionist and the pastor of Washington’s Israel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Henry McNeal Turner (Library of Congress)

The first historian to emphasize the historiographical significance of Turner’s report was a graduate student, Brian Taylor, whose 2015 dissertation, “‘To Make the Union What It Ought to Be’: African Americans, Civil War Military Service, and Citizenship,” likens Turner’s dispatch to works by two prominent historians, David Herbert Donald and James Oakes, both of whom support the “lullaby thesis.” Conceding that it “is impossible to determine the extent to which Lincoln suggested colonization as a way to introduce emancipation to segments of the Northern public that opposed it,” Taylor observes: “The claim that this was Lincoln’s intention . . . is not mere historical revisionism developed by modern authors sympathetic to the president and anxious to dissociate him from colonization.” Alluding to the White House meeting of August 14, 1862, where Lincoln urged his African American guests to serve as pioneers spearheading the establishment of a colony in Panama, Taylor remarks that “in the meeting’s aftermath, Henry McNeal Turner saw it in terms nearly identical to Donald and Oakes. Writing to the Christian Recorder a few days after Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, Turner insisted that the president held little enthusiasm for colonization: ‘Mr. Lincoln is not half such a stickler for colored expatriation as he has been pronounced. (I am responsible for the assertion) but it was a strategic move upon his part in contemplation of this emancipatory proclamation just delivered [on September 22] [emphasis added]. He knows as well as any one, that it is a thing morally impracticable, ever to rid this country of colored people unless God does it miraculously, but it was a preparatory nucleus around which he intended to cluster the raid [rain?] of objections while the proclamation went forth in the strength of God and executed its mission.’” Taylor observes that in “preparing the nation for emancipation, Turner maintained, the President needed ‘a place to point to.’” Taylor notes that while historians “have found the incident distasteful—Eric Foner called it ‘one of the most controversial moments of [Lincoln’s] entire career’”—the five Black men “who met with Lincoln did not seem particularly offended by Lincoln’s message or behavior.”


In A House Built By Slaves: African American Visitors to the Lincoln White House (2022), Jonathan W. White elaborates on Taylor’s point, stressing the importance of Turner’s dispatch for understanding Lincoln’s motive behind the invitation to Black Washingtonians (along with a shorthand reporter) to visit the White House and hear (and record) an appeal on behalf of a colonization proposal. According to White, Lincoln apparently met with Turner, although no direct evidence documents their encounter. If the two men did in fact meet, it is fair, White argues, to conclude that “Turner’s remarkable letter to the Christian Recorder may be the only surviving piece of evidence that offers direct insight into Lincoln’s political strategy for inviting the black delegation to the White House.” The president “used that meeting to help prepare the Northern electorate for emancipation” and “appears to have explained that strategy to Turner,” who “may therefore be the only person in whom Lincoln so candidly confided his plan.” Although we cannot be sure that Lincoln and Turner met, it is highly likely that they did so. As White points out, it “is known for certain that Turner had private audiences with members of Lincoln’s cabinet, including Salmon P. Chase.”


Moreover, it was widely rumored at the time that Turner had met with the president, a rumor that Turner unconvincingly dismissed with a “non-denial denial” in the Christian Recorder. Writing in the third person, he stated: “Somehow a report gained currency, that Rev. H. M. Turner was the prime mover of this whole affair, and that he had waited upon the President, in reference to this Central American project, which brought down in the midst of the upstir a heavy tirade of denunciations upon him in every direction.” Many people “seem to be conscientiously persuaded to credit the report” but “Mr. Turner has now corrected the false statement, and gave them to understand that he hated the infamous scheme of compulsory colonization as much as they could.” Note that Turner does not deny that he spoke with Lincoln but rather insists that he, Turner, hates “compulsory colonization,” which is beside the point. (Lincoln insisted that he opposed “compulsory” deportation.)


James Mitchell (Wikimedia Commons)

One of Turner’s critics was a Christian Recorder correspondent signing himself Cerebus, who commented on Lincoln’s August 14, 1862, session with five Black Washingtonians: “The most ludicrous part of the meeting was that the principal and originator of the meeting [evidently an allusion to Turner] happened (we suppose unwillingly) to be absent; in fact, it was rumored, to use a cant phrase, that he had smelt the rat, and had vamoosed or skedaddled in true secesh style!” In addition, James Mitchell, whom Lincoln had earlier that month formally appointed “commissioner of emigration” in the Interior Department and who issued the call for Black clergy to publicize Lincoln’s desire to meet with African Americans, “stated that the call had been made by himself, seconded by the Rev. H. M. Turner, pastor of the Israel M. E. Church, who had sought an interview on his own responsibility with the President” (emphasis added). It is unlikely that Mitchell would have alluded to such an interview unless it had actually taken place, for if Turner had been snubbed, Mitchell would in all likelihood not have mentioned it, though no direct evidence that Turner met with the president has come to light. In addition, it seems that Turner, instead of merely seconding the commissioner’s idea, had prompted Mitchell to issue the call.


Evidence within the text of Turner’s dispatch tends to confirm the hypothesis that he was reporting what the president told him about that event. When Turner wrote that “Mr. Lincoln is not half such a stickler for colored expatriation as he has been pronounced,” he immediately added: “I am responsible for the assertion,” by which he evidently meant “I know whereof I speak.” Turner provided a similar hint after his statement: “He [Lincoln] knows as well as any one, that it is a thing morally impracticable, ever to rid this country of colored people . . .” Immediately after this analysis of the president’s intention, Turner added: “I do not wish to trespass upon the key that unlocks a private door for fear that I might lose it, but all I will say is that the President stood in need of a place to point to.” Turner’s reference to the key and private door apparently meant, “I enjoy access to the president which I do not want to jeopardize by revealing too much of what he told me, but I will at least say this.” Turner was almost certainly not expressing his own opinion of Lincoln, whom he had likened in July 1862 to a hard-hearted “Mystic Pharaoh” refusing to comply with “Heaven’s demand” that he free the country’s slaves.


Jonathan White argues that Turner’s dispatch “may be the only surviving piece of evidence that offers direct insight into Lincoln’s political strategy for inviting the Black delegation to the White House,” but in addition to Turner, another knowledgeable Washingtonian published an analysis of Lincoln’s purpose in speaking to the African American visitors: Simon P. Hanscom, editor of the Washington National Republican, the capital’s staunchest antislavery newspaper. That journal played an important role in setting up the August 14 meeting, for one of its assistant editors, Jacob R. S. Van Vleet, had persuaded the reluctant African Americans to send a delegation to the White House. There a shorthand reporter for the National Republican, James O. Clephane, took down the president’s words verbatim. And by all accounts, Hanscom was a confidante of the president’s.


Two days after Lincoln met the Black delegation, the lead editorial in the National Republican, doubtless by Hanscom, commented on the policy espoused by the president on that occasion. Colonization to Chiriquí “is not likely to be extensive,” for Blacks will not resettle abroad “on a great scale, until there is a decided change in their present views.” But “even if not so,” the president’s endorsement of that policy “will allay the fears which are entertained by some, of injury from the presence of free negroes in large numbers in this country. Without participating, ourselves, in those fears, we yet know that they exist and ought to be taken into the account in determining what is expedient to be done.” Lincoln in all likelihood offered this explanation to Hanscom with the understanding that he would repeat it in his paper.


Further insight into Lincoln’s strategic thinking is provided by contemporary journalists Harriet Martineau, Frederick Milnes Edge, and Horace Greeley, all of whom informed readers that Lincoln may have been “throwing a tub to the whale”—misleading the public—by conspicuously endorsing colonization. (When confronted by a menacing whale that might, like some real-life Moby Dick, attack their vessel, sailors would try to divert the cetacean’s attention by heaving overboard a tub or barrel to serve as a distracting aquatic play toy.)


Harriet Martineau (National Portrait Gallery, United Kingdom)

In January 1862, Harriet Martineau, an English sociologist, speculated that Lincoln’s endorsement of colonization in his recent annual message to Congress was insincere, for his “absurd” and “impracticable” plan “is so wrong and foolish that we might safely assume that Mr. Lincoln proposed something that would not do, in order to throw upon others the responsibility of whatever will have to be done.” And just what was it that would have to be done? The colonization proposal, she argued, represents “a safe way of making the admission that emancipation has become a necessity which cannot be deferred much longer.” In her memoirs, Martineau described colonizationists as people who “were ‘throwing a tub to the whale’ of adverse opinion, and easing lazy or weak consciences, by professing to deal, in a safe and beneficial manner, with the otherwise hopeless difficulty.”


In December 1862, Horace Greeley used the same nautical imagery while commenting on Lincoln’s second annual message to Congress, in which the president urged lawmakers to support colonization, gradual emancipation, and compensation for slaveholders. The New York Tribune editor opposed those policies, especially the “thriftless folly which gravely proposed the exportation of laborers by the million from a country where such rude labor as they [i.e., Blacks] are fitted for is urgently needed”; the United States “has no laborers to export.” But Greeley was willing to make allowances for the president if, by advocating those misguided measures, Lincoln could help overcome conservative opposition to emancipation: “Gradualism, Compensation, Exportation—if these tubs amuse the whale, let him have them!”


In April 1862, Frederick Milnes Edge, a correspondent for the London Star, interpreted the newly-passed District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation statute for his English readers. One clause, he noted, “is likely to meet with misconstruction in Europe—namely, the appropriation for colonising the freed slaves. This was adopted to silence the weak-nerved, whose name is legion, and to enable any of the slaves who see fit to migrate to more congenial climes.”


This evidence supporting the “lullaby thesis” complements another argument that seems obvious to many historians, including David Herbert Donald and James Oakes: In late July 1862, Lincoln had read a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet and resolved to issue it as soon as the Union army won a major victory. At that time, it was widely assumed that the electorate, especially in the loyal Border Slave States and significant portions of the North, would accept emancipation only if it were coupled with colonization. In 1861, Lincoln’s closest friend, Joshua Speed, writing from Kentucky, warned him: “So fixed is public sentiment in this state against freeing negroes & allowing negroes to be emancipated & remain among us—That you had as well attack the freedom of worship in the north or the right of a parent to teach his child to read—as to wage war in a slave state on such a principle.” Another Kentuckian, Senator Garrett Davis, assured the president that Unionists in the Bluegrass State “would not resist his gradual emancipation scheme if he would only conjoin with it his colonization plan.” (To Senator Samuel Pomeroy of Kansas, Lincoln cited this statement when justifying his support for colonization.) In July 1862, the president appealed to the Border States’ congressional delegations, linking colonization and emancipation: “I do not speak of emancipation at once, but of a decision at once to emancipate gradually. Room in South America for colonization, can be obtained cheaply, and in abundance; and when numbers shall be large enough to be company and encouragement for one another, the freed people will not be so reluctant to go.” An Indiana politician told Lincoln that colonization “will, if adopted, relieve the free states of the apprehension now prevailing, and fostered by the disloyal, that they are to be overrun by negroes made free by war.” Similarly, Francis P. Blair Sr. of Maryland urged Lincoln to endorse colonization publicly, for it “might ward off the attacks made upon us about negro equality &c &c.”


John Russwurm (National Portrait Gallery)

All this is not to suggest that the president’s endorsement of voluntary colonization was insincere or that he thought all attempts to make African Americans first class citizens were hopeless. He evidently believed antiblack sentiment was so deeply ingrained that at least some African Americans might reasonably agree with Black abolitionist John Russwurm, who moved to Liberia because it was a “waste of words to talk of ever enjoying citizenship in this country; it is utterly impossible in the nature of things; all, therefore, who pant for this, must cast their eyes elsewhere.” Such African Americans deserved a sanctuary abroad where they could enjoy full-fledged citizenship. As James Oakes plausibly speculates, “Lincoln’s support for colonization probably had less to do with racism than with racial pessimism.”


Other Republicans shared that feeling. As Eric Foner notes in his classic analysis of that party’s political thought, “colonization included a genuine humanitarian element, for many Republicans sincerely believed racial prejudice in the United States was so powerful” that African Americans “could never attain any kind of legal or social equality.” When “men like [Salmon P.] Chase and Samuel C. Pomeroy despaired of the chances for racial justice in the United States, they reflected the genuine disillusionment of many Republicans” who had long championed civil rights for African Americans.


Humanitarian concern for the many ill-clad refugees who suffered from disease, exposure, maltreatment, and overcrowding in the so-called “contraband camps” in Washington, Alexandria, and Fort Monroe, prompted Lincoln to authorize an ill-considered, poorly administered, disastrous colonization plan in 1863 that briefly resettled over 400 Virginia ex-slaves on Île à Vache (Cow Island) off the coast of Haiti. The British minister to the U.S., Lord Richard Lyons, reported that Lincoln “sanctioned it from motives of benevolence to these unfortunate people.” Lincoln did not publicize his support for this enterprise, for it was no longer necessary to prepare the electorate for the Emancipation a desire to help the North win the war. Idealistic appeals would not please many voters. Similarly, in 1863 he dealt only behind the scenes with British and Dutch authorities seeking to recruit Black Americans for their Caribbean colonies, which suffered from a labor shortage. Though these proposals went nowhere, Phillip Magness and Sebastian Page cite them as evidence of Lincoln’s continued enthusiasm for colonization. But, as historian Michael W. Fitzgerald observes, Magness and Page “exaggerate the significance of this finding beyond recognition.” Once again, Lincoln was evidently motivated by empathy for African Americans, for he told James Mitchell, “If England wants our negroes, and will do better by them than we can, I say let her have them, and may God bless her!” He presumably meant that African Americans might well be better off in British colonies than in the U.S.


Abraham Lincoln and Gen. John A. McClernand (Library of Congress)

Sebastian Page asserts that “nothing has emerged to prove that Lincoln ever repudiated colonization,” but in March 1863, the president told H. Parker Gloucester, a Black minister from Poughkeepsie, New York, that he “was opposed to colonization” and “in favor of colored soldiers, colored chaplains, and colored physicians.” That clergyman, who “believed that colored people could fight as well as white men,” urged Lincoln to approve a plan for raising a large, all-Black force to be known as “The Fremont Legion.” The president’s reaction to Gloucester’s proposal illustrates an obvious point: once the administration had begun admitting Black men to serve in the Union army as combat troops (a policy change incorporated into the Emancipation Proclamation) Lincoln was not eager to export potential recruits nor the many African American civilians already employed as laborers supporting the military.


Moreover, a week after issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, the president suggested that Gen. John A. McClernand urge southern whites to “adopt systems of apprenticeship for the colored people, conforming substantially to the most approved plans of gradual emancipation; and, with the aid they can have from the general government, they may be nearly as well off, in this respect, as if the present trouble had not occurred, and much better off than they can possibly be if the contest continues persistently.” So in early January 1863, Lincoln was clearly recommending a plan whereby free African Americans might be assimilated rather than colonized. Seven months later, he elaborated on that suggestion, telling Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks that he would like the government of restored Louisiana “to adopt some practical system by which the two races could gradually live themselves out of their old relation to each other, and both come out better prepared for the new. Education for young blacks should be included in the plan.” This recommendation further indicates that rather than planning to have African Americans resettle abroad, he contemplated a biracial society emerging from the war.


Further evidence of Lincoln’s abandonment of colonization is contained in the diary of John Hay, Lincoln’s assistant personal secretary, who noted in July 1864: “I am glad the president has sloughed off that idea of colonization. I have always thought it a hideous & barbarous humbug.”


Mark Neely has challenged the “lullaby thesis,” contending that if Lincoln aimed to woo Democratic support for emancipation by ostentatiously endorsing colonization with his remarks to the Black deputation in August 1862, he failed, for Democratic opponents of emancipation did not budge. But, as noted above, Lincoln had been told repeatedly by knowledgeable people (like his best friend, Joshua Speed of Kentucky, and by a senator from that state, Garrett Davis) that emancipation would not be acceptable unless accompanied by colonization. Did Lincoln have reason to believe them? Probably. But even if he did not, he may well have wanted to call their bluff. As James Oakes observes: “Democrats insisted that they would support emancipation only if it was accompanied by deportation, when in truth they opposed emancipation under almost any circumstances.” Moreover, Neely’s argument deals not with the motive behind Lincoln’s strategy but with its effectiveness, two entirely different matters.


Henry Highland Garnet (National Portrait Gallery)

In addition, Neely misrepresents the response of Henry Highland Garnet, a leading Black abolitionist minister who, Neely claims, “spurned Lincoln’s proposal.” In fact, Garnet vigorously defended the president. A colonization supporter, Garnet had long championed Africa as the most appropriate place for fellow Blacks to resettle. Now, in a letter published in the New York Anglo-African in the fall of 1862, he deemed Lincoln’s plan to  establish a haven for Blacks in Central America “the most humane, and merciful movement which this or any other administration has proposed for the benefit of the enslaved.” Garnet considered “the free and voluntary emigration of our people to any portion of the globe” to be “among the most sacred of human rights” and believed “this is one of God’s ways by which the families of the earth are improved and advanced in national character.” Rhetorically, he asked: “Where are the freed people of the South to seek a refuge? Neither the North, the West, nor the East will receive them. Nay—even our colored people of the North do not want them here. They all say, [both] white and black—‘these Southern negroes if they come here, will reduce the price of labor, and take the bread out of our mouths.’”Garnet feared that newly emancipated slaves might be captured by Confederates and re-enslaved (which did happen to some Blacks during the war): “if Jeff Davis does not emancipate [the slaves of the Confederacy], and our government does not provide a territory on this continent as a refuge for those who have been freed by our armies, then the condition of these people will be worse than ever it was before. When they again fall into the hands of their tormentors, they will be tortured as human beings never were in this world.” But if Lincoln’s plan were adopted, Garnet predicted, “hundreds of thousands of men will be saved, and the Northern bugbear ‘they will all come here’ [will] be removed.” Thus, Garnet implied, Lincoln’s proposal would smooth the way for emancipation. Garnet “and other colored men of influence at the North” reportedly wrote to James Mitchell “warmly seconding the plan of the president for the colonization of the free negroes in Central America.”


Some historians like Magness and Page suggest that Lincoln’s public support of colonization was sincere and that to argue that he was merely singing a lullaby is therefore misguided. But, in fact, the president was simultaneously sincere and insincere. In his speech to the Black deputation in August 1862, which was read widely in the press, he gave the misleading impression that he was an enthusiastic colonizationist earnestly promoting a plan laying the groundwork for a large-scale resettlement of African Americans. He knew that such a result was impracticable and undesirable, yet at the same time he regarded “voluntary migration as a kind of safety valve for individual blacks dissatisfied with their condition in the United States,” in the words of Eric Foner.


To some, it may seem out of character for Honest Abe to publicly misrepresent his true feelings about colonization, but he was occasionally willing to be somewhat disingenuous in order to promote the antislavery cause. A week after his August 1862 meeting with the Black Washingtonians, he wrote a public letter to Horace Greeley, the New York Tribune’s influential editor, who had chided the president for not acting more decisively against slavery. Like that earlier meeting, the Greeley letter was designed to help reduce the inevitable white backlash against the soon-to-be-announced Emancipation Proclamation. That letter gave the misleading impression that Lincoln cared little about the evils of slavery and was only concerned about saving the Union: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery,” he wrote. “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.”


Lincoln hated, loathed, and despised slavery from the time he was young, and during the 1850s he eloquently and passionately denounced it as “a vast moral evil” and “the sum of all villainies.” But he knew that such rhetoric would not help the Union cause in 1862, for many people in the North and the loyal Border States were glad to fight a war for preserving the nation but would not do so to support an abolitionist crusade. In 1858, when debating Senator Stephen A. Douglas, whose egregious, race-baiting demagoguery seemed to be winning support, Lincoln felt compelled to at least pay lip service to the Black Code of Illinois, which forbade African Americans to vote, hold public office, serve on juries or in the militia, testify against whites, or intermarry with them. When asked by a friendly journalist why he so readily agreed with the senator’s oft-repeated, flagrantly racist tirades against miscegenation, Lincoln admitted that he had not been candid: “The law means nothing. I shall never marry a negress, but I have no objection to anyone else doing so. If a white man wants to marry a negro woman, let him do it—if the negro woman can stand it.” To publicly utter such sentiments in 1858 would have ruined Lincoln’s chance to defeat Douglas. This dissembling tactic was in keeping with his statement, made in 1854: “I would consent to any GREAT evil, to avoid a GREATER one.” In 1858, he was willing to pay lip service to Illinois’ Black Code (a great evil) in order to defeat slavery’s most influential northern ally and thus reduce the chances that the nation would, as he put it, “become all slave” (a greater evil). In early 1865, to expediate congressional passage of the Thirteenth Amendment (abolishing slavery throughout the land), Lincoln disingenuously asserted that his administration was not engaging in peace negotiations with Confederate officials. He quibbled about the location where such talks would take place. Knowing full well that Confederate peace negotiators were in Hampton Roads, Virginia—men with whom he would soon parley—he stated that no such commissioners were in Washington or enroute to the capital.


Gov. Edward Stanly (Library of Congress)

In 1862, the provisional governor of North Carolina, Edward Stanly, threatened to resign immediately after Lincoln announced his intention to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. The president dissuaded Stanly, whose support for the administration he considered important, by alleging that he had reluctantly composed that document under intense Radical pressure. Stanly told a journalist “that the President had stated to him that the proclamation had become a civil necessity to prevent the Radicals from openly embarrassing the government in the conduct of the war.” Lincoln “expressed the belief that, without the proclamation for which they had been clamoring, the Radicals would take the extreme step in Congress of withholding supplies for carrying on the war—leaving the whole land in anarchy.” The president “said that he had prayed to the Almighty to save him from this necessity, adopting the very language of our Saviour, ‘If it be possible, let this cup pass from me,’ but the prayer had not been answered.”


This statement was yet another example of Lincoln’s willingness to dissemble in order to strengthen the cause of emancipation, a willingness most dramatically displayed when he invited a shorthand reporter to take down his remarks to the five leaders of Washington’s African American community on August 14, 1862, words that were meant to be widely published in newspapers. As Allen C. Guelzo observes, “There was no particularly large or influential black readership of those papers in 1862; the only real significance of Lincoln’s little colonization tableau could be for a white readership that needed the oil of reassurance poured onto the rough waters of emancipation—a placebo, in other words.” Or a lullaby.


Michael Burlingame is the Naomi B. Lynn Distinguished Chair in Lincoln Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield and the author or editor of many books, including The Black Man’s President: Abraham Lincoln, African Americans, and the Pursuit of Racial Equality (2021). He is writing a book about Lincoln and colonization.