Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln: A Study of Slave Colonization

 “[Abraham] Lincoln hated Thomas Jefferson.”[1] What’s more, “a further look at Lincoln’s political mind and the values he stood for would place him closer to” Jefferson’s perpetual foil, Alexander Hamilton.[2] Despite this, there is (at least) one area Jefferson and Lincoln overlapped: slave colonization. Nevertheless, under the auspices of emancipating America’s slaves and resettling them to their own distinct geographic location to create their own separate and independent nation, there remain deviating thoughts between these two titans of American history why they supported such a project and if there were alternatives.

In Jefferson’s Empire: The Language of American Nationhood, Peter Onuf suggests “the grounds for Jefferson’s ideas about both race and slavery is his understanding of American and African national identities.”[3] To Jefferson’s mind, “African-American slaves constituted a distinct nation.” This is even conveyed in Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence, wherein he blames King George III for introducing African slavery into Britain’s North American colonies. Jefferson is deliberate in his choice of words, referring to the captives collectively,[4]as if by virtue of being from Africa all Africans comprise a single nation. As such, “the crimes against slaves therefore had to be understood in national terms.”[5] If the slaves of the United States were indeed a “distinct nation,” then it follows blacks (both slaves and freedmen) and whites in the United States were in a state of war. Because Jefferson understood slaves and slavery in this fashion it makes sense he was in favor, not simply of emancipation, but physically relocating former slaves where they could establish their own place among “the powers of the earth.”

Preempting his reader in Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson asks, “Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state, and thus save the expence of supplying, by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will leave?”[6] His answer is the slaves possess generations of wrongs perpetrated upon them[7] for which they would seek justice (vengeance?). In turn, this would exacerbate the state of war between blacks and whites leading to the “extermination of the one or the other race.”[8] To his dying day, Thomas Jefferson promoted colonization, believing it impossible for slaves, former and otherwise, to live alongside Anglo-Americans.

Unlike Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln’s colonization sponsorship is less monolithic. An explanation for this might be found in that, whereas Jefferson was born and raised in a slave society, slavery was not as viscerally present in Lincoln’s life until he arrived in Washington. David Donald comments antislavery friends in Congress “helped him see that the atrocities that occurred every day in the national capital were the inevitable results of the slave system.” As a result, “Lincoln looked for a rational way to deal with the problems caused by the existence of slavery in a free American society, and he believed he had found it in colonization.”[9]

Donald contends colonization “[defused] several social problems” for Lincoln. It would remove “what many white Southerners considered the most disruptive elements in their society” – namely, freedmen. “Consequently,” Donald writes

Southern whites would more willingly manumit their slaves if they were going to be shipped off to Africa. At the same time, Northerners would give more support for emancipation if freedmen were sent out of the country; they could not migrate to the free states where they would compete with white laborers. Moreover, colonization could elevate the status of the Negro race by proving that blacks, in a separate, self-governing community of their own, were capable of making orderly progress in civilization. Thus, Lincoln thought, voluntary emigration of the blacks…would succeed “in freeing our land from the dangerous presence of slavery” and “in restoring a captive people to their long-lost father-land, with bright prospects for the future.”[10]

In Donald’s assessment of Lincoln’s motives can be seen a trace of Jefferson, but also an entirely divergent framework for colonization. Jefferson nearly always contemplated the matter in the context of “nations” and states at war, yet Lincoln adds a dimension often missing in Jeffersonian thought: economics. Lincoln attempts to win support for expatriation and colonization by assuring white Americans this is an avenue to rid the country of slavery without having competition for their jobs at reduced wages. Buffering his argument, Lincoln posits simple supply/demand logic:

With deportation, even to a limited extent, enhanced wages to white labor is mathematically certain. Labor is like any other commodity in the market–increase the demand for it and you increase the price of it. Reduce the supply of black labor by colonizing the black laborer out of the country, and by precisely so much you increase the demand for and wages of white labor.

In other words, if you, white Americans, want work, want more opportunities, then end slavery and support colonization efforts. Interestingly, however, Lincoln turns Jefferson’s belief blacks and whites cannot live amongst one another radically on its head; not only does Lincoln argue in his Second Annual Message to Congress blacks can live alongside whites[11], in keeping with his theme, Lincoln takes it one step further by suggesting new economic opportunities will open to whites with emancipation, whether or not colonization occurs.[12]

Another aspect of Lincoln’s support for colonization stands starkly at odds with Jefferson’s. Jefferson considered colonization the only (potentially) viable solution to the state of war that existed between blacks and whites in America[13]; Lincoln, on the other hand, “envisioned colonization as one of several things [emphasis mine] necessary to free the slaves and the nation from slavery.” As Phillip Paludan insightfully remarks, colonization was simply “part of a meritable overall policy,” one path among many paths, knowing the “propaganda value of colonization.”[14] Paludan persuasively argues the sixteenth president was providing options for blacks: for those who desired to leave, the American government offered colonization, while those who preferred to remain could do so, and those who remained, contrary to Jefferson’s certainty, will be too “equally distributed among the whites” for the state of war to perpetuate.[15]

While Thomas Jefferson died believing expatriation and colonization was the only solution to slavery and procuring justice for slaves in the United States because he understood the situation through the lens of “nations,” Lincoln was able to take a broader and more flexible view. Without being locked into a “national” mindset, Lincoln understood expatriation and colonization economically, but more importantly, as one piece of a larger solution to the problem of slavery. Relatedly, Lincoln disagreed with Jefferson that blacks and whites could not exist alongside one another. Thus, colonization for Jefferson was more about justice and preventing what some might call a literal “race war”[16]; for Lincoln, colonization was never so much about “justice” as it was about eradicating the institution of slavery and steering the rest of America to this end through reasonableness and pragmatism. Of course, the Civil War altered the situation for Abraham Lincoln. As Paludan notes, “by the time the war ended the gradual, compensated emancipation plan [including colonization] had faded away. Immediate emancipation for all slaves was the result of the Thirteenth Amendment. Few owners were compensated, and no large group of slaves chose to be colonized anywhere.”[17]


[1] Allen C. Guelzo, “What Did Abraham Lincoln Really Think of Thomas Jefferson.” New York Times, July 3, 2015. (accessed September 3, 2015).

[2] John Patrick Diggins, “Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, and the Spirit of Capitalism,” in The Many Faces of Alexander Hamilton: The Life and Legacy of America’s Most Elusive Founding Father (New York University Press, 2006), 267.

[3] Peter S. Onuf, Jefferson’s Empire: The Language of American Nationhood(University Press of Virginia, 2000), 148.

[4] “captivating & carrying them [emphasis mine] into slavery in another hemisphere”; “he [George III] has deprived them [emphasis mine], by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them [emphasis mine]; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people [emphasis mine], with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.”

[5] Onuf, 148.

[6] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 2010), 128.

[7] “ten thousand recollections…of…injuries…sustained”

[8] Ibid.

[9] David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 165-166.

[10] Ibid., 166.

[11] “I wish to say there is an objection urged against free colored persons remaining in the country which is largely imaginary, if not sometimes malicious.”

[12] “Is it true, then, that colored people can displace any more white labor by being free than by remaining slaves? If they stay in their old places, they jostle no white laborers; if they leave their old places, they leave them open to white laborers. Logically, there is neither more nor less of it. Emancipation, even without deportation, would probably enhance the wages of white labor, and very surely would not reduce them.”

[13] As Onuf makes clear, though, Jefferson had significant misgivings about the existence of a nation-state of former slaves, as it could be used as a “potential [auxiliary] in future conflicts with the United States.” Moreover, in an 1801 letter to James Monroe, Jefferson bluntly asks, “should we be willing to have such a colony in contact with us?” again verbalizing the notion blacks and whites can never coexist, even as respective independent nations.

[14] Phillip Shaw Paludan, “Lincoln and Colonization: Policy and Propaganda?” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, 25, no. 1 (Winter 2004): 29, (accessed September 3, 2015).

[15] “But it is dreaded that the freed people will swarm forth and cover the whole land. Are they not already in the land? Will liberation make them any more numerous? Equally distributed among the whites of the whole country, and there would be but one colored to seven whites. Could the one in any way greatly disturb the seven? There are many communities now having more than one free colored person to seven whites and this without any apparent consciousness of evil from it. The District of Columbia and the States of Maryland and Delaware are all in this condition. The District has more than one free colored to six whites, and yet in its frequent petitions to Congress I believe it has never presented the presence of free colored persons as one of its grievances. But why should emancipation South send the free people North? People of any color seldom run unless there be something to run from. Hertofore colored people to some extent have fled North from bondage, and now, perhaps, from both bondage and destitution. But if gradual emancipation and deportation be adopted, they will have neither to flee from.”

[16] It must be stated at this juncture: “race” has no scientific validity. It is culturally constructed. When people speak of “race” they speak of differences that are, literally, skin deep – phenotypic differences. As one of the leading anthropologists on the subject, Michael Alan Park has written, “human skin-color variation…is distributed as a cline – gradually going from dark to light or light to dark across geographic space – and is not limited to any one traditional racial population. Dark skin, for example, usually conceptually associated with Africa, is an equatorial trait [emphasis mine] that is also found almost halfway around the world in New Guinea. Clearly, skin color is of no use in defining subgroups within the human species that have any biological meaning.” The most accessible, and authoritative, explanation on the subject is Dr. Park’s Biological Anthropology (McGraw-Hill).

[17] Paludan, 36.