The black ministers had good reason to be skeptical of the new President. After all, they were uncertain whether he stood with them on the most fundamental issues. Though he had invited them to the White House, the President had little to gain politically by courting these blacks. As though on cue, after hearing of the President's frank words, the country's leading African-American spokesman denounced him.
But Frederick Douglass would later praise Abraham Lincoln as "our friend and liberator," whose memory would be "precious forever" to American blacks. In retrospect, Lincoln's strategy concerning the emancipation of slaves made sense, while in that meeting of August of 1862, it appeared scandalously weak. Lincoln knew that the emancipation of slaves as a goal of the Civil War would have to come gradually, if it were to come at all.
First, he would have to win the war, and for that purpose the slave-holding border states of Kentucky, Missouri, and Maryland would have to remain in the Union. They would fight for the Union but not to free slaves. An explicit strategy of emancipation might drive them into the Confederacy.
As Lincoln himself knew from his political battles in Illinois, most voters had no particular regard for blacks, whether slave or free. Indeed, one of the great arguments against the introduction of slavery into Illinois was that its absence would also mean fewer blacks. Thus Illinois passed laws prohibiting the entry of free blacks, as well as of slaves. Anti-slavery voters could also be anti-black.
Lincoln was no abolitionist — which has led critics of his and our times to deny he was anti-slavery — he was rather a constitutionalist who knew the moral foundations of the Constitution were crumbling. For Lincoln, the Civil War was not about black freedom but freedom for all. Thus, the slaves could not be emancipated without a constitutional amendment, for even slaveholders retained their rights.
Finally, Lincoln knew well that freeing the slaves was a far cry from guaranteeing them equal civil and political rights with whites. This problem, for both whites and blacks, in the North and in the South, required an education in patriotism and citizenship, even as the war raged. This civic education was the purpose of Lincoln's meeting with the black leaders.
Lincoln never spoke more frankly:
See our present condition--the country engaged in war! — our white men cutting one another's throatsâ€¦. But for your race among us there could not be war, although many men engaged on either side do not care for you one way or the other. Nevertheless, â€¦ without the institution of slavery and the colored race as a basis, the war could not have an existence.
In brief, the President urged his audience to become colonists and emigrate to Central America, where they might work in coal mines. This alternative of colonization, favored by many whites but by few blacks before the Civil War, was designed not only to remove blacks but also to assuage the fears of whites who opposed slavery but wondered what the freedmen would do.
In a country of their own, the blacks could develop wealth and citizenship skills independently of vengeful whites. Nearer than African Liberia, they could energize the blacks who remained in the United States. Lincoln declared, "I would endeavor to have you made equals, and have the best assurance that you should be the equals of the best." Obviously such emigration or separatism would be worse than preposterous today — and in fact Lincoln likely meant it more as a challenge to the black leaders than as a serious proposal.
For at one point in the talk, he observed, "Some of you would rather remain within reach of the country of your nativity. It does not strike me that you have the greatest reason to love them. But still you are attached to them at all events." Lincoln was asking the blacks whether they really loved their country enough to remain, despite the malice that would be directed toward them. The War and its aftermath would drain everyone.
Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865, and died the next day, Good Friday. He had no chance to lead what became Reconstruction.
Americans of all races continue to be tested by Lincoln's challenge. Some have preached separatism, others terrorism, or bizarre racial doctrines. Some have even attempted to enlist Lincoln in their misguided causes. We can best memorialize Lincoln's passing by imitating his frank speech and highest aims: We must all excel as Americans, "equals of the best."
We most readily identify Lincoln as a man of great compassion. But what gained him the respect of Frederick Douglass and the other black leaders of his time was his willingness to speak harsh truths about our history and our current condition. They were won over by the powerful truth, not just the compassion, of Lincoln's arguments. It is a lesson worth recalling today.