Left out in Steven Spielberg’s cinematic work of hagiography, Lincoln, is the fact that, as scholar Phil Magness continues to show us, the sixteenth president was devoted until his dying day to a program of African colonization as a component of any scheme of black emancipation. In this, of course, Lincoln was hardly alone. Most of those nineteenth-century Americans—North and South—who condemned slavery believed in white superiority and the inability of the black race to co-exist with the white race in America. Lincoln believed this, as did Thomas Jefferson, as did many lesser known Americans, including two prominent Philadelphia-based newspapermen, Mathew Carey and Robert Walsh.
Mathew Carey (1760-1839) was an Irish immigrant who arrived in Philadelphia in 1784. He became a newspaper publisher and a printer, gaining fame in the latter pursuit as the first to print an American edition of the Catholic Douay-Rheims Bible. When American political parties formed at the turn of the century, Carey generally sided with the Jeffersonians. But he was repelled years later when reading The Wealth of Nations by what he deemed the heartless laissez-faire economic theories of Adam Smith. In the wake of the War of 1812, Carey became an advocate of protectionism and a disciple of the thinking of Alexander Hamilton, whose surname Carey used as a pseudonym in some of his editorials.
Believing that “the prosperity of nation bears an exact proportion to the encouragement of their domestic industry,” Carey made protection for domestic manufacturers the centerpiece of his system of political economy. “Industry,” he proclaimed, “is the only sure foundation of national virtue, happiness, and greatness.” The primary obstacle to the progress of American industry was American slavery.
Though Carey condemned slavery as “an extensive and inveterate evil,” it was not the actual condition of the slave that earned the institution his condemnation. Indeed, Carey urged “the friends of the slaves” to point out to the bondsmen “the alleviating circumstances in their situation, compared with that of the working population of most of the countries in Europe.” (One wonders first, who these “friends of the slaves” were, and second, how convincing the slaves might have found such an abstract argument.)
At the heart of Carey’s objection to slavery was his desire for the United States to become an economically prosperous nation, which in the Hamiltonian mind of Carey, meant industrialization. Slavery made the South overly reliant on an agricultural economy, Carey held, which caused southerners in turn to oppose the protective tariff. This in turn, Carey believed, retarded the industrialization of the North and the economic development of the entire nation.
Carey tried, on the one hand, to make the case to southerners that slave labor was not as profitable as free labor in agricultural production. Knowing that southerners were unlikely to give up the institution any time soon, however, he also used the argument that slave labor would be more profitably employed in manufacturing than in agricultural production.
Though he looked forward to the day when slavery would be banished from the land, Carey rejected as dangerous and impractical any scheme that would free slaves prematurely. “Universal immediate emancipation would be the greatest curse not merely to the masters, but to the slaves, utterly unfit as they are for such a novel situation.” Any proposal that included indemnifying masters as part of a scheme of emancipation, he concluded, was also economically unviable, as it would cost, in Carey’s estimation, at least $175 million and perhaps twice that amount. Foreigners who criticized the American slave system “are not aware of the immense difficulty of removing the evil.”
Dismissing the idea of compensated and immediate emancipation as too expensive and too dangerous, Carey favored a program of voluntary emancipation of slaves followed by African colonization. He figured that it cost only $1 million a year to send the requisite number of slaves to Africa. In order to convince southerners of the wisdom of his plan, Carey turned to scare tactics. The slave population, he warned, would continue to increase faster than the white population, and he warned that the possibility of a bloody revolt like that in Santo Domingo would become increasingly likely.
Carey’s attitude toward slavery was shaped by his desire to promote the unity and prosperity of the country. In spite of his use of words like “evil” in his condemnation of slavery, his opposition to the institution was not rooted in morality. In no way did he advocate placing blacks on a level of equality with whites; rather, he rejected the notion that blacks could ever live side by side with whites and indeed wrote of his dream that by mid-century “very few blacks” would remain in the United States.
Carey’s contemporary, Robert Walsh (1785-1859) generally shared the Irishman’s views on slavery and race. The Maryland-born Walsh settled in Philadelphia, becoming in 1811 editor of The American Review of History and Politics. He addressed the issue of slavery in his 1819 treatises, An Appeal from the Judgments of Great Britain Respecting the United States of America and Free Remarks on the Spirit of the Federal Constitution.
Blaming Great Britain for foisting slavery upon America, Walsh nevertheless insisted that the system as practiced in America was always milder than elsewhere and had ameliorated over time. Moreover, the condition of the slave in the United States was superior to that of the laboring class in England—so much so that the latter might well envy the quality of life of the former. “The physical condition of the American negro is, on the whole, not comparatively alone, but positively good,” Walsh attested, “and he is exempt from those racking anxieties—the exacerbations of despair, to which the English manufacturer and peasant are subject in the pursuit of their pittance.”
Walsh went further, asking: “Who can say that the negro slavery of these states . . . occasions, proportionably, as much suffering, immorality, and vileness, as the unequal distribution of wealth and the distinctions of rank, the manufacturing system, the penal code, the taxes, the tythes, the poor rates, the impressments in England?”
It was ludicrous, Walsh insisted, for British critics to propose that southerners emancipate their slaves and live with them as equals. Viewing Africans as a “degraded” people, Walsh recoiled at the idea that the black race could be assimilated into white society: “Their colour is a perpetual memento of their servile origin . . . . We will not, must not, expose ourselves to lose our identity as it were; to be stained in our blood, and disparaged in our relation of being towards the stock of our forefathers of Europe.”
Alarmed at the prospect of an immediate and general emancipation, Walsh also frowned upon a gradual approach to ending slavery, which he claimed “would, in the end, produce the same inadmissible condition of things as the immediate,—a two-fold, or a motley nation.” The only hope for the abolition of slavery, in Walsh’s mind as in Carey’s, was a scheme of colonization, though Walsh recognized that such a plan was fraught with obstacles.
The views of Mathew Carey and Walsh reflected an antislavery consensus among antebellum Americans. Many on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line downplayed the horrors of slavery and compared favorably the condition of American slaves to that of European laborers. Few who opposed slavery could imagine a bi-racial country in which blacks and whites shared the same civil rights, the same neighborhoods, or—horror of horrors—the same beds. Indeed, even on the eve of Fort Sumter, it was only a minority of antislavery men and abolitionists who believed the the county could accommodate the two races living side by side in freedom. For most Americans, from the common laborer of Boston to the literati of Philadelphia to the Kentuckian taking up residence in the Executive Mansion, black liberation meant black deportation.