It’s Too Cold for the Negro… Just Don’t Tell Matthew Henson


This is another tale from the “what were they thinking” annals.

In 1862, when the Civil War was raging in earnest, the Republican Party faced a vexing question that would never go away: what shall we do with the negro? The Lincoln White House had floated a plan to emancipate the slaves as a means of de-stabilizing the Confederacy, but this caused some trepidation in the Union states. There were concerns that the freedmen would flee to the North, overrunning the section with negroes. It was a political issue that had to be addressed in some way.

One way was to promote colonization, a plan to relocate blacks to Africa or the West Indies. Practical considerations aside, people wondered if the negro was willing to leave his American home and take a risk on a place he had never seen. (The international slave trade was {legally} ended in the Unites States in 1808. By 1860, most African slaves were truly American.)

Have no fear, said some Republicans. Echoing an argument made earlier by Democrats, they explained that northerners had nothing to worry about because, after all, coloreds don’t like cold weather. Historian Mark Neely, in his essay Colonization, from the book Lincoln’s Proclamation, explains:

Emphasis on colonization has obscured a real argument used by Republicans to anticipate or meet criticism of the Emancipation Proclamation: they embraced isothermalism. That is, Republicans insisted that because of climate, African Americans were suited only to tropical climes and would never come north. In fact, Republicans argued, the only reason African Americans came north now was to escape slavery. Abolish slavery and no more would leave the South, and those in the North would depart for the South.

Even the radical Republican nominee for governor in New York, Gen James Wadsworth, stated the typical Republican position: “The emancipation, once affected, the Northern States would be forever relieved, as it is right that they should be, from the fears of a great influx of African laborers… This done, and the whole African population will drift to the South, where it will find a congenial climate, and vast tracts of land never cultivated.” Commenting on Wadsworth’s idea, the newspaper in Oneida, New York, observed: “This is truth and common sense… Were the institutions of the South rendered tolerant to the black man, not a person of African blood would remain in our northern climate… The way to clear the North of blacks is to guarantee freedom to them at the South.”

President Lincoln eventually embraced the isothermal argument himself, but he did not lead in devising it. In his annual message to Congress of December 1, 1862, Lincoln began to hop on the political bandwagon of soothing racism invented by other Republicans while still blending it with his old favorite, colonization. “It is dreaded,” he said, “that the freed people will swarm forth, and cover the land. Are they not already in the land? Will liberation make them any more numerous?” He went on to offer an important caveat:

But why should emancipation south, send the free people north? People of any color seldom run, unless there is something to run from. Heretofore 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 nothing to flee from. Their old masters will give them wages at least until new laborers can be procured; and the freed men, in turn, will gladly give their labor for the wages, till new homes can be found for them, in congenial climes, and with people of their own blood and race…

The embrace of isothermalism constituted the greatest reverse of principle in the history of the Republican Party to date. It had been founded back in the mid-1850s on the premise that only Congressional law could keep slavery out of unsettled territories. The northern Democrats had argued that isothermalism would keep slavery and, with it, African Americans, out of the territories, and there was therefore no need to pass laws obnoxious to proud white southerners; the climate did not suit.

Lincoln himself had once strained to answer that argument. In his Peoria speech of October 16, 1854, Lincoln had laid the ground carefully for the rejection of isothermalism: “It is argued that slavery will not go to Knasas and Nebraska, in any event. This is a palliation-a lullaby… As to climate, a glance at the map shows that there are five slave states – Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri-and also the District of Columbia, all north of the Missouri compromise line… It is not climate, then, that will keep slavery out of these territories.” “It takes the law to keep it out,” he insisted in his famous debates with Douglas in 1858.

I wonder what this man, born August 8, 1866 in Maryland, thought of all that isothermal stuff? He probably heard a lot of jokes about his ability to handle various kinds of weather in his many travels. But in the end, I think he proved he could take the cold as well as the heat.


Matthew Henson, explorer

The picture is from the Library of Congress.

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