The North is Too Cold for the Negro… Just Don’t Tell Matthew Henson


Matthew_Henson_1910 copy
Matthew Henson, arctic explorer, circa 1910;
A member of the Emancipation Generation (born just as the Civil War had ended) who was not afraid of the great White North
Photo from Wikipedia Commons, via the Library of Congress, Reproduction number LC-USZC4-7503.

It’s early January 2015 as I write this, and a large portion of the Midwest and Northeast are caught in a major polar air mass from the Arctic. For us, the cold weather is just something we have to deal with, and and we deal with it as best we can. But 150 years ago, cold northern weather was a part of a biological/social/political notion which presumed that northern whites need not fear a mass “stampede” of post-Civil War emancipated blacks to their region because, well, everybody knows that black folks can’t stand cold weather.

Chalk it up to another tale from the “what were they thinking?” annals.

With the Civil War raging in earnest, the Republican Party – Abraham Lincoln’s party – faced a vexing question that wouldn’t go away: what shall we do with the negro? In September 1862, the Lincoln administration announced a plan to emancipate the slaves as a means of de-stabilizing the Confederacy. This caused some fear and trepidation among northern whites. There were concerns that the freedmen would flee to the North, overrunning the section with negroes who would take jobs from whites, lower the wage scale, and otherwise make whites uncomfortable with their presence. 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 or South America. Practical considerations aside, many people wondered if, and doubted that, negroes were willing to leave their homes in the United States 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, almost all slaves of African descent 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 coloreds don’t like the cold. 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 (blacks) 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 (hopped on the isothermalism bandwagon while blending it with a policy that had been his 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 Matthew Henson, born August 8, 1866 in Maryland, just after the Civil War ended, thought of all that isothermalism stuff? As noted in Wikipedia, Henson

was an associate of Arctic explorer Robert Peary on seven voyages over a period of nearly 23 years. They made six voyages and spent a total of 18 years in expeditions. Henson served as a navigator and craftsman, traded with Inuit and learned their language, and was known as Peary’s “first man” for these arduous travels.

During their 1909 expedition to Greenland, Henson accompanied Peary in the small party, including four Inuit men, that has been recognized as the first to reach the Geographic North Pole (although this has also been subject to dispute). Based on research into Peary’s diary and astronomical observations, Wally Herbert, a later Arctic explorer who reached the North Pole in 1969, concluded in 1989 that Peary’s team had not reached the pole. This has been widely accepted, but some dispute this conclusion.

Henson published his memoir, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole (1912), which included a foreword and praise by Peary.

Henson probably heard a lot of jokes about his ability to handle various kinds of weather during his many travels. But in the end, I think he proved he could take the cold as well as the heat.

Matthew Henson
Matthew Henson, from the online copy of Henson’s book A Negro Explorer at the North Pole, at Gutenberg.org

Henson’s book, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole, is available online. The forward to the book was written by Booker T. Washington.

Matthew Henson Monument Camden Yards MD
Matthew Henson Monument at the Camden Shipyard and Maritime Museum, Camden, New Jersey. By sculptor John Giannotti.
Photo Source: Camden Shipyard and Maritime Museum Website

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