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American Colonization Society

AMERICAN COLONIZATION SOCIETY

AMERICAN COLONIZATION SOCIETY. In an effort to resolve the debate over slavery in the United States, a diverse group of antislavery activists founded the American Colonization Society (ACS) in 1817. The organization's goal was to remove both free and enslaved African Americans from the United States and transport them to Africa. The members of the ACS believed that only after implementation of such a drastic solution could racial conflict in the United States be brought to an end. Although society members claimed to have good intentions, the extreme nature of their proposals undermined the society's popular appeal. ACS members could not conceive of a biracial society in the United States, a limitation that brought them into direct conflict with other antislavery groups, particularly abolitionists, Radical Republicans, and African American leaders such as Frederick Douglass.

The notion of forcibly returning African Americans to Africa first appeared in the late eighteenth century. These plans, increasingly centered in the Upper South, emphasized what many whites and some blacks felt to be the untenable nature of a biracial society. They believed that racial conflict was inevitable when whites and blacks lived in close proximity to one another, and thus they turned to colonization as a solution to America's race problem. Although colonization supporters presented themselves as humanitarian opponents of slavery's evils, many white advocates of colonization objected to the presence of free blacks in American society. The racial underpinnings of white support for colonization thus could not be separated from genuine humanitarian opposition to slavery.

A deep-seated concern for American political unity also informed the growth of the colonization idea. Free labor in the North contrasted sharply with the chattel slavery foundation of the South, a distinction that bred political and economic conflict between the two regions in the nineteenth century. Supporters of African colonization believed that it would both preserve racial harmony and avert a major sectional crisis.

Following the War of 1812 the African colonization idea received impetus from the actions of Paul Cuffe, a black shipowner, who in 1815 transported thirty-eight American blacks to Africa at his own expense. One year later, a New Jersey Presbyterian minister, Robert Finley, convened a series of meetings that led to the formation of the ACS the following year. As one of the benevolent societies that appeared after the War of 1812, the ACS gained the support of Congregational and Presbyterian clergy, along with that of many of the most prominent politicians from the Upper South and border states. Among its early members were Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington of Virginia and Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky. Official recognition was given to the society by several state legislatures, among them Virginia, Maryland, and Kentucky. The society's concentration in the Upper South and border states would prove a serious limitation, however, for it would never gain comparable strength in the North or the Deep South.

Notwithstanding its limited base of support in domestic politics, the society established the colony of Liberia on the west coast of Africa in 1822. In the following decade the number of auxiliary societies increased yearly; receipts grew; and although a total of only 2,638 blacks migrated to Liberia, the number jumped every year. Yet efforts to secure federal support were rebuffed and the triumph of Jacksonian democracy blocked the support necessary for a successful program. At the same time, opposition to the society from both abolitionists and pro-slavery forces combined with mounting debts and internal strife to undermine the organization. Although abolitionists shared the ACS's antislavery sentiments, they believed strongly in the possibility of a biracial society and adamantly rejected the notion that racial conflict could end only if African Americans left the United States. Nevertheless, the society made significant headway on the eve of the Civil War. The independence of Liberia after 1846 lifted a great financial burden, and in the 1850s, under the leadership of William McLain, the fortunes of the society revived. Prominent politicians once again endorsed colonization, and for the first time there was growing support for the idea from blacks.

The eruption of war between North and South, however, brought the society's influence in American politics to an end. President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which outlawed slavery in Confederate territory and laid the foundations for slavery's eventual abolition everywhere in the United States, inadvertently dealt the society a blow. Lincoln had once supported colonization, but his actions and speeches as president inspired the supporters of racial egalitarianism. In the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Republican Party hoped to establish a biracial society in the South and saw colonization as anathema to their goals. Likewise, Frederick Douglass and other leading African Americans saw abolition as but the first step in establishing racial equality in the United States. The idea of freeing the slaves only to remove them to Africa struck Douglass and his compatriots as an outrageous injustice. Indeed, the tremendous sacrifices made by African American soldiers, nearly 200,000 of whom served in the Union army during the Civil War, on behalf of the nation made the idea of transporting them to Africa unthinkable.

In the war's aftermath the society clung to life. Under the leadership of its secretary, William Coppinger, the society stressed its educational and missionary activities, sending fewer than 2,000 blacks to Liberia in the 1880s. In the 1890s, when rising racial tensions gave voice to back-to-Africa sentiments among southern blacks, the society, which was constantly plagued by lack of funds and in 1892 was deprived of the services of both the resourceful Coppinger and its longtime president, J. H. B. Latrobe, found itself unequal to the task. Lacking both leadership and a sense of purpose, the already emaciated organization shrunk further. After a brief period during which the society focused on an unsuccessful attempt to remodel the educational system of Liberia, the organization began to collapse, and by 1910 it had all but ceased to exist.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Beyan, Amos Jones. The American Colonization Society and the Creation of the Liberian State: A Historical Perspective, 1822–1900. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1991.

Elkins, Stanley. Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959.

Finkelman, Paul. An Imperfect Union: Slavery, Federalism, and Comity. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1981.

Frederickson, George M. The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817–1914. New York: Harper and Row, 1971.

William G.Shade/a. g.

See alsoAntislavery ; Emancipation Proclamation ; Freed-men's Bureau ; House Divided ; Liberia, Relations with ; Nat Turner's Rebellion ; Peculiar Institution ; Slave Insurrections ; Slavery .

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American Colonization Society

American Colonization Society, organized Dec., 1816–Jan., 1817, at Washington, D.C., to transport free blacks from the United States and settle them in Africa. The freeing of many slaves, principally by idealists, created a serious problem in that no sound provisions were made for establishing them in society on an equal basis with white Americans anywhere in the United States. Robert Finley, principal founder of the colonization society, found much support among prominent men, notably Henry Clay. Money was raised—with some indirect help from the federal government when (1819) Congress appropriated $100,000 for returning to Africa blacks illegally brought to the United States. In 1821 an agent, Eli Ayres, and Lt. R. F. Stockton of the U.S. Navy purchased land in Africa, where subsequently Jehudi Ashmun and Ralph R. Gurley laid the foundations of Liberia. The colonization movement came under the bitter attack of the abolitionists, who charged that in the South it strengthened slavery by removing the free blacks. The blacks themselves were not enthusiastic about abandoning their native land for the African coast. The colonization society, with its associated state organizations, declined after 1840. More than 11,000 blacks were transported to Liberia before 1860. From 1865 until its dissolution in 1912, the society was a sort of trustee for Liberia.

See P. J. Staudenraus, The African Colonization Movement (1961); W. L. Garrison, Thoughts on African Colonization (1832, repr. 1968).

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American Colonization Society

American Colonization Society Group founded in 1817 by Robert Finley to return free African-Americans to Africa for settlement. More than 11,000 African-Americans were transported to Sierra Leone and, after 1821, Monrovia. Leading members of the society included James Monroe, James Madison, and John Marshall.

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