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Colonization Movement


COLONIZATION MOVEMENT. The Colonization Movement sprang from the American antebellum reform period as an attempt to alleviate racial problems by sending all or part of the African American population to settlements in either Africa or Central America. While the movement was never a true reformist threat to Southern slavery, proponents nonetheless considered it successful because it proved that African Americans could support and govern themselves in a free land.

Antecedents of the movement stretch back as far as the American Revolution. In 1776, some enlightenment thinkers, chief among them Thomas Jefferson, envisioned a plan that would remove African Americans from North America. As President, Jefferson would later propose moving Native Americans to an "Indian Territory" carved out of the Louisiana Purchase. His thoughts and actions reflect a widespread theory of the time that free mixed races could not live and work close to each other. In the 1850s, southern slaveholders would use that same argument against abolitionists.

In 1789, the Free African Society of Newport (Connecticut) was formed to promote relocations, but organized efforts did not begin in earnest until after the War of 1812. In 1815, Paul Cuffe, a well-to-do free African American ship owner in New England, paid for the passage of thirty-eight other free African Americans to the British colony of Sierra Leone on the African Coast, which British abolitionists had founded and the British government had controlled since 1808. In December 1816, with Cuffe as a consultant, the American Colonization Society was formed with the express purpose of transporting free African Americans out of the United States. The Society attracted many well-known Americans, including Henry Clay, who was then speaker of the House of Representatives; President James Monroe; and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall. While the Society initially concentrated on transporting free African Americans, it would later scheme to buy the freedom of slaves and relocate them as well.

The American Colonization Society received monetary backing from the private donations of members, from both Northern and Southern state governments (many of which passed bills for colonization allocations) and the federal government, which was then actively fighting illegal slave importation. By virtue of the Constitution, slave importation into the United States ended in 1808, but smuggling continued. The U.S. Navy patrolled the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea to halt smugglers, and in 1819 Congress authorized patrols along

the African coast. Those patrols rescued many enslaved Africans and returned them to the free colony of Sierra Leone.

Colonization Society leader Bushrod Washington, a Supreme Court justice, soon asked Monroe for help in founding a colony similar to Sierra Leone that could be a haven for free African Americans. By executive action, Monroe authorized naval patrol ships to carry colonization emissaries who would negotiate for a free region. The ships would also carry supplies for a settlement. Poor climate, geography, and disease scuttled early settlement attempts, but in 1821 Navy Lieutenant Robert F. Stockton negotiated for title to Cape Mesurado on the coast of Africa at the mouth of the St. Paul River. Settlers called the initial city Monrovia in honor of President Monroe's efforts on their behalf. Monrovia ultimately became the capital of Liberia, a 600-square-mile region that formally declared its independence in 1847. Liberians established their government with a declaration of independence and a constitution, both based on the United States' models.

The colonization movement received varied degrees of support. Abolitionists believed that the existence of a free African American nation would encourage Southerners to release their slaves. Slaveholders never did, of course, as they had built their economic system around slave labor. After 1830, many Northern reformers shifted their support from colonization to more aggressive abolition. Southern individuals and state governments that supported colonization did so because they saw local communities of free African Americans as a threat to slavery. Even American Colonization Society members may have lent their organization a back handed type of support. Many may have supported (or at least not opposed) racially prejudiced local and state laws that, by comparison, made Liberia look appealing. Many free African Americans themselves opposed colonization, and in 1817, some 3,000 of them met in Philadelphia to denounce the American Colonization Society as a hindrance to personal liberty, and as a group that would ultimately strengthen southern slavery. Martin Delany, an African American physician, criticized the operation of the Society, and in 1859 he led his own expedition to the Niger Valley where he signed a settlement treaty. But, like many Society members, Delany agreed that the chance of whites and free African Americans living peacefully together in the United States seemed hopeless.

The Civil War (1861–1865) ended American slavery with immediate emancipation. Interestingly, in the first year of the war President Abraham Lincoln clung to a colonization plan in Central America as a possible way to end the conflict. Lincoln never endorsed Liberia as a possible alternative for free African Americans.

The American Colonization Society, seeing that emancipation and Reconstruction did little to improve life for freedmen, remained effectively in existence until 1899. Throughout its existence, the Society had helped more than 15,350 African Americans emigrate to Liberia at a cost of $2.75 million. In the 1920s, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance and post–World War I civil rights agitation, African American leader Marcus Garvey advocated a new colonization movement called "Back-to-Africa," but it met with little success.


Bracey, John H. Jr., August Meier, and Elliott Rudwick, eds. Black Nationalism in America. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1970.

Fehrenbacher, Don E. The Slaveholding Republic: An Account of the United States Government's Relations to Slavery. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Foner, Eric. Politics and Ideology in the Age of the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

McCardell, John. The Idea of a Southern Nation: Southern Nationalists and Southern Nationalism, 1830–1860. New York: Norton, 1979.

Meier, August and Elliott Rudwick. From Plantation to Ghetto. New York: Hill and Wang, 1970.

Nevins, Allan. Ordeal of the Union. New York: Scribner, 1947.

Staudenraus, P. J. The African Colonization Movement, 1816– 1865. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961.

R. StevenJones

See alsoAfrica, Relations with ; African Americans ; Reconstruction ; Slavery .

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