Led by the American Colonization Society, an organization founded in 1817 and predicated on the notion that free blacks and whites could not live together peaceably in the United States, a colonization movement arose to alleviate the problem of racial conflict by promoting African American emigration. Colonizationists argued that the experience of slavery and the corrosive power of white prejudice had so debased the character of African Americans as to render them unfit for citizenship. Rather than challenging racial prejudice directly, which they considered too deeply rooted in human nature, colonizationists advocated the voluntary emigration of free blacks to a territory on the West African coast, a benevolent enterprise, they believed, that would unburden the United States of an allegedly degraded population while offering African Americans a place to develop free of the damaging effects of racial discrimination. They promised that the colony would bring additional benefits as well, such as the promotion of transatlantic commerce, the spread of Protestant missions, the weakening of the slave trade, and the clearing of America's guilty conscience for its past maltreatment of Africans and their descendents.
origins and objectives
Black emigration schemes, whether voluntary or coercive, had existed since the beginning of the Republic, but the proposals of men like Samuel Hopkins, William Thornton, Thomas Jefferson, St. George Tucker, and Paul Cuffe had failed to gain a popular audience until the post–War of 1812 era. By this time white Americans were expressing considerable anxiety about the rapidly expanding and often poor free African American population, a group that had grown dramatically as a result of both legislative gradual emancipation in the North and a spate of manumissions in the South during the Revolutionary era. By then as well, antislavery advocates realized that the southern states had rejected northern-style gradual emancipation as a model for their own region and that some new solution to the problem of slavery, which took into consideration anxieties about freed blacks, ought to be pursued. In addition, with the end of both the Napoleonic Wars (1799–1815) and the Anglo-American War of 1812, and the resulting peace on the high seas, colonization ventures in the Atlantic world suddenly seemed more viable. Finally, religious developments played an important role in generating support for colonization. The proliferation of evangelical benevolent societies associated with the Second Great Awakening gave colonizationists a model for raising money, spreading their message, and enacting their plans.
The American Colonization Society was established in December 1816 by Robert Finley, a New Jersey Presbyterian minister who won the early backing of such prominent politicians, clergy, and philanthropists as Speaker of the House Henry Clay, Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington, Secretary of the Treasury William H. Crawford, Washington lawyer Francis Scott Key, and the Episcopal minister William Meade. Within a decade the society, a thoroughly respectable and strongly evangelical organization, had scores of auxiliaries throughout the nation. By 1822 it had helped persuade the federal government to establish the West African colony of Liberia as a haven for both African American emigrants and Africans liberated from the illegal slave trade.
In keeping with their self-consciously moderate, intersectional, and philanthropic approach, promoters of colonization sought to attract the support of a wide variety of groups, despite the fact that the interests of these groups often differed dramatically. Colonizationists reassured southern planters that the removal of free blacks would eliminate a dangerous population within the slave states and thereby render the institution of slavery more secure. To antislavery northerners they offered colonization as a solution to the problem of slavery itself—a colony to absorb freed blacks, they argued, would relieve southern anxieties about manumission and emancipation. To free African Americans they trumpeted Liberia as a future Christian black republic, a place where settlers and their children, emancipated from white prejudice, would finally fulfill their promise as a people.
If the American Colonization Society enjoyed considerable support among whites, who tended to view free blacks as a troublesome and debased population, African Americans typically rejected colonization. There were some exceptions, however. Evangelical zeal, entrepreneurial ambition, white prejudice, and the occasional promise of manumission contingent on emigration led nearly fifteen hundred free blacks and recently manumitted slaves to set sail for Liberia in the 1820s (with approximately fifteen thousand sailing there in the entire pre–Civil War era). During this same decade others expressed support for small-scale, black-led, voluntary colonization schemes to the Haitian republic. But most African Americans had good reason to distrust the American Colonization Society. In newspapers, pamphlets, and resolutions, African Americans like James Forten, Richard Allen, and David Walker pointed to the strong presence of southern planters within the organization, the high mortality rate among settlers in Liberia, and the disturbing fact that the emigration of free blacks would ultimately reinforce the peculiar institution by leaving enslaved people bereft of their closest allies. More significantly, free African Americans developed an incisive critique of what they considered the proslavery logic—intentional or not—of the colonizationist program: as long as colonizationists continued to argue that white prejudice was inevitable and that free blacks had no real future in the United States, they reinforced racial chauvinism and undermined the cause of general emancipation. Such arguments left a deep impression on some of the white antislavery advocates who had briefly flirted with colonization such as William Lloyd Garrison and Amos Phelps, and thus helped lay the foundation for the emergence of a biracial, radical abolitionist movement in the antebellum era.
But if the American Colonization Society faced growing opposition from African Americans, it also aroused the ire of proslavery southerners in the 1820s. After the contentious Missouri debates of 1819–1821, ultra–states' rights advocates vigilantly monitored any activity that might, even if unintentionally, open the door to federal interference with slavery in the southern states. While these critics welcomed the removal of free blacks, they condemned the vaguely antislavery sentiments of many colonizationists and their periodic requests for federal assistance.
In retrospect, African Americans rather than their proslavery counterparts more accurately grasped the essential character and thrust of the colonizationist movement. Even the most well-intentioned antislavery advocates within the American Colonization Society tended to view the presence of free African Americans, more so than the existence of slavery, as the nation's greatest problem. Furthermore, the antislavery elements within the American Colonization Society seriously underestimated the economic, political, and logistical obstacles to a program coupling emancipation with removal—the huge southern investment in an extremely profitable and efficient slave labor force, the disciplined opposition of slaveholders to any policies negatively affecting their property rights, the clear absence of alternative sources of labor to fill the vacuum created by the removal of black workers, the sheer financial and humanitarian costs of compensating masters and relocating such a large number of enslaved people, and the strong attachment of most African Americans to their place of birth. As African Americans frequently argued, the promotion of this unworkable scheme directed attention away from the more pressing agenda of racial reconciliation and general emancipation. The American Colonization Society continued its work well into the nineteenth century, but by the 1830s the colonizationist program had been eclipsed by more radical agendas—abolitionist and proslavery—that would ultimately come to have a greater impact on the nation's future.
American Colonization Society. The Annual Reports of the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Colour of the United States. Vols. 1–91. 1818–1910. Reprint, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969.
Clegg, Claude A., III. The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
Garrison, William L. Thoughts on African Colonization. Boston: Garrison and Knapp, 1832. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1968.
Staudenraus, P. J. The African Colonization Movement, 1816–1865. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961.
Walker, David. David Walker's Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. Boston: David Walker, 1829. Reprint: Edited by Peter P. Hinks. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.
Anthony A. Iaccarino