American Colonization Society

views updated Jun 11 2018

American Colonization Society

The American Colonization Society (ACS) was established in Washington, D.C., in December 1816 by Presbyterian minister Robert Finley (1772–1817) for the purpose of removing free blacks from the United States and settling them in Africa. Officially known as the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color in the United States, the ACS's leadership included many of the nation's most influential figures and by 1860 had relocated more than 10,000 people to the organization's colony in Liberia.

Proposals to remove people of African descent from America had circulated since the colonial era. As early as 1714, one New Jersey resident suggested that enslaved people be set free and sent to their native country. However, interest markedly increased in the wake of the American Revolution (1776–1783) as slavery was abolished in many northern states leaving white politicians to deliberate over the appropriate place of newly freed black populations. For many, deportation and relocation was a favorable alternative to the prospect of interracial democracy in the new nation.

Early colonization proposals also gained support from both pro-slavery and antislavery southerners. Seeking to bolster the institution of slavery, many pro-slavery southerners saw colonization as an invaluable tool for removing volatile free black populations that might lend support to slave rebellions. In contrast, some sought to use colonization as a tool to encourage voluntary manumission of slaves amongst southern slaveholders. Fearing a race war if abolition was immediate, Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) and James Madison (1751–1836) advocated gradual emancipation and deportation to end slavery in the United States. Moreover, by resettling free blacks in Africa, Jefferson argued that they might "carry back to the country of their origin the seeds of civilization" rendering their enslavement "a blessing, in the end, to that country."

From its founding moment, ACS reflected this complex array of interests. At the first ACS meeting at the Davies Hotel in Washington, D.C., slaveholder and Kentucky Congressman Henry Clay (1777–1852) advocated the colonization of, what he termed, "a useless and pernicious" free black population. Slaveholder, and fellow congressman, John Randolph (1773–1833) agreed with Clay suggesting that ACS should not challenge slavery but focus instead on removing free blacks that threatened the institution's stability. Others, such as the Supreme Court clerk, Elias Caldwell (d. 1825), believed that white America's racial attitudes would never change and promoted the settlement of free blacks in Africa as an alternative to the animosity and restrictions they would face in the United States.

Despite their disagreements about the purpose of colonization, ACS leaders agreed that free blacks should not remain in the United States and collectively lobbied the federal government for its support. The organiza-tion's first success came on March 3, 1819, when Congress passed the Slave Trade Act. Introduced by active Virginian colonizationist Charles Fenton Mercer (1778–1858), the Slave Trade Act authorized the federal government to use the navy to transport illegally enslaved people to Africa. Congress appropriated $100,000 to carry out the program.

After several failed attempts to locate an appropriate site for colonization, President James Monroe (1758–1831) sent Lieutenant Robert Field Stockton (1795–1866), a naval officer, to Africa with instructions to purchase territory for a permanent settlement. Stockton met with King Peter, chief of the Dey people around Cape Mesurado in western Liberia and negotiated the transferal of land at gunpoint. King Peter and other local leaders received goods worth less than $300 and were forced to pledge that they would live in peace with the new colony. The land was ceded to Stockton who signed the contract on behalf of the ACS, which administered it as the private colony of Liberia until it was declared an independent republic in 1847.

Back in the United States, the ACS began to expand its base by establishing sixteen state societies and more than 200 local auxiliaries across the country. Buoyed by the organization's initial successes, Rev. John C. Young, president of Center College in Kentucky, stated, "the systematic and efficient operation of this society could in less than seventy years settle the whole of our colored population in Africa." However, this initial optimism gave way as changes in the political and economic climate rendered the ACS increasingly unpopular during the 1830s and 1840s. With the advent of the cotton gin, cotton production and its corollary slave labor became enormously profitable. By 1840, the South could boast over 60 percent of the world's cotton production. In this context, interest in gradual emancipation amongst pro-slavery southerners waned resulting in the closure of ACS auxiliaries across the Lower South. In the North, the increased militancy of abolitionists severely hindered ACS's efforts to deport northern free blacks. In the Colored American on May 27, 1837, the editor warned "against the art and chicanery" of ACS, whose "leading motives are, interest and ambition." African American abolitionists emphasized the importance of staying within the United States to fight for full legal and political equality.


Contemporary observers of the American Colonization Society testified to its mass appeal and powerful leadership, which was drawn from amongst America's socialand political elite. As abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison testified in 1832:

In opposing the American Colonization Society, I have also counted the cost, and as clearly foreseen the formidable opposition which will be arrayed against me. Many of the clergy are enlisted in its support: their influence is powerful. Men of wealth and elevated station are among its contributors: wealth and station are almost omnipotent. The press has been seduced into its support: the press is a potent engine. Moreover, the Society is artfully based upon and defended by popular prejudice: it takes advantage of wicked and preposterous opinions and hence its success. These things grieve, they cannot deter me. 'Truth is mighty, and will prevail.' It is able to make falsehood blush, and tear from hypocrisy its mask, and annihilate prejudice, and overthrow persecution, and break every fetter (Garrison 1832, pp. 1-2).

SOURCE: Garrison, William Lloyd. Thoughts on African Colonization; or, An Impartial Exhibition of the Doctrines, Principles, and Purposes of the American Colonization Society Together with the Resolutions, Addresses, and Remonstrances of the Free People of Color. Boston: Garrison and Knapp, 1832.

Those that did immigrate to Liberia during this period often described the colony as a bleak environment with high mortality rates. Thomas C. Brown, a free black resident of Charleston, South Carolina, traveled to Liberia aboard the Hercules in 1833 to better his condition and escape the oppressive laws of South Carolina. Within fourteen months, Brown had returned to the United States where he testified before a public assembly in New York to his experiences in Liberia. Brown informed the audience that he had left a successful carpentry job in Charleston to make a new life for his family in the ACS colony. However, upon arrival Brown's entire family had taken ill resulting in the deaths of two of his children, and his brother and sister. When asked if others would like to leave the colony, Brown stated that a large majority would like to return but lacked the resources. However, some African Americans continued to contend that Liberia offered freedoms that were unavailable in the United States, especially during times of heightened surveillance and racial violence.

After the Civil War (1861–1865), ACS's leadership continued to promote colonization insisting that African Americans were unfit for citizenship and that racial attitudes would result in the failure of integration. As Democrats regained control of the South, African American interest in expatriation grew exponentially with emigration rates to Liberia reaching nearly 5,000 between 1861 and 1899. However, ACS experienced financial problems during the mid -1870s that severely undermined its efforts. In 1904, ACS transported its final patron to Liberia.


American Colonization Society. The First Annual Report of the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color of the United States: and the Proceedings of the Society at Their Annual Meeting in the City of Washington, on the First Day of January, 1818. Washington, DC: D. Rapine, 1818.

American Colonization Society. Condition of the American Colored Population, and of the Colony at Liberia. Boston: Pierce & Parker, 1833.

Brown, Thomas Cilavan. Examination of Mr. Thomas C. Brown: a Free Colored Citizen of S. Carolina, as to the Actual State of Things in Liberia in the Years 1833 and 1834: at the Chatham Street Chapel, May 9th and 10th, 1834 [1834]. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Library, 2006.

Burin, Eric. Slavery and the Peculiar Solution: A History of the American Colonization Society. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005.

Yarema, Allan. The American Colonization Society: An Avenue to Freedom?. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2006.

                         Kerry L. Pimblott

American Colonization Society

views updated May 11 2018


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.


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 .

American Colonization Society

views updated May 23 2018

American Colonization Society

The American Colonization Society (ACS), formed in 1817, actualized aspirations of some African American leaders who supported repatriation and settlement of free blacks in Africa

African American participation in the American Revolutionary War did not yield anticipated results—emancipation and justice. Two main schools of thought, migration and integration, competed as solutions to the conditions of blacks in America. Black leaders like James Forten (1766–1842) and Paul Cuffe (1759–1817) supported migration to Africa, and in 1815 Cuffe transported thirty-eight African Americans to Sierra Leone.

The ACS was formed in 1817 by prominent Americans whose ranks included Supreme Court justice Bushrod Washington (1762–1829), Presbyterian clergyman and educator Robert Finley (1772–1817), Congressman Charles Marsh (1765–1849), and lawyer and writer Francis Scott Key (1779–1843). It was also supported by President James Madison (1751–1836), Henry Clay (1777–1852), and others. In 1820 the ACS acquired a parcel of land from a local chief on Sherbro Island near Sierra Leone, and in 1821 sent the first batch of eighty-six freed slaves on the ship Elizabeth to the new settlement. Sherbro Island and its swampy surroundings exacted a high mortality rate on the African American settlers.

To save the colonization project from collapse, the ACS sent Eli Ayres to look for a healthier site for the settlers. With the help of naval Lieutenant Robert F. Stockton (1795–1866) and the armed schooner Alligator, Ayres navigated the coast of Sierra Leone and Liberia in November 1821. The two men selected territory around Cape Mesurado in Liberia as the site for the new settlement. Through persuasion and threat of force, they obtained land from the Bassa people. Ayres and the remnant of the colonists at Sherbro moved to Cape Mesurado. However, fever and conflicts with the local people made life difficult for the settlers, and Ayres and some of the colonists returned to Sierra Leone.

In August 1822, a ship carrying immigrants from Baltimore (including recaptured Africans) arrived at Cape Mesurado under the leadership of Jehudi Ashmun (1794–1828), a Methodist missionary, as the new ACS representative and colony leader. Disease and problems with the local people continued to plague the settlement. On November 11 and November 30, 1822, the colonists fought against the local people, but a peace treaty later ushered in peace and stability.

In 1823 to 1824 some of the colonists rebelled against Ashmun, accusing him of unfair allocation of town lots and rations. The conflict forced him to flee. The following year, Eli Ayres took over from Ashmun. Ayres surveyed the land around Monrovia, Liberia, and distributed some of it to the colonists. Ill with fever, Ayres returned to the United States, to be replaced by Ashmun, who restored order in the new settlements. Stricken with disease himself, Ashmun left for the Cape Verde Islands to recuperate, leaving Elijah Johnson (1780–1849) in charge.

At Cape Verde, Ashmun met Reverend Ralph Gurley (1797–1872), who "with full power from the United States Government" was to look into the conditions of the new settlement and help set up a system of government. Ashmun returned to the colony with Gurley, and the two men worked on a constitution for the colony, which was later adopted. Gurley returned to the United States in August 1822, leaving Ashmun in charge of the colony. Ashmun continued to work in the colony for five years, until his departure for the United States on March 25, 1828. He died later that year.

By 1830, the ACS had settled 1,420 African Americans in the new colony. In 1838 colonies established by United States slave states in Liberia (the Virignia Colonization Society, the Colonization Society of Pennsylvania, and the Maryland State Colonization Society had all established colonies) merged with the colony of the ACS to become the Commonwealth of Liberia. In 1839, it adopted a new constitution and named Virginian merchant and successful military commander, Joseph Jenkins Roberts (1809–1876), lieutenant governor. He became the first African-American governor of the colony in 1841. In 1847, the colony of Liberia declared its independence.

The ACS itself struggled along for several years and became moribund in the decade before the civil war, but not before many auxiliary societies had seceded from the parent organization. In 1964 the ACS was formally dissolved due partly to the objections of African Americans and abolitionists, partly to the scale of repatriation and the expense involved, and partly to the difficulty of finding new settlements for the large African American population.

see also Liberia; Sierra Leone.


Foster, Charles I. "The Colonization of Free Negroes, in Liberia, 1816–1835." The Journal of Negro History 38 (1) (1953): 41-66.

Franklin, Vincent P. "Education for Colonization: Attempts to Educate Free Blacks in the United States for Emigration to Africa, 1822–1833." The Journal of Negro Education 43 (1) (1974): 91-103.

McDaniel, Antonio. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot: The Mortality Cost of Colonizing Liberia in the Nineteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Miller, Floyd J. The Search for a Black Nationality: Black Emigration and Colonization, 1787–1863. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975.

Rosen, Bruce. "Abolition and Colonization, the Years of Conflict: 1829–1834." Phylon 33 (2) (1972): 177-192.

Streifford, David M. "The American Colonization Society: An Application of Republican Ideology to Early Antebellum Reform." The Journal of Southern History 45 (2) (1979): 201-220.

American Colonization Society

views updated May 18 2018

American Colonization Society

In 1816, the American Colonization Society (ACS) was organized in Washington, D.C. , with the objective of encouraging, and paying for, free black Americans to establish and live in a colony in Africa.

Why colonization?

For a time, the colonization project seemed to appeal to everyone. Many of the first members of the ACS were Southerners who supported a gradual abolition (elimination) of slavery . (See Abolition Movement .) They promoted colonization as a means to deal with the growing numbers of free blacks that would result from abolition. Soon many Northerners joined the society, believing, like the Southerners, that free blacks and whites could not live together without conflict. Colonization appealed to Southern slave owners as a way to rid the South of troublesome free blacks, who they feared would incite rebellions among their slaves. It was also popular with some Northern antislavery advocates, who hoped it would make slaveholders more willing to free their slaves. Some African Americans also endorsed the idea in the belief that Americans would probably never treat them as equals and that they might have a better life in distant Africa.

Most black Americans, though, argued that the United States had been the home of their families for generations. They had a clear right to live there as equals and were willing to fight for that right. Most abolitionists came to strongly oppose the ACS.


After a long search for a location for the new colony, the ACS bought a large area of land on Cape Montserado, in West Africa, about 225 miles south of Sierra Leone. There, in 1822, the society established the colony of Liberia. Liberia's capital, Monrovia, was named in honor of the fifth president of the United States, James Monroe (1758–1831; served 1817–25), who, along with Congress, gave the society close to $100,000 to transport black Americans to Liberia. In the project's first ten years, about 2,638 blacks migrated to Liberia.

To encourage the colonization of Liberia, the ACS published letters from blacks who had moved there and had good things to say about it. It also published The African Repository and Colonial Journal, which served as strong propaganda (the spreading of ideas or information, both true and otherwise, to promote or damage a cause) by painting a positive picture of Liberia for black Americans. The ACS also promised to provide colonists with land and economic support for six months. This promise was not always kept, and emigrants were at times left stranded on the Cape.

In 1838, the Commonwealth of Liberia was formed under the administration of a governor appointed by the ACS, and the ACS governed the country until it became a republic in 1847. By 1846, thirteen to fourteen thousand free black Americans had immigrated to Liberia under the plan. Joining these emigrants in Liberia were slaves rescued from illegal slave-trading ships off the coast of Africa. (See Slave Ships and the Middle Passage .)


By the 1840s, the ACS was mired in controversy. Abolitionists, black and white, opposed the society's basic assumption that African Americans could not live and work in the same communities as white Americans. They argued that African Americans had worked hard in the United States and had earned the right to call it home. They thought the ACS was creating a distraction from what abolitionists considered the only reasonable course of action—the immediate abolition of slavery in the United States. Most Southern plantation owners did not approve of the ACS either. They did not want to see African Americans, a group they considered the region's labor force, shipped across the Atlantic.

The news from Africa was not much better. The native people of Liberia resented the newcomers from the United States. Armed conflict and bloodshed erupted in the colony. In 1847, the ACS went bankrupt (did not have enough money to cover its debts). The American Liberians took the opportunity to found the independent Republic of Liberia. Seizing power, they dominated the native groups as well as the Africans rescued from slave ships, creating a rigid class system in the new country. The ACS stopped promoting colonization as part of its agenda, and by the end of the century the group had disbanded.

American Colonization Society

views updated May 21 2018

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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American Colonization Society