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American Colonization Society and the Founding of Liberia

American Colonization Society and the Founding of Liberia








The American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color of the United States was organized on December 21, 1816, in the Davis Hotel in Washington, D.C. The stated purposes of the organization, which was commonly known as the American Colonization Society (ACS), were threefold: (1) to create an unfettered haven for free blacks whose continued presence in the United States was seen as posing insoluble problems of civic and social integration; (2) to promote “civilization” and Christianity in Africa through their presence there; and (3) to develop receiving stations for enslaved Africans taken from vessels illegally transporting them on the high seas. England had already established Sierra Leone in 1787 as a catchall colonization destination of blacks from Britain. Talk of removing free persons of color from American soil antedated the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 and rested on the following premises: (1) their presence was a social nuisance; (2) their presence was inimical to the institution of slavery; and (3) the new social system had no place for them. Thus they should be colonized in distant locales such as the Pacific Coast, South America, the Far West, or Africa itself. As early as 1773, Thomas Jefferson advocated establishing colonies for free blacks, but he never stated this view publicly. Along with George Washington, Jefferson believed black colonies should be a precondition for emancipation. In 1790, three years after the U.S. Constitution was adopted, the census counted a free black population of about 59,557 individuals and an enslaved population of 697,624. In the 1810 census, the new nation had 108,435 free blacks and 1,191,446 enslaved blacks.


After blacks, slave and free, had fought in the American Revolution and the War of 1812 and with the advent of peace, discussions of colonizing free blacks became public. In December 1816, two key colonization events took place: The Virginia Assembly adopted resolutions calling on the U.S. government to settle emancipated blacks outside the boundaries of the United States, and a meeting on black colonization was held in the hall of the U.S. House of Representatives to form the ACS. Seven days later the founding members of this group ratified a constitution for the ACS, the sole object being “to promote and execute a plan for colonizing (with their consent) the Free People of Color residing in our Country, in Africa, or such other place as Congress shall deem most expedient.” Membership was open to any citizen of the United States upon payment of one dollar. Lifetime memberships were available for thirty dollars. Further informal discussion prompted the group to hold the first of its annual meetings on January 1, 1817, at the Davis Hotel in Washington. As he had done at the earlier meeting, U.S. Congressman Henry Clay of Kentucky presided, for Kentucky had already organized its State Colonization Society. The sixty-odd high-profile, self-selected delegates were not as distinguished as the fifty-five men who had drafted the Constitution some thirty years earlier, but they were indeed “gentlemen of property and standing.”

Among the founders of the ACS were Robert Finley, a New Jersey Presbyterian minister and in 1817 president of the University of Georgia; Bushrod Washington, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court; Elias B. Caldwell, clerk of the Supreme Court; Richard Rush, attorney general of the United States; Daniel Webster, then a congressman from New Hampshire; Congressman John Randolph of Roanoke, Virginia, owner of 363 slaves and 160 horses; William Phillips, lieutenant governor of Massachusetts; wealthy international trader Robert Ralston of New York; William Thornton, architect of the U.S. Capitol; Henry Carroll, secretary of the American legation to Ghent, Belgium, where the War of 1812 was declared officially over; John E. Howard, former governor of Maryland; General Andrew Jackson, much the military hero of the Battle of New Orleans (1815); and Francis Scott Key, the Washington lawyer and poet, newly famous for writing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” These men hailed from different parts of the nation, which had varying proportions of slaves and free blacks.


Between 1817 and 1825, the so-called Era of Good Feelings among the regions of the new nation, there arose a generalized belief that free blacks in the United States would soon pollute the expanding community of transplanted Europeans. In the years from 1816 to 1836, the colonization idea was so popular that even without a national staff, more than a dozen states, from Vermont to Mississippi, formed their own colonization societies. Two of the most powerful were founded in New York City and Philadelphia, the latter the informal “capital” of free black America. Whatever may have been a given region’s level of

Table 1.
ACS Officers: Directors, Managers, and Vice Presidents, 1833–184 1
** All of the percentage references identify the ratio of each category of blacks to the total white population of each state ranked by number of national officers it supplied during the period covered by the 1840 census. Four ACS officers from abroad were not counted in the above table: Two represented England and two represented France.
SOURCE: Adapted from the Maryland State Colonization Papers (1835–1861); Historical Statistics of the United States, From Colonial Times to 1857. Washington DC: United States Department of Commerce, Bureau of Census, 1961
(Washington, D.C.)206,499 (29.1%)3,320 (9.8%)
Virginia1849,342 (4.7%)448,987 (42.1%)
New York1350,027 (2.2%)4 (–%)
Connecticut98,105 (2.8%)17 (–%)
Kentucky87,317 (0.9%)182,258 (23.4%)
Georgia62,753 (0.4%)280,944 (40.6%)
New Jersey621,044 (5.6%)674 (0.2%)
Maryland462,078 (13.2%)89,737 (19.1%)
Ohio417,242 (1.1%)3 (–%)
Pennsylvania347,354 (2.8%)64 (–%)
Louisiana325,502 (7.2%)168,452 (47.8%)
Mississippi21,366 (0.4%)195,211 (52%)
Delaware216,919 (21.7%)2,605 (3.3%)
North Carolina122,732 (3%)245,817 (32.6%)
Rhode Island13,238 (3%)0 (–%)
Vermont1738 (3%)0 (–%)

involvement with the ACS, the number of national officers from a given state was essentially an index of local support for the national ACS goals. As seen in Table 1, not unexpectedly the headquarters site of the ACS, Washington, D.C., supplied the organization with twenty officers. Supplying the next two largest numbers of officers were Virginia, with eighteen officers and nearly a half million enslaved Africans within its borders, and New York, with thirteen officers, 50,000 free blacks, and no slaves in 1840. Distant from Washington was the Mississippi State Colonization Society based in Greenville, so active in Liberia that a section of it is called Greenville. In the case of the state of Maryland, ACS leader John H. B. Latrobe and associates were so active and independent that the national ACS lost control of them in 1829. The Maryland society, extraordinarily determined to reduce the number of free blacks in the city, basically set up an independent operation in Liberia. Very active also was the Ohio State Colonization Society, which had four officers at the national level of the ACS, representing a free black population of 17,000 individuals and no slaves. In an ACS annual report, the officers of the ACS praised the industry of its Ohio representatives, and declared that the ACS should seek agents similar to those in Ohio “to do a good service in vitalizing State Societies now in a condition of suspended animation.”

Rhode Island and Vermont, with no slaves and only a handful of blacks, ideologically supported the objectives of the ACS. Representing the state with the largest proportion of ships formerly importing slaves, Rhode Islanders stood to profit as freedpeople exporters in the event the colonization movement went truly national. Pennsylvania’s large representation, with no slavery, might be attributed to the exceptional promotional work of its Quaker Young Men’s Colonization Society. The same was true of the New York City Colonization Society and its larger companion group, the New York State Colonization Society. Vermont, whose population included only 3 percent free blacks and no slaves in 1820, nevertheless had one of the most active local colonization societies in the country. Its members at a meeting in 1826 in Montpelier heard a Middlebury College professor complain that “the state of the free colored population of the United States is one of extreme and remediless degradation, of gross irreligion, of revolting profligacy, and of course, deplorable wretchedness.” His words echoed those of other speakers throughout the country. Membership on the national board of the ACS, then, was very much a reward for state and local support of its objectives.


As well-placed and informed as ACS leaders may have been, they appeared to be unaware of the glaring contradictions in their program and promotional materials. In print and in person, they used the language of humanitarian solicitude and benevolent Christianity. In the pages of their African Repository and Colonial Journal, they argued that colonization was an act of social justice.

The ACS was defined by its constitution in ways that made it appealing to some extent to antislavery and proslavery groups, humanitarians, racists, religious leaders, and, they thought, free blacks. To win the support of free blacks, humanitarians, and clergymen, ACS officials maintained that among the main goals of their colonization organization was to afford free blacks a place of unfettered freedom and to promote Christianity and American civilization.

Shortly after the ACS adopted its constitution, information regarding its membership and motives had the effect of organizing free blacks in different parts of the country to resist its plans. In January 1817 some 3,000 anticolonization blacks from Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut met in Philadelphia. This was the first time blacks had reacted on an interstate basis to a public issue. They traveled to Philadelphia in the dead of winter on the outside of stagecoaches or next to animals on coastal vessels. Meeting in the de facto capital of black America, these free persons of color expressed themselves in the following resolutions: “that we never will separate ourselves voluntarily from the slave population of this country” and “that we view with deep abhorrence the unmerited stigma attempted to be cast upon the reputation of the free people of color, by the promoters of this measure, ‘that they are a dangerous and useless part of the community.’” Led by James Forten, a major dry-dock owner in Philadelphia and one of the wealthiest blacks in the country, the ad hoc group formed a committee to convey their views to Congressman John Hopkinson. Among the eleven members of the committee was Richard Allen, the most esteemed black leader of the era.

Taken aback by the scope and intensity of the black rejection of the colonization scheme, the ACS dispatched its general agent, Robert Finley, to Philadelphia to explain to blacks the purposes and intended operations of the association. He stressed the essentially voluntary nature of the national colonization society, saying that its members were private volunteers and its funding was likewise. His visit, however, did not satisfy or silence blacks. Hundreds of free blacks met again in Philadelphia in August 1817. They declared that the ACS plan was “not asked for by us nor will it be requested by any circumstances of our present or future condition.” A few free blacks elsewhere supported the idea of colonization. For example, several free persons of color met in Richmond, Virginia, and said that while they opposed transporting blacks across the Atlantic, they asked that the nation “grant to free blacks a small portion of territory, either on the Missouri River, or any place that may seem to them most conducive to the public good and our future welfare.” In 1810 Virginia had 30,000 free blacks and 392,000 slaves. However, Baltimore’s most prominent leader, Reverend William Watkins, a self-educated schoolteacher of great erudition and command of oral and written English (and a reading knowledge of Greek and Latin), vigorously opposed both the ACS philosophy and program. He said that contrary to some of the assertions made in the ACS monthly publication, the African Repository, that it was God’s will that blacks go to Africa to uplift it, within the ACS “they know that we are not begging them to send us to Liberia.” He said further: “if we are begging them to do anything, it is to let us alone.” Indeed it was Watkins who, in the 1820s, persuaded a young newspaper editor, William Lloyd Garrison, to convert from pro- to anti-colonizationism. The Repository itself had a split personality: Half of its columns attacked free blacks in America as inferior and undesirable creatures. The other half argued that a “backward pagan” Africa was a place where blacks would have opportunities to demonstrate their talents without interference from whites.


In 1831, with the help of major funding from Forten and black churches, Garrison launched an anticolonization, immediate-emancipation newspaper, The Liberator, which printed the objections of black and white abolitionists to the ACS program. In 1832 Garrison collected statements from blacks throughout the North and published them in a thick volume titled 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 Remonstrance’s of the Free People of Color. Through the agency of Garrison’s newspaper and book, the views of free blacks on a public issue received a national hearing for the first time. It was in the context and vortex of anticolonization, antislavery, and pro-black citizenship rights that Garrison had placed himself in danger of life and limb. But he and his black supporters held unwaveringly that America was the natural home of blacks, with Watkins writing that if poor blacks were to be sent to their ancestral homes, then America should do the same for poor whites.

The ACS, then, not only made free blacks conscious of a national enemy but had also encouraged further hostility between whites and free blacks. The election of ACS member Andrew Jackson as president emboldened working-class whites to physically attack blacks, the most infamous incident being the routing toward Canada of some 800 black workers from Cincinnati in the depression of 1829. Unemployed whites desired their jobs. These and similar events led blacks to begin in 1830 what is now known as the Colored Convention Movement, an annual gathering of black leaders to explore collective response options to their declining civic situation. Usually held in New York or Philadelphia, these conventions, for thirty years, became the one seminational organ for addressing white America. Most of them had a common theme of opposition to the ACS. The first two conventions, in 1830 and 1831, set up a committee to explore the possibility of migrating to Canada if things got worse for free blacks in the United States. At the 1833 convention, a “Report on Colonization” was issued that contained the following: “The Committee consisting of one delegate from each State, for the purpose of reporting the views and sentiments of the people of color in their respective States, relative to the principles and operations of the American Colonization Society, respectfully beg leave to say ‘That all the people of the States they represent, feel themselves aggrieved by its very existence.”’

The report further stated that regardless of what the African Repository or spokespersons of the ACS might say, “the inevitable tendency of the ACS doctrine is to strengthen the cruel prejudices of our opponents, to steel the heart of sympathy to the appeals of suffering humanity, to retard our advancement in morals, literature and science, in short, to extinguish the last glimmer of hope, and throw an impenetrable gloom over our fairest and most reasonable prospects” (p. 27). Out of these conventions emerged black spokespersons such as Charles L. Remond, Henry Highland Garnet, and Frederick Douglass.

Despite its mixed motives and contradictory utterances, the ACS managed to settle approximately 15,000 freeborn, emancipated, and recaptured blacks in West Africa between 1822 and 1861. Of this number, an estimated 8,000 were a mixture of domestic and field-hand slaves manumitted and transported to Liberia as a reward for having informed their masters of insurrectionary plans and plots of their fellow bondsmen. This practice was necessary, because if informers remained in the neighborhood and were discovered, they ran the risk of being destroyed by the insurgents or their companions who faced torture, whippings, mutilation, sale out of the region, and/or execution. Liberia thus served as a safety valve not only for free blacks in the North but also for Southern emancipated blacks who rendered “meritorious” service to their masters and communities.


Despite the clear and vocal rejection of colonization by most blacks in the North, the leaders of the ACS continued to stress that the colonization scheme was the best solution to the problems they associated with them. Beginning in 1817, ACS’s board of managers began to argue that whites were not responsible for the barriers retarding and separating blacks from mainstream society; they held that these barriers were a product of nature and the will of God. The leaders of the ACS also declared that the free blacks in urban centers were responsible as well for their own status problems.

Bushrod Washington, the first president of the ACS and a white man, expressed the view that among the main goals of the ACS was to “purify” the American social and political systems by colonizing free blacks in Africa or other places outside white America. Robert G. Harper of Maryland, another early strong supporter of the ACS, maintained that black colonization would boost the interests of the United States, because the main objective of the ACS was to get rid of free blacks that he considered to be troublemakers. Henry Clay, one of the vice presidents of the ACS, noted that free blacks were the most “ferocious” people in America, a condition resulting from oppression and their own bad habits. He added that free blacks were a bad influence on enslaved blacks, as well as on whites. For Clay, settling blacks in West Africa would comprise moral, religious, and humanitarian blessings for the indigenous Africans, the colonized blacks, and the whites, especially the whites that supported the ACS effort.

Bishop William Meade of the Episcopal Church in Virginia, who once declared that well-behaved black people in the secular world would become white people in heaven, and who also translated the Bible for the African-American settlers in Liberia, noted that while blacks would not be good Christians in the United States they would be in Liberia. He therefore recommended to the ACS that the emancipation of blacks should be followed by their colonization in Liberia. The Reverend Robert Finley had expressed views regarding black colonization that were similar to those of Bishop Meade and Clay. His early ministry was in Baskerville, New Jersey, which had a free but socially shunned, impoverished black population of fifteen hundred. He had noted that everything associated with blacks, including the pigment of their skin, was against them. He therefore declared that there was no prospect for blacks in America, and added that as such, they should be colonized in West Africa. He concluded that the colonization of blacks in West Africa would accomplish the following objectives: America would be purged of unwanted people; the colonized blacks would promote American civilization in Africa, because they were in some measure Christians and civilized people; and besides they would be in a better position to improve their material, social, and political well-being in West Africa. Not all officers of the ACS saw Africa as the proper destination for free blacks. When James Madison, the former U.S. president, became president of the ACS in 1833, he saw the new American Southwest as a possible home for emancipated blacks.

The position of free blacks notwithstanding, after much political maneuvering, the ACS persuaded Congress to appropriate $100,000 to help underwrite indirectly the colonization scheme, even though it had high hope that the state units of the ACS would continue to raise funds. The thirty-dollar lifetime fees and the one-dollar annual dues did not begin to cover the expense of trying to establish a distant colony reachable only by a sea voyage. The ACS was well aware of the work of a British private association, the African Institution, in establishing Sierra Leone in 1797 as a colony for blacks from England. Thus, the Reverend Samuel J. Mills and Ebenezer Burgess consulted with representatives of the African Institution in Sierra Leone. These two white Americans were sent to Africa by the ACS in 1818 to locate a

suitable place for the colonization of blacks. The leader, Mills, had made his reputation as a missionary explorer of the American Southwest. Despite their condescension to the local African authorities, Mills and Burgess worked out a deal with them permitting the ACS to settle emancipated blacks on specific portions of African territory. This land usage agreement was the very last act of these two men, as both died of malaria while en route back to the United States.


Greatly encouraged by the prospect of actually sending blacks to Africa, the ACS gathered some eighty-four free persons of color, mostly from Maryland and Virginia, and commissioned the ship Elizabeth based in New York Harbor as their carrier to go to Africa. The voyage began on January 31, 1820. Only three of the passengers were whites: Samuel Crozer, an ACS representative, the Reverend Samuel Bacon, who represented the U.S. government, and John Bankson, Bacon’s assistant. Among the blacks were men of superior ability, such as the Reverend Lott Carey and the Reverend Daniel Coker, both of whom were destined to hold high positions once Liberia was founded. The whites on the Elizabeth continued to treat the African-American emigrants paternalistically throughout the voyage from the United States to the West African coast. Blacks deeply resented this, their rage almost provoking a racial conflict at sea, had they not been calmed down by Rev. Coker.

Once on the ground in Africa, the ACS Liberian agent, now Governor Eli Ayres of Liberia, like all the white governors who succeeded him, led the black settlers paternalistically. Ayres’s autocratic leadership style was shown when he unilaterally drew up the layout plan of Monrovia, the chief town of the African-American settlers, which was named after James Monroe, then U.S. president. The settlers, especially those who had already constructed their own homes, resented the imposed town plan, because it required them to relocate. This action and related behaviors on the part of Ayres reinforced settlers’ resentment toward him, finally forcing his departure from Liberia. In 1823 the equally autocratic Jehudi Ashmun replaced Ayres.

Although he was a competent governor, Ashmun was among the most racist and paternalistic governors in colonial Liberia. He held the view that nearly all the black settlers behaved like children. Ashmun not only continued Ayres’s arbitrary food and land distribution policies, he also arrogantly demanded that all adult male settlers perform two days of free service on public land. He warned them that food and other necessities, usually provided by the ACS, would be withheld from those who refused to carry out the required tasks.

Ashmun’s behavior led to settlers’ strong antipathy toward him. Reinforcing such resentment was his reduction of the food ration by half on March 19, 1823. These actions together with no attempt at conciliation led the settlers to attack and ransack the colonial store. The black settlers also wrote to the officials of the ACS in Washington, accusing Ashmun of dishonesty, discrimination, and partiality.

Ashmun told the male colonists that the contracts they had with the ACS obligated them to his leadership, which included his responsibility for the safety of their wives, children, relatives, belongings, and community. He asserted that the problems they faced were caused by their failure to accept his governorship and their unwillingness to cultivate local foodstuffs.

As in the antebellum South, Ashmun tried to use religion as a means of control in Liberia. He told the settlers he expected them to recommit themselves to God and to the very vows or agreements that already obligated them to the ACS and that body’s representatives, including himself, in Liberia.

Although he had hoped to bring harmony in the Liberian settlement, Ashmun did not succeed. In fact opposition to his leadership continued to intensify, because he and the ACS were unwilling to make the changes that were needed to satisfy the black colonists. Ashmun was forced to leave Liberia in 1824 for Cape Verde Islands. The ACS and the U.S. Navy, however, reinstated him a few months after his expulsion. Ashmun’s declining health coupled with the aforementioned problems forced him to leave Liberia in 1828 for the United States. He died in New Haven, Connecticut, on August 25, 1828.

Ashmun’s successors through 1847 continued the outlined racist and paternalistic governing system. Among these governors were Richard Randall, Joseph Mechlin, John Pinney, Ezekiel Skinner, Anthony Williams, Thomas Buchanan, and Joseph J. Roberts, the latter of whom was a descendant of African Americans. Although the Colonial Assembly of the Liberian colony was an elected body, the governor of the colony had final say over who would be elected to that body. In common with prevailing beliefs, the top officials of the ACS were of the opinion that mental ability among nonwhites was a function of the degrees of their kinship to Caucasians. Accordingly, these governors were more receptive to light-skinned blacks than dark-skinned settlers in Liberia. When Liberia technically became an independent country rather than an ACS colony in 1847, its once exclusively Caucasian presidential leadership was replaced for the remainder of the century by a near-white leadership consisting of the following men: Presidents Joseph J. Roberts (1848–1856 and 1872–1876), Stephen A. Benson (1856–1864), Daniel B. Warner (1864–1868), James S. Payne (1868–1870 and 1876–1878), Anthony Gardner (1878–1883), Alfred H. Russell (1883–1884), Hilary R. W. Johnson (1884–1892), Joseph Chesseman (1892–1896), and William D. Coleman (1896–1900). Edward J. Roye (1870–1871) and James S. Smith (1871–1872) were dark-skinned. This group, later called Americo-Liberians, was almost as color-conscious as the white leadership it replaced.

Below the light-skinned African Americans in status were the dark-skinned settlers descended from African-American field hands, and the assimilated recaptives— Africans who had been enslaved but never experienced plantation slavery. Beneath these categories were the traditional ethnic groups such as the Bassa, Dei, Gbandi, Gio, Gola, Grebo, Kissi, Kpelle, Krahn, Kru, Loma, Mano, and Vai, whose members did not become Liberian citizens until the early 1900s, and could not vote until 1946. Such was the political reality created by the ACS in its first fifty years.

Begun by some of America’s leading lights, and given the private assignment of ridding America of the free blacks making up an average of 17 percent of the nation’s total antebellum black population, the ACS never became politically or financially strong enough to nullify its own internal contradictions or to persuade technically free people of color to leave the only country they had ever known. On the contrary, its program jolted black Americans into a defense of their presence here, making them more determined than ever to become simply Americans. The ACS itself slowly became a letterhead association, operated by a virtually unknown leadership until 1964, when it declared itself dead.


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