See P. J. Staudenraus, The African Colonization Movement (1961); W. L. Garrison, Thoughts on African Colonization (1832, repr. 1968).
The American Colonization Society (in full: The Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of America) was an organization that helped in founding Liberia, a colony on the coast of West Africa. In 1821 Black Americans traveled there from the United States. During the next 20 years the colony continued to grow and establish economic stability. In 1847, the legislature of Liberia declared itself an independent state.
Some charged that the ACS was a racist society, while others point to its benevolent origins and later takeover by men with visions of an American empire in Africa, although both black abolitionist and white slave owners were a part of the ACS. The Society closely controlled the development of Liberia until 1847, when it was declared to be an independent republic. By 1867, the ACS had assisted in the movement of more than 13,000 Americans to Liberia, whose descendants came to be called Americo-Liberians. The organization was formally dissolved in 1964.
The society was supported by Southerners fearful of organized revolt by free blacks, by Northerners concerned that an influx of black workers would hurt the economic opportunities of indigent whites, by some who opposed slavery but did not favor integration, and by many blacks who saw a return to Africa as the best solution to their troubles.
The events which motivated some supporters of emigration included an abortive slave rebellion headed by Gabriel in 1800, and a rapid increase in the number of free African-Americans in the United States which was perceived by some to be alarming. Although the ratio of whites to blacks was 8:2 from 1790 to 1800, it was the massive increase in the number of free African-Americans that disturbed proponents of colonization. From 1790 to 1800, the number of free African-Americans increased from 59,467 (1½ % of total U.S. population, 7½ % of U.S. black population) to 108,378 (2 % of U.S. population), a percentage increase of 82 percent; and from 1800 to 1810, the number increased from 108,378 to 186,446 (2½ % of U.S. pop.), an increase of 72 percent.
This steady increase did not go unnoticed by an anxious white community that was ever more aware of and anxious about the free blacks in their midst. The arguments propounded against free blacks, especially in free states, may be divided into four main categories. One argument pointed toward the perceived moral laxity of blacks. Blacks, some said, were licentious beings who would draw whites into their savage, unrestrained ways. These fears of an intermingling of the races were strong and underlay much of the outcry for removal.
Along these same lines, blacks were accused of a tendency toward criminality and were thought inclined to deviate from the straight and narrow path. Still others claimed that the mental inferiority of African-Americans made them unfit for the duties of citizenship and incapable of real improvement. Economic considerations were also put forth. Free blacks, it was thought, would only take jobs away from whites. This feeling was especially strong among the "working class" in the North.
Southerners had their special reservations about free blacks. It was feared that freedmen located in slave areas would act as an enticing reminder of what freedom might mean and encourage runaways and slave revolts.
While the colonizationists in the South were motivated by racism and fear of slave uprising; the white colonizationists in the North refused to accept the notion of white-black co-existence. The proposed solution was to have this class of people deported from United States to Africa by a process euphemistically called "colonization".
At this inaugural meeting, Finley proposed a colony be established in Africa to take free people of color, most of whom had been born free, away from the United States. Finley meant to colonize "(with their consent) the free people of color residing in our country, in Africa, or such other place as Congress may deem most expedient.
These "moderates" thought slavery was unsustainable and should eventually end but did not consider integrating slaves into society a viable option. So, the ACS encouraged slaveholders to offer freedom on the condition that those accepting it would move to Liberia at the society's expense. A small number of slave owners chose to follow this course of action.
Bushrod Washington, a Supreme Court justice and nephew of George Washington, served as the first president of the organization. The great American statesman Henry Clay of Kentucky provided its main intellectual and political leadership. The presidents of the ACS tended to be southerners. The first president of the ACS was the nephew of former U.S. President George Washington, Bushrod Washington, an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Clay was ACS president from 1836 to 1849.
The prestige of the ACS benefited tremendously from the high-profile association of leaders like Clay and Washington, and over the years, some of America’s greatest men were not merely members but officers of the society: James Madison, Daniel Webster, James Monroe, Stephen Douglas, John Randolph, William Seward, Francis Scott Key, General Winfield Scott, John Marshall and Roger Taney. Other great men such as Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, while never members of the society, strongly supported colonization and the removal of blacks from the United States., though Lincoln later supported black suffrage.
Supporters of the ACS may be divided into three main groups. The first consisted of those who genuinely felt that it was the best solution to a difficult problem and might lead to a gradual emancipation. Another smaller group was a pro-slavery group who saw removal as an answer to the problems associated with "dangerous" free blacks. Perhaps the largest group of supporters was made up of those who opposed slavery, but did not believe in anything remotely resembling equality of the races.
The colonization effort resulted from a mixture of motives. Free blacks, freedmen and their descendants, encountered widespread discrimination in the United States of the early 19th century. They were generally perceived as a burden on society, and a threat to white workers because they undercut wages. Some abolitionists believed that blacks could not achieve equality in the United States and would be better off in Africa. Many slaveholders were worried that the presence of free blacks would encourage slaves to rebel. Other supporters of removal to Africa wanted to prevent racial mixing, to promote the spread of Christianity in Africa, or to develop trade with Africa.
The ACS encouraged slaveholders to offer freedom on the condition that those accepting it would move to Liberia at the society's expense. A number of slave owners did just that. Despite being anti-slavery, Society members were openly racist and frequently argued that free blacks would be unable to assimilate into the white society of this country. John Randolph, a slave owner, called free blacks "promoters of mischief." At this time, about 2 million African Americans lived in America of which 200,000 were free persons of color. Henry Clay, a congressman from Kentucky who was critical of the negative impact slavery had on the southern economy, believed that because of "unconquerable prejudice resulting from their color, they never could amalgamate with the free whites of this country."
Although the eccentric Randolph believed that the removal of free blacks would "materially tend to secure" slave property, the vast majority of early members were philanthropists, clergy and abolitionists who wanted to free African slaves and their descendants and provide them with the opportunity to return to Africa. Very few members were slave owners who feared free people of color and wanted to expel them from America, and in fact the Society never enjoyed much support among planters in the Lower South.
Black Americans stood divided on the issue of emigration. A few black church leaders signaled their support for the ACS. In January 1817, free blacks in Richmond, Virginia, made a public pronouncement favoring emigration. However, most free blacks in northern communities such as Philadelphia, New York, and Boston united against emigration, seeing it as a ploy to expel free blacks from the United States. Many denounced the membership of the society as racist deportationists whose aim was not to help black people, but rather to strengthen slavery by ridding society of a free black population. They felt that it would be better to stay in America and fight against slavery and for full rights as United States citizens. Lemuel Haynes, a free black Presbyterian minister at the time of the Society's formation, argued passionately that God's providential plan would eventually defeat slavery and lead to the harmonious integration of the races as equals. In 1817, over 3,000 blacks gathered in Philadelphia in a protest against the plans for colonization.
At the same time, many slave owners in the South vigorously denounced the plan as an assault on their slave economy.
For many years the ACS tried to persuade the United States Congress to appropriate funds to send colonists to Liberia. Although Henry Clay led the campaign, it failed. The society did, however, succeed in its appeals to some state legislatures.
One of the chief methods of fundraising that they developed was selling lifetime membership certificates to private citizens.
The Society's members relentlessly pressured Congress and the President for support. The American Colonization Society had an ally in the new President of the United States, James Monroe, taking office in 1817. Monroe had endorsed the removal of free blacks to Africa since the turn of the century when he had been Governor of Virginia, and was now willing to use his authority to help the new society. He was able to convince Congress to appropriate $100,000 for the cause in 1819, and also helped the society to secure federal help in acquiring territory. In fact, Monroe's efforts to help the American Colonization Society were seen as so monumental, the capital of Liberia was named Monrovia in his honor.
Despite the opposition of many blacks, hundreds had volunteered to go as colonists back to the land of their origin.
Under the leadership of Samuel Bacon, an Episcopal clergyman, the first expedition took place on the ship Elizabeth, a small merchantman. Among the items brought were wagons, wheelbarrows, plows, ironworks for a saw mill and grist mill, two cannons, 100 muskets, 12 kegs of powder, fishing equipment, and a small barge. President James Monroe had the Secretary of the Navy order an American sloop of war, the USS Cyane, to convoy the Elizabeth to Africa. Of the 86 black emigrants sailing on the Elizabeth, only about one-third were men, the rest were wives and children.
The ship arrived first at Freetown, Sierra Leone then sailed south to what is now the northern coast of Liberia and made an effort to establish a settlement. All three whites and 22 of the emigrants died within three weeks from yellow fever. The remainders returned to Sierra Leone and waited for another ship. The Nautilus sailed twice in 1821 and established a settlement at Cape Mesurado on an island they named Perseverance. It was difficult for the early settlers, made of mostly free-born blacks, who were not born into slavery, but were denied the full rights of American citizenship.
The native Africans resisted the expansion of the settlers resulting in many armed conflicts. Nevertheless, in the next decade 2,638 African-Americans migrated to the area. Also, the colony entered an agreement with the U.S. government to accept freed slaves captured from slave ships.
The society had experienced little success in convincing local tribal leaders to sell land for the new colony, and the first 88 free black settlers from America were dropped off on Scherbo Island.
Bacon and others proceeded to sail down the coast to look for a better place to found their colony. Encountering the same difficulties as Crozer had, they found that most local chiefs were unwilling to sell their land. In April they did manage to sign a treaty to buy of land in Bassa, but the Colonization Society refused to ratify it because it was too expensive and would require an annual tribute to be paid to the king. Frustrated by the failure to obtain land, President Monroe replaced Bacon with Dr. Eli Ayers, who left New York in Juli 1821 aboard the USS Shark, and arrived in Africa to meet the party in November 1821. Not wanting the effort to fail again, Monroe also decided to involve the military in the quest for a suitable territory, and sent the USS Alligator commanded by Navy Lieutenant Robert F. Stockton to assist Ayers.
Ayers and Stockton sailed down the coast looking for an appropriate location for their settlement, eventually deciding on Cape Mesurado, about south of Sierra Leone. Agents of the American Colonization Society had previously tried to buy the land, but King Peter, who ruled the region, had flatly refused to sell it. This time, Ayres and Stockton would not take no as an answer. They arrived on the cape on December 12 and requested a meeting with the king. Although denied at first, they were persistent and eventually succeeded in gaining an audience. King Peter refused to sell them the land they wanted, but agreed to return the next day for further negotiation. When the next day arrived, the king sent messengers in his place to inform the Americans that he would neither sell them any land nor meet with them again. Infuriated at this treatment, Stockton and Ayres decided to take matters into their own hands. They paid native guides to lead them to the king's town, where they once again insisted on a meeting. On December 14, King Peter did meet with them and once again told them that he would not sell them Cape Mesurado under any circumstances. Stockton and Ayres then proceeded to prove him wrong when they and their company pulled out pistols and aimed them at the king and others . (Other accounts though are less pronounced about any threat of force applied by ACS representatives ). At gunpoint, King Peter "agreed" to sell Cape Montserado (or Cape Mesurado) to the Americans. On the next day a formal agreement was drawn up, in which Ayers and Stockton acquired the cape for their colony in exchange for a quantity guns, powder, beds, clothes, mirrors, food, rum, and tobacco worth about $300.
Ayers and Stockton returned to Sierra Leone, where they loaded up the colonists on two ships and headed for their newly acquired home. The first settlement was on Providence Island near where the present capital city, Monrovia, is located. Providence Island had not possessed an adequate supply of fresh water, and the rainy season had begun. Many of the new settlers began to fall ill, just as the colonists of the Elizabeth had done a year earlier. The colony survived, however, and was strengthened on August 8, 1822, when the brig Strong, which had been chartered by the U.S. government and left Hampton Roads, Virginia on May 26, arrived at Cape Mesurado. The Strong carried food and other supplies for the colony, along with 55 black colonists.
Jehudi Ashmun, an early leader of the American Colonization Society colony, envisioned an American empire in Africa. During 1825 and 1826, Ashmun took steps to lease, annex, or buy tribal lands along the coast and along major rivers leading inland. Like his predecessor Lt. Robert Stockton, Ashmun was prepared to use force to extend the colony's territory. His aggressive actions quickly increased Liberia's power over its neighbors.
In a treaty of May 1825 deposited by the ACS in the U.S. Library of Congress, King Peter and other native kings agreed to sell land in return for 500 bars of tobacco, three barrels of rum, five casks of powder, five umbrellas, ten iron posts, and ten pairs of shoes, among other items.
In 1832 the Edina and Port Cresson colonies were formed by the New York and Pennsylvania Colonization Societies. In 1834 the Maryland in Liberia colony was created by the Maryland State Colonization Society.
In 1834, the Mississippi State Colonization Society established a colony independent of the American Colonization Society. The Mississippi-in-Africa colony was created by the Mississippi and Louisiana State Colonization Societies in 1835. In 1835, the Port Cresson Colony was destroyed by natives of the area. The Bassa Cove Colony was founded on the ruins of the Port Cresson Colony a month later.
A period of consolidation followed. The Bassa Cove Colony absorbed the Edina Colony in 1837. Bassa Cove in turn was incorporated into Liberia in 1839, as was New Georgia. Maryland in Africa became the State of Maryland in Liberia in 1841. Mississippi-in-Africa was incorporated into Liberia as Sinoe County in 1842. Maryland in Liberia declared independence from Liberia in 1854 and had a brief life as the independent state of Maryland in Liberia. It was annexed into Liberia as Maryland County in 1857.
Abolitionist resistance to colonization grew steadily. Beginning in the 1830s, the society was harshly attacked by some abolitionists, who tried to discredit colonization as a slaveholders' scheme and the American Colonization Society as merely palliative propaganda for the continuation of slavery in the United States.
In 1832, as the ACS began to send agents to England to raise funds for what they touted as a benevolent plan, William Lloyd Garrison helped instigate opposition to the plan with a 236-page book on the evils of colonization and sent abolitionists to England to track down and counter ACS supporters.
In 1855, William Nesbit published the pamphlet "Four Months in Liberia, Or, African Colonization Exposed", a highly critical essay against the feasibility of colonization. Nesbit had sailed to Liberia under the auspices of the American Colonization Society in 1853, and his booklet was a recounting of his experiences and observations in the colony.
The colonization effort received a major boost after the Nat Turner slave uprising in 1831. Virginia, Kentucky, and Maryland all appropriated funds for the shipment of free blacks to Africa. Also, many more blacks were now more willing to emigrate since the Turner rebellion had produced significant white backlash against free blacks.
Thus encouraged, Maryland legislators passed a law in 1832 that required any slave freed after that date to leave the state and specifically offered passage to a part of Liberia administered by the Maryland State Colonization Society. However, enforcement provisions lacked teeth, and many Marylanders forgot their antipathy to free blacks when they needed extra hands at harvest time. There is no evidence that any freed African-American was forcibly sent to Liberia from Maryland or anywhere else..
The settlers recreated American society, building churches and homes that resembled Southern plantations. And they continued to speak English. They also entered into a complex relationship with the indigenous people — marrying them in some cases, discriminating against them in others, but all the time attempting to "civilize" them and impose Western values on the traditional communities.
The formation of the colony did not occur altogether without difficulty. The land occupied by the American Colonization Society in Liberia was not void of native inhabitants when the emigrants arrived. Much of the area was under the control of the Malinké tribes who resented the expansion of these settlers. In addition to disease, poor housing conditions and lack of food and medicine, these new emigrants found themselves engaged in sporadic armed combat with the natives.
Almost from the beginning, the settlers periodically encountered stiff opposition from local tribesmen, usually resulting in bloody battles. On the other hand, colonial expansionists encroached on the newly-independent Liberia and took over much of the original territory of independent Liberia by force.
Early in his presidency, Abraham Lincoln tried repeatedly to arrange resettlements of the kind the ACS supported, but each arrangement failed (See Abraham Lincoln on slavery). By 1863, most scholars believe that Lincoln abandoned the idea following the use of black troops. Biographer Stephen B. Oates has observed, Lincoln thought it immoral to ask black soldiers to fight for the United States and then remove them to Africa after their military service. Others, like Michael Lind, believe that as late 1864 or 1865 Lincoln continued to hold out hope for colonization, noting that he allegedly asked Attorney General Edward Bates if the Reverend James Mitchell could stay on as "your assistant or aid in the matter of executing the several acts of Congress relating to the emigration or colonizing of the freed Blacks." In his second term as president, on April 11, 1865, Lincoln gave a speech supporting suffrage for blacks.
The American Colonization Society closely controlled the development of Liberia until 1847. However, by the 1840s, Liberia had become a financial burden on the American Colonization Society which was effectively bankrupt.
Liberia faced external threats, chiefly from Britain, because it was neither a sovereign power nor a bona fide colony of any sovereign nation. The Society controlled the colony of Liberia until 1846 when, under the perception that the British might annex the settlement, the ACS directed the Liberians to proclaim their independence. In 1847, the colony became the independent nation of Liberia. The new Liberian constitution was said to be fashioned after the American model.