American Colonization Society (ACS), originally known as the Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of America, was founded in 1816 by Robert Finley to encourage and support the migration of free African Americans to the continent of Africa.
There were several factors that led to the establishment of the American Colonization Society. The number of free people of color grew steadily following the American Revolutionary War, from 60,000 in 1790 to 300,000 by 1830. Consequently, slaveowners grew increasingly concerned that free blacks might encourage or help their slaves to escape or rebel. In addition, most white Americans saw African Americans as racially inferior and felt that "amalgamation," or integration, of African Americans with white American culture was impossible and undesirable. This reinforced the notion that African Americans should be relocated to somewhere they could live free of prejudice, where they could be citizens.
The African-American community and abolitionist movement overwhelmingly opposed the project. In most cases, African Americans' families had lived in the United States for generations, and their prevailing sentiment was that they were no more African than white Americans were European. Contrary to stated claims that emigration was voluntary, many African Americans, both free and enslaved, were pressured into emigrating. Indeed, enslavers sometimes manumitted their slaves on condition that the freedmen leave the country immediately.
According to historian Marc Leepson, "Colonization proved to be a giant failure, doing nothing to stem the forces that brought the nation to Civil War." Between 1821 and 1847, only a few thousand African Americans, out of millions in the US, emigrated to what would become Liberia. Close to half of them died from tropical diseases. In addition, the transportation of the emigrants to the African continent, including the provisioning of requisite tools and supplies, proved very expensive.
Starting in the 1830s, the Society was met with great hostility from white abolitionists, led by Gerrit Smith, who had supported the Society financially, and Wm. Lloyd Garrison, author of Thoughts on African Colonization (1832), in which he proclaimed the Society a fraud. According to Garrison and his many followers, the Society was not a solution to the problem of American slavery--it actually was helping, and was intended to help, to preserve it.
After the invention of the cotton gin in the 1790s, the growth and export of cotton became a highly profitable business. Central to the business was the setting up of plantations, staffed by enslaved laborers. Due to the increased demand, imports of African slaves grew until legal importation was barred in 1808, after which time Maryland and Virginia openly bred slaves, "producing" children for sale "South", through brokers such as Franklin and Armfield, to plantation owners. This resulted in the forcible relocation of about one million enslaved people to the Deep South, The Africans and African Americans became well established and had children, and the total number of the enslaved reached four million by the mid-19th century.
Due in part to manumission efforts sparked by revolutionary ideals, Protestant preachers, and the abolitionist movement, there was an expansion in the number of free blacks, many of them born free. Even in the North, where slavery was being abolished, discrimination against free blacks was rampant and often legal. Few states extended citizenship rights to free blacks prior to the 1860s and the Federal government, largely controlled by Slave Power, never showed any inclination to challenge the racial status quo. Even in the North, free blacks were often seen as unwelcome immigrants, taking jobs away because they would work for cheap.
Some slave owners decided to support emigration following an aborted slave rebellion headed by Gabriel Prosser in 1800, and a rapid increase in the number of free African Americans in the United States in the first two decades after the Revolutionary War, which they perceived as threatening. Although the ratio of whites to blacks overall was 4:1 between 1790 and 1800, in some Southern counties blacks were the majority. Slaveholders feared that free blacks destabilized their slave society and created a political threat. From 1790 to 1800, the number of free blacks increased from 59,467 to 108,398, and by 1810 there were 186,446 free blacks.
In 1786, a British organization, the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor, launched its efforts to establish the Sierra Leone Province of Freedom, a colony in West Africa for London's "black poor." This enterprise gained the support of the British government, which also offered relocation to Black Loyalists who had been resettled in Nova Scotia, where they were subject to harsh weather and discrimination from some white Nova Scotians. Jamaica maroons were also deported to the colony, alongside former slaves freed by the Royal Navy after the Atlantic slave trade was abolished by Britain in 1807.
Paul Cuffe or Cuffee (1759-1817) was a successful Quaker ship owner and activist in Boston. His parents were of Ashanti (African) and Wampanoag (Native American) heritage. He advocated settling freed American slaves in Africa and gained support from the British government, free Black leaders in the United States, and members of Congress to take emigrants to the British colony of Sierra Leone. In 1815, he financed a trip himself. The following year, Cuffe took 38 American blacks to Freetown, Sierra Leone. He died in 1817 before undertaking other voyages. Cuffe laid the groundwork for the American Colonization Society.
Although little remembered as ultimately nothing came of them, there were a number of other proposals for relocating former slaves to somewhere much closer. One option discussed was settling them in the new, sparsely-populated Western territories acquired with the Louisiana Purchase, or on the Pacific coast: creating a Black reservation, similar to an Indian reservation. Haiti was open to them, and there was an unsuccessful attempt to create an agricultural community of former American slaves on Île-à-Vache, Haiti. Abraham Lincoln's plan was to settle them in what is today Panama (see Linconia). Even Florida Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward proposed, in 1907, sending Blacks to a land the federal government would purchase, there to live permanently, in isolation from whites.
The ACS had its origins in 1816, when Charles Fenton Mercer, a Federalist member of the Virginia General Assembly, discovered accounts of earlier legislative debates on black colonization in the wake of Gabriel Prosser's rebellion. Mercer pushed the state to support the idea. One of his political contacts in Washington City, John Caldwell, in turn contacted the Reverend Robert Finley, his brother-in-law and a Presbyterian minister, who endorsed the plan.
On December 21, 1816, the society was officially established at the Davis Hotel in Washington, D.C. Among the Society's supporters were Charles Fenton Mercer (from Virginia), Henry Clay (Kentucky), John Randolph (Virginia), Richard Bland Lee (Virginia), and Bushrod Washington (Virginia). Slaveholders in the Virginia Piedmont region in the 1820s and 1830s comprised many of its most prominent members; slave-owning United States presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and James Madison were among its supporters. Madison served as the Society's president in the early 1830s.
At the inaugural meeting of the Society, Reverend Finley suggested that 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". The organization established branches throughout the United States, mostly in Southern states. It was instrumental in establishing the colony of Liberia.
The ACS was founded by groups otherwise opposed to each other on the issue of slavery. Slaveholders, such as those in the Maryland branch and elsewhere, believed that so-called repatriation was a way to remove free blacks from slave societies and avoid slave rebellions.[a] Free blacks, many of whom had been in the United States for generations, also encouraged and assisted slaves to escape, and depressing their value. ("Every attempt by the South to aid the Colonization Society, to send free colored people to Africa, enhances the value of the slave left on the soil.") The Society appeared to hold contradictory ideas: free blacks should be removed because they could not benefit America; on the other hand, free blacks would prosper and thrive under their own leadership in another land.[b]
On the other hand, a coalition made up mostly of evangelicals, Quakers, philanthropists, and abolitionists supported abolition of slavery. They wanted slaves to be free and believed blacks would face better chances for freedom in Africa than in the United States, since they were not welcome in the South or North.[c] The two opposed groups found common ground in support of what they called "repatriation".
The presidents of the ACS tended to be Southerners. The first president was Bushrod Washington, the nephew of U.S. President George Washington and an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. From 1836 to 1849 the statesman Henry Clay of Kentucky, a planter and slaveholder, was ACS president. John H. B. Latrobe served as president of the ACS from 1853 until his death in 1891.
The colonization project, which had multiple American Colonization Society chapters in every state, had three goals. One was to provide a place for former slaves, freedmen, and their descendants to live, where they would be free and not subject to racism. Another goal was to ensure that the colony had what it needed to succeed, such as fertile soil to grow crops. A third goal was to suppress attempts to engage in the Atlantic slave trade, such as by monitoring ship traffic on the coast. Presbyterian clergyman Lyman Beecher proposed another goal: the Christianization of Africa.[d]
The Society raised money by selling memberships. The Society's members pressured Congress and the President for support. In 1819, they received $100,000 from Congress, and on February 6, 1820, the first ship, the Elizabeth, sailed from New York for West Africa with three white ACS agents and 88 African-American emigrants aboard. The approaches for selecting people and funding travel to Africa varied by state.
Originally, colonization "had been pushed with diligence and paraded as the cure for the evils of slavery, and its benevolence was assumed on all hands. Everybody of consequence belonged to it." The following summary is from April 1834:
The plan of colonizing free blacks, has been justly considered one of the noblest devices of Christian benevolence and enlightened patriotism, grand in its object, and most happily adapted to enlist the combined influence, and harmonious cooperation, of different classes of society. It reconciles, and brings together some discordant interests, which could not in any other plan be brought to meet in harmony. The Christian and the statesman here act together, and persons having entirely different views from each other in reference to some collateral points connected with the great subject, are moved towards the same point by a diversity of motives. It is a splendid conception, around which are gathered the hopes of the nation, the wishes of the patriot, the prayers of the Christian, and we trust, the approbation of Heaven.
The colonization movement "originated abolitionism", by arousing the free blacks and other opponents of slavery.
From the beginning, "the majority of black Americans regarded the Society [with] enormous disdain." Black activist James Forten immediately rejected the ACS, writing in 1817 that "we have no wish to separate from our present homes for any purpose whatever". As soon as they heard about it, 3,000 blacks packed a church in Philadelphia, "the bellwether city for free blacks," and "bitterly and unanimously" denounced it. Frederick Douglass, commenting on colonization, "Shame upon the guilty wretches that dare propose, and all that countenance such a proposition. We live here--have lived here--have a right to live here, and mean to live here." Martin Delany, who believed that Black Americans deserved "a new country, a new beginning", called Liberia a "miserable mockery" of an independent republic, a "racist scheme of the ACS to rid the United States of free blacks." He proposed instead Central and South America as "the ultimate destination and future home of the colored race on this continent" (see Linconia). A recent (2014) writer on Connecticut African Americans summarizes the attitude amongst them:
African Americans viewed colonization as a means of defrauding them of the rights of citizenship and a way of tightening the grip of slavery. ...The tragedy was that African Americans began to view their ancestral home with disdain. They dropped the use of "African" in names of their organizations...and used instead [of African American] "The Colored American."
While claiming to aid African Americans, in some cases, to stimulate emigration, it made conditions for them worse. For example, "the Society assumed the task of resuscitating the Ohio Black Codes of 1804 and 1807. ...Between 1,000 and 1,200 free blacks were forced from Cincinnati." A meeting was held in Cincinnati on January 17, 1832 to discuss colonization, which resulted in a series of resolutions. First, they had a right to freedom and equality. They felt honor-bound to protect the country, the "land of their birth", and the Constitution. They were not familiar with Africa, and should have the right to make their own decisions about where they lived. They recommended that if black people wish to leave the United States, they consider Canada or Mexico, where they would have civil rights and a climate that is similar to what they are accustomed. The United States was large enough to accommodate a colony, and would be much cheaper to implement. They question the motives of ACS members who cite Christianity as a reason for removing blacks from America. Since there were no attempts to improve the conditions of black people who lived in the United States, it is unlikely that white people would watch out for their interests thousands of miles away.
Wm. Lloyd Garrison, as he always signed himself, began publication of his abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, in 1831, followed in 1832 by his Thoughts on African Colonization. According to President Lincoln, it was "the logic and moral power of Garrison and the antislavery people of the country" that put emancipation on the country's political agenda. Garrison himself joined it in good faith." All the important white future abolitionists supported the Society: besides Garrison, Gerrit Smith, the Tappans, and many others, as can be seen in the pages of the Society's African Repository.
Garrison objected to the colonization scheme because rather than eliminating slavery, its key goal, as he saw it, was to remove free black people from America, thereby avoiding slave rebellions. Besides not improving the lot of enslaved Africans, the colonization had made enemies of native people of Africa. Both he and Gerrit Smith were horrified when they learned that alcohol was being sold in Liberia. He questioned the wisdom of sending African Americans, along with white missionaries and agents, to such an unhealthy place. In addition, it meant that fewer slaves achieved their freedom: "it hinders the manumission of slaves by throwing their emancipation upon its own scheme, which in fifteen years has occasioned the manumission of less than four hundred slaves, while before its existence and operations during a less time thousands were set free."
In the second number of The Liberator, Garrison reprinted this commentary from the Boston Statesman:
We were, however, rather surprised to see the proposal of sending the free negroes to Africa as returning them to their native land. It would be as well at least to talk of sending these reverend gentlemen back to England as their native land. The negro is just as much a native here as are these reverend gentlemen themselves.--Here the negro was born, here bred, here are his earliest and pleasantest associations--here is all that binds him to earth and makes life valuable. If the welfare of the negro, and not a new scheme for begging, be really the object in view, we desire the reverend gentlemen to step forward and vindicate the rights of the negroes trampled upon by their brethren in Park Street. If they would really promote the happiness of the negro, let their efforts be directed to raise the oppressed black in the scale of moral elevation here. Let them admit him to more rights in the social world;--but unless they desire to be laughed at by all sincere and thinking men, they had better abandon the Quixotic plan of colonizing the Southern negroes at the cost of the North, until we can free our own borders from poverty, ignorance and distress.
This support changed to furious and bitter rejection when he realized, in the early 1830s, that the society was "quite as much an Anti-Abolition, as Colonization Society". "This Colonization Society had, by an invisible process, half conscious, half unconscious, been transformed into a serviceable organ and member of the Slave Power." It was "an extreme case of sham reform". In November 1835, he sent the Society a letter with a check, to conclude his existing commitments, and said there would not be any more from him, because:
The Society is now, and has been for some time, far more interested in the question of slavery, than in the work of Colonization--in the demolition of the Anti-Slavery Society, than in the building up of its Colony. I need not go beyond the matter and spirit of the last few numbers of its periodical for the justification of this remark. Were a stranger to form his opinion by these numbers, it would be, that the Society issuing them was quite as much an Anti-Abolition, as Colonization Society. ...It has come to this, however, that a member of the Colonization Society cannot advocate the deliverance of his enslaved fellow men, without subjecting himself to such charges of inconsistency, as the public prints abundantly cast on me, for being at the same time a member of that Society and an Abolitionist. ...Since the late alarming attacks, in the persons of its members, on the right of discussion, (and astonishing as it is, some of the suggestions for invading this right are impliedly countenanced in the African Repository,) I have looked to it, as being also the rallying point of the friends of this right. To that Society yours is hostile.
In 1821, Lt. Robert Stockton had pointed a pistol to the head of King Peter, which allowed Stockton to persuade King Peter to sell Cape Montserrado (or Mesurado) and to establish Monrovia. In 1825 and 1826, Jehudi Ashmun, Stockton's successor, took steps to lease, annex, or buy tribal lands in Africa along the coast and along major rivers leading inland in Africa to establish an American colony. Stockton's actions inspired Ashmun to use aggressive tactics in his negotiations with King Peter and in May 1825, King Peter and other native kings agreed to a treaty with Ashmun. The treaty negotiated land to Ashmun and in return, the natives received three barrels of rum, five casks of powder, five umbrellas, ten pairs of shoes, ten iron posts, and 500 bars of tobacco, as well as other items.
Of the 4,571 emigrants who arrived in Liberia between 1820 and 1843, only 1,819--40%--were alive in 1843. The ACS knew of the high death rate, but continued to send more people to the colony.
It is an oversimplication to say simply that the American Colonization Society founded Liberia. Much of what would become Liberia was a collection of settlements sponsored by state colonization societies: Mississippi in Africa, Kentucky in Africa, the Republic of Maryland, and several others. The most developed of these, the Republic of Maryland, had its own constitution, statutes, and flag. These separate colonies were eventually united into Liberia, but the process was not completed until 1857.
Beginning in 1825, the Society published the African Repository and Colonial Journal. Ralph Randolph Gurley (1797-1872), who headed the Society until 1844, edited the journal, which in 1850 simplified its title to African Repository. The journal promoted both colonization and Liberia. Included were articles about Africa, lists of donors, letters of praise, information about emigrants, and official dispatches that espoused the prosperity and continued growth of the colony. After 1919, the society essentially ended, but it did not formally dissolve until 1964, when it transferred its papers to the Library of Congress.
Since the 1840s, Lincoln, an admirer of Clay, had been an advocate of the ACS program of colonizing blacks in Liberia. Early in his presidency, Abraham Lincoln tried repeatedly to arrange resettlement of the kind the ACS supported, but each arrangement failed.
The ACS continued to operate during the American Civil War, and colonized 168 blacks during the conflict. It sent 2,492 people of African descent to Liberia in the following five years following the war. The federal government provided a small amount of support for these operations through the Freedmen's Bureau.
Some scholars believe that Lincoln abandoned the idea by 1863, following the use of black troops. Biographer Stephen B. Oates has observed that Lincoln thought it immoral to ask black soldiers to fight for the U.S. and then to remove them to Africa after their military service. Others, such as the historian Michael Lind, believe that as late as 1864, 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". Mitchell, a former state director of the ACS in Indiana, had been appointed by Lincoln in 1862 to oversee the government's colonization programs.
By late into his first term as president, Lincoln had publicly abandoned the idea of colonization after speaking about it with Frederick Douglass, who objected harshly to it. On April 11, 1865, with the war drawing to a close, Lincoln gave a public speech at the White House supporting suffrage for blacks, a speech that led actor John Wilkes Booth, who was vigorously opposed to emancipation and black suffrage, to assassinate him.
Colonizing proved expensive; under the leadership of Henry Clay the ACS spent many years unsuccessfully trying to persuade the U.S. Congress to fund emigration. The ACS did have some success, in the 1850s, with state legislatures, such as those of Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. In 1850, the state of Virginia set aside $30,000 annually for five years to aid and support emigration. The Society, in its Thirty-fourth Annual Report, acclaimed the news as "a great Moral demonstration of the propriety and necessity of state action!" During the 1850s, the Society also received several thousand dollars from the New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Missouri, and Maryland legislatures. Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Mississippi set up their own state societies and colonies on the coast next to Liberia. However, the funds that ACS took in were inadequate to meet the Society's stated goals. "For the fourteen years preceding 1834, the receipts of that society, needing millions for its proposed operations, had averaged only about twenty-one thousand dollars a year. It had never obtained the confidence of the American people".
Three of the reasons the movement never became very successful were lack of interest by free blacks, opposition by some abolitionists, and the scale and costs of moving many people (there were 4 million freedmen in the South after the Civil War). There were millions of black slaves in the United States, but colonization only transported a few thousand free blacks.
In 1913, and again at its formal dissolution in 1964, the Society donated its records to the U.S. Library of Congress. The donated materials contain a wealth of information about the founding of the society, its role in establishing Liberia, efforts to manage and defend the colony, fundraising, recruitment of settlers, conditions for black citizens of the American South, and the way in which black settlers built and led the new nation.
Following the outbreak of the First World War, the ACS sent a cablegram to President Daniel Howard of Liberia, warning him that any involvement in the war could lead to Liberia's territorial integrity being violated regardless of which side might come out on top.
In Liberia, the Society maintained offices at the junction of Ashmun and Buchanan Streets at the heart of Monrovia's commercial district, next to the True Whig Party headquarters in the Edward J. Roye Building. Its offices at the site closed in 1956 when the government demolished all the buildings at the intersection for the purpose of constructing new public buildings there. Nevertheless, the land officially remained the property of the Society into the 1980s, amassing large amounts of back taxes because the Ministry of Finance could not find an address to which to send property tax bills.
In the 1950s, racism was an increasingly important issue and by the late 1960s and 1970s it had been forced to the forefront of public consciousness by the civil rights movement. The prevalence of racism invited a revaluation of the Society's motives, prompting historians to examine the ACS in terms of racism more than its stance on slavery. By the 1980s and 1990s, historians were going even further in reimagining the ACS. Not only were they focusing on the racist rhetoric of the Society's members and publications, but some also depicted the Society as proslavery organization. Recently however, some scholars have retreated from an analysis of the ACS as proslavery, and with some characterizing it as an antislavery organization again.
It is not necessary that the Colonization Society should be or claim to be an adequate remedy for slavery. Her great and primary object, is the emancipation of Africa, while she anticipated as an incidental result, the emancipation of the colored race at home. But if time has disclosed what she could not foresee, she may bow submissively to the providential will of heaven.
Neither he nor the Colonization Society called for the abolition of slavery; their mission instead focused solely on sending freed blacks to Africa. This was one of the reasons that few abolitionists had any use for the society.
The proclamation was immediate, not gradual, contained no mention of compensation for owners, and made no reference to colonization. In it, Lincoln addressed blacks directly, not as property subject to the will of others but as men and women whose loyalty the Union must earn. For the first time, he welcomed black soldiers into the Union Army; over the next two years some 200,000 black men would serve in the Army and Navy, playing a critical role in achieving Union victory. And Lincoln urged freed slaves to go to work for 'reasonable wages' - in the United States. He never again mentioned colonization in public.