The Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of America, commonly known as the American Colonization Society (ACS), was a group established in 1816 by Robert Finley of New Jersey to encourage and support the migration of free African Americans to the continent of Africa. In 1821-1822, the society helped to found settlements on the Pepper Coast of West Africa, as a place for free-born or manumitted (but not fugitive) American blacks. This was adjacent to Sierra Leone, the already existing British colony for former slaves and free blacks. 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" (see Early Negro Writing, ed. Dorothy Porter, p. 250).[full ]
Many white people at first believed that the ACS had started out as a beneficent enterprise, with the goal of helping freed slaves, giving them opportunities they could not have in the U.S., and solving with kindness and creativity a major social problem. However, in the 1820s a reaction started forming to the ACS, which broke into open disdain and rebellion in the 1830s, as many of its former supporters concluded that they had been deceived: that the ACS, rather than being anti-slavery, was helping to preserve it.
"The majority of black Americans regarded the Society [with] enormous disdain.":143 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.:261 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.":262
While "return to the continent you came from, where everyone is black" had an abstract appeal, in most cases American slaves had lived for generations in the United States, knew very little about Africa, and weren't very interested in it. "They are no more African, than we are British", was commonly remarked. The majority weren't pure Africans, but mulattos, with an owner-father. Most were Christians. African-American leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, William G. Allen, William Wells Brown, James Forten, and David Walker strongly opposed the colonization movement; none supported it. To them, it respected slavery rather than calling for its abolition, and its biggest supporters, including most of its presidents, were Southern slave owners. They wanted to get rid of free blacks, many of whom had been in the United States for generations, because they were a threat to slave owners' property (slaves), encouraging and assisting 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.":51) No one attempted to actually return slaves to the African regions they had come from, such as Angola (remembered in place names Angola, Delaware, Angola, Florida, Angola, Indiana, Angola, Kansas, Angola, New York, Angola State Penitentiary), which would have been more expensive; Liberia was founded where it was because it was the closest available place in Africa, and therefore the cheapest African place to reach from the United States.
Tropical diseases were a major problem for the settlers, and the new immigrants to Liberia suffered the highest mortality rates since accurate record-keeping began. Of the 4,571 emigrants who arrived in Liberia between 1820 to 1843, only 1,819 were alive in 1843. This horrible reality was all but ignored by the ACS, which continued to send more free blacks.
The ACS was founded by groups otherwise opposed to each other on the issue of slavery, being a coalition made up mostly of evangelicals and Quakers who supported abolition of slavery and believed blacks would face better chances for freedom in Africa than in the United States -- they were immigrants, anything but welcome in the North -- and some slaveholders (in the Maryland branch and elsewhere) who believed that repatriation was a way to remove free blacks from slave societies and avoid slave rebellions. The two opposed groups found common ground in support of so-called "repatriation". By this time, both the population of free blacks and slaves were overwhelmingly native born, often from generations of ancestors born in the United States and former British colonies.
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. James Madison served as the Society's president in the early 1830s.
There were millions of black slaves in the United States, but colonization only transported a few thousand free blacks. Over twenty years, however, the colony continued to grow and establish economic stability. In 1847, the legislature of Liberia declared the nation an independent state; its capital, Monrovia, is named for U.S. President Monroe. The ACS closely controlled the development of Liberia until its declaration of independence. By 1867, the ACS had assisted in the immigration of more than 13,000 Americans to Liberia.
From 1825 to 1919, it published the African Repository and Colonial Journal. After 1919, the society essentially ended, but it did not formally dissolve until 1964, when it transferred its papers to the Library of Congress.
The abolitionist movement was more recent than and a reply to the colonization movement. William Garrison, founder of The Liberator (1831) and of the American Anti-Slavery Society (1833), publicly renounced his former support for colonization. What he, Beriah Green, Gerrit Smith, Lewis Tappan, and other abolitionists called for was "immediatism": the immediate, complete, and uncompensated liberation of all American slaves. Beginning in the 1830s, and as a direct result of Garrison's newspaper, the abolitionist movement enjoyed far more support among both Blacks and whites than the colonization movement, and it was much more active.
Following the American Revolutionary War, the institution of slavery and those bound within it grew. During this period, the domestic slave trade resulted in the relocation of one million slaves to the Deep South in the early 19th century, driven by demand for labor as the cotton kingdom of new plantations was established in upland areas following invention of the cotton gin. The enslaved African Americans had become well established and had children; their total number reached four million slaves by the mid-19th century.
At the same time, due in part to manumission efforts sparked by revolutionary ideals, Protestant preachers, and the abolition of slavery in Northern states, there was an expansion in the number of free blacks, many of them free people of color (born free). Even in the North, where slavery was being abolished, they faced legislated limits on their rights. In the first two decades after the Revolutionary War, for instance, the number of free Blacks in Virginia rose from 1% to nearly 10% of the Black population.
Beginning in 1786, just after the American Revolution, a British organization, the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor, launched its efforts to establish the Sierra Leone Province of Freedom, their colony in West Africa, for London's "black poor". The Committee also offered relocation to Black Loyalists who had been resettled in Nova Scotia, where they encountered harsh weather and discrimination from white colonists. Britain relocated Jamaica maroons to this colony, as well as captives which its navy liberated from illegal slave ships after the Atlantic slave trade was banned.
Some slave owners decided to support emigration following an abortive 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 in the majority. Slaveholders feared that the increase in the number of free African Americans would destabilize their slave societies and create a political threat. From 1790 to 1800, the number of free African Americans increased from 59,467 (1.5% of total US population, 7.5% of US black population) to 108,398 (2% of U.S. population), an increase of 48,931; and from 1800 to 1810, the number increased from 108,398 to 186,446 (2.5% of U.S. pop.), an increase of 78,048. The perception of change was highest in some major cities, but especially in the Upper South, where the highest number of slaves were freed in the two decades after the Revolution.
The anxious white community was ever more aware of the free blacks in their midst. The arguments propounded against free blacks, especially in free states, may be divided into four main categories:
Southerners had special reservations about free blacks, fearing that those living in slave states caused unrest and encouraged fugitives and slave revolts. They also had racist reservations about the ability of free blacks to become part of American society. The proposed solution was to have free blacks deported from the United States "back to Africa".
Paul Cuffe (1759-1817) was a mixed-race, successful Quaker ship owner and activist in Boston. He was descended from Ashanti and Native American Wampanoag parents. 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, in 1816, Cuffe took 38 American blacks to Freetown, Sierra Leone. He died in 1817 before undertaking other voyages. By reaching a large audience with his pro-colonization arguments and practical example, Cuffe laid the groundwork for the American Colonization Society.
The colonization effort resulted from a mixture of motives. Free-born blacks and people of color (many of whom were descended from white women who had unions with African Americans in the early colonial period), freedmen, and their descendants, encountered widespread discrimination in the US, Northern as well as Southern, of the early 19th century. Whites generally perceived them 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 because of discrimination and would be better off in Africa, where they could organize their own society.
Many slaveholders worried that the presence of free blacks was a threat to the slave societies of the South. A few free blacks had been involved directly in slave rebellions. 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.
Some Society members were openly racist and frequently argued that free blacks would be unable to assimilate into the white society of the United States. John Randolph, a Virginia politician and major slaveholder, said that free blacks were "promoters of mischief". But he also arranged to free all of his slaves in his will and also arranged to buy them land for resettlement in the free state of Ohio.
At this time, about 2 million African Americans lived in the United States; 200,000 were free persons of color, with most in the North, where they were restricted by law in various states.Henry Clay, a US Representative from Kentucky, considered slavery to have a negative effect on the Southern economy. But in this period Kentucky had become a state that was selling slaves to the Deep South, where demand was booming because of the development of cotton plantations in upland areas made viable for short-staple cotton by the invention of the cotton gin. Clay thought that deportation of free blacks was preferable to trying to integrate them in America, believing that:
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 adjacent to Sierra Leone on the coast in western Africa. The Society also purchased some African slaves held by other African tribes, and gave them their freedom there.
According to J. N. Danforth, "General Agent" of the Society, as of 1832 "The legislature[s] of fourteen States, among which are New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Ohio, and Indiana, and nearly all the ecclesiastical bodies in the United States[,] have recommended the Society to the patronage of the American people."
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.. Its co-founders were Henry Clay, who presided over the meeting, John Randolph of Roanoke, Richard Bland Lee, and Bushrod Washington. Other attendees included James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Francis Scott Key, and Daniel Webster. All except Webster were slave owners. Mercer was unable to go to Washington for the meeting.
Although 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. Few members were slave-owners, and the Society never enjoyed much support among planters in the Lower South. This was the area that developed most rapidly in the 19th century with slave labor, and initially it had few free blacks, who lived mostly in the Upper South.
During the next three years, 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 ACS purchased the freedom of some American slaves and paid their passage to Liberia and emigration was also offered to already free black people. Colonizing proved expensive and the ACS spent many years trying to persuade the U.S. Congress to allocate funds to support colonists' emigration to Liberia. Henry Clay led this campaign, but the campaign failed to produce any money from the U.S. Congress. Despite their failure to receive funding from the U.S government, in the 1850s, the ACS was successful in receiving financial backing from some state legislatures, such as Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, plus more. 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.Mississippi-in-Africa joined Liberia in 1847; the Republic of Maryland, established as a colony in the 1830s, remained separate until 1857 as its sponsoring U.S. (Maryland) society wanted to maintain a trade monopoly.
Originally, colonization had widespread support. All the important white future abolitionists supported it: Garrison, Smith, the Tappans, and many others, as can be seen in the pages of the society's African Repository. This support changed to furious and bitter rejection when they realized, in the 1830's, that the society was, in Gerrit Smith's words, "quite as much an Anti-Abolition, as Colonization Society" (reference below).
William Garrison began publication of his abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, in 1831, followed in 1832 by his 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. These produced an explosion in activity.
In a widely reported incident, Beriah Green, after reading Garrison, preached in the Western Reserve College chapel four sermons against the American Colonization Society. This led to such tension with the trustees that he resigned, to take over the Oneida Institute and make it the abolitionist hotbed of the country, producing a cadre of minister-abolitionists to spread the message that slavery was both a sin and a crime. Another widely-reported debate, related to Oneida, took place at the new Lane Theological Seminary; the trustees' insistence that further "going off the topic" to discuss slavery would not be permitted at Lane led to a mass walkout of some 51 students, called the Lane Rebels, one professor, and one trustee, who ended up at the more progressive Oberlin Collegiate Institute, with the trustee, Asa Mahan, as its president.
Garrison's criticisms of the American Colonization Society, as formulated by Beriah Green, were:
(In 1835, the Society received $ in donations, of which $3,000 was from Smith.). However, in November of 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.
As mentioned above, most African Americans had no use for the American Colonization Society, and viewed it negatively. An example of their thinking is provided by the following resolutions adopted at an ad hoc meeting called in Cincinnati on January 17, 1832, for the purpose of discussing it.
Jehudi Ashmun, an early leader of the ACS, took steps to lease, annex, or buy tribal lands along the coast and along major rivers leading inland in Africa in 1825 and 1826, where he intended to establish an American empire. In 1821, Lt. Robert Stockton, Ashmun's predecessor, 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. 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.
The ship pulled in first at Freetown, Sierra Leone, from where it sailed south to what is now the northern coast of Liberia. The emigrants started to establish a settlement. All three whites and 22 of the emigrants died within three weeks from yellow fever. The remainder returned to Sierra Leone and waited for another ship. The Nautilus sailed twice in 1821 and established a settlement at Mesurado Bay on an island they named Perseverance. It was difficult for the early settlers, made of mostly free-born blacks who had been denied the full rights of United States citizenship. In Liberia, the native Africans resisted the expansion of the colonists, resulting in many armed conflicts between them. 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 who were taken from illegal slave ships.
During the next 20 years the colony continued to grow and establish economic stability. From the establishment of the colony, the American Colonization Society had employed white agents to govern the colony. In 1842, Joseph Jenkins Roberts became the first non-white governor of Liberia. In 1847, the legislature of Liberia declared itself an independent state, with Roberts as its first President.
The society in Liberia developed into three segments:
Each of these groups would have a profound effect on the history of Liberia.
Emigrants arriving in Liberia suffered the highest recorded mortality rate in accurately recorded human history. Of the 4,571 emigrants who arrived in Liberia from 1820 to 1843, only 1,819 survived until 1843. The ACS knew of the high death rate, but continued to send more people to the colony. Professor Shick writes:
[T]he organization continued to send people to Liberia while very much aware of the chances for survival. The organizers of the A.C.S. considered themselves to be humanitarians performing the work of God. This attitude prevented them from accepting certain realities of their crusade. Any problems, including those of disease and deaths, were viewed as the trials and tribulations that God provides as a means of testing the fortitude of man. After every report of disaster in Liberia the managers simply renewed their efforts. Once the organization was formed and the auxiliaries established, a new force developed which also prevented the Society from admitting the seriousness of the mortality problem. The desire to perpetuate the existence of the corporate body became a factor. To have admitted that the mortality rate made the price of emigration far too high to be continued would have meant the end of the organization. The managers were seemingly unprepared to advise the termination of their project and by extension, their own jobs.
Starting in March 1825, the ACS began a quarterly, The African Repository and Colonial Journal. Ralph Randolph Gurley (1797-1872), who headed the Society until 1844, edited the journal. The journal promoted both colonization and Liberia, but the journal was primarily a medium for ACS propaganda. Included in the journal 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.
The ACS continued to operate during the American Civil War, and colonized 168 blacks while it was being waged. It sent 2,492 blacks to Liberia in the following five years. The federal government provided a small amount support for these operations through the Freedmen's Bureau.
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.
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 second 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.
Most black abolitionists consistently opposed the ACS from its founding. Beginning in the 1830s, most white abolitionists joined them, criticizing colonization as a slaveholders' scheme and the Society's works as palliative propaganda to facilitate the continuation of slavery in the United States. The presidents of the ACS tended to be Southerners. The first president of the ACS 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.
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).
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.
The historiography of the American Colonization Society is defined by a theme of historians interpreting the Society as either a pro-slavery or an anti-slavery organization. The oscillation in consensus about the interpretation of the ACS' motives and actions can be classified chronologically with a good deal of precision. A number of monographs written about the society in the early to mid-nineteenth century portrayed it as both pro- and anti-slavery. This also reflected the nature of its members.
For early studies that are critical of the ACS' motives, see: William L. Garrison, Thoughts on African Colonization, New York: Arno Press, 1968 [originally published in 1832]; William Jay, Miscellaneous Writings on Slavery. New York: Negro Universities Press, 1968 [originally published in 1835 by John P. Jewett & Co.]; G. B. Stebbins, Facts and Opinions Touching the Real Origin, Character, and Influence of the American Colonization Society, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969 [originally published in 1853 by John P. Jewett & Co., Boston].
(Supportive of the ACS) were such authors as Archibald Alexander, A History of Colonization on the Western Coast of Africa, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969 [originally published in 1846 by William S. Martien]; Isaac V. Brown, Biography of the Rev. Robert Finley, D. D., of Basking Ridge, N.J: Second Edition, Enlarged with an Account of his Agency as the Author of the American Colonization Society. Philadelphia: John W. Moore, 1857.
The early twentieth century saw increasing racial tensions in the wake of the dismantling of the South's enforced race-based class system and the sense among many white Americans that the wholesale emancipation of the 1860s had perhaps been a misguided decision. As a result, historiography of this period depicted the ACS as an antislavery organization, seeing merits in the values of racial separation through deportation that the Society espoused. Beginning 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, the winds have shifted again with scholars retreating from an analysis of the ACS as proslavery, and with some cautiously characterizing it as an antislavery organization again.
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.