American Colonization Society
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 which supported the migration of free African Americans to the continent of Africa. The society in 1821–1822 helped to found a colony on the Pepper Coast of West Africa, as a place for free-born or manumitted American blacks.
Such prominent African American leaders as James Forten, a shipbuilder in Philadelphia, and David Walker of New York, who wished to remain in the land of their birth, considered the ACS colonization strategy as racist, and intended to protect slavery and purge the U.S. of its black citizens. They preferred to fight for equal rights at home. Colonizers also encountered resistance and attacks from those Africans already living in and around the areas being settled by Americans. There was some religious support for the project and missionary efforts were part of the colonization.
Tropical diseases were a major problem for the settlers, and the new immigrants to Liberia suffered the highest mortality rates in accurately recorded human history. Of the 4,571 emigrants who arrived in Liberia between 1820 to 1843, only 1,819 were alive in 1843.
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, 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, Henry Clay, John Randolph, Richard Bland Lee and Bushrod Washington. Slaveholders in the Virginia Piedmont region in the 1820s and 1830s comprised many of its most prominent members: 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.
From 1821, thousands of free blacks, who faced legislated restrictions in much of the US, moved to Liberia. Over twenty years, the colony continued to grow and establish economic stability. In 1847, the legislature of Liberia declared the nation an independent state. The ACS had 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.
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. 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 percentage of free blacks rose in Virginia, 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:
- African Americans were morally lax. It was claimed they were licentious and would draw whites into their savage, unrestrained ways. The fears of an intermingling of the races were strong (given the white abuse of slave women for decades) and underlay much of the white outcry for removal of free blacks.
- African Americans had a tendency toward criminality.
- African Americans were believed to be mental inferiors to whites, who contended that they were thus unfit for the duties of citizenship and incapable of real improvement.
- Economic arguments were also advanced; some whites said that the presence of free blacks threatened the jobs of working-class whites in the North and would drive down wages.
Southerners had special reservations about free blacks, fearing that those living in slave areas caused unrest among slaves and encouraged runaways and slave revolts. They also had racial reservations about the ability of free blacks to conform. The proposed solution was to have free blacks deported from the United States to colonize parts of Africa.
Paul Cuffee (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, Cuffee 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, Cuffee 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 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:
- "unconquerable prejudice resulting from their color, they never could amalgamate with the free whites of this country. It was desirable, therefore, as it respected them, and the residue of the population of the country, to drain them off."
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.
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 focussing 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 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.. Attendees included James Monroe, Bushrod Washington, Andrew Jackson, Francis Scott Key, and Daniel Webster, with Henry Clay presiding over the meeting. Its co-founders were considered to be Henry Clay, John Randolph of Roanoke, Richard Bland Lee and Bushrod Washington. 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 independent until 1857 as its state society wanted to maintain a trade monopoly.
Colony of Liberia
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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.
Expansion and growth
During the next 20 years the colony continued to grow and establish economic stability. From the establishment of the colony, the ACS 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 J.J. Roberts elected as its first President.
The society in Liberia developed into three segments: settlers with European-African lineage, freed slaves from slave ships and the West Indies, and indigenous native people. 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.
Civil War and emancipation
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 with Frederick Douglass about the matter, 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.
Decline and dissolution
Some black abolitionists consistently opposed the ACS from its founding. Beginning in the 1830s, some white abolitionists joined them, criticizing colonization as a slaveholders' scheme and the Society's works as palliative propaganda to soften 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 and opposition by some abolitionists, 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.
- African Civilization Society
- Atlantic slave trade
- Colonization Societies
- History of Liberia
- Lott Carey, of Richmond, Virginia, the first American missionary to Liberia
- Loring D. Dewey, agent of ACS who promoted free blacks' emigration to Haiti in the 1820s
- Maryland State Colonization Society
- Slavery in the United States
- Samuel Wilkeson, in 1838, he became general agent of the Society
- Nova Scotian Settlers of the Freetown Colony in what is now Sierra Leone
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Free blacks, according to many Whigs, would never be accepted into white society, and so the only acceptable solution seemed to be emigration to Africa.
"Northern philanthropic groups supported colonization as an effective way to elevate free blacks who migrated to northern states."
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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.
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- Jenkins, David, "Black Zion: The Return of Afro-Americans and West Indians to Africa", Wildwood House, London, 1975.
- Johnson, Charles S., "Bitter Canaan: The Story of the Negro Republic", Transaction Books, New Brunswick, NJ, 1987.
- Liebenow, J. Gus, "Liberia: The Evolution of Privilege", Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 1969.
- Miller, Floyd J., "The Search for a Black Nationality: Black Emigration and Colonization, 1787–1863", University of Illinois Press, Urbana, Illinois, 1975.
- Newman, Richard S, "Freedom's prophet", NYU Press, New York, 2008.
- Oubre, Claude F. Forty Acres and a Mule: The Freedmen's Bureau and Black Land Ownership. Louisiana State University Press, 1978.
- Power-Green, Ousmane, "Against Wind and Tide: The African American Struggle against the Colonization Movement," New York University Press, 2014.
- Thomas, Lamont D. Paul Cuffe: Black Entrepreneur and Pan-Africanist (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988)
- Tomek, Beverly C. "Colonization and Its Discontents: Emancipation, Emigration and Antislavery in Antebellum Pennsylvania," (New York: New York University Press, 2011).
- West, Richard, "Back to Africa", Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Inc., New York, 1970.
- Yarema, Allan E., "American Colonization Society: an avenue to freedom?", University Press of America, 2006.
|Wikisource has the text of a 1905 New International Encyclopedia article about American Colonization Society.|
- U.S. Library of Congress exhibition, based on materials deposited by the ACS.
- President Millard Fillmore on Slavery and Recolonization to Africa: Original Letter Shapell Manuscript Foundation
- PBS article
- Article at Slavery in the North
- American Abolitionists and Antislavery Activists, comprehensive list of abolitionist and anti-slavery activists and organizations in the United States, including historic biographies and anti-slavery timelines, bibliographies, etc.
- "The American Colonization Society"
- Records of the American Colonization Society from the U.S. Library of Congress
- The Liberator Files, Horace Seldon's collection and summary of research of William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator – excerpts concerning Colonization / Anti-Colonization original copies at the Boston Public Library, Boston, Massachusetts.
- Colonization and Emigration: Identity and Destiny, Library Company of Philadelphia.