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American Colonization Society and the Founding of Liberia - BLACK COLONIZATION: FROM TALK TO ACTION, COLONIZATION SOCIETIES: NATIONAL, STATE, AND LOCAL

blacks free acs united

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

BLACK COLONIZATION: FROM TALK TO ACTION

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

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

COLONIZATION SOCIETIES: NATIONAL, STATE, AND LOCAL

Between 1817 and 1825, the so-called Era of Good Feelings among the regions of the new nation, there arose a generalized belief that free blacks in the United States would soon pollute the expanding community of transplanted Europeans. In the years from 1816 to 1836, the colonization idea was so popular that even without a national staff, more than a dozen states, from Vermont to Mississippi, formed their own colonization societies. Two of the most powerful were founded in New York City and Philadelphia, the latter the informal “capital” of free black America. Whatever may have been a given region’s level of involvement with the ACS, the number of national officers from a given state was essentially an index of local support for the national ACS goals. As seen in Table 1, not unexpectedly the headquarters site of the ACS, Washington, D.C., supplied the organization with twenty officers. Supplying the next two largest numbers of officers were Virginia, with eighteen officers and nearly a half million enslaved Africans within its borders, and New York, with thirteen officers, 50,000 free blacks, and no slaves in 1840. Distant from Washington was the Mississippi State Colonization Society based in Greenville, so active in Liberia that a section of it is called Greenville. In the case of the state of Maryland, ACS leader John H. B. Latrobe and associates were so active and independent that the national ACS lost control of them in 1829. The Maryland society, extraordinarily determined to reduce the number of free blacks in the city, basically set up an independent operation in Liberia. Very active also was the Ohio State Colonization Society, which had four officers at the national level of the ACS, representing a free black population of 17,000 individuals and no slaves. In an ACS annual report, the officers of the ACS praised the industry of its Ohio representatives, and declared that the ACS should seek agents similar to those in Ohio “to do a good service in vitalizing State Societies now in a condition of suspended animation.”

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

COLONIZATION PROGRAM BACKFIRES

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

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

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

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

American History X (1998) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique [next] [back] American Anti-Slavery Society - BACKGROUND, GENDER POLITICS, ORGANIZATIONAL SPLIT

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