The presence of different races in the United States is an abiding problem that decades of egalitarian liberalism have not solved. Today, every public policy about race is carried out within the rigid confines of integrationist thinking, and despite the obvious drawbacks of multiracialism, public discussion never hints at an alternative. Of course, it was not always so. From the early years of the republic, America’s wisest men understood the dangers of a mixed-race society and worked to avoid them. Unlike today’s political class, they were not bound by convention. They saw a clear alternative to never-ending crises and accommodations. That alternative was permanent separation.
One of the earliest and most serious solutions proposed to “the Negro problem” was colonization, or the removal of blacks beyond the boundaries of the United States. By the early 1800’s, slave revolts, the abolitionist movement, and the increasing number of free blacks convinced many great Americans that steps must be taken to keep the United States a white nation. The American Colonization Society (ACS) was the most respectable, successful and long-lasting effort to remove blacks from the United States.
Founded by Rev. Robert Finley, a Presbyterian minister from New Jersey, the official title of the organization was “The American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color in the United States.” The initial meeting of the ACS was held in Washington D.C. in 1816 — thus, just 40 years after the founding, thoughtful Americans first took serious measures to separate the races. Bushrod Washington, a Supreme Court Justice and nephew of George Washington, served as the first president of the organization. The great American statesman Henry Clay of Kentucky provided its main intellectual and political leadership.
The prestige of the ACS benefited tremendously from the high-profile association of leaders like Clay and Washington, and over the years, some of America’s greatest men were not merely members but officers of the society: James Madison, Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster, James Monroe, Stephen Douglas, John Randolph, William Seward, Francis Scott Key, General Winfield Scott, John Marshall and Roger Taney. Other great men such as Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, while never members of the society, strongly supported colonization and the removal of blacks from the United States. None of these men had any illusions about the desirability of a multiracial America. Over the next forty years, the ACS would work very hard to remove what Lincoln called “a troublesome presence.”
Part of the movement’s attractiveness lay in its idealistic, purely patriotic nature — colonization was not imperialism but a program for national uplift and improvement. As the Liberian-born professor of history Amos Beyan writes in The American Colonization Society and the Creation of the Liberian State, “the ACS was not intended to be an imperial or economic venture. One searches theAfrican Repository [the society’s newspaper] and the annual reports of the ACS in vain for references in support of colonization which make economic gain or national greatness for the U.S. their theme. These were obviously not substantial interests of the founders.”
Though the members of the ACS included northerners, southerners, abolitionists, and slave owners, all agreed with the goal of assisting the voluntary resettlement of free blacks. There was never any question of compelling backs to emigrate, but members of the society were frank — very frank — about why they did not want them in America.
Speaking of the need for colonization, Clay asked, “What is the true nature of the evil of the existence of a portion of the African race in our population? It is not that there are some but that there are so many … who can never amalgamate with the great body of our population.” He went on the explain that colonization was the best solution to “the Negro problem” as it would, “rid our country of a useless and pernicious, if not dangerous portion of it’s population.”
An official document of the ACS says: “Introduced among us by violence, notoriously ignorant, degraded and miserable, mentally diseased, broken spirited, acted upon by no motive to honorable exertions, scarcely reached in their debasement by the heavenly light, [the freed blacks] wander unsettled and unbefriended through our land, or sit indolent, abject and sorrowful by the streams which witness their captivity.”
Hinton Helper, an abolitionist member of the ACS who condemned slavery, held very strong views about colonization. Helper described blacks as “so far inferior to white people, that … the two races should never inhabit the same community, city nor state.” He claimed blacks were, “a weak and worthless race, an effete and time worn race which … is no longer fit, if ever fit, for any useful trust or tenantry in this world.”
Ralph Gurley, who served as secretary of the ACS, and was later the first editor of its official journal, claimed blacks were, “a people which are injurious and dangerous to our social interests, as they are ignorant, vicious and unhappy.”
Though officially the society took no position on slavery, many members favored emancipation — so long as it led to repatriation. Francis Scott Key did not think most blacks benefited from emancipation. He freed many of his own slaves but observed, “I cannot remember more than two instances out of this large number, in which it did not appear that the freedom I earnestly sought for them was their ruin. It has been so with a very large proportion of all others I have known emancipated.”
John Dix of New York declared to a meeting of his state chapter of the ACS that “the mass of crime committed by Africans is greater in proportion to numbers, in the non slaveholding than in the slaveholding States; and as a rule the degree of comfort enjoyed by them is inferior. This is not an argument in favor of slavery; but it is an unanswerable argument in favor of rendering emancipation and colonization coextensive with each other.”
A Promising Start
To reach its goal, the ACS needed money and support, and at first the funds came mainly from private sources. There were numerous state chapters and many churches took up collections for the society. In fact, churches were a vital part of the group from its inception until its demise in 1912, since a secondary goal of the ACS was to spread Christianity to Africa. Though it did not want free blacks in the United States, it hoped that “westernized” blacks would encourage “the spreading of the arts of civilized life, and the possible redemption from ignorance and barbarism of a benighted part of the globe.”
For three years the society lobbied Congress for financial support. In 1817 Bushrod Washington first asked Congress for legislation to support creation of an African colony. When that request failed, the ACS sent a two-man expedition to Africa to gather and present more solidly researched data on the proposal. After a number of unsuccessful attempts, the ACS purchased land from local tribes, and in 1820 the society finally got the support it was seeking. Congress passed and President James Monroe approved a grant for $100,000 to set up a colony for free blacks. The colony was named Liberia meaning “free land,” and the first settlement was named Monrovia in appreciation of the support of President Monroe. It is the capitol of Liberia to this day.
It is worth noting that in the American republic before the days of Lincoln, federal officials took the Constitutional limits placed on their authority very seriously and thus played a very limited role in running the country. It is therefore of great significance that Congress saw fit to help remove blacks from the United States. It not only reflected a wide-spread national desire, but was an important step in federal involvement in matters traditionally left up to the states.
The ACS repatriated its first blacks in 1820. Eighty-six free blacks, along with two officials of the society, set sail from New York to Liberia aboard the ship Elizabeth. Over the next ten years, the ACS raised $113,000 and resettled 1,430 blacks. It was constantly trying to raise money for what was intended to be a national movement. As a 1972 article in American Heritage puts it:
For more than 40 years, the society got along with varying degrees of the sort of limited federal support that had helped found Liberia. This backing was augmented by contributions from individuals and occasionally from state legislatures. Agents of the society toured the country, spreading information about colonization, raising money and starting state and local auxiliaries.
In 1825, the ACS started a monthly paper called African Repository and Colonial Journal. This helped spread the message and — later — helped defend the society against attacks from both abolitionists and slaveholders. Little by little, Liberia grew. By the start of the Civil War, after more than 40 years of colonization, the ACS had resettled more that 11,000 free blacks. It was only through the society’s support and under white leadership that the colony was able to survive malaria, wars with neighboring tribes, and the unreliability of supply shipments. Throughout this period, the ACS never gave up hope that the federal government would eventually commit itself to resettlement on a large scale.
Though the society remained officially neutral on the subject of slavery, many slaveholders distrusted its motives. While some were members of the ACS and were eager to be rid of free blacks who might encourage insurrection, others held a lingering suspicion that in its desire to rid the nation of Africans, the society would eventually take away their slaves. Indeed, some of the rhetoric of Henry Clay, who was always closely associated with the colonization movement, gave them cause for concern.
Clay spoke, for example, of reducing the number of blacks (free and slave) to five percent of the population through colonization and white immigration. And in a speech to Congress in 1850 opposing the extension of slavery to the West he said, “while you reproach, and justly so, our British ancestors for the introduction of this institution on the continent of America, I am, for one, unwilling that the posterity of the present inhabitants of California and New Mexico shall reproach us for doing the same thing which we reproach Great Britain for doing to us.” Some slaveholders saw such anti-slavery rhetoric as uncomfortably close to abolitionism.
In fact, the most serious opposition to the ACS came from abolitionists, particularly William Lloyd Garrison. Though Garrison initially supported colonization, he grew increasingly alarmed by attacks on the character of blacks, and came to believe racial inequality was inconsistent with both Christianity and the Declaration of Independence. At a more practical level, he also thought colonization was bad for the abolitionist cause because it was often the most ambitious, responsible freemen who accepted repatriation, leaving behind less advanced Negroes who gave emancipation a bad name. Garrison drew up his arguments against the ACS in a 244-page book called Thoughts on African Colonization. His views — far beyond the bounds of common discourse for his time — were astonishingly similar to sentiments that are now virtually obligatory.
First of all, he wrote that insofar as the society wanted to repatriate blacks, it was “unfriendly to the improvement of the free people of color while they remain in the United States” and promoted “hate and contempt for the Negro.” But unlike the overwhelming majority of whites, Garrison was — at least in theory — one of the first of the multiracialists who hoped to make blacks fully equal members of American society:
As neither mountains of prejudice nor the massy shackles of law and of public opinion, have been able to keep them down to a level with slaves, I confidently anticipate their exaltation among ourselves. Through the vista of time — a short distance only — I see them here, not in Africa, not bowed to the earth, or derided and persecuted as at present, not with a downcast air or an irresolute step, but standing erect as men destined heavenward, unembarrassed, untrammeled, with none to molest or make then afraid.
We get a glimpse of the peculiar sources of this desire in another passage. In a sentiment eerily prescient of the racial self-flagellation that had become common among whites more than 100 years later, he wrote that blacks were the ordained tool by which God would humble the white man:
[T]hough it [the ACS] has done much, and may do more (all that it can do it will do) to depress, impoverish and dispirit the free people of color, and to strengthen and influence mutual antipathies it is the purpose of God, I am fully persuaded, to humble the pride of the American people by rendering the expulsion of our colored countrymen utterly impracticable and the necessity for their admission to equal rights imperative.
Of course, the ACS did nothing to depress or impoverish blacks; it simply offered them free passage to the continent of their ancestors. But Garrison was a driven man, irresponsible with the truth, and even spent time in jail for slander. He was, in fact, a nut. His hatred of slavery was so great that in 1844, under the principle of “No Union With Slaveholders,” he actually urged the North to secede from the slaveholding South! Ten years later he publicly burned a copy of the Constitution, which he termed an, “agreement with hell,” and held a secessionist convention in Worcester, Massachusetts — which went nowhere.
This sort of thing was too wild even for abolitionists, many of whom, like Frederick Douglass, separated themselves from Garrison. Nevertheless, his newspaper The Liberator influenced a great many people, and its incessant attacks on the ACS cost the support of many “humanitarians” who had originally supported colonization. Indeed, the period of Garrison’s greatest influence coincides with the period of the colonization society’s decline.
In addition to a chronic shortage of funds, the society faced another considerable obstacle: resettlement of blacks was voluntary. Mandatory expulsion would have veered too far from the ACS’s spirit of Christianity and philanthropy. It is interesting to note that even while slavery was still legal, few blacks wanted to go to Liberia. At a meeting convened in Philadelphia in 1817, free blacks publicly declared their opposition to resettlement. It was better to stay in “racist” America than return to the land of their ancestors.
The War Between the States essentially brought colonization to a close. The sectional quarrel split the society and some state chapters started independent repatriation efforts as the organization continued to have problems with funding. Although post-war emancipation supplied the society with a huge supply of free, potential emigrants, the trauma of war had disrupted its operations.
Though never a member of the society, Lincoln was a strong proponent of colonization, and during the war had appointed a minister to investigate sites in Central and South America that would be nearby, inexpensive destinations for colonization. As the war drew to an end he became increasingly worried about the problem of what to do with freed blacks, and even considered setting aside Texas for forcible resettlement. Had he not been assassinated, there is little doubt that he would have worked energetically for a separatist solution to the Negro problem.
Although the ACS survived the war, the days of colonization were over. The society continued its work until 1912, though by then this consisted mostly of support for Liberia, which had declared independence in 1847. The society acted as caretaker for the fledgling nation and encouraged missionary work among the natives. In 1959 it received what is described as a “small legacy,” but by then the organization was defunct.
Ultimately the American Colonization Society failed to free the United States from “a troublesome presence.” William Lloyd Garrison got his wish for a multiracial America. The men of the ACS had warned against trying to make a nation out of two incompatible and hostile groups and predicted that blacks would be a terrible burden on white America. Of course, they were right. Had he been able to see the future, perhaps even a fanatic like Garrison would have remained a supporter of colonization.