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. It helped to found a colony on the Pepper Coast of West Africa (which became independent Liberia in 1848) in 1821–22 as a place for free-born or manumitted American blacks. The ACS met with immediate and continuing objections from African Americans like James Forten and David Walker, who wished to remain in the land of their birth, saw colonization as a racist strategy for protecting slavery and purging the U.S. of its black citizens, and preferred to fight for equal rights at home.
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 saw repatriation as a way to remove free blacks from slave societies and avoid slave rebellions. The Society attracted numerous prominent supporters from the Virginia Piedmont region. The two opposed groups found common ground in support of so-called "repatriation".
Among the society's supporters were Charles Fenton Mercer, Henry Clay, John Randolph, Richard Bland Lee and Bushrod Washington. The Society was especially prominent among slaveowners in the Virginia Piedmont region in the 1820s and 1830s. American 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 U.S., 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 emigration 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, as slaves were naturally increasing; their total number reached four million slaves by the mid-19th century. At the same time, due in part to manumission efforts sparked by the war and the abolition of slavery in Northern states, there was an expansion of the number of free blacks, who faced legislated limits. In the first two decades after the Revolutionary War, the percentage of free blacks rose in Virginia, for instance, 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 for London's "black poor".
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 was 4:1 between 1790 and 1800, it was the increase in the number of free African Americans that disturbed some proponents of colonization. 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.
This steady increase did not go unnoticed by an anxious white community that 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 their 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 descended from Ashanti and 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. Cuffee was an early advocate of settling freed blacks in Africa and he gained support from black leaders and members of the U.S. Congress for an emigration plan. In 1815 he financed a trip and the following year, in 1816, Cuffee took 38 American blacks to Freetown, Sierra Leone; other voyages were precluded by his death in 1817. 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, 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, especially after some were involved directly in slave rebellions. The Society appeared to support contradictory goals: 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 America. John Randolph, a Virginia politician and major slaveholder, said that free blacks were "promoters of mischief." 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 rise of cotton. 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."
Reverend Finley suggested at the inaugural meeting of the Society 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. It was instrumental in establishing the colony of Liberia.
The historiography of the American Colonization Society is defined by a theme of swinging between historians interpreting the Society as either a pro-slavery or anti-slavery organization. The oscillation in what has been the generally accepted interpretation of the ACS' motives and actions can be broken down chronologically with a good deal of precision. A number of monographs were written on the society in the early to mid-nineteenth century portraying the ACS as both pro- and anti-slavery.
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) 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.
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 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. These groups would have a profound effect on the history of Liberia.
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 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.
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.
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), and the difficulty in finding locations willing to accept large numbers of black newcomers (some African groups were averse to accepting newcomers, so the society relied on creating settlements at small colonial ports).
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.
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 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.