American Colonization Society

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The American Colonization Society (ACS), which was originally called the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color in the United States, was founded in 1816 in Washington, D. C. The society was started by Robert Finley, a white Presbyterian minister from Basking Ridge, New Jersey, who like many white Americans of his time believed that the African presence in the United States threatened the welfare of the nation and the quality of life for white people. Therefore, the primary aim of the ACS was to assist all free Africans in the United States in emigrating to a colony established in Africa. Liberia was created for that purpose, and Sierra Leone was created by Great Britain for similar reasons. Some within the ACS thought that emigration was a viable alternative to emancipation. However, the members of the ACS varied considerably in their beliefs. Some sincerely supported free Africans. They insisted that colonization would put an end to enslavement. However, there were others who wanted to maintain enslavement, as well as eliminate the free Africans they believed threatened the institution of slavery and could potentially encourage insurrections among enslaved Africans.
As early as 1714, a New Jersey man had suggested sending Africans back to Africa. Soon after the Revolutionary War, a Virginia legislative committee led by Thomas Jefferson devised a plan of gradual emancipation and deportation. Other organizations also pursued the idea of colonization. Paul Cuffee, a free African and accomplished businessman and seafarer, was the first to actually succeed in relocating Africans from the United States to Africa. In 1815, using his own resources, he transported 38 Africans.
The philanthropists, abolitionists, and clergy wanted to free enslaved Africans and their descendants, and give them the opportunity to emigrate back to Africa, whereas the slaveowners and their sympathizers, fearing that free Africans threatened the institution of enslavement, wanted to rid the nation of these “troublemakers.” It was difficult for the latter group to imagine a society in which whites were integrated with blacks. Nevertheless, the ACS included both of these groups. Many whites believed that Africans were inferior and maintained that the African presence was an obstacle to American progress and development. For these reasons, they supported colonization.
In December 1816, Finley traveled to Washington, D. C., where he secured the support for the ACS from prominent white Americans. Among the early founders were Finley's brother-in-law, Elias B. Caldwell, clerk of the Supreme Court; attorney Francis Scott Key (author of “The Star Spangled Banner”); Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington, the nephew of George Washington; Henry Clay, the Speaker of the House; and Charles Fenton Mercer, a member of the House of Representatives. Soon after adopting a constitution, the group spent several years fundraising for the society. To that end, the society lobbied Congress and James Monroe, the president of the United States. In 1819, Congress granted the ACS $100,000 in funding. Some white-owned companies believed that they could profit from the ACS venture. To raise funds for the enterprise, the ACS dispersed agents. Thousands of dollars were collected to purchase and charter ships. By 1832, several legislatures had given the ACS official approval. Even slave-holding states had colonization organizations. The ACS was the largest of such organization but was by no means the only organization committed to colonization. Southern newspapers also contributed to the cause of colonization of free Africans.
In January of 1820, the ACS sailed its inaugural voyage with 88 Africans and 3 whites. However, 22 Africans and all 3 whites died of yellow fever within 3 weeks. In spite of several conflicts between emigrants and the local populations, within 10 years, more than 1,400 Africans emigrated to Liberia with the assistance of the ACS. By 1838, approximately 2,500 Africans had made the journey from the United States to Liberia. The society hired mostly whites to govern the colony. In 1847, the capital of Liberia was established and named Monrovia after President James Monroe. In all, the ACS settled more than 12,000 Africans in Liberia.
The response of Africans in the United States to colonization and the ACS varied. The ACS membership began to decline in the mid 1800s, but the colonization movement did not. Prominent Africans in the United States who supported the idea of colonization included Paul Cuffee, Alexander Crummell, John Russwurm, Martin R. Delany, Edward Blyden, and Bishop Henry McNeal Turner. These advocates believed that full equality in a racist America could never be achieved and that colonization was the best alternative. Thus Delany advocated colonization, but he denounced the ACS and Liberia as a “mockery of a government” because of its close relationship with the ACS.
Many factors militated in favor of colonization, including Christian nationalism and trade, the Christian mission to “civilize” Africa, the acknowledgement of Africa as a land of riches and black regeneration, and the economic depression in the United States. Only Blyden, a Christian himself, rejected the notion of Christian nationalism and civilization. He respected the indigenous traditions of African people and recognized the damage that Western “civilization” and Christianity had done to Africa and Africans. Many Africans were rightly suspicious of the ACS. Cuffee was skeptical of the ACS, but he continued to support it despite his reservations.
The ACS and the idea of colonization were not without their critics. Many abolitionists, black and white, opposed the goals of the ACS and questioned its motives. Chief among them was Frederick Douglass, who believed that colonization supported the false notion that Africans were inferior. He referred to colonization as “the twin sister to slavery.” He was adamantly opposed to state or national resources being used to support such a venture. Other prominent Africans who opposed colonization were Samuel Cornish, David Walker, Maria Stewart, Richard Allen, and James Forten. Two of the most famous white abolitionists, William Lloyd Garrison and Albion Tourgee, also opposed the aims of the ACS and argued bitterly against colonization.
By the mid 1820s, most African abolitionists believed that the ACS was a proslavery effort to rid the United States of free Africans. Many in the African community were loud and passionate about their opposition to colonization. In 1817, in Philadelphia alone, Richard Allen and James Forten led 3,000 African voices in opposing colonization. The ACS was not an abolitionist organization, they maintained, but a proslavery organization with the sole purpose of forcing free Africans to choose between reenslavement and banishment. These Africans said they felt entitled to everything it meant to be American, regardless of the reality of their day. Many of them believed that America was their homeland and asserted they knew nothing of Africa. By far, there were many more Africans who rejected colonization than there were Africans who embraced it.

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Further Reading

  • Franklin, John H., and Moss, Alfred R. (2000). From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans (8th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. This text offers a critical look at the early emigration movement in the United States.
  • McCartney, John T. (1992). Black Power Ideologies: An Essay in African-American Political Thought. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. McCartney describes advocates and critics of the colonization movement, as well as the philosophies that guided the opposing views.