the african colonization movement -- 2/27/15

Today's selection -- from What Hath God Wrought by Daniel Walker Howe. In the early 1800s, there was a growing population of freed slaves, but some whites saw it as a problem. Proslavery whites saw free Negroes as a bad example to the slaves, and even antislavery whites believed emancipation in the South would create a subordinate population who could neither be accepted nor effectively controlled. Thomas Jefferson agreed, stating that 'we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.' For many, the solution became the African colonization movement -- sending freed slaves back to Africa. Some slaveholders were willing to promise emancipation to certain slaves but only if they then left for Africa. The colonization movement eventually died as Southern states came to fear it as a threat to the institution of slavery itself. Less than twenty thousand African Americans returned to Africa as part of this movement:

"In February 1816, a Massachusetts merchant sea captain named Paul Cuffe sailed his brig Traveller across a stormy Atlantic to the west coast of Africa with a cargo of tobacco, flour, and tools to trade for camwood. Cuffe was unusual among New England shipowners in being the son of a West African father and a mother from the Wampanoag Indian tribe; he staffed his ships with all black crews. Cuffe had made similar voyages before, but this time he also carried thirty-eight African American passengers intending to make new homes in Sierra Leone, Senegal, and the Congo. Cuffe sought to implement a dream that had been nursed by a few black Americans for more than a generation: emigration away from racist oppression to the ancestral homeland. He hoped this would be the first of many such trips and had worked to create an institutional network to promote emigration as a means to a better life for black people. A practicing Quaker, Cuffe also intended his enterprise to promote Christianity in Africa, help stifle the slave trade, and, God willing, turn a profit.

"After Cuffe's return to New England, white sympathizers contacted him. Cuffe welcomed their involvement, for he wanted congressional support for his cause. He attracted two groups of whites, one centered in Virginia and the other in New Jersey. The Virginians were led by Congressman Charles Fenton Mercer, the Princetonians by the Rev. Robert Finley. Mercer enlisted an impressive range of supporters, including not only Federalists like himself but staunch Republicans like John Randolph and John Taylor of Caroline. As Mercer proposed it, voluntary migration to West Africa would help Virginia deal with what whites saw as the problem of a growing free black population. Proslavery whites regarded free Negroes as a bad example to the slaves, and even antislavery whites feared them as potential incendiaries.

"The most common objection offered to emancipation in the South was that it would create a subordinate population who could neither be admitted to political participation nor any longer be effectively controlled. White southern critics of slavery professed themselves baffled by this conundrum. In Jefferson's eloquent metaphor, 'we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.' Presented as a solution to Jefferson's dilemma, the African colonization movement initially attracted widespread support in Virginia. The commonwealth had passed a law requiring newly manumitted freed people to leave within a year. But other states were reluctant to accept them; Missouri had set the example by banning the settlement of free Negroes. Perhaps a foreign destination would work. Mercer's own long-range goal was that Virginia should industrialize and shift away from reliance on enslaved labor. But he carefully phrased his endorsement of colonization in such a way as to make it appealing as well to proslavery whites who simply wanted to get rid of those blacks already free. Back in 1807-8, humanitarians had realized their hope to abolish the importation of slaves from overseas by cooperating with slaveholders who wanted to protect the value of their property against cheap foreign imports. Mercer had been active in the anti-slave trade movement; now, he hoped to forge an analogous alliance behind his new cause. His strategy paid off when the Virginia state legislature overwhelmingly endorsed colonization in December 1816.

"Robert Finley seems to have learned of colonization from Mercer and Cuffe but gave it his own spin. His version of colonization was more clearly antislavery than Mercer's. Finley saw it as a way of solving both the slavery problem and the race problem, encouraging manumissions by individual masters and, in the long run, gradual emancipation by states. No longer would southern whites have to fear that emancipation would create a class of embittered freed people ripe for rebellion. This vision did capture the imagination of certain self-consciously enlightened moderates in the Upper (and occasionally even in the Lower) South. Some slaveholders were willing to promise emancipation to certain slaves at a future date on condition they then left for Africa. Such action, while partly altruistic, also helped ensure the good behavior of the slave and deterred escape. Slaves might even negotiate under these circumstances, agreeing to emigrate only if family members could accompany them.

This nineteenth-century engraving depicts a meeting in Washington, D.C., of the American Colonization Society

"Finley's followers operated colonization as a voluntary fund-raising charity, while Mercer's treated the cause as a political lobby. The two groups cooperated within a nationwide American Colonization Society, headed at first by Associate Justice Bushrod Washington and later by ex-president Madison. (Ex-president Jefferson, though on record as supportive of colonization, remained aloof from the movement.) In the next few years, the legislatures of Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee, and six northern states followed Virginia's example in endorsing colonization; so did the national governing bodies of the Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, and Episcopal denominations. The Maryland legislature was the most forthcoming with funds. In an age of great migrations, when many people responded to a wide range of problems by leaving home, plans to address the problems of race and slavery through migration commanded serious support down to the time of the Civil War and even afterwards.

"In 1819, Mercer succeeded in getting an appropriation from the Monroe administration to subsidize the ACS; more help would come later. The American Colonization Society operated, like the national bank and so many other institutions in this period, as a mixed public-private enterprise. The society decided to follow the example of the British philanthropist Granville Sharp. He had founded Sierra Leone on the west coast of Africa in 1787 as a haven for blacks migrating from England and the empire, some of whom had originally been liberated by the British army during the American Revolution. In 1821-22, the U.S. Navy helped the ACS purchase from indigenous Africans land adjacent to Sierra Leone in order to found Liberia, with its capital of Monrovia named in the president's honor. After Andrew Jackson became president, the federal government sharply reduced the financial support it had been providing. Still, by 1843, African Americans to the number of 4,291, most of them former slaves, had migrated to Liberia; over ten thousand more would come before the Civil War. Disease exacted a heavy toll and deterred others from coming. At first it was supposed Liberia might be a U.S. colony, but in 1847 the nation declared its independence. The settlers saw themselves as freedom-loving black Americans, enabled by migration to realize their dream of opportunity, seldom as Africans returning from exile. For over a century these settlers and their descendants would rule the indigenous African inhabitants through the Liberian True Whig Party."


Daniel Walker Howe


What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford History of the United States)


Oxford University Press


Copyright 2007 by Oxford University Press


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