The American Colonization Society: 200 Years of the “Colonizing Trick”

Liberia College in 1900 from the Liberia Collection (Schomburg Center Research and Reference Division)

Two hundred years ago this week, dozens of the nation’s most powerful men met in the Davis Hotel in Washington to plot the removal of African Americans from the United States. With the blessing of James Madison and James Monroe, the president and president-elect, they formed the American Colonization Society (ACS), an organization that was as well known in the nineteenth century as it is obscure today. For the next forty years, the ACS provided the most ‘respectable’ answer to a simple question: what would happen to black people if slavery was abolished? Since the 1770s, when British and French abolitionists had begun to influence American thinking on race, ‘benevolent’ whites in the United States had recognized a contradiction between slavery and “all men are created equal.” But they were nervous about living alongside recently-freed black people in a race-blind republic. Colonization allowed them to celebrate their antislavery sentiments while promoting a future in which racial equality required separation.

The roots of colonization thinking can be traced back to the 1770s, and follow two distinct strands. African Americans first debated the merits of a separate black nation as a means of escaping white prejudice. In 1773, four slaves in Massachusetts petitioned the colonial legislature for a gradual emancipation plan, promising to remove themselves to Africa once freed. Emigration schemes were debated within free black communities on the eastern seaboard throughout the 1780s and 1790s. In the 1810s, the Massachusetts sea captain Paul Cuffe visited Sierra Leone on two occasions, hoping to open a channel by which black Americans might relocate to West Africa. For Cuffe and other black leaders, the astonishing achievement of Haitian independence in 1804 provided a powerful example of self-determination. Although this African American strand of colonization enthusiasm never enjoyed majority support among black Americans, it continued to inspire figures as diverse as John Mercer Langston, Martin Delany, and Henry Highland Garnet through the 1850s.

Paul Cuffe (Library of Congress)

The other strand of colonization thinking had a murkier provenance. From the first years of the republic, white philanthropists and reformers from the Upper South to New England built an antislavery movement around the idea that African Americans couldn’t be permanently exiled from the promises of the Declaration of Independence. However, even its leading lights struggled with the idea that free blacks could live alongside white people in equality. Thomas Jefferson famously addressed this anxiety in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785):

Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state, and thus save the expense of supplying, by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will leave?  Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.

For Jefferson, this nihilistic view had a strongly racial component: he insisted that blacks were “probably” inferior to whites. Even many of his fellow slaveholders thought this conclusion too strong, arguing instead that blacks had been “degraded” by slavery – in effect, that they were temporarily inferior to whites, and required a concerted program of uplift and education before being freed.

For these white reformers, colonization provided easy relief from the moral and political challenges of integration. If a group of black pioneers could be persuaded to leave the United States, in the words of the Pennsylvania reformer John Parrish, they would create a new nation in which they could enjoy “liberty and the rights of citizenship.” Better still, their example would inspire other free blacks to make the same move, and “many persons of humanity, who continue to hold slaves, would be willing to liberate them on condition of their so removing.”

It was this vision of colonization—in which a vast scheme for racial separation was presented as socially liberal—that inspired the formation of the American Colonization Society in December 1816. While some historians have suggested that the ACS was merely a front for proslavery interests—with powerful southern slaveholders hoping to remove free blacks from the United States to consolidate the slave system—its origins and trajectory always evinced a watery commitment to abolition. Two facts made this commitment supremely insidious. First, it placed the burden of ending slavery on ‘benevolent’ slaveholders themselves, who would supposedly free their slaves when provided with an “outlet” for doing so. Second, it marked an epic endorsement of racial segregation, effectively denying the possibility of coexistence while promoting what would later be termed “separate but equal.”

James Madison ACS membership certificate (Library of Congress)

It’s easy to lose track of colonization in our popular narratives of the struggle over slavery. We tend to imagine southern slaveholders and northern crusaders quickly assembling on opposite sides of the question, with the North/South divide mapping easily onto a progressive/regressive vision of race. In fact, most ‘moderate’ opponents of slavery in the northern states were sympathetic to colonization. Black removal structured the earliest attacks on slaveholding, and continued to fascinate reformers like Daniel Webster, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Abraham Lincoln.

Before the souring of sectional relations in the 1830s and 1840s, colonization also supplied a bridge between ‘mainstream’ antislavery sentiments in both North and South. The ACS opened auxiliary societies from New England through North Carolina; when upper southern legislatures engaged with the question of ending slavery, invariably they identified a black colony as the prerequisite for a general emancipation. Only the Deep South became a no-go-zone for colonization enthusiasts, with white politicians, editors and businessmen mobilizing their considerable power against even a feather-light antislavery challenge. In New England by contrast, colonization retained a considerable appeal through the first years of the Civil War.

The achievements of the Colonization Society were meager. Its colony of Liberia, founded in 1821, recruited only ten thousand migrants from the United States over the four decades before the Civil War. When Abraham Lincoln rebooted colonization in the 1850s as part of the Republican party’s assault on slavery, he looked to create his own giant schemes for racial separation in Central America or the Caribbean, tacitly acknowledging that the Liberian experiment was inadequate to the work of racial realignment.

The Shield and Emblem of Liberia, 1906, Liberia Collection (Schomburg Center Research and Reference Division)
The Shield and Emblem of Liberia, 1906, Liberia Collection (Schomburg Center Research and Reference Division)

But colonization matters profoundly to our understanding of race in the early republic, confirming an insight offered recently on this blog by Patrick Rael: while North and South came to disagree profoundly over slavery, their views of black potential—and especially black citizenship—were not so different. The popularity of colonization among northern and upper southern ‘moderates’ reminds us that segregation was not an invention of the South, but a lingua franca for white Americans who recognized the wrong of slavery but could not accept the logic of coexistence.

And what of the black strand of colonization enthusiasm, which predated white interest in black removal? One of the most remarkable aspects of the Colonization Society’s history is the consistency with which African Americans—even those who thought seriously about black nationalism—dismissed white efforts to coax them from the United States. From its first months of existence, the ACS looked to coopt black leaders to its plans for racial separation. James Forten, the Philadelphia businessman, was briefly taken in by the Society’s blandishments, but a grassroots meeting of African Americans in his hometown produced a sonorous unanimity against the Society’s plans and officials. “There was not one soul in favor of going to Africa,” Forten wrote to Paul Cuffe in 1817. While African Americans reserved the right to debate questions of emigration and black nationalism, they were overwhelmingly critical of an organization managed entirely by white people and supported by slaveholders.

David Walker, the free black activist and writer, offered perhaps the most influential intervention against the ACS in his 1829 Appeal to the Colored People of the World:

Here is a demonstrative proof, of a plan got up by a gang of slave-holders to select the free people of colour from among the slaves, that our more miserable brethren may be the better secured in ignorance and wretchedness, to work their farms and dig their mines, and thus go on enriching the Christians with their blood and groans.

Walker’s words had a profound influence on white radicals like William Lloyd Garrison, who combed the volumes of the Colonization Society’s magazine for evidence of its proslavery tendencies. They may also have prevented historians from realizing the more unsettling truth about the ACS: its antislavery tendencies, however weak, were genuine. What defined the organization was its easy conclusion that segregation was the instrument by which slavery could be destroyed; what doomed it to failure was its belief that African Americans would consent to their own expatriation. If Walker’s account of the Society’s intentions was polemical, his challenge to its benevolent rhetoric has lost none of its power: “America is as much our country, as it is yours. Treat us like men, and there is no danger but we all will live in peace and happiness together.”

Nicholas Guyatt is a University Lecturer in American History at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation and Providence and the Invention of the United States, 1607-1876. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasGuyatt.

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Comments on “The American Colonization Society: 200 Years of the “Colonizing Trick”

  • Thank you for this excellent and informative post. It really does a fine job of outlining early support for resettlement and colonization among the African-American intellectual community, as well as ongoing opposition in the same community, and continuing support from portions of white society.

    It is worth looking further into the statements that Liberian settlement “never enjoyed majority support among black Americans” and that only ten thousand settlers were recruited.

    Part of the privilege of hegemony is the panoptical capacity to divide and conquer, and minimize the extent to which subaltern peoples can effectively unite. You note that the back-to-Africa movement originated among black Americans before being co-opted by the whites under whom it fizzled out. It’s just not clear how many non-abolitionist Afro-American movements prior to the civil rights and independence movements of the mid-twentieth century could meet the requirement that they have both majority support and led to the liberation of many more than ten thousand people.

    Let’s look at some other notable efforts. 98-99% of all Afro-American slaves did not maroon, or run away. Many of those that did, and formed free societies, were pressured through a process called “pacification” to sign treaties recognizing their freedom, under the requirement that they return any later runaways to plantation society. Revolutionary insurrections (as opposed to marronary insurrections) were even more rare and high-risk. Of a few dozen attempts, precisely one succeeded: the Haitian Revolution. Toussaint Louverture, its early leader, agreed with the French, British, and Americans to invade no other colony and provide no military support to other contemporary insurrections. He informed on Isaac Sasportas, a serial supporter of slave revolts, leading to Sasportas’ execution and contributing to the failure of a revolt in Jamaica.

    After abolition, Marcus Garvey’s Black Star movement would be liable to be labeled a “trick” if the definition of a non-trick was a scheme that had majority support, needed to settle more than 10,000 Afro-Americans in Africa, and be ideologically compatible with intra-American integration.

    Thus, while it’s worth recognizing the compromises and limitations of many liberationist movements, we should be careful about defining the movements based mainly on those limitations.

    Liberian settlement, trick or not, remained durably attractive to a minority of African-Americans: around 1974, Nina Simone, having left the United States for good a few years before, moved to Monrovia as the most high-profile, and one of the shorter-staying, of a new wave of black settlers from the US.

    To a certain extent, the normative frame a historian puts around the ACS depends on certain decisions as to which histories to privilege. If we privilege the progressive history of the US over that of Liberia, we’re apt to see settlement of the Windward Coast of Africa as a dangerous distraction; less so if we lean the other way. Likewise, if we privilege a critical history of white hegemony in the Americas over a history of frequently co-opted and thwarted minoritarian subaltern resistances, Liberian settlement is likely to look like just another con, but thankfully one that didn’t dupe too many people. Leaning the other way, it would look like an imperfect space of freedom enjoyed by some blacks looking to move farther away from white domination, at the expense of, and in face of opposition from, others. Ultimately, to a certain extent, all these frames have their use.

    What I’m interested in hearing is a bit of counterfactual history. Sierra Leone and Liberia were key spaces for the United Kingdom and the United States to settle captured Africans being illegally transported in the Atlantic slave trade. Given that the UK and US didn’t control many of the ports of embarkation of the ships they interdicted, and that many of the captured Africans were from places very distant from the ports where they were boarded anyway, where should these liberated captives have been settled? I imagine the US South, where chattel slavery was still ongoing, was an option, as was the North, where, from 1950, any black person risked being captured and sold into the South. There’s Canada, where resettled Jamaican Maroons had startlingly high mortality rates, and Caribbean colonies like Barbados, where attempts to escape sharecropping were met with heavy-handed suppression. There’s also the option of just not liberating people bound on slave ships operating illegally. Given the proportion of Liberian settlers who came from such liberated ships, it’s probably as worth addressing their case as that of blacks already in the United States, thinking of moving across the ocean.

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