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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.