After the American Revolution, many Americans, black and white, anguished over the continuing existence of slavery in the new republic of liberty. One proposed solution—colonization—attracted supporters at the highest levels.
The American Colonization Society (ACS) played a key role in slavery politics before, during, and even after the Civil War. Its successes, although limited, forever changed the United States and West Africa.
The ACS was founded in 1816 by leading politicians, including Kentucky slaveholder Henry Clay and Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster. Over the years, other prominent Americans, including Francis Scott Key, author of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and several presidents supported the cause.
The ACS’s main idea was this: “Slavery is a brutal and inefficient labor system. To end it, while protecting the interests of slaveholders and free white workers, we need to remove freed black people who would likely become a burden on American society.” In fact, states that abolished slavery often made it very difficult for freedmen and -women to stay in their communities as free people,
Although some proponents of colonization envisioned setting aside colonies for former slaves in North America, the ACS quickly focused on “returning” to Africa people who had been kidnapped into slavery there, years or even centuries earlier, and by now were mostly Christian English-speaking African Americans.
In 1821 the ACS sent naval officer Robert Stockton to a region of West Africa already occupied by 16 tribal groups. There he “negotiated with a pen in one hand, and a drawn pistol in the other.” The new colony was named Liberia, for liberty, and its capital became Monrovia, named in honor of President James Monroe, who provided federal funds for the ACS venture.
As slavery politics grew more divisive, especially after Virginian Nat Turner’s abortive slave revolt in 1831, the ACS project was attacked from many sides. Abolitionists viewed Liberian relocation as deportation—a racist way to deal with slavery and race problems.
Said abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison, a former colonizationist, “I was then blind; I now see.” Deep South slaveholders suspected colonization was a trick designed to end slavery entirely.
Few African Americans were attracted to Liberia, despite hopes for genuine independence. Liberia’s deadly malaria killed thousands. Unfamiliar plants and animals made farming difficult. American interlopers faced hostility from indigenous residents.
Yet, threatening events like Turner’s rebellion and the Fugitive Slave Act and Dred Scott decision of the chaotic 1850s led to surges in emigration. Even black abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass softened his opposition. By 1860, almost 11,0000 African Americans had emigrated. More would do so when post–Civil War promises remained unfulfilled.
Liberia’s earliest settlers were mainly freed blacks from the Upper South who had already gained literacy and work skills. These founding families would become an enduring ruling class who dominated Liberian politics and its economy, especially after Liberia declared itself independent in 1847 under an American-style constitution.
Later, an influx of new African-American settlers, many who had gained freedom only when their masters died, became a social second tier, while African natives were relegated to the lowest social rung. Into the 21st century, lingering class and color antagonisms have destabilized Liberia, sparking civil conflict in the nation and its region.