Identification: Charitable organization to send former slaves to Africa
Date: Established in 1816; dissolved in 1964
Significance: The public and private funds raised by the American Colonization Society led to the settlement of approximately thirteen thousand African Americans in West Africa by 1867 and the establishment of the independent nation of Liberia. The organization’s guiding philosophy represented a middle ground between abolitionists and proslavery advocates.
Liberia College, which opened in Monrovia only two decades after the American Colonization Society helped establish the first settlement of African American emigrants in Liberia. In 1951, the college became the University of Liberia. (Library of Congress)
Although the American Colonization Society (ACS) was not formed until December, 1816, the desire to remove black slaves from the United States had long existed. The gradual elimination of slavery in the northern states created a concern for the inferior status of free blacks in society. Some slaveholders in the South grew uneasy about their human property, and many more feared free blacks. These motivations led to the creation of the ACS, but their diversity contributed to the organization’s modest success.
The organizers of the American Colonization Society were varied and well connected. Reverend Robert Finley, a Presbyterian minister from New Jersey, organized the first meeting, while Virginia politician Charles Fenton Mercer, Congressman Henry Clay of Kentucky, Francis Scott Key, and Congressman John Randolph of Virginia were among the early supporters. Supreme Court justice Bushrod Washington, a nephew of George Washington, was the society’s first president. After founding the society in Washington, D.C., the officers sought federal funds to carry out their mission. Former presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison soon supported the cause, as did their successor, James Monroe, who used his influence to arrange public funding.
The goal of the ACS was to establish an African colony where free blacks and manumitted slaves would be sent. However, persuading northern free blacks to volunteer was difficult. Southerners were often eager to export free blacks but not their own slaves. Nevertheless, the first shipload of eighty-six emigrants sailed from New York on January 31, 1820. No one in Africa welcomed the settlers taking tribal lands, and the unfamiliar climate, disease, and lack of supplies ravaged the first wave of immigrants. In December, 1821, with the armed assistance of the U.S. Navy, the ACS purchased Cape Mesurado, the present site of Monrovia, Liberia. By 1833, more than thirty-one hundred African Americans had arrived. Ironically, the American Colonization Society’s mission was aided by southerners, who wanted to rid society of free blacks in the wake of Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831. Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, Mississippi, and Louisiana created their own colonizing missions during the 1830’s. All were incorporated into the Liberia colony, and the ACS increasingly became a federation of state societies.
The most notable success was Liberia’s declaration of independence in 1847. This action was encouraged by the ACS, whose financial difficulties made it impossible for it to care for the colony properly. In the years between Liberian independence and the U.S. Civil War, almost six thousand African Americans emigrated. In the five years after the war, more than two thousand more went to Liberia, but with contributions down, the American Colonization Society was practically bankrupt. In the decades to come, it functioned as a Liberian aid society focusing on education and missionary work.
The ALS evoked a wide variety of reactions before the Civil War. Certainly tinged with a racist belief that blacks would never earn equal rights, many white northerners sincerely thought that colonization was the best solution. Beginning in the 1830’s, abolition societies portrayed the ACS as antirepublican and proslavery. White southerners were largely apathetic. Most free blacks identified their future with the United States rather than an uncertain fate in a remote colony. The lack of consensus about the status of African Americans undermined the organization’s efforts and reflected the bitter divisions in American society. The American Colonization Society was formally dissolved in 1964.
M. Philip Lucas
Burin, Eric. Slavery and the Peculiar Solution: A History of the American Colonization Society. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005.
Staudenraus, P. J. The African Colonization Movement, 1816-1865.NewYork: Columbia University Press, 1961.
See also: Abolitionist movement; African Americans and immigrants; African immigrants; Emigration; Garvey, Marcus; Liberia; Slave trade; Universal Negro Improvement Association.