Not one of the better-known stories of America’s early historical narrative, African colonization was the United States’ large and lengthy attempt to resettle free blacks outside American territory during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Despite the size and duration of the movement, African colonization is largely absent from a modern-day retelling of America’s founding and formative years. Where the historical details of this movement fall short, one might turn to William Lloyd Garrison for clarification. Denouncing colonization as the “enemy of abolition,” Garrison is an historically dominant lens through which to view the movement. While this dominance helps answer some of the missing details about colonization, to explicitly accept Garrison’s reading of black emigration is to miss the distinct nature of the movement. When viewed apart from Garrison, the African colonization movement occupies a distinct and important place in American history, one that speaks to the deep complexity that surrounded this country’s early debate over slavery.
First emerging during the Revolutionary era, black colonization was initially proposed by a handful of individuals, one of the earliest being Thomas Jefferson. In the 1770s Jefferson suggested black relocation on account of what he believed was the inability of the black and white races to ever live harmoniously alongside one another in free society. Jefferson’s sentiments were the result of what was becoming known at the time as the slavery dilemma. Amidst America’s break with the British Monarchy, it became strikingly clear that the new nation’s continued practice of slavery conflicted with the very principles of freedom, democracy, and equal rights that the republic was founded upon. To reconcile this conflict, however, and outright abolish the slave system was considered highly problematic. Particularly in the South, where the slave population was its greatest, and the states were economically dependent on slave labor, a sudden emancipation of slaves en masse, was thought to be a threat to the stability of society and the Union at large. Early supporters of colonization proposed black relocation as a way to slowly and peacefully eradicate slavery, while keeping the framework of the new Union intact.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, support for black emigration evolved into an official organization known as the American Colonization Society. Founded on December 21, 1816, the ACS initially considered sending free blacks to places such as Haiti or Canada, but in 1825 settled the colony of Liberia to which thousands of emigrants were eventually sent. After its inception, the American Colonization Society grew in size and stature, developing several auxiliary societies and garnering the support of some of the most prominent figures in the country. Though it was a quite sizeable movement, colonization was ultimately a failed venture. Interestingly though, the American Colonization Society only formally dissolved in 1964, technically placing the colonization movement in existence for nearly two hundred years.
In those two hundred years, colonization was never so at the forefront of American history as when it came under the scrutiny of William Lloyd Garrison. In the 1830s, Garrison waged a large-scale war upon colonization, at the heart of which was his belief that the movement was “the enemy of abolition.” Garrison, who believed in a total and immediate eradication of slavery, felt that because the colonization movement did not take any direct action against the slave system, it was ultimately in favor of perpetuating the institution. In reality, supporters of colonization never voiced their wish to sustain slavery. However, since the movement believed any solution to slavery required the cooperation of the South, colonizationists did not directly condemn slaveholders, and thus represented for Garrison the closest thing to a pro-slavery organization.
For several reasons, Garrison’s condemnation of colonization is an historically dominant way to view black emigration. Thought of today as the figurehead of the abolition movement, Garrison’s opinion of colonization stands as a powerfully influential way to look upon black emigration. Having led the country in the cause that fought for and eventually won the emancipation of slaves, Garrison signifies a certain historical accuracy when it comes to the subjects of slavery and abolition; by association, this accuracy is extended to his thoughts on colonization. Also, Garrison’s war with colonization came just prior to major shifts within the movement, making Garrison’s a conclusive and final word on colonization, and thus one of the strongest points of reference that we have on the movement. Lastly, the size and scale of Garrison’s attack on colonization adds to its prominence as a dominant way to view black emigration. Filtering through the literature, press, and public discussions of the time, Garrison’s disdain for colonization stretched far and wide in the 1830s, saturating the air with anti-colonization propaganda. The size and intensity of Garrison’s attack on colonization is well described in a 1917 dissertation that compares Garrison’s conflict with the colonization movement to the large and violent rift that divided the nation in the 1860s. The author writes, “It was a great struggle, that between the Garrisonians and the Colonizationists. Verily, it was the first American civil war on the subject of slavery” (Fox, 176). With this massive, influential, and timely assault on the movement, Garrison stands as a definitive outlook on black resettlement. Apart from Garrison, however, black emigration is no less defined, and in fact occupies a distinct and noteworthy place in America’s early historical narrative.
Often, this narrative is broken down into easily discernable dichotomies that help us compartmentalize the many components of this complicated era. Such dichotomies include black and white, North and South, and slave and free. While such clear-cut divisions did in fact exist, this time in history is also marked by more interwoven tensions between politics, morality, race, wealth, and humanity – tensions at the heart of understanding the essence of this time period and ultimately illuminated by the existence of the colonization movement. Conceding the injustice of slavery, colonizationists also warned against a total and immediate emancipation of slaves, fearing that such a large-scale manumission would disrupt society and ultimately the larger American Republic. As a result, colonizationists argued for a gradual abolition in which slaveholders would be “morally influenced” to emancipate their slaves under the stipulation that they be colonized in Africa. Over time, colonizationists imagined these emancipations would increase, eventually bringing about an end to slavery. With this mindset, the colonization movement was at the intersection of this era’s most pressing concerns over justice, policy, economy, and democracy.
In specific, the colonization movement’s concern for justice can be seen in its repeated expressions of contempt for slavery and its desire to see the institution ultimately eradicated. For example, Ferdinando Fairfax, an early supporter of black removal, penned an article in 1790 in which he wrote, “Liberty [is] a natural right, which we cannot, without injustice, withhold from this unhappy race of men”(Fairfax, 285). Envisioning a continuous process of emancipation, under the stipulation of colonization, Fairfax’s emigration plan was meant to encourage manumission to such a degree, that it would ultimately “lead to an end to slavery.” Thoughts like these continued through to the formation of the American Colonization Society in 1816, who’s secretary, Ralph Randolph Gurley, expressed some of the strongest anti-slavery sentiments ever voiced by the colonization movement. Responding to Garrison’s accusations against black emigration, Gurley wrote in 1833, “I am well aware that [colonization] is denounced in terms of unmeasured reproach by Mr. Garrison…as designed…to strengthen, rather than weaken the system of slavery…I do not hesitate to acknowledge…my hope of the peaceful abolition of slavery in this country…if in any other land slavery can be perpetual, it cannot be perpetual here…it must be abolished”(Gurley and Ibbottson, 7).
Concomitant to their desire to see the slave system eradicated, colonizationists were also concerned over the integration of freedmen into society if slavery were in fact to be abolished. During the Revolutionary era, this concern stemmed from a new political mindset that stressed the importance of a homogenous and uniform citizenry. When America broke ties with Britain in the late 1700s, it embarked upon a new experiment in Republicanism, the goal of which was to take power out of the hands of a single, monarchical sovereign and put it into the hands of the people. For such self-governance to work, early Americans believed society needed to consist of like-minded and equally educated and skilled individuals, so as to sustain a common interest amongst the people and keep power and opportunity evenly distributed within society. In line with this ideology, early colonizationists justified black removal on the grounds that it would offset a potential division within society. Having been previously enslaved, it was thought free blacks would emerge from bondage without the skills or education necessary to successfully integrate into society; as a result, they would be formed into distinct factions, requiring separate laws and guidelines from the rest of their community. For the new republic, framed around the ideal of a homogeneous polity, such division amongst its citizens was considered a threat to the success of the new Union. Such was the concern of Thomas Jefferson and Ferdinando Fairfax, the latter of which expressed, “if [slaves] be emancipated, [they] would never [be] allow[ed] all the privileges of citizens; they would therefore form a separate interest from the rest of the community. If this separate interest of so great a number in the same community, be once formed…it will endanger the peace of society”(Fairfax, 286).
In the years following the Revolution, concern over the integration of former slaves into society became more directly tied to a developing racial prejudice. As it were, this prejudice began to equate black skin with qualities of an African slave’s slowly status such as inferiority, degradation, and ignorance. In the nineteenth century, racial prejudice evolved from a general antipathy towards blacks, to a more codified system of excluding people of color from society. Additionally, racial prejudice helped fuel the enactment of laws that restricted emancipation – laws which colonizationists felt only augmented the problem of slavery. In reaction to these events, justification for black removal began to factor in this growing racial bias, arguing that racial prejudice was becoming such a deeply embedded part of the American psyche, that a colony in Africa would both eradicate the need for restrictive emancipation laws and provide blacks with an asylum in which they could enjoy the rights and freedoms denied to them in America.
Also on the minds of early colonizationists was the matter of the South’s cooperation in the eventual eradication of slavery. As the strength and success of the newly formed United States required the inclusion of the South in the Union, it was feared that a widespread abolition of slavery would upset the stability of the Southern states, put them at odds with their northern counterparts, and thereby divide the country. Heavily dependent on cotton, and the slave labor that fueled it, the South’s economic livelihood was intricately tied to the slave system, making its removal a highly problematic issue. Additionally, there was the matter of the South’s claim to their slaves as “property.” In the late eighteenth century the notion of property rights was a pillar of Revolutionary thought, putting forth that one’s place in the new American Republic was connected to owning a “stake” in society. In the South, this ownership was attached to the land that produced the cotton on which southern states were heavily reliant, but it also extended to the slaves that fueled that production, a notion that made abolishing slavery an infringement upon the rights of southern slave-owners. Avoiding such an infraction was a goal of the new republic, as it wished to sidestep any acts of overarching government control of which it felt it had been a victim under the rule of the British monarchy.
In agreement with this rationale, colonizationists rather prophetically predicted that if Southerners felt their rights infringed upon, it would result in a terrible civil war. In specific, they felt an invasion of southern rights on the subject of slavery would produce “a conflict between the North and the South, more appalling than any ever witnessed in our country. The most terrible elements of human passion will be wrought with fury; the wings of an awful darkness will overshadow us, while all hearts tremble, and all faces turn pale with dismay”(Gurley and Ibbottson, 7). In 1832, secretary of the Colonization Society, Ralph Randolph Gurley, used less ornate language to describe this potential rift within the Union. He wrote,
“the system of slavery…so interwoven with…society,
Involving so much of [lawful] property and labor and feeling…it is plain that if [it] is ever to be peacefully abolished, it must be by the consent of the south…every thing may be lost, by exciting a conflict on this subject, between [the] two portions of our country”(Gurley, 3).
By “every thing,” Gurley no doubt meant the Union; all the time and effort put forth in creating and sustaining the new democratic republic would be lost if slavery was not peaceably removed.
Of course, all was not lost. The United States endured a brutal civil war, but slavery was eventually abolished and the Union survived. It is a survival, however, that carries with it scars of a complicated past. The nature of this complexity is brought to light by the colonization movement; attempting to address the injustice of slavery, a burgeoning racial prejudice, the politics of Republicanism, and the economic stability of the South, supporters of black emigration sat at the intersection of politics, power, wealth, freedom, and race, all of which were struggling to come into greater accord with one another in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In its attempt to address and balance all of these issues, the colonization movement permits a view of early America in which one can see the simultaneous and interdependent growth of slavery and the notion of equal rights. More than a narrative about equality at odds with slavery, America’s early past is a story about the way in which our freedom includes the oppression of others, making for a long struggle ahead in the fight to win freedom and equality for all. When viewed through the eyes of William Lloyd Garrison, colonization comes across as yet another way racism has played itself in America. Apart from Garrison, however, it points towards a complex time in history that laid the groundwork for this country’s ongoing issues with race and equality.
Fairfax, Ferdinando. “Plan For Liberating the Negroes Within the United States,” American Museum, of Universal Magazine, VIII (December 1790), pp. 285- 87.
Fox, Early Lee. The American Colonization Society 1817-1840. Baltimore: The John Hopkins Press, 1919.
Gurley, Ralph Randolph. “Letter on the American Colonization Society, and Remarks on South Carolina Opinions on that Subject.” [Washington D.C.] 1832.
Gurley, Ralph Randolph and Henry Ibbottson. Letter of the Rev. Ralph R. Gurley, on the American Colonization Society: Addressed to Henry Ibbotson, Esq. of Sheffield, England [Washington, D.C.: J.C. Dunn, 1833.