Colonization: the “respectable” way to be anti-slavery in early New England


In December 1816 such American luminaries as Francis Scott Key (author of the Star Spangled Banner), Chief Justice John Marshall, Congressman (later Senator) Daniel Webster, Speaker of the House Henry Clay, President James Monroe, future president Andrew Jackson, and others formed the American Colonization Society. Supporters included former Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. It eventually had 218 local auxiliary chapters and thousands of supporters.

The ACS recognized that race was a major and potentially fatal problem in American society. While millions of Americans were slaves, even free people of color suffered from social, economic and legal disabilities imposed directly or indirectly by the white majority. Colonizationists accepted the seeming reality “that there is an utter aversion in the public [white majority] mind, to an amalgamation and equalization of the two races: and that any attempt to press such equalization is not only fruitless, but injurious.”i The goal of the ACS was “to colonize the free people of color, with their own consent” to either Haiti, a black republic in the Caribbean, or to a new colony called Liberia, on land in West Africa purchased by the ACS in 1822. Supporters saw this as an opportunity for free blacks to build their own separate republic away from white prejudice, enjoy liberty and freedom (as it would later be termed) “separate but equal.” Some hoped it would even encourage slaveholders to emancipate their slaves. Many also saw it as a way to Christianize Africa. The ACS had supporters throughout the country, and solicited funds from both North and South, especially on the Fourth of July. They saw themselves as progressive philanthropists and (albeit condescending) friends of the black race, dealing realistically and responsibly with a potentially explosive problem.

By the early 1830s some radical anti?slavery advocates, notably William Lloyd Garrison, attacked Colonization as a hypocritical sham. Such abolitionists could accept no compromises whatsoever with slavery or slave?owners. They said American?born blacks had as much right to equal rights in the United States as whites. Removing free blacks and the example of freedom they set, along with the potential shelter they provided for run?away slaves would make it easier to keep others enslaved. Besides, they charged, it would be physically and economically impossible to relocate two million people across the Atlantic. Fear, prejudice, and self?interest, not philanthropy, motivated the Colonizationists, or so said the abolitionists.

As the 1830s and 1840s progressed, positions on slavery hardened along sectional lines. Southerners increasingly resented “northern interference” with the South’s “peculiar institution” and became more afraid of slave uprisings. They tightened slave codes and silenced any discussion of slavery. More northerners became aware of the evils of slavery as the popular perception of abolitionism moved from radical extremism to an increasingly acceptable cause. In the1840s the ACS lost much of its support, went bankrupt, and control of Liberia passed from whites to resident black settlers. Liberia declared independence in 1847. Although the American Colonization Society eventually relocated 13,000 emigrants (only 1,420 of whom were newly freed slaves) and survived until 1912, in spite of bankruptcy, it became increasingly irrelevant after the mid?1840s. Yet in the 1820s and ‘30s no one could foresee all that. Instead, during the 1830s many Americans saw colonization as the best way to deal with America’s racial problems.

Footnotes: i Wilbur Fisk, Substance of an Address Delivered Before the Middletown Colonization Society … July 4, 1835”(: Middletown, Connecticut: G.F. Olmsted ,1835)

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