This month marks two hundred years since the founding of an organization that most people have never heard of: the American Colonization Society (ACS). The obscurity into which it has fallen would surprise Americans living in the decades before the Civil War. From its founding in 1816 until the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, the Society rallied some of the most influential people in the United States behind its principal objective: to persuade African Americans to leave the United States and settle in an overseas colony. In 1821, with a crucial assist from President James Monroe, the ACS acquired land in West Africa for its new settlement of Liberia. Over the following four decades, Colonization Society officials worked to expand their colony, and to persuade white and black Americans that the long-term solution to slavery was an epic form of racial separation.
At first glance, colonization seems part of the other forms of racism that structured American life before the Civil War. But colonization rhetoric was considerably more slippery than it might initially seem. For one thing, advocates of colonization – unlike defenders of slavery – largely avoided the claim that black people were permanently inferior to whites. In fact, the overwhelming majority of colonization advocates insisted that the institution of slavery was immoral, impolitic, or both. Even before the founding of the ACS in 1816, the idea of separating the races had become ubiquitous in proposals for abolition. It was pioneered by Thomas Jefferson in the 1780s, and became a mainstay of the so-called “first wave” of abolition activism in the 1790s and 1800s.
This sustained interest in black colonization betrayed a real anxiety among white Americans – even those who styled themselves as liberal and benevolent – about the difficulties they had of living alongside people of colour as equals. This was a problem that confronted the new United States with a particular force. When British and French campaigners attacked the slave trade, they did so in the knowledge that black people in the Caribbean would eventually receive freedom an ocean away from the metropolis. No French or British campaigner expected to live alongside black people in equality. Slavery was much more closely coiled around American society: free blacks formed a significant minority (10-15%) in many northern cities by 1810, while slaves comprised more than 30% of the population in Virginia, and close to a majority of the population in South Carolina and Georgia.
The demography of Caribbean slavery – with tiny white elites living amidst overwhelmingly black populations – was replicated in certain regions of the southern states, but no single state looked like Barbados or Jamaica or Haiti. Instead, black people made up between a quarter and a half of the population of most southern states. To white people who thought seriously about slavery before 1860, this meant that only three futures were possible: African Americans would be kept in slavery, with the associated dangers and moral burdens; they would be freed and given their rightful share of “all men are created equal”; or they would be freed and “colonized” beyond the borders of the United States.
With the advent of the cotton boom after 1820, increasing numbers of southern whites chose the first option. Developing arguments that styled slavery as a positive good in turn radicalized a new generation of abolitionist activists (mostly in the northern states) who insisted on the need for immediate and unconditional abolition. From the 1830s onwards, these two sides entered an open battle which, with the benefit of hindsight, anticipated the Civil War: Northerners argued for the need to destroy the slave system, and Southerners insisted that the rights of property (and the inferiority of African Americans) were incontrovertible. It’s important to put colonization back into the story precisely because it complicates this simple antagonism. The overwhelming majority of white northerners rejected immediate abolition, juggling a variety of neuroses and prejudices about the prospect of black equality. In the 1850s, figures as diverse as Abraham Lincoln and Harriet Beecher Stowe promoted racial separation as an important tool for securing the destruction of slavery. Even while Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison dismissed colonization as a pipe dream, leading politicians like Daniel Webster and Henry Clay presented the removal of black people as a prudent and reasonable prerequisite for slavery’s demise.
What made this commitment to colonization more surprising was the steadfast opposition of African Americans to the inducements and rhetoric of the American Colonization Society. The idea that black people might have to leave the United States to assert their rights and sovereignty predated the founding of the ACS in 1816; it was a black idea before it was appropriated by white ‘moderates’, and it continued to inspire black nationalists in the decades after the Civil War. But it was black opposition, more than any other single factor, which served to frustrate both the Colonization Society and the infant colony of Liberia in the decades before the Civil War. While liberal whites insisted that black people didn’t know what was in their best interest, African Americans from every part of the United States – even southern slaves – relayed the message that they would not accept white-imposed exile as a condition of freedom. This response was broadly consistent from 1817, when ACS officials were shouted down at a public meeting of free blacks in Philadelphia, to 1862, when Abraham Lincoln earned a furious response from Frederick Douglass for promoting black removal to Central America. African Americans may have recognized that slavery was the nation’s principal evil, but they were loath to accept expatriation as the means of overcoming it.
It’s ironic that colonization seemed the most responsible way for white ‘moderates’ to package their distaste for slavery before 1861. The course of the Civil War, and Abraham Lincoln’s acceptance after 1863 that colonization was chimerical, have made it easy for historians to sideline the American Colonization Society and the many related proposals for racial separation in the United States at that time. In popular memory, the slavery struggle pits radical abolitionists (black and white) against fire-eating slaveholders – a conflict that eventually tipped the nation into Civil War. While this version of American history captures the crucial point that white Northerners and Southerners became increasingly divided over slavery, it overlooks the accompanying fact that very few white people in the North or the South were committed to black citizenship. Colonization enabled white Northerners to oppose slavery without any commitment to integration and equality. Its proposals failed not because of a moral epiphany on the part of white Americans, but because so few black people proved willing to validate its rhetoric of benevolent segregation.
Featured image credit: An etching of Cape Palmas, Liberia in 1853 by Libreria past and present. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.