"Back to Africa?" The Colonization Movement in Early America
Author: Timothy Crumrin, Conner Prairie Historian
Graphics courtesy the Indiana State Archive and Indiana Division—Indiana State Library.
Following the Revolutionary War, a conflict aswirl with ideas about rights of man, the "Peculiar Institution" of slavery and those bound within it grew. Conversely, due in part to manumission efforts sparked by the war and the abolition of slavery in Northern states, there was an expansion of the ranks of free blacks. Their number grew from a few thousand in 1760 to 319,000 by 1830.
This increase did not go unnoticed by a wary white community that kept a weather eye out for the free blacks in their midst. The arguments propounded against free blacks, especially in free states, may be divided into four main areas. One argument pointed toward the perceived moral laxity of blacks. Blacks, some said, were licentious beings who would draw whites into their savage. unrestrained ways. These fears of an intermingling of the races were strong and underlay much of the outcry for removal.
Along those same lines, blacks were accused of a tendency toward criminality and were thought inclined to deviate from the straight and narrow path. Still others claimed that the mental inferiority of African-Americans made them unfit for the duties of citizenship and incapable of real improvement. Economic considerations were also put forth. Free blacks, it was thought, would only take jobs away from whites. This feeling was especially strong among the "working class" in the North. The Southerner had his special reservations about free blacks. It was feared that freedmen located in slave areas would act as an enticing reminder of what freedom might mean and encourage runaways and slave revolts.
Exclusionary and colonization movements came about partially in response to these feelings. Efforts were made to exclude blacks by custom and law. When simply shunning African-Americans did not do the trick, some areas passed restrictive legislation. Indiana, for example, enacted such laws in 1831. One provision stated that free blacks entering Indiana had to post a bond of $500.00 with local authorities. The bond was to guarantee that the person was to maintain good behavior and not become a burden upon the public treasury. The bond was forfeited should the person be convicted of a crime. Authorities could expel blacks who failed to pay the bond or hire their services out to provide for it. Though seldom enforced, such laws are an indication of the negrophobic attitudes that often prevailed throughout the period. It must be pointed out that many of those in Indiana who had earlier opposed the introduction of slavery into the state did not do so out of sympathy for blacks. It was not a moral issue for many; their antipathy toward slavery was motivated by a dislike for African-Americans and the big "plantation economy" that had driven many of them from their Southern homes.
Colonization was another movement that, in part, drew upon such feelings. One of the first calls for the removal of blacks to Africa or other locations came in 1714. Further calls were made following the Revolutionary War Some of these plans called for gradual emancipation followed by colonization, while others sought to rid the country only of free blacks. Some blacks themselves advanced such schemes. Paul Cuffee, a black -Indian, Quaker ship captain, aided nearly forty blacks who emigrated the Sierra Leone, Africa, where the British were colonizing blacks, in 1815. One idea briefly floated during the War of 1812 sought to colonize free blacks on lands in the Indiana and Illinois territories.
But the most famous and important proponent was the American Colonization Society. Organized in 1816, its purpose was aptly evoked by its name The organization's official title was the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color in the United States. One of the founding fathers of the society was Rev. Robert Finley. Finley was instrumental in getting such luminaries as Francis Scott Key, Henry Clay, and Andrew Jackson to lend their names to the movement. The Society's first President was Bushrod Washington, nephew of the great man himself.
It can certainly be said that the initial seed of the movement was high-minded. It grew out of the benevolent impulses current after the War of 1812. It was not until it later drew many disparate groups wishing to march under its banner that its motives came into question. Early leaders seem to have sincerely believed that the scheme was the best for all involved. They realized that African-Americans would never be accepted by the vast majority of white America. By removing people of color they hoped to enable them to embark upon a better life, while at the same time relieving a source of tension in the nation. Some also thought of it as a plan that would encourage slaveowners to free their charges. Clergymen were among the Society's staunchest supporters.
Initially rebuffed when it sought funding from the federal government, the Society relied on donations to implement its programs. The first group of colonizers, black "workmen" and their families totaling 86 people, set forth in 1820. Their first settlement was on Sherbro Island off the west coast of Africa, but it ultimately failed due to the disease and the reluctance shown by native people to accept the immigrants. After failing to reach a satisfactory lease on land in Sierra Leone, agents of the Society forced the ruler of lands near Cape Mesurado to sell them lands on Africa's west coast. The price of this new country to be named Liberia was less than three hundred dollars in goods and trinkets.
Although it was later to receive monies from federal and state governments, finances were always a problem for the Society. For that reason it began to set up state chapters, Indiana's was formed in 1829, and local auxiliaries were begun to raise funds and spread its ideas. As mentioned earlier it was to attract a diverse group of followers. One historian has indicated that supporters may be divided into three main groups. The first, those who genuinely felt that it was the best solution to a difficult problem and might lead to a gradual emancipation, has already been mentioned. Another, smaller, element was a proslavery group who saw removal as an answer to the problems associated with "dangerous" free blacks.
Perhaps the largest group of supporters was made up of those who opposed slavery, but did not believe in anything remotely resembling equality of the races. This group also backed removal. To varying degrees, these people accepted views about the unworthiness of African- Americans. This was especially true of those supporters who lived in the Midwest, whose racial prejudices had long been commented upon. That keen-eyed observer of America and Americans, Alexis De Tocqueville, wrote that anti-Negro feeling was greatest "in those states where slavery has never been known."
The fortunes of the Society ebbed and flowed over the years. In all nearly 11,000 blacks were resettled in Liberia, half of them newly freed slaves. Ultimately, the Society failed to live up to its proponents great hopes. The reasons for its failure were many. One was financial. There were seldom enough dollars to pay for the costs of transportation, land grants, and subsistence expenses The many different supporters could never agree upon a uniform policy to meet their ends. Such agreement was difficult at best with adherents who often held diametrically opposite views from one another. As cries for abolition grew stronger in the country, the basis of the movement was called into question. Ardent abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, who once supported the Society, began to see it as a racist organization that could only hinder the cause of emancipation. That last criticism points to the principal reasons Colonization in general and the American Colonization Society, specifically, failed. One point that cannot be emphasized too strongly about colonization is that it was an essentially white experiment. It was begun by white Americans, promoted by whites, and in the end was meant to benefit white America the most. Some blacks were hired to act as agents and proselytize for the movement, but it was an essentially white movement. The view that blacks were inferior was at the basis of the movement. The realization by many of this central tenet was to lose the movement many potential supporters.
But the major reason the movement did not enjoy more success was quite simple. It blithely ignored one cardinal point: the vast majority of those who were meant to colonize did not wish to leave. Most free blacks simply did not want to go "home" to a place from which they were generations removed. America, not Africa, was their home and they had little desire migrate to a strange and forbidding land not their own.
Check out this excellent site which contains an online database of immigrants to Liberia from 1820 to 1843 from which the map above was supplied.