American Colonization Society
The effort to colonize free African Americans began gaining momentum in 1816 with the formation of the American Colonization Society. Pamphlets such as “A Few Facts Respecting the American Colonization Society” describe the objective of the group: “[T]o colonize . . . on the Coast of Africa, or such other place as Congress shall deem expedient, the people of colour in our country, already free--and those others, who may hereafter be liberated by the humanity of individuals, or the laws of the States,” (page 3).
The majority of members, however, were not interested in liberating additional slaves. In fact, they felt that free African Americans “exhibit few characteristics to encourage hopes of their improvement in this country. Loosed from the restraints of slavery, they utterly neglect, or miserably abuse the blessings which liberty would confer,” (page 12). Liberty in Liberia, however, meant that colonists would have a new chance at improving their status. In the words of the organization’s 1832 pamphlet, “Reflections on the Causes that Led to the Formation of the Colonization Society,” repatriated African Americans could enjoy “all the advantages of society, self-government, eligibility to office, and freedom from the degradation arising from an inferiority of caste,” (page 8).
Proponents of colonization were also aware of the advantages white Americans stood to gain from the effort. The pamphlet, “Reflections on the Causes that Led to the Formation of the Colonization Society” contains the section, “Increase of the Coloured Population,” which reflects whites' fears about "the dangers from the great number of slaves . . ." fueled by ". . . the increasing discussions that take place on the subject in our papers and among themselves--and by the inflammatory publications that are clandestinely spreading among them in spite of all the vigilance of their masters," (page 9). Indeed, slave rebellions, such as Nat Turner's 1831 insurrection that killed fifty-seven whites fueled southern fears of slave revolts caused by large slave populations and inflamatory abolitionist tracts.
Such descriptions as that found in "Increase of the Coloured Population" prompted some abolitionists to challenge the motives of the American Colonization Society. In the pamphlet, “Colonization,” the American Anti-Slavery Society charged that colonization “widens the breach between the two races; exposes the colored people to great practical persecution . . . and . . . is calculated to swallow up and divert that feeling . . . that slavery is alike incompatible with the law of God and with the well being of man,” (page 7).
- How might colonization have provided African Americans with the “advantages of society” and “self-government”?
- How would the exodus of free African Americans to another country have affected the situation of slaves who remained behind?
- How would it have contributed to the “great practical persecution” of colored people in America?
- Why might colonization have reduced the threat of slave insurrections?
A search on colonization results in a number of pamphlets debating the benefits and dangers of the American Colonization Society. For example, Thomas Hodgkins’s “An Inquiry into the Merits of the American Colonization Society” defends the group. Hodgkins reasons that even though some of the original members were slaveholders, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the group was dedicated to preserving slavery (page 4).
- Do you think that the American Colonization Society endorsed, condemned, or ignored the institution of slavery? Why?
- Do you think that colonization was a viable option for free African Americans? Why?
- How does the American Colonization Society compare to subsequent “back-to-Africa” movements such as Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association colonization plans?
- What were these groups trying to achieve in their own era?