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American Colonization Society

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American Colonization Society

The American Colonization Society (ACS) (in full, The Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of America), founded in 1816, was the primary vehicle to support the return of free African Americans to what was considered greater freedom in Africa. It helped to found the colony of Liberia in 1821–22 as a place for freedmen. Among its founders were Charles Fenton Mercer, Henry Clay, John Randolph, and Richard Bland Lee.

Paul Cuffee, a wealthy mixed-race New England shipowner and activist, was an early advocate of settling freed blacks in Africa. He gained support from black leaders and members of the US Congress for an emigration plan. In 1811 and 1815–16, he financed and captained successful voyages to British-ruled Sierra Leone, where he helped African-American immigrants get established. Although Cuffee died in 1817, his efforts may have "set the tone" for the American Colonization Society (ACS) to initiate further settlements.

The ACS was a coalition made up mostly of evangelicals and Quakers who supported abolition but who did not wish to socialize or interact with free blacks and Chesapeake slaveholders who understood that unfree labor did not constitute the economic future of the nation. They found common ground in support of so-called "repatriation". They believed blacks would face better chances for full lives in Africa than in the U.S. The slaveholders opposed state or federally mandated abolition, but saw repatriation as a way to remove free blacks and avoid slave rebellions. From 1821, thousands of free black Americans moved to Liberia from the United States. Over twenty years, the colony continued to grow and establish economic stability. In 1847, the legislature of Liberia declared the nation an independent state.

Critics have said the ACS was a racist society, while others point to its benevolent origins and later takeover by men with visions of an American empire in Africa. The Society closely controlled the development of Liberia until its declaration of independence. By 1867, the ACS had assisted in the movement of more than 13,000 Americans to Liberia. From 1825 to 1919, it published a journal, the African Repository and Colonial Journal. After that, the society had essentially ended, but did not formally dissolve until 1964, when it transferred its papers to the Library of Congress.


Colonization as a solution to the problem of free blacks

Following the American Revolutionary War, the "peculiar Institution" of slavery and those bound within it grew, reaching four million slaves by the mid-19th century. At the same time, 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 with legislated limits. In the first two decades after the Revolutionary War, the percentage of free blacks rose in Virginia, for instance, from 1% to nearly 10% of the black population.

Some men decided to support emigration following an abortive slave rebellion headed by Gabriel Prosser in 1800, and a rapid increase in the number of free African Americans in the United States, which was perceived by some to be alarming. Although the ratio of whites to blacks was 8:2 from 1790 to 1800, it was the increase in the number of free African Americans that disturbed some proponents of colonization. From 1790 to 1800, the number of free African Americans increased from 59,467 (1½% of total U.S. population, 7½% of U.S. black population) to 108,398 (2% of U.S. population), a percentage increase of 82 percent; and from 1800 to 1810, the number increased from 108,398 to 186,446 (2½% of U.S. pop.), an increase of 72 percent.[8] The perception of change was highest in some major cities, but especially the Upper South, where the most slaves were freed in the two decades after the Revolution.

This steady increase did not go unnoticed by an anxious white community that was ever more aware of the free blacks in their midst. The arguments propounded against free blacks, especially in free states, may be divided into four main categories. One argument pointed toward the perceived moral laxity of blacks. Blacks, it was claimed, were licentious beings who would draw whites into their savage, unrestrained ways. The fears of an intermingling of the races were strong and underlay much of the outcry for removal.

Along these same lines, blacks were accused of a tendency toward criminality. Still others claimed that the supposed 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 were said to threaten jobs of working class whites in the North.

Southerners had their special reservations about free blacks, fearing that the freedmen living in slave areas caused unrest to slaves, and encouraged runaways and slave revolts. They had racist reservations about the ability of free blacks to function. The proposed solution was to have free blacks deported from the United States to colonize parts of Africa.

Paul Cuffee

Paul Cuffee (1759–1817) was a mixed-race, successful Quaker ship owner descended from Ashanti and Wampanoag parents. He advocated settling freed American slaves in Africa and gained support from the British government, free black leaders in the United States, and members of Congress to take emigrants to the British colony of Sierra Leone. He had an economic interest, as he intended to bring back valuable cargoes. In 1816, Captain Cuffee took thirty-eight American blacks to Freetown, Sierra Leone; other voyages were precluded by his death in 1817. By reaching a large audience with his pro-colonization arguments and practical example, Cuffee laid the groundwork for the American Colonization Society.


The ACS had its origins in 1816, when Charles Fenton Mercer, a Federalist member of the Virginia General Assembly, discovered accounts of earlier legislative debates on black colonization in the wake of Gabriel Prosser's rebellion. Mercer pushed the state to support the idea, and one of his political contacts in Washington City, John Caldwell, in turn contacted the Reverend Robert Finley, his brother-in-law, a Presbyterian minister, who endorsed the scheme.

The Society was officially established in Washington at the Davis Hotel on December 21, 1816. The founders were considered to be Henry Clay, John Randolph of Roanoke, and Richard Bland Lee. Mercer was unable to go to Washington for the meeting. Although the eccentric Randolph believed that the removal of free blacks would "materially tend to secure" slave property, the vast majority of early members were philanthropists, clergy and abolitionists who wanted to free African slaves and their descendants and provide them with the opportunity to "return" to Africa. Few members were slave-owners; the Society never enjoyed much support among planters in the Lower South. This was the area that developed most rapidly in the 19th century with slave labor, and initially it had few free blacks, who lived mostly in the Upper South.


In 1913 and again at its formal dissolution in 1964, the Society donated its records to the U.S. Library of Congress. The material contains a wealth of information about the foundation of the society, its role in establishing Liberia, efforts to manage and defend the colony, fund-raising, recruitment of settlers, conditions for black citizens of the American South, and the way in which black settlers built and led the new nation.
In Liberia, the Society maintained offices at the junction of Ashmun and Buchanan Streets at the heart of Monrovia's commercial district, next to the True Whig Party headquarters in the Edward J. Roye Building. Its offices at the site closed in 1956 when the government demolished all the buildings at the intersection for the purpose of constructing new public buildings there. Nevertheless, the land officially remained the property of the Society into the 1980s, building up large property tax bills because the Ministry of Finance could not find an address to which to send tax bills.