Historic Significance of Colonization – Liberia History

Colonization has come to be looked upon with unmerited indifference with an apathy which its history and achievements surely do not deserve. To some, perhaps the present condition of the republic seems a discouraging and inadequate return for the life and treasure lavished upon it; for others, hoping for a bloodless and gradual extinction of slavery, the civil war carried away the chief element of interest. Others still, who looked for a ready solution of the negro problem in this country, have gradually lost heart in the face of the increasing millions of the race. And so, some from one cause, some from another, have lost interest in colonization and in Liberia, until a time has come when few have more than the vaguest knowledge of these terms. Sometimes the voice of contempt is heard; but this is always a proof of ignorance. Liberia stands forth historically as the embodiment of a number of ideas, efforts, principles, any one of which ought to secure at the least our respect, if not our sympathy and enthusiasm.

Colonization as a Southern Movement toward Emancipation

This thesis will doubtless meet with the most strenuous opposition; but a careful and impartial study of the writings and addresses of those most prominent in the movement will convince anyone of their profound hope that colonization would eventually lead to the extinction of slavery in the United States. It must be remembered that at the time of the formation of the Society the pro-slavery feeling in the South was by no means so strong as it became in later years, when the violence of Abolition had fanned it to a white heat. Indeed, during the whole period before 1832 there seems to have been a prevailing sentiment in favor of emancipation at least throughout Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. But the condition of the free blacks was notoriously such that the humane master hesitated to doom his slaves to it by emancipating them. The colonizationist hoped, by offering to the free Negro an attractive home in Africa, to induce conscientious masters everywhere to liberate their slaves, and to give rise to a growing popular sentiment condemning slavery, which would in time result in its extinction. Of course there were those in the Society who would not have subscribed to this doctrine; on the other hand, many held views much more radical. But it is the men who formed and guided the Society, who wielded its influence and secured its success, whose opinions must be regarded as stamping its policy.

The Constitution of the Society did not touch upon this subject. It was needless to give unnecessary alarm or offense. But when in 1833 the Maryland Society adopted its Constitution a much larger and more explicit one the attitude taken is boldly announced:

“Whereas the Maryland State Colonization Society desires to hasten as far as they can the period when slavery shall cease to exist in Maryland, and believing that this can best be done by advocating and assisting the cause of colonization as the safest, truest and best auxiliary of freedom under existing circumstances,” etc.

It may well be questioned whether such a plan would ever have succeeded: but it must not too hastily be called chimerical. As a practical result it secured the emancipation of several thousand slaves, many of whom were supplied by former owners with money for transportation and establishment in Africa. What further success it might have had was prevented by the rise of the Abolition Movement. The intense pro-slavery feeling which this stirred up in the South caused the Colonization Society to be regarded with distrust and even active hostility. It was accused of secretly undermining slavery and exciting false hopes among the slaves. It was even said to foment discontent and raise dangerous questions for sinister purposes, and was subjected to bitter attack as “disguised Abolitionism.”

From the opposite extreme of opinion the Society suffered assault still more violent. William Lloyd Garrison, in his intemperate zeal for “immediate emancipation without expatriation,” could see nothing but duplicity and treachery in the motives of its adherents. His “Thoughts on Colonization” hold up the movement to public odium as the sum of all villainies, and in the columns of the Liberator no insult or reproach is spared. His wonderful energy and eloquence brought over to his camp a number of the Society’s friends, and enabled him in his English campaign to exhibit it in a light so odious that he actually brought back a protest signed by the most eminent anti-slavery men of that country.

Assailed on one side and on the other the Society, as we have seen, serenely pursued its course. Apparently it did not suffer. But it can scarcely be doubted that its growth and expansion were seriously checked by the cross fire to which it was subjected. Among the negroes themselves prejudices were industriously disseminated, and everything was done to make them believe themselves duped and cheated.

From these reasons colonization never reached the proportions hoped for by those who looked to it for the gradual extinction of slavery. But we should not fail to recognize in the movement an earnest and noble, if too ambitious, effort to solve, without violence or bloodshed, a problem only half disposed of by Lincoln’s edict and the Fifteenth Amendment.


McPherson, John Hanson Thomas. The History Of Liberia. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press. 1891.

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