The Colonization Idea – Liberia History

It is always a most interesting part of historic inquiry to search out the very earliest sources, the first feeble germ of the idea whose development we are investigating. It is difficult to decide from what one origin can be traced the continuous development of the idea which resulted in the birth of Liberia; but toward the close of the last century there arose a number of projects, widely differing in object and detail, which bore more or less directly upon it, each of which may be said to have contributed some special feature to the fully rounded and developed plan.

The earliest of these sprang from the once notorious hot bed of slavery Newport, R.I. As early as 1773 the Rev. Samuel Hopkins, then widely known as a theological writer, and responsible for the system termed Hopkinsianism, conceived the idea of a missionary effort in Africa, undertaken by natives properly trained in the United States. This at first did not include the conception of a permanent settlement; but on consultation with the Rev. Ezra Styles, afterward President of Yale, it developed into a definite plan for a colony. The scheme proved popular; it was widely advertised by sermons and circulars both in this and the mother country; and by 1776 funds had been collected, Negro students placed under suitable instruction at Princeton, and success seemed almost assured. The outbreak of the Revolution, however, swept away all the thought of carrying Hopkins’ cherished enterprise into execution, and after peace was restored his most strenuous efforts failed to arouse the old interest. Later thinkers, however, found suggestion and encouragement in his labors.

The colony founded at Sierra Leone by English philanthropists drew in part its inspiration from Hopkins’ idea, and in turn suggested later American plans. After the celebrated decision of Lord Mansfield in the Somerset case (1772), many slaves escaped to England, where they congregated in the dens of London in helpless poverty and misery. James Ramsay’s essay on Slavery soon turned public attention to the Negro, and Dr. Smeathman’s letters suggested quite a scheme of colonization. A movement in behalf of the oppressed race asserted itself at the University of Cambridge, in which Clarkson, Wilberforce, Granville Sharp and others took part. As a result of these efforts some four hundred Negroes and sixty whites were landed at Sierra Leone in May, 1787. Disease and disorder were rife, and by 1791 a mere handful survived. The Sierra Leone Company was then incorporated; some 1,200 colonists from the Bahamas and Nova Scotia were taken over, and the settlement in spite of discouraging results was kept up by frequent reinforcements until 1807, when it was made a Government colony and naval station. Its growth in population and commerce has since steadily increased, and it now numbers some 60,000 persons chiefly concentrated in the city of Freetown, and all blacks save one or two hundred.

It may be as well to mention here two other sporadic attempts to lead colored colonists to Africa. In 1787 the gifted and erratic Dr. Wm. Thornton proposed himself to become the leader of a body of Rhode Island and Massachusetts colonists to Western Africa; he appears to have been in communication with Hopkins on the subject a year later, but the effort fell through for want of funds. The other is much later. Paul Cuffee, the son of a well-to-do Massachusetts freedman, had become by his talents and industry a prosperous merchant and ship owner. Stimulated by the colony at Sierra Leone, and longing to secure liberty to his oppressed race, he determined to transport in his own vessels, and at his own expense, as many as he could of his colored brethren. Accordingly, in 1815, he sailed from Boston with about forty, whom he landed safely at Sierra Leone. He was about to take over on a second voyage a much larger number, when his benevolent designs were interrupted by death.

It will be observed that the colonization plans hitherto unfolded had all been proposed for some missionary or similar benevolent object, and were to be carried out on a small scale and by private means. It is now time to consider one proposed from a widely different standpoint. As a political measure, as a possible remedy for the serious evils arising from slavery and the contact of races, it is not surprising to find Thomas Jefferson suggesting a plan of colonization. The evils of slavery none ever saw more clearly. “The whole commerce between master and slave,” he quaintly says, “is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this and learn to imitate it.” And again, “With what execration should the statesman be loaded, who, permitting one-half the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other, transforms these into despots and those into enemies, destroys the morals of the one part, and the amor patriae of the other. I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” Yet his equally clear perception of the evils sure to result from emancipation immediate and unqualified, makes him look to colonization as the only remedy. “Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state?” he asks, “Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites, ten thousand recollections by the blacks of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.” After the lapse of a century how prophetic these words sound! Jefferson believed then that by colonization slavery was to be abolished. All slaves born after a certain date were to be free; these should remain with their parents till a given age, after which they should be taught at public expense agriculture and the useful arts. When full grown they were to be “colonized to such a place as the circumstances of the time should render most proper, sending them out with arms, implements of the household and handicraft arts, pairs of the useful domestic animals, etc.; to declare them a free and independent people, and extend to them our alliance and protection till they have acquired strength.”

Such in outline was Jefferson’s contribution to the colonization idea. Its influence was unquestionably great: the “Notes on Virginia,” privately circulated after 1781, and at length published in 1787, went through eight editions before 1800, and must have been familiar to nearly all of those concerned in the formation of the Colonization Society.

Clearer still must the details of Jefferson’s project have been in the minds of the members of the Virginia Legislature in 1800, when, after the outbreak of a dangerous slave conspiracy in Richmond, they met in secret session to consult the common security. The resolution which they reached shows unmistakably Jefferson’s influence. With the delicate if somewhat obscure periphrasis in which legislation concerning the Negro was traditionally couched, they enacted: “That the Governor be requested to correspond with the President of the United States on the subject of purchasing lands without the limits of this State whither persons obnoxious to the laws or dangerous to the peace of society may be removed.” An interesting correspondence ensued between Monroe, who was then Governor, and Jefferson. Both regarded the idea as something far more important than a mere penal colony. Monroe, too, saw in it a possible remedy for the evils of slavery, and refers to the matter as “one of great delicacy and importance, involving in a peculiar degree the future peace, tranquility, and happiness” of the country. After much discussion Africa was selected as the only appropriate site, and approved by another Act of the Legislature. Jefferson lost no time in attempting to secure land for the colony, but his efforts met with no success. After a discouraging repulse from Sierra Leone, and the failure of several half-hearted attempts to obtain a footing elsewhere, the whole matter was allowed to sink into abeyance. For years a pall of secrecy concealed the scheme from public knowledge.

In the meantime a new private movement toward colonization was started at the North. Samuel J. Mills organized at Williams College, in 1808, for missionary work, an undergraduate society, which was soon transferred to Andover, and resulted in the establishment of the American Bible Society and Board of Foreign Missions. But the topic which engrossed Mills’ most enthusiastic attention was the Negro. The desire was to better his condition by founding a colony between the Ohio and the Lakes; or later, when this was seen to be unwise, in Africa. On going to New Jersey to continue his theological studies, Mills succeeded in interesting the Presbyterian clergy of that State in his project. Of this body one of the most prominent members was Dr. Robert Finley. Dr. Finley succeeded in assembling at Princeton the first meeting ever called to consider the project of sending Negro colonists to Africa. Although supported by few save members of the seminary, Dr. Finley felt encouraged to set out for Washington in December, 1816, to attempt the formation of a colonization society.

Earlier in this same year there had been a sudden awakening of Southern interest in colonization. Toward the end of February, Gen. Charles Fenton Mercer accidentally had his attention called to the Secret Journals of the Legislature for the years 1801-5. He had been for six years a member of the House of Delegates, in total ignorance of their existence. He at once investigated and was rewarded with a full knowledge of the Resolutions and ensuing correspondence between Monroe and Jefferson. Mercer’s enthusiasm was at once aroused, and he determined to revive the Resolutions at the next meeting of the Legislature. In the meantime, imputing their previous failure to the secrecy which had screened them from public view, he brought the whole project conspicuously into notice. At the next session of the Legislature, in December, resolutions embodying the substance of the secret enactments were passed almost unanimously in both houses. Public attention had been in this way already brought to bear upon the advantages of Colonization when Finley set on foot the formation of a society in Washington. The interest already awakened and the indefatigable efforts of Finley and his friend Col. Charles Marsh, at length succeeded in convening the assembly to which the Colonization Society owes its existence. It was a notable gathering. Henry Clay, in the absence of Bushrod Washington, presided, setting forth in glowing terms the object and aspirations of the meeting. Finley’s brother-in-law, Elias B. Caldwell was Secretary, and supplied the leading argument, an elaborate plea, setting forth the expediency of the project and its practicability in regard to territory, expense, and the abundance of willing colonists. The wide benevolent objects to be attained were emphasized. John Randolph of Roanoke, and Robert Wright of Maryland, dwelt upon the desirability of removing the turbulent free-negro element and enhancing the value of property in slaves. Resolutions organizing the Society passed, and committees appointed to draft a Constitution and present a memorial to Congress. At an adjourned meeting a week later the constitution was adopted, and on January 1, 1817, officers were elected.


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

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