AMERICAN COLONIZATION SOCIETY
Abolitionists may talk twaddle till the crack of doom, but after all, Colonization is to be the great cure of negro slavery in this country, or it remains uncured. You may free the slave in the South, but he is nevertheless a slave North or South. His shackles are only to be cast off by returning to the land of his forefathers. Here he is surrounded by a wall of prejudice as indestructable as the everlasting hills. The fires of the volcano are not more inextinguishable than this prejudice, and we would therefore remove the black man from its influence, instead of encouraging him to break it down by an insolent bearing towards those who are in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, his intellectual superiors. –newspaper editorial, West Chester, Pennsylvania, 1854.Ever since pre-Revolutionary times, white Americans had discussed sending freed slaves back to Africa. The notion became a formal movement in December 1816, when delegates from several states met in Washington, D.C., and organized the American Colonization Society. They voted to immediately begin seeking voluntary removal of U.S. blacks to Africa or whatever place Congress thought fit. They took no stance on abolition or emancipation. Instead, the society kept a tight focus on its mission, lobbied Congress, solicited public support, and published a journal, “The African Repository.” Its rhetoric contained lamentations over the cruelty free blacks suffered from the white majority in the United States. It also offered pious assertions that the “degraded and miserable” Africans were ordained so by Providence and the laws of nature. Blacks were to be pitied, but they were doomed to remain inferior. The prejudices and discriminations of white society were an “inevitable necessity.” The two races in America could never be assimilated and it was in the interest of both to live apart. This could best be done by humanely removing the weaker one from the humiliating dominance of the stronger.
Though neglected by historians, the American Colonization Society was vastly more popular with ante-bellum Northerners than abolition societies. Its leading men included clergy, college presidents, and politicians of all parties -- among the officers of the society over the years were Daniel Webster, William H. Seward, Francis Scott Key, and Winfield Scott. It was lauded by the legislatures of 14 states. In 1829, for instance, the Pennsylvania Assembly endorsed the American Colonization Society and agreed that black removal would be “highly auspicious to the best interests of our country.”
Despite their rhetoric of sympathy for freedmen, the colonizationists' beliefs led them to oppose legislative efforts to procure civil rights for blacks and remove the barriers to work, education, and voting. Such efforts, they said, were only designed to tease an inferior people with hope of an equality that never could be real.
Even white abolitionists at first were sympathetic to the colonization movement. But the plan was rejected, emphatically and early, by black leaders. They protested eloquently that they had been born in America and considered themselves Americans. In many cases their fathers had fought and shed blood for American freedom. They felt no connection to Africa, and sought none. Their focus was on political recognition by the majority in the North and abolition of slavery in the South. They rightly recognized colonization as a movement that would sap strength from the sympathetic portion of the white population, while indirectly thwarting their aims by spreading the propaganda of black inferiority. Most of the blacks who took up the society's offer to remove to Africa were recently freed slaves from the South, who had been manumitted in exchange for agreeing to emigrate.
Without coercion, and without black cooperation, the plan went nowhere. By 1831, white abolitionists regarded the Colonization Society as the black leaders did: as a mortal enemy. Society leaders realized they had alienated the only people who could have made their vision a reality -- free blacks -- by continually describing them as a vicious and degraded race. The difficulties the society faced in Liberia, the colony it created in Africa, further undercut its support. Faced with government apathy and riven by internal conflicts, it faded from importance in the 1830s.
But America's race problems only deteriorated as the decades passed, and in the 1850s colonization, and the society, revived. The movement always had two wellsprings: philanthropy to blacks and a sense that America would benefit from a separation of the races. After the 1830s, the second became the main motive. Whites and blacks alike, frustrated by the conflicts tearing the nation apart, reconsidered an exploded idea. Even some who had been abolitionists wavered. The ending of “Uncle Tom's Cabin” is an eloquent appeal for colonization. In the 1850s, colonization was urged by the governor of New York and the legislature of Connecticut. The concept was endorsed by the new Republican Party and was embraced by its first successful presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln. Even some black leaders came to see removal as the only alternative, however undesirable, to eternal repression, poverty, and mob violence in the North.
Henry Clay, a long-time supporter of colonization, made it out to be God's work:
There is a moral fitness in the idea of returning to Africa her children, whose ancestors have been torn from her by the ruthless hand of fraud and violence. Transplanted to a foreign land, they will carry back to their native soil the rich fruits of religion, civilization, law and liberty. May it not be one of the great designs of the Ruler of the universe (whose ways are often inscrutable by short-sighted mortals), thus to transform an original crime, into a signal blessing to that most unfortunate portion of the globe?The language of an 1854 newspaper article from Pennsylvania is less elevated, but more typical of Northern rhetoric:
We think we have a proper estimate of the character of the negro, and our feelings towards the race are of the most kindly character. We would elevate them, but not at the expense of the white man. We have no idea of sinking our own race, in order to raise up the inferior African. This country belongs to the white man, and not to the negro, and that, in our estimation, is the purest philanthropy, which seeks to place upon the shores of Africa again, those whom cupidity has stolen from their native soil.Between the rhetoric of the Northern colonizationist and that of the Southern slavery-apologist, there often is little to choose. They saw the same scene, and differed only in the proposed solution: long-term enslavement and paternalism, or short-term riddance back to Africa. The Colonization societies often were most strident where blacks were fewest. Vermont, with only a handful of blacks, had one of the most active in New England. John Hough, professor of languages at Middlebury College, preached this in a sermon to colonizationsts in Montpelier on Oct. 18, 1826:
The state of the free colored population of the United States, is one of extreme and remediless degredation, of gross irreligion, of revolting profligacy, and, of course, deplorable wretchedness. Who can doubt ... the blacks among us are peculiarly addicted to habits of low vice and shameless profligacy? They are found in vast numbers in the haunts of riot and dissipation and intemperance where they squander in sin the scanty earnings of their toil, contract habits of grosser iniquity and are prepared for acts of daring outrage and of enormous guilt. ... Squalid poverty, loathesome and painful disease, fell and torturing passions, and diversified and pitiable forms of misery are to be found (there).Some of the Northern states tied the movement to their increasingly restrictive black codes. Indiana's 1850 constitution agreed to contribute fines collected under the new anti-immigration law to colonization. The state legislature later set aside $5,000 toward the cause.
This time around, Africa was not the main focus. Instead, supporters sought to found a black colony in some convenient place in the Caribbean basin. The Ohio state House petitioned Congress in 1850 to set aside some of the land lately won from Mexico to be a home for American blacks. But that idea aroused horror in many Americans who saw such a settlement eventually becoming a territory, then a state, and ultimately sending blacks to Congress. Instead, in January 1858, Missouri Republican Rep. Francis P. Blair Jr. proposed to the U.S. House that a committee be created to seek land in Central or South America for a black colony. Sen. James R. Doolittle of Wisconsin introduced a similar proposal in the upper chamber.
Abraham Lincoln was an avid colonizationist. He quoted with approval Henry Clay's words on the topic. He touted colonization in his annual messages to Congress in 1861 and '62, in his appeal to border-state representatives for compensated emancipation (July 12, 1862), and in the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation (Sept. 22, 1862). In 1861, addressing Congress, he mentioned contraband slaves who had fallen into the hands of Northern troops, as well as the possibility of border states emancipating their slaves. He advocated that “steps be taken for colonizing both classes, (or the one first mentioned, if the other shall not be brought into existence), at some place, or places, in a climate congenial to them. It might be well to consider, too, -- whether the free colored people already in the United States could not, so far as individuals may desire, be included in such colonization.” A year later, he told Congress, “I cannot make it better known than it already is, that I strongly favor colonization.”
In his “Speech on the Dred Scott decision” (June 26, 1857), he had scolded both parties for not taking up the cause:
I have said that the separation of the races is the only perfect preventative of amalgamation. I have no right to say all the members of the Republican party are in favor of this, nor to say that as a party they are in favor of it. There is nothing in their platform directly on the subject. But I can say a very large proportion of its members are for it, and that the chief plank in their platform -- opposition to the spread of slavery -- is most favorable to that separation.Perhaps his most extensive, and infamous, statement on the topic was the Aug. 14, 1862, speech he gave to a group of Northern black leaders in Washington.
Lincoln's Secretary of State, William Seward, had his eye on the Caribbean basin, which he, Lincoln, and other cabinet members thought was the ideal place to colonize emancipated slaves. Congress set aside $600,000 for this, and during the Civil War the U.S. also was exploring likely spots in Mexico, British Honduras, Guatemala, Honduras, and Costa Rica -- not always with the permission of the national governments. Yet the second colonization movement was as much a failure as the first had been. A projected African-American colony at Chiriqui on the Isthmus of Panama fell through. In 1863 some 450 American blacks were settled at Isle a Vache in Haiti, but it was a debacle and starvation and smallpox wiped them out.