The American Colonization Society (ACS; in full, The Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of America), was established on December 21, 1816, by Robert Finley of New Jersey, as an attempt to satisfy two groups in America. Ironically, these groups were on opposite ends of the spectrum. One group consisted of philanthropists, clergy and abolitionist who wanted free African Americans and their descendants and provide them with the opportunity to return to Africa. The other group was slave owners who feared free people of color and wanted to expel them from America. 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. One of his political contacts in Washington City, John Caldwell, in turn contacted the Reverend Robert Finley, his brother-in-law, who endorsed the plan.
On December 21, 1816, the society was officially established at the Davis Hotel in Washington D.C, a group of exclusively upper-class white males.. It’s co-founders were considered to be Henry Clay, a United States congressman from Kentucky, John Randolph a politician and major slaveholder of Roanoke, Virginia, Richard Bland Lee and Bushrod Washington. Attendees included James Monroe, Bushrod Washington, Andrew Jackson, Francis Scoot Key, and Daniel Webster, with Henry Clay presiding over the meeting. Mercer nor Finley were unable to attend the meeting in Washington.
Both these groups felt that free blacks would be unable to assimilate into the white society of United States. The colonization effort resulted from a mixture of motives. Free blacks and their descendants, encountered widespread discrimination in the United States of the early 19th century. Whites generally perceived them as a burden on society and a threat to white workers because they undercut wages. Some abolitionists believed that blacks could not achieve equality in the United States because of discrimination and would be better off in Africa where they could organize their own society. Many slaveholders worried that the presence of free blacks was a threat to the slave societies of the South, especially after some were involved directly in slave rebellions. The Society appeared to support contradictory goals: free blacks should be removed because they could not benefit America; on the other hand, free blacks would prosper and thrive under their own leadership in another land.
Some Society members were openly racist and frequently argued that free blacks would be unable to assimilate into the white society of America. John Randolph, said that free blacks were “promoters of mischief.”
At this time, about 2 million African Americans lived in the United States; 200,000 were free persons of color, with most in the North, where they were restricted by law in various states. Henry Clay, considered slavery to have a negative effect on the southern economy. But in this period Kentucky had become a state that was selling slaves to the Deep South, where demand was booming because of the rise of cotton. Clay thought that deportation of free blacks was preferable to trying to integrate them in America, believing that “unconquerable prejudice resulting from their color, they never could amalgamate with the free whites of this country. It was desirable, therefore, as it respected them, and the residue of the population of the country, to drain them off”.
During the next three years, the society raised money by selling memberships. The Society’s members pressured Congress and the President for support. In 1819, they received $100,000 from Congress, and on February 6, 1820, the first ship, the Elizabeth, sailed from New York for West Africa with three white ACS agents and 88 African-American emigrants aboard.
The ACS purchased the freedom of some American slaves and paid their passage to Liberia and emigration was also offered to already free black people. Colonizing proved expensive and the ACS spent many years trying to persuade the U.S. Congress to allocate funds to support colonists emigration to Liberia. Henry Clay led this campaign, but the campaign failed to produce any money from the U.S. Congress. Despite their failure to receive funding from the U.S government, in the 1850s, the ACS was successful in receiving financial backing from some state legislatures, such as Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, plus more. In 1850, the state of Virginia set aside $30,000 annually for five years to aid and support emigration. The society, in its Thirty-fourth annual report, acclaimed the news as “a great Moral demonstration of the propriety and necessity of state action!”
During the 1850s, the society also received several thousand dollars from the New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Missouri, and Maryland.
The ship arrive first at Freetown, Sierra Leone then sailed south to what is now the Northern coast of Liberia and made an effort to establish a settlement. All three whites and 22 of the emigrants died within three weeks from yellow fever. The remainders returned to Sierra Leone and waited from another ship. The Nautilus sail twice in 1821 and established a settlement at Mesurado Bay on an island they named Perseverance. It was difficult for the early settlers, made of mostly free-born blacks, who were not born into slavery, but were denied the full rights of American citizenship. The native Africans resisted the expansion of the settlers resulting in many armed conflicts. Nevertheless, in the next decade 2,638 African-Americans migrated to the area. Also, the colony entered an agreement with the U.S. Government to accept freed slaves captured from slave ships.
During the next 20 years the colony continued to grow and establish economic stability. Since the establishment of the colony, the ACS employed white agents to govern the colony. In 1842, Joseph Jenkins Roberts became the first non-white governor of Liberia. In 1847, the legislature of Liberia declared itself an independent state, with Joseph J. Roberts elected as its first President.
The society in Liberia developed into three segments: The settlers with European-African lineage; freed slaves from slave ships and the West Indies; and indigenous native people. These groups would have a profound affect on the history of Liberia.