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New Directions in the Study of African American Recolonization$

Beverly C. Tomek and Matthew J. Hetrick

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780813054247

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: January 2018

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813054247.001.0001

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Situating African Colonization within the History of U.S. Expansion

Situating African Colonization within the History of U.S. Expansion

(p.166) 8 Situating African Colonization within the History of U.S. Expansion
New Directions in the Study of African American Recolonization

Brandon Mills

University Press of Florida

Abstract and Keywords

Mills addresses historians’ reluctance to place the African colonization movement within the history of American expansion and nation building. He maintains that the reluctance has resulted from historians’ preoccupations with the domestic side of the movement, as well as the difficulty of integrating such a distinct and mutli-faceted movement into traditional narratives of U.S. expansion. He suggests a fundamental reconsideration of the movement’s impact on early U.S. politics by examining how it connected domestic racial policies to the United States’s practices of both continental and overeas expansion.

Keywords:   Empire, U.S. Expansion, Colonization

The creation of Liberia was one of the United States’ first attempts to engineer democracy abroad. While there is no clear path from Liberia to contemporary efforts at nation-building, debates over African colonization consistently raised questions about whether the ethos of U.S. expansionism conformed with ideas of planting a colony outside the nation’s borders. Even so, it would be difficult to argue that the United States actively pursued an expansionist agenda in Liberia. Throughout much of the nineteenth century the U.S. government largely kept the colony at arm’s length, and white colonization supporters were primarily concerned with how it could be used to address issues within the United States. Nevertheless, it is striking that historians have been seemingly reluctant to place the colonization movement within the United States’ long history of nation-building. This oversight illustrates the domestic preoccupations of the literature on African colonization, as well as the difficulty of integrating such a distinct and multifaceted movement into traditional narratives of U.S. expansion. Despite these complicating factors, historians should fundamentally reconsider the movement’s impact on early U.S. politics by examining how it connected domestic racial policies to the United States’ practices of both continental and overseas expansion.

A number of interrelated factors account for the difficulty of situating African colonization within the history of U.S. expansion. First and foremost is the fact that most white Americans supported the movement for ostensibly domestic considerations and believed that the colony could help bring a gradual end to slavery or eliminate the social problems they projected onto the free black populations. While these concerns largely drove the movement, colonizationists also vocally promoted the idea that an (p.167) American colony would bring “Christianity, civilization, and commerce” to Africa, even if the commitment to these objectives was often secondary. So, while some colonization supporters occasionally attempted to make Liberia more directly serve U.S. foreign policy interests, in the end the United States did not significantly pursue the colony as a commercial or strategic outpost. In contrast to the contemporaneous settler colony in Texas or the missionary colonization of Hawaii, Americans’ efforts in Liberia did not lead to informal domination of the nation or eventual annexation of the territory by the United States. However, while there is little evidence to suggest that supporters of African colonization were primarily interested in Liberia for the direct material benefits it offered to the United States, grappling with the movement reshapes the ideological landscape of early U.S. expansionism.

In the last two decades, literary and cultural-studies approaches to the topic have begun to shift the horizons of scholarship by placing the colonization movement within the culture of early U.S. imperialism. While these valuable departures have challenged the dominant trends within the historiography of the colonization movement, even the strongest examples of this work have primarily been limited to shorter pieces that deeply analyze a selection of literary texts. Generally the historical study of African colonization has remained largely separate from the study of U.S. foreign relations.1

The ideas articulated by colonizationists intersect with various ideologies of U.S. expansion, which makes the movement particularly difficult to categorize but also ripe for deeper exploration. Considering the colonization movement in this context sheds light on an issue that has long vexed U.S. historians: how the United States transitioned from a collection of settler colonies into a global superpower. Scholars studying the history of the early U.S. empire have typically focused on a familiar narrative of westward expansion that resulted in the creation of a white settler state. However, such histories often don’t account for the fact that the United States’ exercise of power overseas was often very different from its exercise of power as a settler state in North America. By reexamining the African colonization movement, historians can begin to bridge this divide and show how it served as a crucial link between the United States’ initial territorial expansion strategies and later approaches to empire that emphasized the spread of U.S. institutions.

In order to resituate African colonization within this context it is important to consider how the concept of creating black colonies developed (p.168) at a critical moment when the United States was just beginning to define the character and scope of its territorial expansion. While many historians have emphasized the colonization movement’s connections to the British colony of Sierra Leone and the efforts of African Americans such as Paul Cuffe, before the formation of the American Colonization Society (ACS), white proponents of black colonies generally looked to the West rather than across the Atlantic. Indeed, the earliest proposals for black colonies were, in many ways, an extension of the United States’ plans to colonize the North American continent, even as they were designed to contain the continuing threat of rebellion by enslaved African Americans. Many of these proposals explicitly reacted to the escalating revolution in Saint Domingue or to Gabriel’s thwarted rebellion in Virginia, which were both viewed by whites as disturbingly local and increasingly radical manifestations of the contagion of liberty sweeping the globe. Within this context, antislavery activists and anxious slaveholders tentatively proposed that colonies in western North America could circumvent the seemingly inevitable tide of racial revolution in the United States.2

Many of the proposals suggested that black settlements could participate in the United States’ efforts to colonize the continent, thus turning a potentially threatening population into an ostensible agent of U.S. expansion. While one of the first such proposals, by a Virginian lawyer, St. George Tucker, speculated that African Americans could “become Spanish subjects” by being transplanted to Louisiana, most of the other plans articulated during this era envisioned an ongoing and clearly hierarchical relationship between black colonists and the U.S. government. Moses Fisk imagined that his proposed colony would be a kind of training ground for liberty, complete with “temporary guardians, governours, and instructors” that would prepare black settlers to ultimately have “a voice in Congress.” However, Fisk also suggested that any black colony in the West would be an unequal partner in expansion who would need to be “defended, if any should invade them; and awed by soldiery, if they should rebel.”3

Other early proponents of such colonies imagined them in similar terms of subordination. St. George Tucker’s cousin, George Tucker, said of the United States’ relationship to his proposed colony: “We may be to them a haughty and domineering neighbor [but] they never could be terrible to us.” Both Thomas Branagan and John Parrish envisioned colonies within the newly acquired Louisiana Territory that could be set apart from the United States’ typical processes of colonization but which would nevertheless afford African Americans the opportunity to, in Parrish’s words, “enjoy (p.169) liberty and the rights of citizenship.” By either implicitly or explicitly seeking to displace native populations, all of these proposed colonies echoed the emerging logic of the U.S. settler state. At the same time, they tentatively proposed a new model of colonial relations by offering differentiated political status for black colonies within the broader framework of U.S. colonization.4

It is not surprising that white leaders would look to settler colonies to resolve the contradictions created by the presence of African Americans in the early republic. Americans had long viewed expansion onto territory occupied by indigenous people as a solution to the political, economic, and cultural crises that had been created by earlier waves of colonization. American colonists’ desire for unrestrained expansion had been a major component of the revolutionary grievances they raised against the British Empire. However, unlike the framework for U.S. colonization established by the Northwest Ordinances in the 1780s, these proposals all suggested that black colonies would be afforded terms of sovereignty, statehood, and political integration different from the rest of the states in the union. Although the plans did not situate African Americans as equal partners in empire, they did suggest that black and white settlers might loosely cooperate in colonizing North America. This prospect would seem unthinkable only a few years later, when the idea of white settler expansion and the institution of slavery had become so firmly entrenched.5

The common assumption that undergirded this diverse set of proposals was that the resulting colonies would be subsumed within the United States’ settler state and yet would remain distinctly separate from it. In this respect, the colonies imagined by these early proposals resembled the emerging status of Indian nations under U.S. law, which would soon become considered, in Chief Justice Marshall’s famous phrase, as “domestic dependent nations.” While some proposals vaguely promised eventual “independence” for the colony or some form of political incorporation through Congress, they suggested that any such settlement would never acquire full sovereignty over their territory just like the native groups they were intended to displace.6

Ultimately, it is this overlap between western black colonies and Indian nations that suggests a major reason why the colonization movement decisively turned its attention from North America to Africa in the mid-1810s. If large-scale slave revolts remained a looming, but largely unrealized, threat to whites in the early republic, then indigenous resistance movements were a fundamental reality facing an expanding settler state. The (p.170) various attempts by some Indian nations to resist U.S. settler encroachment peaked with the pan-Indian political confederacies that formed around the War of 1812. These movements threatened far more than mere violence against frontier populations because they raised the prospect of a permanent boundary to U.S. settlement as well as competing national sovereignties within domestic space claimed by the United States.7

In some instances, the threat of Native American and African American revolt overlapped, as was the case in the various alliances between escaped slaves and the Seminoles, Choctaws, and Creeks during the first decades of the nineteenth century. Just months before the ACS first convened in 1816, U.S. military forces destroyed the so-called “Negro Fort” in the Panhandle region of then-Spanish Florida. The encampment was targeted because it was occupied by nearly eight hundred fugitive slaves, as well as a handful of Choctaw and Seminole Indians. The existence of an ostensibly sovereign settlement of heavily armed African Americans near the border was deemed intolerable by both the U.S. military and southern slaveholders; however, the settlement’s connection to surrounding native communities made them all the more disconcerting to whites.8

The fort was part of a longer tradition of black-Indian collaboration in the Southeast. Several African Americans were soldiers in the Red Stick War amongst dissident Creeks, and some of the refugees from this defeat were responsible for the construction of the fort. Also, the Seminoles had often provided sanctuary for fugitive slaves by adopting them into their communities and, as a result, African Americans had played an important role in several Seminole-led conflicts with the United States during this era, such as “Payne’s War” from 1812 to 1814 in Northern Florida. Such military and political alliances of African Americans and Indians were even more threatening than mere slave revolt or pan-Indian confederations because these suggested the possibility of a broader coalition against white settler expansion.9

This concern about interracial revolt helped shift the early colonization movement’s focus away from North America. The early proponents of black colonies had assumed that any settlements would displace indigenous peoples and become secondary partners in U.S. expansion, even as they would resemble the subordinate status of Indian nations. However, the early literature of the ACS and the writings by some of its founders, such as Robert Finley and Samuel Mills, pushed back against earlier colonization proposals by arguing that black colonies in the West were just as likely to align with Indian nations or other foreign powers.10

(p.171) So, while the plans for western colonies would foreshadow the form and concept of the colony that was ultimately implemented in Liberia, such colonies could never be reconciled with emerging plans for a white settler state in North America. The western colonization plans failed to achieve mass support, in part, because white leaders were threatened by the prospect of multiple racialized political states under the umbrella of an American continental empire, particularly as the United States renewed its commitment to the expansion of slavery in the first decades of the nineteenth century. This early series of proposals reveals that, while the colonization movement would always remain focused on responding to the interrelated issues of race and slavery, it also raised fundamental questions about the form and limitations of U.S. expansion.11

Although the American Colonization Society’s definitive move towards Africa reinforced racial boundaries within the United States, the early African colonization movement would be forced to further define the place of an African colony within the nation’s identity as an expanding empire. In the late 1810s, some advocates of colonization briefly considered directing their efforts toward supporting the already existing British colony in Sierra Leone, a possibility that Paul Cuffe previously explored with some success. However, the disruption of Cuffe’s efforts during the War of 1812 had demonstrated that the fragility of diplomatic relations between Britain and the United States could threaten to undermine any cooperation within such a colony.12

While the instability of relations with Britain may have dissuaded colonization advocates from pursuing such a path, for many U.S. colonizationists the existence of a separate, and uniquely American, colony was as much ideological as it was practical. On the eve of the first ACS meeting, in 1816, the National Advocate published an editorial that echoed the anticolonial sentiments of the Revolutionary Era. It contended that Sierra Leone would not be a suitable settlement because it “exists like various other of the humane establishments of England, calculated to make rich a few hungry parasites who must be provided for.” Instead, the writer argued that a U.S.-supported colony in Africa should be distinctly American and “as different, in every respect, from Sierra Leone as the government of the states is from Great Britain.”13

However, other observers, such as the influential newspaper editor Hezekiah Niles, were concerned that even an “independent” colony modeled on U.S. republicanism would inevitably lead the United States to become too much like Britain by saddling the nation with the corrupting burdens (p.172) of an empire. In response, one of Niles’s readers pushed back against these claims by asserting that any colony devised by the United States would be an exception to previous imperial projects. The writer noted that the “establishment or acquisition of colonies” was a fundamental fact of human history, but insisted that the United States did not need to adopt “such a policy, as it has generally been pursued by other nations.14

While many early American proponents of a U.S. colony in Africa spoke of Sierra Leone as an inspiration for their efforts, these early debates reveal a crucial distinction over how these colonies were situated in relation to their respective mother countries. As Sierra Leone transitioned from a “Province of Freedom” to a crown colony in the early nineteenth century, it was integrated into Britain’s established network of diverse colonies which ranged from settler to strategic to commercial in character. While Americans were zealous proponents of a settler empire in North America, they had a less established protocol for overseas expansion than Britain and were generally skeptical of the colonial system, from which they had recently fought to free themselves. Therefore, just as proponents of colonization began to abandon the West as a potential site for black colonies, they were careful to frame Liberia as both distinct from settler expansion in North America and as an opportunity for African Americans to reproduce their own republican empire in Africa. This framework became crucial to the ideology of the movement, which situated Liberia as a rejection of expansionist models that bred “dependence,” thus aligning the colony’s trajectory with the United States’ history of anticolonial struggle.15

Throughout the 1820s and 1830s the colonization movement frequently situated Liberia as a reproduction, rather than an extension of, the United States’ “empire for liberty.” However, the ACS’s attempts to get financial support from the federal government would continue to raise issues about how the colony related to the United States’ practices of expansion. Colonization supporters tentatively secured partial federal funding for the movement through the passage of the 1819 Slave Trade Law, which empowered the United States to return recaptured slaves to Africa, as David Ericson explained in a previous chapter of this collection.

While President Monroe believed that the act empowered the federal government to purchase land for a colony in Africa, he faced resistance from his secretary of state, John Quincy Adams. Adams argued that it was unconstitutional for the federal government to assume this authority because it would amount to the “establishment of a colonial system of government subordinate and dependent upon that of the United States” which, he (p.173) believed, was wholly distinct from “contiguous” purchases of territory such as Louisiana. In doing so, Secretary Adams raised a persistent objection to federal support for colonization by asserting the integrity of continental boundaries for U.S. expansion and warning that the colony would lead to the United States developing an overseas empire on the European model. While Secretary Adams did not prevail in dissuading President Monroe from supporting the colony through the Slave Trade Act, his basic view that an African colony pushed the limits of U.S. expansionism persisted and, consequently, Liberia would always maintain a fraught relationship with the federal government despite its attraction as a key tool in fighting the slave trade.16

These early objections made it necessary for colonizationists to walk a fine line by asserting that federal support for an African colony was continuous with prior U.S. expansion yet exceptional enough that it would not lead the United States down the path to an overseas empire. Throughout the 1820s the colonization movement attempted to build on this tentative government support, and the legislatures of some northern states sent memorials to Congress urging it to take an even more direct role in building the fledgling colony. These calls for expanding federal involvement in African colonization occasionally rekindled questions about the boundaries of U.S. expansion as a part of broader discussions that ostensibly concerned the limits of federal interference with slavery.

For instance, in 1824 and 1825 the Richmond Enquirer ran a series of editorials debating the merits of federal support for colonization, in part by discussing an African colony’s precedence within the history of U.S. expansion. The opponent of colonization argued that the ACS was a dangerous vehicle being used by politicians to expand the powers of the federal government, as in creating colonies abroad. He argued that “distant colonies” were “at war with the interests of a republic,” that the federal constitution provided no authority to “hold any people or any country as a permanent colony”; such a policy would cause the United States to make Liberia a directly administered colony, just as Britain had done with Sierra Leone. His opponent countered that an African colony did have precedent in the purchase of Louisiana and Florida as well as in the United States’ existing relations with Indian nations. An African colony would not result in a “colonial system” because the settlement would eventually become a republic with a “separate and independent government.” In the next few years, debates over federal intervention in colonization would repeat similar arguments over Liberia’s place within the landscape of U.S. expansion.17

(p.174) Proponents of federal support for African colonization often cited the United States’ relationships with Indian nations as a precedent, as it pertained to both the acquisition of territory and U.S. policies of removal and “civilization.” This comparison is particularly instructive when considered in relation to ideologies of U.S. expansion. In many ways, the debates over Indian removal and African colonization ran on mirrored trajectories and resulted in divergent outcomes, which reflected both the United States’ commitment to territorial expansion and persistent concerns about extending the nation’s entanglements abroad. The early “Indian colonization” plans proposed by the Baptist missionary Isaac McCoy were partially inspired by the African colonization movement. His proposals also influenced the benevolent justifications for removal policies which were employed cynically by President Andrew Jackson, even as the government’s policy moved further away from civilizationist reform and closer to forced displacement.18

At the same time, most Jacksonians were staunchly opposed to the idea of expanding federal support for an African colony, and they often took pains to distinguish Indian and African colonization as distinct varieties of U.S. expansionism. Senator Littleton Tazewell, a Jacksonian from Virginia, penned a report for the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations which argued that African colonies were fundamentally different from the colonization of “contiguous” Indian lands because “holding distant colonies” or “creating new empires” was opposed to the “the genius and spirit of all our institutions.”19

Thus, Jackson’s supporters perceived no contradiction between the president’s support for what amounted to Indian “colonies” west of the Mississippi and his veto of an 1833 bill championed by Henry Clay that would have provided greater federal funding for an African colonization. Within this logic, they viewed the creation of a federally administered Indian territory as a legitimate extension of U.S. territorial expansion while contending that Liberia would set the nation on a dangerous path to overseas empire. Although such arguments were only a small part of the worsening climate for the ACS in the early 1830s, they reveal the tenuous place of the colonization movement within the politics of expansionism. While the early colonization movement attempted to situate the embryonic African colony against other models of empire, the failure of ACS efforts to secure direct federal support throughout the 1820s and 1830s ensured that the United States would continue to have a deeply ambivalent relationship with Liberia.20

(p.175) Throughout these years of tenuous federal support for colonization, the United States’ primary relationship with the colony was through the U.S. Navy. The United States dispatched agents to Liberia under the auspices of policing the slave trade, but the navy had limited effectiveness because it possessed no regular squadron in the region. U.S. officials were keen to avoid entanglements with both African populations and European merchants in the region. As a result, any meaningful action against the slave trade was frequently undermined by indifferent presidential administrations and bureaucratic disputes over the scope of authority given to federal agents in Africa.

The ineffectiveness of the U.S naval presence speaks to the fragile nature of colonial authority in the region. The displaced and neighboring indigenous peoples, such as the Dey, Grebo, Bassa, and Kru, generally had little regard for the American settlers. These groups occasionally tolerated, or sought to benefit from, the presence of the settlements. However, the American colonists maintained their small territorial position through a series of military conflicts during the first decades of settlement. While many settlers had come to West Africa steeped in an ethos of benevolent civilizationism, more often than not, their practices mirrored the patterns of violence and dispossession which also characterized the United States’ settler empire in North America.

In 1842 the United States signed the Webster-Ashburton Treaty with Britain, which led the U.S. Navy to create an Africa Squadron. It would patrol the West African coast for slave traders and protect American interests in the region. Greater naval reinforcement was something that colonizationists had long lobbied for, and the new squadron did lead to a brief period of increased U.S. intervention to protect the settlements. However, the fact that the colony was settled and administered by private citizens from the United States, yet informally protected by the U.S. military, led the British government to increasingly question whether the settlements were independent in nature or if the United States had begun to assume some degree of authority over them.21

In a sense, this diplomatic situation pressed the U.S. government to do what it had been reluctant to do since the beginning of the movement: define the precise nature of the colonial relationship between the United States and Liberia. In 1843, the Committee on Commerce in the U.S. House of Representatives looked into this question and issued a joint resolution accompanied by a lengthy report recommending that the United States expand its presence in Liberia through the appointment of additional agents. (p.176) The committee argued that the United States should move beyond its traditional mandate of suppressing the slave trade and work to “protect and advance the interest of American trade in the region.” By endorsing this course of action, the committee suggested that establishing a more formal colonial relationship with Liberia would better protect the colony while providing the United States with a commercial and strategic advantage. The report noted that “the idea of an American colony is a new one” but pointed out that it had a precedent in U.S. relations with “Indian tribes which have been placed beyond the limits of the States, on the purchased territory of the Union.” In doing so, the report essentially upended the Jacksonian distinction between Indian policy and African colonization and revisited a traditional argument for federal intervention in colonization by asserting the continuity between other forms of U.S. expansion, while still maintaining that the colony was exceptional.22

Although the beleaguered ACS of the early 1840s clearly welcomed any expansion of federal support, the organization’s official journal, the African Repository and Colonial Journal, published an article that took issue with some of the Commerce Committee’s recommendations. It argued that the “American Government [should] become the ally and protector of these colonies” and “avail themselves of the advantages” of their “valuable commerce, which is now opening to the world.” However, the article expressed concern about the committee’s suggestion that Liberia become a formal U.S. colony and argued its “character would be changed” and, as a result, colonists “would no longer be actuated by the same spirit of enterprise and independence.”23

In the end, Liberia was not destined to become a U.S. colony. Secretary of State Daniel Webster rejected the advice of both the House Committee on Commerce and the secretary of the navy and decided not to pursue an expanded commercial and military agenda in Liberia. Following this policy directive, the U.S. diplomat Edward Everett wrote to the British government in 1843 to declare that “extra-continental possessions” were not extended the protections “to which colonies are entitled from the mother country by which they are established.” Having briefly flirted with an official colonial policy in West Africa, the U.S. government reverted to its traditionally ambiguous position by informing British authorities that they would continue to limit their intervention in colonial disputes to policing the slave trade, albeit with a bolstered naval presence in the region.24

While the Commerce Committee’s report made a compelling argument that any distinction between continental and extra-continental colonialism (p.177) was somewhat arbitrary, the ACS was also correct in noting that a move toward formal colonial policy in Liberia would have undermined the ethos of the movement and the colony’s settlers. Colonizationists had long attempted to define Liberia against both U.S. continental expansion and European colonial models by arguing that the colony was destined to become a free and independent republic and thus ultimately separate from the United States. This ideology would be on full display shortly after the United States resumed its agnostic stance towards the colony after 1843. The colonists formally declared themselves an independent republic in 1847, partially in order to resolve the ongoing disputes over Liberian sovereignty among European powers, indigenous Africans, and the United States. By declaring political sovereignty, Liberian settlers attempted to cleverly resolve the colony’s diplomatic disputes, but independence also worked as a splendid performance of republican nationhood that conveniently validated the long-standing ideology of the movement.25

Although ACS officials had initially been somewhat concerned about the prospect of diminished control over an independent Liberia, the organization quickly worked to turn what could have been perceived as a rebuke of the society’s authority into a public relations campaign to reframe the case for colonization. Colonizationists argued that Americans should support and celebrate the independence of a black republic modeled after the United States. Such an argument offered the possibility for sympathetic white Americans to feel that their own exclusionary racial settler state was justified even as they proclaimed support for the spread of universal liberty in Africa.

The United States’ brief consideration of making Liberia a U.S. colony in the early 1840s had been the most straightforward attempt to integrate the settlement into the ideology of U.S. expansionism, even as it offered the possibility for a new type of “American colony.” However, the government’s rapid abandonment of this idea and the eventual independence of Liberia reveal the endurance of the republican language behind the movement. By symbolically severing its ambiguous colonial ties with the United States and asserting its right to self-government, Liberia validated the anticolonial rhetoric that had animated the colonization movement from the beginning and demonstrated a purportedly benevolent method by which the United States could reshape the world in its image. Ironically, the African colonization movement revealed perhaps its most powerful relationship to the ideology of U.S. expansion at the moment when both the United States and Liberia rejected formal U.S. colonialism.26

(p.178) While the independence of Liberia can be considered an endpoint in the debate over the place of African colonization within the boundaries of U.S. expansion, the way in which the event was framed in U.S. discourse foreshadowed how the United States would increasingly project its power as it expanded beyond North America. The United States’ attempts to create both formal colonies and proxy states in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries would often be justified as attempts to liberate racialized populations by helping to build their societies into versions of the U.S. republic.

Following Liberia’s independence, colonizationism maintained considerable appeal and began to show growing convergence with the United States’ broader strategic and economic considerations. For instance, shortly after independence, colonization advocates in Congress pursued a line of steamships that would facilitate direct commerce in West Africa, transport black emigrants to Liberia, and serve as an auxiliary to the U.S. Navy. The African Repository enthusiastically endorsed this legislation and argued that building the United States’ relationship with an independent Liberia would be the nation’s first step to accessing West African markets for “the articles manufactured in the United States, and for the surplus productions of our soil,” which would bring “the inexhaustible treasures of that immense continent” and “increase our wealth and our glory.” This was an argument for U.S. commercial expansion that would become commonplace by the second half of the nineteenth century. By the late 1850s, several prominent Republicans were also using the well-established conceptual framework of the colonization movement to advocate for independent black colonies in Central America that could help produce like-minded republics as a bulwark against British commercial dominance within the region.27

While neither Liberia nor any of the other colonies proposed during this period would come to realize the heady commercial ambitions envisioned by their advocates, the manner in which they were discussed offers a glimpse of the United States’ eventual pursuit of an informal empire which relied on an abstract commitment to the spread of U.S. political ideals by creating politically aligned, yet subordinate, proxy states. If the ideologies of an “empire for liberty” and “Manifest Destiny” were fundamentally about asserting the United States’ determination to establish an expansive settler state within North America, the African colonization movement illustrates the ways that Americans began to envision new modes of expansion that were somewhat distinct from their previous practices of territorial acquisition or the implementation of a European-modeled colonial system.

(p.179) The colonization movement articulated a worldview in which the United States would work to foster nation-states that could ascend to nominal equality on the world stage even as they remained hierarchically differentiated through race. In this way, the movement to create Liberia is awkwardly positioned between the United States’ practice of settler colonialism in the early nineteenth century and the nation’s eventual pursuit of a global empire which relied on less direct forms of control over territories and populations. While African colonization does not easily conform to the territorial or economic motivations behind the dominant forms of expansion during the era, situating African colonization within the context of U.S. expansionism is useful precisely because its contemporaries consistently framed it as an exceptional project. The colonization movement grew from the practices of U.S. colonialism, and yet it existed in constant tension with it, a tension still evident in American rhetoric and global realities.28


(1.) Amy Kaplan, “Manifest Domesticity,” American Literature 70, no. 3 (September 1998): 581–606; Susan M. Ryan, “Errand into Africa: Colonization and Nation Building in Sarah J. Hale’s Liberia,” New England Quarterly 68, no. 4 (December 1995): 558–83; David Kazanjian, “Racial Governmentality: The African Colonization Movement,” in The Colonizing Trick: National Culture and Imperial Citizenship in Early America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003); Etsuko Taketani, “Postcolonial Liberia: Sarah Hale’s Africa,” in U.S. Women Writers and the Discourses of Colonialism, 1825–1861 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2003). For recent historical work on the topic, see: Eugene S. Van Sickle, “Reluctant Imperialists: The U.S. Navy and Liberia, 1819–1845,” Journal of the Early Republic 31, no. 1 (Spring 2011): 107–34; Bronwen Everill, “‘Destiny Seems to Point Me to That Country’: Early Nineteenth-century African American Migration, Emigration, and Expansion,” Journal of Global History 7, no. 1 (2012): 53–77; Bronwen Everill, Abolition and Empire in Sierra Leone and Liberia (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012); Nicholas Guyatt, “‘The Outskirts of Our Happiness’: Race and the Lure of Colonization in the Early Republic,” Journal of American History 95, no. 4 (March 2009).

(2.) On the radicalizing impact of revolutionary Haiti, see: Robin Blackburn, “Haiti, Slavery, and the Age of the Democratic Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly 63, no. 4 (October 2006): 643–74; Alfred N. Hunt, Haiti’s Influence on Antebellum America: Slumbering Volcano in the Caribbean (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988). For references to the revolutionary context among proponents of western colonies, see: Moses Fisk, Tyrannical Libertymen a Discourse Upon Negro-Slavery in the United States: Composed at—in New Hampshire, on the Late Federal Thanksgiving-Day (Hanover, N.H.: Eagle Office, 1795), 9; St. George Tucker to Jeremy Belknap, June 29, 1795, Jeremy Belknap Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society; St. George Tucker, Letter to a Member of the General Assembly of Virginia on the Subject of the Late Conspiracy of the Slaves; with a (p.180) Proposal for Their Colonization (Baltimore: Bonsal & Niles, 1801), 6–7; Thomas Branagan, Serious Remonstrances, Addressed to the Citizens of the Northern States, and Their Representatives; Being an Appeal to Their Natural Feelings & Common Sense (Philadelphia: Thomas T. Stiles, 1805), 43–54; John Parrish, Remarks on the Slavery of Black People; Addressed to the Citizens of the United States Particularly to Those Who Are in Legislative of Executive Stations in the General or State Governments; and Also to Such Individuals as Hold Them in Bondage (Philadelphia: Kimber, Conrad, & Co., 1806), 8–9, 41. On how the various proposals from Virginia were informed by the threat of revolution, see: James Sidbury, Ploughshares into Swords: Race, Rebellion, and Identity in Gabriel’s Virginia, 1730–1810 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997); Douglas R. Egerton, Gabriel’s Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993).

(3.) St. George Tucker, Dissertation on Slavery: With a Proposal for the Gradual Abolition of It, in the State of Virginia (Philadelphia, 1796), 94–95; Fisk, Tyrannical Libertymen, 9–11.

(4.) Tucker, Letter to a Member of the General Assembly of Virginia on the Subject of the Late Conspiracy of the Slaves, 21. For more on the early western colonization plans, see: Guyatt, “The Outskirts of Our Happiness”; Beverly Tomek, “‘From Motives of Generosity, as Well as Self-preservation’: Thomas Branagan, Colonization, and the Gradual Emancipation Movement,” American Nineteenth Century History 6, no. 2 (June 2005).

(5.) On how American colonists developed a sense of themselves as a white settler community with unrestrained right to expansion, see Peter Silver, Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early America (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2009).

(6.) On “domestic dependent nationhood” and the legal contingency of Native Americans and African Americans, see: Priscilla Wald, “Terms of Assimilation: Legislating Subjectivity in the Emerging Nation,” in Cultures of United States Imperialism, ed. Donald E. Pease and Amy Kaplan (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993), 672; Robert A. Williams, Like a Loaded Weapon: The Rehnquist Court, Indian Rights, and the Legal History of Racism in America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 47–70. On the United States as an imperial space of differentiated sovereignties organized through race, see: Aziz Rana, The Two Faces of American Freedom (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010); Left Quarter Collective, “White Supremacist Constitution of the U.S. Empire-State: A Short Conceptual Look at the Long First Century,” in Political Power and Social Theory (Bingley, U.K.: Emerald Group Publishing, 2009), vol. 20: 167–200.

(7.) On the counter-nationalist threat of pan-Indianism, see John Sugden, “Early Pan-Indianism: Tecumseh’s Tour of the Indian Country, 1811–1812,” American Indian Quarterly 10, no. 4 (Autumn 1986): 273–304.

(8.) Kevin Mulroy, Freedom on the Border: The Seminole Maroons in Florida: The Indian Territory–Coahuila and Texas (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1993), 13–15; Kenneth Wiggins Porter, The Black Seminoles: History of a Freedom-Seeking People (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996), 13–24.

(9.) Claudio Saunt, A New Order of Things: Property, Power, and the Transformation of the Creek Indians, 1733–1816 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 235–40, 269–70. For an example of this concern about interracial collaboration among white leaders, see Kenneth Wiggins Porter, “Negroes and the East Florida Annexation Plot, 1811–1813,” Journal of Negro History 30 (1945): 24.

(p.181) (10.) On the early colonizationists’ concerns about the threat posed by planting black colonies on the lands of indigenous peoples, see: Robert S. Finley, Thoughts on the Colonization of Free Blacks (Washington, D.C., 1816), 6; Samuel Mills, qtd. in George Washington Edwards Phillips, “Diary of George Washington Edwards Phillips,” 1817, pp. 110–11, George Washington Edwards Phillips Papers, Special Collections, Duke University Library; American Colonization Society, A View of Exertions Lately Made for the Purpose of Colonizing the Free People of Colour, in the United States, in Africa, or Elsewhere (Washington D.C., 1817), 7; report cited in “Report on Colonizing the Free People of Color of the United States,” Daily National Intelligencer, March 28, 1817; “Colonization of Free People of Color,” National Register, April 5, 1817.

(11.) On the transformation of western borderland spaces into “slave country,” see: Stephen Aron, American Confluence: The Missouri Frontier from Borderland to Border State, A History of the trans-Appalachian Frontier (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006); Adam Rothman, Slave Country: American Expansion and the Origins of the Deep South (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007). Long before black western colonies had been abandoned, Thomas Jefferson had already expressed his opposition to western colonies because he felt that it would place a “blot” on the white settler empire he envisioned. See Jefferson to James Monroe, November 24, 1801, in Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Works of Thomas Jefferson (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1905), vol. 9: 315–19. By the late 1810s the prospects for a western colony had so rapidly diminished that the American Convention for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery (ACPAS) withdrew its support for a western colony that it had advocated only a year earlier. See: Minutes of the Sixteenth American Convention for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, and Improving the Condition of the African Race (Philadelphia: William Fry, 1819), 51; Minutes of the Seventeenth Session of the American Convention for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, and Improving the Condition of the African Race (Philadelphia: Atkinson & Alexander, 1821), 44.

(12.) Lamont D. Thomas, Paul Cuffe: Black Entrepreneur and Pan-Africanist (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986). During this early phase of the African colonization movement, several newspapers reprinted an 1811 letter by Thomas Jefferson which recommended Sierra Leone as a destination for African Americans. For examples, see: “Colonization of Free Blacks,” National Advocate, December 20, 1816; “Colonization of Free Blacks,” Daily National Intelligencer, April 14, 1817; National Advocate, April 16, 1817; “African Colonization,” Niles’ Weekly Register, April 19, 1817; “Colonization of Free Blacks,” Boston Recorder, April 29, 1817.

(13.) National Advocate, December 20, 1816.

(14.) “The Colonization Scheme,” Niles’ Weekly Register, October 4, 1817; “To H. Niles,” Niles’ Weekly Register, November 8, 1817.

(15.) On the U.S. tradition of “anti-imperial” nationalism, see: Mary Ann Heiss, “The Evolution of the Imperial Idea and U.S. National Identity,” Diplomatic History 26 Walter LaFeber, “The American View of Decolonization, 1776–1920: An Ironic Legacy,” in The United States and Decolonization: Power and Freedom, ed. David Ryan and Victor Pungong (Basingstoke, U.K.: Macmillan, 2000).; Walter LaFeber, “The American View of Decolonization, 1776–1920: An Ironic Legacy,” in The United States and Decolonization: Power and Freedom, ed. David Ryan and Victor Pungong (Basingstoke, U.K.: Macmillan, 2000). The colonization movement’s use of republican language was evident early in the movement. The ACS’s first memorial to Congress argued that colonists would build “the glorious edifice of well ordered and polished society,” which was based on “the deep and sure foundations of equal laws” (p.182) and the “prevailing power of liberty.” See American Society Memorial of the President and Board of Managers of the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Colour of the United States: January 14, 1817: Read and Ordered to Lie Upon the Table (Washington D.C.: William A. Davis, 1817), 3. Lie Upon the Table (Washington D.C.: William A.Davis, 1817), 3.

(16.) Eric Burin, “The Slave Trade Act of 1819: A New Look at Colonization and the Politics of Slavery,” American Nineteenth Century History 13, no. 1 (2012): 1–14; Charles Francis Adams, ed., Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Comprising Portions of His Diary from 1795 to 1848 (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1875), vol. 4: 292–94; P. J. Staudenraus, The African Colonization Movement, 1816–1865 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961), 53–57.

(17.) These editorials were eventually compiled into a pamphlet in 1827. The anonymous colonization advocate “Opimius” was determined to be William Henry Fitzhugh, a vice-president of the ACS. See Controversy Between Caius Gracchus and Opimius: In Reference to the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Colour of the United States: First Published in the Richmond Enquirer (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown, 1827), 11, 40–41, 52. For a more detailed examination of this debate, see the preceding essay in the present book.. Other examples of arguments for and against African colonization based on the precedent of U.S. expansion can be found in: Sen. Robert Hayne, “The Colonization Society,” Register of Debates, 19th Cong., 2nd Sess. (1827): 289–90; Report of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, April 28, 1828, 20th Cong., 1st Sess., Senate Document no. 178, serial 167 (Washington D.C., 1828); Kentucky Colonization Society, “Memorial of the Kentucky Colonization Society,” African Repository and Colonial Journal 5, no. 11 (January 1830): 347–48; “Petitions of Congress,” Daily National Intelligencer, February 12, 1831.

(18.) Guyatt, “The Outskirts of Our Happiness”; Susan M. Ryan, The Grammar of Good Intentions: Race and the Antebellum Culture of Benevolence (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2003), 25–45. For earlier explorations of the relationship between removal and colonization, see: Mary Young, “Racism in Red and Black: Indians and Other Free People of Color in Georgia, Law, Politics, and Removal Policy,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 73, no. 3 (1989): 492–518; Lawrence Jacob Friedman, Inventors of the Promised Land (New York: Knopf, 1975), 199–215. On Isaac McCoy’s relationship to the politics of removal, see: James P. Ronda, “‘We Have a Country’: Race, Geography, and the Invention of Indian Territory,” Journal of the Early Republic 19, no. 4 (Winter 1999): 739–55; George A. Schultz, An Indian Canaan: Isaac McCoy and the Vision of an Indian State (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972), 120–33; Report of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, April 28, 1828, 5–6.

(19.) For a Jacksonian pamphlet on how African colonization reflected a pattern of federal overreach, see Robert James Turnbull, The Crisis: Or, Essays on the Usurpations of the Federal Government (Charleston, S.C.: A. E. Miller, 1827).

(20.) On how the anti-slavery activist began to recognize the contradiction between support for colonization and opposition to removal policy, see: Mary Hershberger, “Mobilizing Women, Anticipating Abolition: The Struggle Against Indian Removal in the 1830s,” Journal of American History 86, no. 1 (June 1999): 39; Alisse Portnoy, Their Right to Speak: Women’s Activism in the Indian and Slave Debates (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005). On Jackson’s veto of the distribution bill, see Staudenraus, African Colonization Movement, 184–87.

(p.183) (21.) Van Sickle, “Reluctant Imperialists”; see also: Amy Van Natter, “The Mary Carver Affair: United States Foreign Policy and the Africa Squadron, 1841–1845,” PhD diss., City University of New York, 2010; Donald L. Canney, Africa Squadron: The U.S. Navy and the Slave Trade, 1842–1861 (Washington, D.C: Potomac Books, 2006).

(22.) House Committee on Commerce, African Colonization, 27th Cong., 3rd Sess., 1843, H. Rep. 283, 6; Joint Resolution for Advancing and Protecting the Commercial Relations of the United States with the Western Coast of Africa, H.R. Res. 44, 27th Cong., 3rd Sess., Congressional Globe 12, no. 1, February 28, 1843, 366.

(23.) “Reviews,” African Repository and Colonial Journal 20, no. 3 (March 1844).

(24.) Colony of Liberia, in Africa, 28th Cong., 1st Sess., 1844, H. Rep 162, 5.

(25.) On the ambivalent role of the ACS in the process of independence, see Robert T. Brown, “Simon Greenleaf and the Liberian Constitution of 1847,” Liberian Studies Journal 9, no. 2 (1980); on Liberia’s performance of postcolonial nationhood, see Taketani, “Post-colonial Liberia.”

(26.) On the reception of independence in the United States, see Brandon Mills, “‘The United States of Africa’: Liberian Independence and the Contested Meaning of a Black Republic,” Journal of the Early Republic 33, no. 1 (Spring 2014): 79–107.

(27.) United States Congress House Committee on Naval Affairs, Report of the Naval Committee to the House of Representatives, August, 1850, in Favor of the Establishment of a Line of Mail Steamships to the Western Coast of Africa (Washington, D.C.: Gideon and Co., 1850); “Great Scheme for Carrying on Colonization,” African Repository 26, no. 5 (May 1850). On the post-independence commercial interest in Liberia, see Everill, Abolition and Empire in Sierra Leone and Liberia. On arguments for U.S. expansion based on “surplus production,” see Matthew Frye Jacobson, Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad, 1876–1917 (New York: Macmillan, 2001), 15–57. On colonization plans for Central and South America, see: Gerald Horne, The Deepest South: The United States, Brazil, and the African Slave Trade (New York: New York University Press, 2007), 172–197; James D. Bilotta, Race and the Rise of the Republican Party, 1848–1865 (New York: Peter Lang, 1992); Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), 267–80.

(28.) Reginald Horsman, Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981). The mode of expansion modeled by the African colonization movement is distinct from the martial ethos of “Manifest Destiny” in many ways and more clearly aligns with the “restrained manhood” Amy Greenberg has observed among missionaries. See Amy S. Greenberg, Manifest Manhood and the Antebellum American Empire (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2005).