Was Liberia Founded By Freed U.S. Slaves?

Henry Clay was among supporters of sending freed slaves to Liberia 

In Tuesday’s Washington Post, an editorial urging President Bush to send peacekeepers to civil war-wracked Liberia noted that the country was “founded by freed U.S. slaves.” Is that true?

Not quite. Although some freed American slaves did settle there, Liberia was actually founded by the American Colonization Society, a group of white Americans—including some slaveholders—that had what certainly can be described as mixed motives. In 1817, in Washington, D.C., the ACS established the new colony (on a tract of land in West Africa purchased from local tribes) in hopes that slaves, once emancipated, would move there. The society preferred this option to the alternative: a growing number of free black Americans demanding rights, jobs, and resources at home.

Notable supporters of transporting freed blacks to Liberia included Henry Clay, Francis Scott Key, Bushrod Washington, and the architect of the U.S. Capitol, William Thornton—all slave owners. These “moderates” thought slavery was unsustainable and should eventually end but did not consider integrating slaves into society a viable option. So, the ACS encouraged slaveholders to offer freedom on the condition that those accepting it would move to Liberia at the society’s expense. A number of slave owners did just that.

When the first settlers were relocated to Liberia in 1822, the plan drew immediate criticism on several fronts. Many leaders in the black community publicly attacked it, asking why free blacks should have to emigrate from the country where they, their parents, and even their grandparents were born. Meanwhile, slave owners in the South vigorously denounced the plan as an assault on their slave economy.

Abolitionist resistance to colonization grew steadily. In 1832, as the ACS began to send agents to England to raise funds for what they touted as a benevolent plan, William Lloyd Garrison revved up the opposition with a 236-page book on the evils of colonization and sent abolitionists to England to track down and counter ACS supporters. 

But the scheme had some fans. Slave states like Maryland and Virginia were already home to a significant number of free blacks, and whites there—still reeling from Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion, which emancipated slaves had a hand in—formed local colonization societies. Thus encouraged, Maryland legislators passed a law in 1832 that required any slave freed after that date to leave the state and specifically offered passage to a part of Liberia administered by the Maryland State Colonization Society. However, enforcement provisions lacked teeth, and many Marylanders forgot their antipathy to free blacks when they needed extra hands at harvest time. There is no evidence that any freed African-American was forcibly sent to Liberia from Maryland or anywhere else.

By the 1840s, the American Colonization Society was largely bankrupt, and the transported Liberians were demoralized by hostile local tribes, bad management, and deadly diseases. The U.S. government would not claim sovereignty over the colony, so in 1846 the ACS demanded that Liberians declare their independence. In the end, around 13,000 emigrants had sailed to Liberia. Today, vestiges of the emigration can be seen in Liberia’s Maryland County, in the American-sounding names we read in the papers, and, as reported on National Public Radio, in one Liberian restaurant’s offer of Maryland-style fried chicken.

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