- The Washington Times - Friday, July 18, 2003

For several decades, the American Colonization Society was a major institution in Washington. It originally was an attempt to finesse the slavery issue by encouraging black Americans to immigrate “back” to Africa. During its long career, the society would engage the efforts of almost every big name in the land, including Abraham Lincoln. Nonetheless, the society never achieved colonization on a large scale. The Civil War was not averted, and racial equality still had to be faced.

The society held its first meeting at the old Davis Hotel in downtown Washington on Dec. 21, 1816.

House Speaker Henry Clay presided, and other attending notables included John Marshall, chief justice of the United States; Andrew Jackson, hero of the War of 1812; Daniel Webster, statesman and orator; Francis Scott Key, author of “The Star-Spangled Banner”; and Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington, favorite nephew of the late George Washington, first president of the young republic.

Although not present, former President Thomas Jefferson, then-President James Madison and soon-to-be President James Monroe expressed their support.

The idea of abolishing slavery was immediately disowned at this meeting. As a Dec. 23 account in the local Daily National Intelligencer phrased it, “It is scarcely necessary to add, that all connection of this proposition with the emancipation of slaves, present or future, is explicitly disclaimed.” Only free blacks would be accepted, or slaves who had been freed under condition that they immediately vacate to the society’s chosen colony of Liberia.

Despite the society’s careful disclaimer, it was often distrusted by whites of the North and South. Many in the North thought of colonization as a scheme to rid the country of free blacks who might otherwise stir up their slave brethren, while others in the South thought of it as a Trojan horse for abolition.

The society held its next meeting Dec. 28, also at the Davis Hotel, adopted a constitution and began fund raising. Money was certainly needed to buy land from local chiefs in Africa, to acquire at least one ship and to equip the settlers.

The society raised the money in many ways. To start with, the Dec. 28 constitution specified a membership fee of $1 per year. Also, the meeting resolved that “a book shall be opened for receiving subscriptions … at the Reading Rooms in Washington, Georgetown, and Alexandria, at the office of the National Intelligencer, and with the Sec’y of this meeting.”

Eventually, local chapters grew up across the nation and sent their collections to Washington. Members at the Dec. 28 meeting also voted “a memorial to Congress requesting the sanction and cooperation of the general government in the object of the Institution aforesaid.” Congress did vote $100,000 for the society in 1819. In succeeding years, the society also would receive occasional donations from philanthropists and from bequests in wills.

On Jan. 20, 1820, then, the first expedition set out from New York City aboard the “Elizabeth.” Liberian settlements were established through the years, such as the capital of Monrovia, named after Monroe.

Nevertheless, the fledgling nation grew quite slowly. A typical notice in the Intelligencer of March 22, 1855, helps explain why. It mentions 105 slaves who were to be freed and then sent to Liberia by June 1. Some 105 persons in a little over two months — that doesn’t average out to many settlers per year, or even per decade. Also, some of the settlers died from tropical diseases, and at least a few were dissatisfied and wanted to come back to the United States.

The total number who immigrated during the society’s history is usually estimated at about 14,000, supplemented occasionally by slaves rescued from the slave trade.

Other nations were dabbling with African colonization at this time, too. Great Britain had already helped found Freetown, Sierra Leone, in 1787; and France would help set up Libreville, Gabon, in 1849.

Although there had been rather a shortage of settlers, the society at this time had no shortage of money. It eventually built up a large fund, of which it used only the interest. Indeed, in 1860 the society was prosperous enough to build a permanent headquarters at 41/2 Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, roughly the current location of the Embassy of Canada. For the next 70 years, the building was a Washington landmark. It was 25 feet long on the Pennsylvania Avenue side, 80 feet long on the 41/2 Street side and three stories tall.

It may seem odd that the colonization movement was still active on the very eve of the Civil War, but President Lincoln himself continued to raise the subject. Lincoln’s interest in colonization went back several years — although it is difficult to be sure how practical he really considered it.

For example, in his July 6, 1852, eulogy for Clay, Lincoln had referred to possible future emancipation and “restoring a captive people to their long-lost father-land” as “a glorious consummation.” This terminology ignored the idea that most black Americans probably thought of themselves as Americans born and raised in America, and no longer as Africans.

During his presidency, on Aug. 14, 1862, Lincoln even touted the idea to a deputation of black leaders, although he received a less than enthusiastic response. He also mentioned it — barely — in the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation issued Sept. 22, 1862: “[T]he effort to colonize persons of African descent, with their consent, upon this continent, or elsewhere, with the previously obtained consent of the Governments existing there, will be continued.”

Interestingly enough, Lincoln did not mention colonization in his Final Emancipation Proclamation, issued Jan. 1, 1863. In general, he began mentioning the idea less and less often.

The society, however, did not give up just yet, and even after the Civil War, it kept sending immigrants to Liberia, although in diminishing numbers. The last group was in 1891, and numbered 154 persons.

After that, the society concentrated its shrinking resources on developing schools in Liberia itself. In 1930, the old headquarters building was torn down. The society finally disbanded in 1964 and turned over its remaining papers to the Library of Congress.

John Lockwood is a Washington writer.

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