Joseph Jenkins Roberts was born at Norfolk, Virginia, March 15, 1809. He was free born and received a liberal education in his native State. Accompanied by two younger brothers, one of whom later became bishop and the other a physician, he sailed on the Harriet and arrived at Monrovia, March 24, 1829. He engaged in mercantile pursuits and his trading firm became one of the most prosperous in the Colony, owning its own vessels and trading posts on the Coast and in the interior. From the outset of his career in Liberia he took a keen interest in the affairs of the Colony. In 1833, scarcely four years after his arrival, Roberts was appointed High Sheriff, and was one of a committee sent to the United States to present a memorial of the colonists to the Society.
In succeeding year Roberts addressed a communication to the Society accusing certain prominent Liberians of being engaged in the slave trade, which resulted in the enactment of stringent laws against the trade. In 1839 Governor Buchanan appointed Roberts to lead the expedition against Gatoomba, a mission that was carried out in a brilliant manner. Upon the death of Buchanan (September 3, 1841) Roberts, as Lieutenant Governor became the Chief of State. On January 20, 1842, Roberts was appointed Governor, which office he held until 1848 when he became President of the Republic. He was re-elected President in 1849, 1851 and 1853, and was again elected in 1871 and 1873, serving until 1876. He declined the nomination for a new term on the ground of age and enfeebled health. Upon the termination of his fourth term the Trustees of Donations for Education in Liberia appointed him President of Liberia College (1856) and later (1861) Professor of Jurisprudence and International Law which position he held until the time of his death. It was one of the great ambitions of Roberts to establish in Liberia an institution of higher learning, and he succeeded in having the Legislation pass the necessary legislation and grant a site for College. Of his work as Governor and President, Sir Harry Johnston (Liberia I, 236) says: “Roberts had rendered great services to the Liberian Republic, only to be matched by those of Ashmun. It is possible that but for his vigorous management the State might never have had any independent existence at all, but have drifted into such a condition as to render annexation by Sierra Leone a necessity for the welfare of West Africa.”
Roberts’ public services as Governor are dealt with in the book: Political and Legislative History of Liberia. Of his services as first President and in the succeeding years may be mentioned the brilliant work of guiding the Republic in the first decade of its existence, his success in obtaining the recognition of the Republic by some of the Great Powers of Europe, due largely to his rare tact in negotiation and his charm of manner and vigorous convincing personality. Roberts continued his public services after the expiration of his first eight years’ incumbency of the presidential office. He led the expedition sent in aid of Maryland in Liberia and was largely instrumental in bringing about the incorporation of that State in the Republic. Roberts married Jane Rose, the daughter of C.M. Waring. Roberts died in Monrovia, February 24, 1876, a few weeks after the termination of his last term of office.