“Our greatest happiness does not depend on the condition of life in which chance has placed us, but is always the result of a good conscience, good health, occupation, and freedom in all just pursuits.” -Thomas Jefferson
With a growing sentiment for removing the American Blacks or people of color to a distant territory, a series of resolutions were passed by the Virginia Assembly on December 21, 1816. These resolutions were introduced and sponsored by Charles F. Mercer, a slaveholder and US congressman. It was in the spring of 1816, by accident, he discovered the secret action of the very same Virginia Assembly, taken in 1800, just after the Black insurrection of that year. The outcome of that secret meeting produced two resolutions directing “Governor Monroe to correspond with the President of the United States for the purpose of securing somewhere a suitable territory for the colonization of emancipated slaves and free Blacks.” It was near the end of the session when Mercer found these resolutions that he presented to the Assembly.
However, Mercer broke the bar of secrecy, by consulting Francis S. Key, of Georgetown, and Elias B. Caldwell of Washington, DC to assist in drafting some resolutions on the matter to the General Assembly in its next session.
That summer, Mercer took ill and traveled up north, needing to recuperate his health, but was deeply reflecting on a colonization scheme for Blacks, sharing his thoughts with some associates, who willingly made “promises of monetary aid, and of active cooperation.” When the Virginia Assembly met in its next session, Mercer introduced his resolutions, arguing that the national government must purchase a territory in the North Pacific on which to settle free Blacks and those afterward manumitted in the state of Virginia. These resolutions were amended by the Senate to read: “on the North Pacific, or the African Coast” and unanimously passed by the Assembly on December 21, 1816, the very day on which the first public meeting of the colonizationists was held in Washington and out of which grew the American Colonization Society.
A year later, speaking before this organization, Mercer stated his reasons for supporting the deportation scheme. He writes:
“Many thousand individuals in our native State, you well know Mr. President, are restrained from manumitting their slaves, as you and I are, by the melancholy conviction that they cannot yield to the suggestions of humanity without manifest injury to their country.” Mercer further insisted that the rapidly increasing free Black population endangered the peace of the State and impaired in a large section the value of slave property. In his prejudiced report, he claimed,
“What banditti, consisting of the degraded, idle, and vicious free blacks, sally forth from their coverts, beneath the obscurity of night, and plunder the rich proprietors of the valleys. They infest the suburbs of the towns and cities, where they become the depositories of stolen goods, and, schooled by necessity, elude the vigilance of our defective police.”
Apparently, Mercer perceived the Black colonization scheme as a means of relieving, according to him, the “State of a dangerous population,” which will help increase the value of slaves as property. In this endeavor, the slaveholders like Mercer himself could tremendously profit whenever they decided to manumit the enslaved and having them deported to Africa.
A prominent religious voice on colonization was Robert Finley, of New Jersey, a graduate of Princeton, a teacher, a Presbyterian pastor, later serving in 1816 as president of the University of Georgia, at Athens, where he died at the age of forty-five. As early as 1814 he wrote to a friend on his ideas on Black colonization. On February 15, 1815, he wrote a letter to John Mumford, of New York City, in which he argued for the removal of the free Blacks. Finley writes,
“Everything connected with their condition, including their color is against them; nor is there much prospect that their state can ever be greatly ameliorated, while they shall continue among us. Could not the rich and benevolent devise means to form a colony on some part of the Coast of Africa, similar to the one in Sierra Leone…Ought not Congress to be petitioned to grant them a district in a good climate, say on the shores of the Pacific Ocean? Our fathers brought them here, and we are bound if possible to repair the injuries inflicted by our fathers.”
Reverend Robert Finley, as a key participant in the colonization meeting held in Princeton, New Jersey, on November 6, 1816, argued before the group that the lawmakers push for a bill authorizing a deportation scheme by the U.S. Congress. He further insisted that free Blacks were the most dangerous. They had the propensity for inciting revolts, leading to the “freedom of all others; that freedmen should be able to rise to that condition to which they are entitled by the laws of God and nature; therefore, they should be separated from the Whites and placed in a favorable situation, possibly Africa.” For him, a distant place was the necessary solution to this problem of mixing the race. He wrote, “We must plant a colony of free blacks on their soil, on Africa, where they can be true men, unopposed by the prejudice and unrighteous legislation.” Once in Washington he canvassed the community, delivering speeches in local churches and distributing his pamphlet, “Thoughts on the Colonization of Free Blacks.” In the pamphlet, he writes:
“At present, as if by divine impulse, men of virtue, piety, and reflection, are turning their thoughts to this subject, and seem to see the wished-for plan unfolding, in the gradual separation of the black from the white population, by providing for the former, some suitable situation, where men may enjoy the advantages to which they are entitled by nature and their Creators.”
Finley directly communicated with Paul Cuffe, asking for his view on another part of Africa, considered more desirable than settlement in Sierra Leone. He told Cuffe that he wanted these Blacks to settle in Africa, where they could be free, prosperous and equal while working to abolish slavery and spread the Christian faith to Africa. Cuffe recommended that the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa was a more desirable location for a settlement.
Another parallel manifestation connected with this scheme was espoused by Samuel J. Mills, a devoted Christian visionary, and missionary. He was born on April 21, 1783, in Torringford, Connecticut. His father was a congregational minister. Mills was one of the co-founders of the American Bible Society, the organization credited for printing and distributing free Bibles to millions of people up to this date, and in most hotels around the world, becoming an integral part of the ACS. Like Finley, he believed that provisions and incentives made to free Blacks could lead slaveholders to emancipate their slaves gladly. With this in view, he sought to acquire territories in either Ohio, Indiana, or Illinois for this proposed colony. Within such Black area in the Midwest, Mills asserted that a robust training program based on religious teaching of the Black colonists could extend in new settlements in the Far West or Africa. It was in such spirit of courage and perseverance that Mills passionately states:
“I am confident that the people of color now in this country, that is, many of them, will be settled by themselves, either in this country or abroad. The teachers who may be raised up will promote this object. Whether they remain in this country or not, much must be done to qualify them for living in society by themselves.”
Because of Mills’ zeal and missionary spirit, the various voices within the newly formed organization saw him as an ideal person to champion the work of the Society in Africa. In his conclusion, Mills argues that “It [colonization] will transfer to the coast of Africa the blessings of religion and civilization; and Ethiopia will soon stretch out her hands to God.” His passion eventually elevated him to lead the scouting team in Africa.
Thus, on December 21, 1816, during a cold winter solstice, at a tavern in the Davis Hotel, a smoky brick building in the US Capital, delegates from various states converged. This first national public meeting was attended by luminaries of American political, economic, social, intellectual and religious landscapes embracing a pro-colonialist position from Georgetown, Washington, D.C., Alexandria, Virginia, and other parts of the United States. Of the seventeen men invited sixteen were present. They were:
James Madison, President of the United States 1809—1817; U.S. Speaker Henry Clay; Presbyterian Reverend Robert Finley; Francis Scott Key, lawyer and author of the U.S. national anthem; Bishop William Meade; Senator John Randolph of Roanoke, Virginia; Bushrod Washington, nephew of President George Washington and Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court; Thomas Buchanan, brother of U.S. President James Buchanan; Elias B. Caldwell, Chief Clerk of the U.S. Supreme Court; General Andrew Jackson, though his name was added without his consent, becoming President of the United States 1829—1837, later became an anti-colonizationist; former US president, Thomas Jefferson; John Marshall, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, 1801—1835; Daniel Webster, Senator; U.S. Congressman Charles Fenton Mercer of Virginia; U.S. Secretary of the Treasury William H. Crawford; U.S. Attorney Gen. William Wirt; and Richard Rush, Attorney General under Quincy Adams and son of Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
A notable absence was Bushrod Washington, a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court who owned slaves and had inherited a Virginia estate, Mount Vernon, from his uncle, President George Washington. He was voted as the first president of the ACS. The attendees passed several resolutions, including the formation of an association with the primary purpose of sending the freed Blacks to Africa or elsewhere. Members were appointed to various committees to draw up rules and the Constitution, with a blueprint to be sent to the U.S. Congress, to this colonization scheme. Henry Clay, the chairperson of the meeting remarks:
“No attempt was being made to touch or agitate in the slightest degree, a delicate question, connected with another portion of the colored population of this country. It was not proposed to deliberate upon or consider at all, any question of emancipation, or that which was connected with the abolition of slavery.”
After Clay’s remarks, Elias B. Caldwell, proceeded delivering the principal address:
“… Expedient because the free blacks have a demoralizing influence on our civil institutions; they can never enjoy equality among the whites in America; only in a district by themselves will they ever be happy. To colonize them in America would invite the possibility of their making common cause with the Indians and border nations, and furnish an asylum for fugitives and runaway slaves. Africa seemed the best place to send them.”
With this declaration, the idea of forming a colony in Africa was sealed by the sixteen Caucasian men of the highest echelon of the American society, negating any argument that the colony of Liberia was founded by freed American Blacks or people of color in 1816. In furtherance of this initiative, the founders of the ACS held its first annual meeting on Wednesday, January 1, 1817, and some notable attendees included Col. Henry Rutgers of New York, Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, Francis S. Key, Daniel Webster, Bushrod Washington, among others. Bushrod Washington was elected President of the Society with other officers of the American Colonization Society. In closing, Bushrod Washington summed his vision of the society:
“Should it lead, as we may fairly hope it will, to the slow but gradual abolition of slavery, it will wipe for our political institutions the only blot which stains them; and, in palliation of which, we shall not be at liberty to plead the excuse of moral necessity, until we shall have honestly exerted all the means which we possess for its extinction.”
The ACS tactfully began lobbying the US Congress and with the sympathetic Monroe on its side, Congress immediately honored the president’s request. The Society also knew that by winning the sympathy of the Federal Government, it could achieve a whole lot to voluntarily or involuntarily carry on its plan of emigration of free Blacks from the USA. A staunch supporter of this endeavor was its member, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky and future Secretary of State, serving as chairperson of the Washington, D.C. Conference of the ACS. He regarded colonization as tantamount to expulsion. For him, it was a way of removing the African freed slaves from the USA. He remarked:
“For us and can there be a nobler cause than that which where it purports to raid our own country of a useless and pernicious, if not dangerous, portion of its population, contemplates the spreading of the arts of civilized life and the possible redemption of ignorance and barbarism of a benighted quarter of the globe.”
It is highly plausible that the ACS’s arguments were branded for different sections of the country and different classes of people—to remove the dangerous element would make a strong appeal to the slaveholder and the South, for it was believed that the freed Blacks contaminated and ruined the slave; that to civilize and Christianize Africa would appeal to churchmen and religious bodies; and this argument could be used in the North. To return to Africa its own who could contribute to her betterment was a case for Black Christians who could draw biblical parallels of the wrongs perpetrated against them during a period of two hundred years. Therefore, it was America’s moral obligation, said the colonizationists, to return the Black population to Africa.
For Francis Scott Key, it was the appalling condition of Blacks that inspired him to join the ACS. Key envisioned for Blacks an “Empire of the United States in Africa” with “spires of temples glittering in the sun” and the “hum of industry resounding in the streets.” Therefore, for Key, his participation in the ACS’s first meeting was for “the expediency and practicability of ameliorating the condition of the Free People of Color now in the United States, by providing a Colonial Retreat, either on this continent or that of Africa.”
Key then saw the objective the ACS as means to abolish the slave trade. In his view, a permanent settlement in Africa would serve as a deterrent against slavery on the African coast. It would also furnish the opportunity needed to develop trade and commerce in a legitimate manner between Africa and America and other parts of the world.
(End of Part One)
On December 21, 2016, Liberians will reflect on “The power of ideas….Reflecting on the historical significance of seventeen white men who met on December 21, 1816 at a Washington, D.C. Hotel (tavern), the Davis Hotel, and the formation of the American Colonization Society.” The event will take place at Bella Casa Hotel, 2nd Street, Sinkor, from 6pm -8pm. A book signing, film, and dinner will form part of the occasion.