The Genesis of Liberia (The Struggle for Statehood and Institutional Building) Part II


With the pending general and presidential elections of Liberia in the horizon, amidst massive economic hardships, gross ineptitude within various sectors of the three branches of government, and societal moral lapses—resulting into crimes, poverty, underdevelopment, nepotism, scandals, corruption, and many other vexing issues, I’ve chosen to comparatively reflect in this piece with focus on the first four decades of the formation of Liberia and where we find ourselves today, whilst President Sirleaf declares that her government has done far better for Liberia than any previous governments. Let the objective reader be the judge.

On July 26, 1847, Liberia became a sovereign and secular state with laws governing commerce of a self-proclaimed nation, to date, the only nation in Africa without a revolt for its sovereignty. Governor Joseph Jenkins Roberts captures this fact due to “the embarrassment we labor under with respect to the encroachments of foreigners [slavers] and the objections urged by Great Britain in regard to our sovereignty.” With a population of approximately 3000 (excluding the native Africans and Recaptives) in 1847 and with their solid Christian heritage, the American and Afro-Caribbean settlers of African descent were cognizant of the history of religious wars in Europe and the American founding fathers’ careful planning of the USA with emphasis on separation of church and state. That is why these rejected sons and daughters from the United

States and the West Indies, in the 1847 Liberian Constitution declaration of rights states that:
All men [and women] have a natural and inalienable right to worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences, without obstruction or molestation from others: all persons demeaning themselves peaceably, and not obstructing others in their religious worship, are entitled to the protection of law, in the free exercise of their own religion; and no sect of Christians shall have exclusive privileges or preference, over any other sect; but all shall be alike tolerated: and no religious test whatever shall be required as a qualification for civil office, or the exercise of any civil right.

The presidential and general elections were held for the first time in the newly independent nation of Liberia on October 5, 1847, with Joseph Roberts emerging as Liberia’s first president, with most of its coastal
landmass stretching from Montserrado to Sinoe. However, in 1855, Robert was defeated by his former vice president, Stephen Allen Benson in the presidential and general elections, taking office on January 7, 1856, a fellow Mulatto from the East Coast serving as president for eight years. His biggest accomplishments were the enforcement of a law in the last session of the legislature held in January 1855 for the decentralization of the central government, wherein mayors were elected by the various cities, firstly in Monrovia, with aldermen and a common council, tasked with the mandate to create ordinances, municipal laws, and levying taxes separate from the central government. Monrovia City Government was also empowered to “lay out new streets, highways, and public walks or parks…” This electoral history of mayoral elections in Liberia is to correct the erroneous and narrow ruling by the Supreme Court in the case of The CDC and Liberty Party v. The Executive Branch of Government, on January 11, 2008 , in favor of the president to appointing mayors, a contravention of the 1986 constitution articles 54 (d) and 56 (b) and historical precedence as documented in the 1855 legislative history of Liberia. Interestingly, it was John N. Lewis, an associate editor of the
Herald, a general in the Liberian militia, a signer of the declaration of independence, a Secretary of State, a representative from Sinoe County, serving as Speaker of that august body when the decentralization bill for electing mayor was passed. His son, Dr. John N. Lewis became the first Liberian born trained medical doctor who graduated from Harvard and Dartmouth College in 1871 and 1873 respectively. Ironically, it would be Representative John N. Lewis’ great great grandson, the late Chief Justice Johnnie N. Lewis who overturned the 1855 law passed just eight years of Liberia’s independence. Clearly, the evolution of the word mayor was a replacement of feudal lords or chiefs, elected as heads of cities and townships, mainly in England and the USA, a tradition, the new nation of Liberia adopted in 1855. In addition, Benson pursued the annexation of the Colony of Maryland, now Maryland County, into the Republic of Liberia in 1857. By January 1858, Liberia had a population of 11,179 residing Mesurado, Bassa, Sinoe, and Maryland with a national budget of $48,000.00 and a $1,500 deficit in 1858, without any international support. However, it was through this expansion policy and tenuous encounters with the native Africans and European imperialists acting as merchants that defined the early political-economy of Liberia since the American Colonization Society envisioned the formation of a colony in Africa on December 21, 1816 in Washington DC. In addition, Benson spearheaded the recognition of Liberia by the USA and directly negotiated with the ACS to receive the US backed funding for Recaptives (Congoes) who were kept in receptacles (confinements) before being fully integrated into the Liberian socio-economy and eventually its body politics.

How could the tiny Liberian nation survive politically and economically (on taxes and tariffs collection) in exerting its authority in the midst of the many competing interests in a tough global environment, wherein it historically did not tax its citizens, the Natives, and the Recaptives? To counter the internal and external political and economic threats, the governing authority passed the 1864 “Ports of Entry Law” during the administration of President Daniel Warner, limiting trades to six coastal ports, banning foreigners from doing business in Liberia, and illegalizing direct trades between the Native Africans and European merchants in its territories. The law reads:

That from and after the first day, of January ensuing 1865, no foreigner or foreigners, whether white of colored, shall reside for trade on or at any place on the Liberian coast except the legally appointed and established “Ports of Entry” that is to say Roberts Port, Monrovia; Marshall, Port of Buchanan and Edina, Greenville, Harper, and such other ports as may hereafter be established by an Act of the Legislature.

It was this law that created the most pressing conflicts between the Natives and the Liberian Government culminating into hostilities and military encounters, ironically depleting the very financial resources it sought to collect, thereby creating longstanding violent confrontation between the Natives and the American settlers of African descent. That same period, the entire African continent was in the process of being divided and fought for by European powers.

In reflecting on this historical path of our nation especially with the current situation that we now faced—an imperial presidency, centralization of power, unsophisticated lawmakers, a weak judiciary and civic organizations, a tax burdened citizenry forced to subsidize the appetites of the three headed vampire (the executive, legislative, and judiciary) in a fragile nation, we then inquire, have we made significant strides as a nation since 1847? In my view, we’ve been greatly let down by those currently in national leadership, and sadly our children are at peril. Therefore, it is up to each one of us to critically reflect and seek praxis and action for making our nation far better than what it is. To paraphrase the words of Alexander Cowan, an agent of the Kentucky Colonization Society, if “the paw of the lion [is] to remedy” our entrenched problems “by its foothold” it requires us as responsible citizens to collectively become a part of the solution by seeing and acting beyond our narrow self-interests for the greater good of Liberia. This process begins by critically examining those who seek our votes and to demand the change we need.

Artemus W. Gaye. Liberia As a Christian-Nation? – (accessed August 27, 2016).
The Liberian Constitution of 1847, Article 1: Sec. 3, Declaration of Rights.

The African Repository, Volume 31. P.180 volume xxx I-1855. Ironically, it was Jonnie Lewis great father who passed the law for electing mayors.
The African Repository, Volume 31. P.179 volume xxx I-1855.
Sharla M. Fett. Recaptured Africans: Surviving Slave Ships, Detention, and Dislocation in the Final Years of the Slave Trade. P. 169, 2017.

Liberian Politics: The Portrait by African American Diplomat J. Milton Turner. 2002. P.337. The law was finally repealed by Edwin Barclay due to pressure from the United States, in exchange for aid and making the United States dollars Liberia’s legal tender.
Alexander M. Cowan. Liberia As I Found It in 1858.. p.164.



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