Joseph Jenkins Roberts: Symbol of Faith, Courage, Virtue and Vision

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“I believe that the Almighty intends, through the instrumentality of those colonies, to restore Africa her long-lost glory.  Here it is probable, science and virtue will attain their highest perfection, society shine in the most beautiful and lovely form, and produce the highest felicity (happiness).  As virtue alone, however, can ensure real happiness and solid glory, this must be a prevailing principle before society can attain them.”

Mr. Roberts insisted that there is an inseparable connection between virtue and happiness.  This alone can ensure the prosperity of the state.

These were the visionary words of Joseph Jenkins Roberts, Governor of the Commonwealth of Liberia, written on January 4, 1847.  He was endeavoring to encourage his compatriots, as they prepared to convene a constitutional convention, during which  they were to make the momentous decision to establish an independent State, the Republic of Liberia.

Governor Roberts’ compatriots at the time comprised the citizens of Montserrado, Grand Bassa and Sinoe Counties.  Without the faith, vision, courage and tenacity of J.J. Roberts, Liberia may never have become an independent state.  Charles Henry Huberich, whose seminal work (Political and Legislative History of Liberia – 1947), remains the basic text on Liberian history, states in his biographical sketch of Roberts that had he (Roberts) not taken the initiative in January 1847 to convene the Constitutional Convention, Liberia may never have become an independent republic.  Among the keenest watchers of the Colony and later Commonwealth of Liberia was Great Britain. 

Don’t forget that the British had already colonized Sierra Leone in 1787.  Huberich wrote that had Roberts not taken the initiative toward Liberia’s independence, the entire Liberian territory may have been annexed to Sierra Leone in the name of “the stability of West Africa.”

To attest to the distinct possibility, we are reminded of how the British, by the force of a gunboat, annexed a huge part of southwestern Liberia, known as the Gallinas Country,   part of Grand Cape Mount County.  It became part of Sierra Leone.

The particular series of events that impelled Mr. Roberts to make the move toward independence was the consistent refusal of British and French merchants to pay duty at our seaports.  They said they did not recognize Liberia.  In his message to the Commonwealth Legislature on January 4, 1847, President Roberts’ said:  “We are told that England regards the Liberians only ‘in the light of a Society, or private company of traders, or settlers’ without any national rights or privileges.”

Mr. Roberts mentioned the possibility of the British   buying up land from the kings and chiefs of Liberia.  All of this made him more convinced that the time had come to declare Liberia a sovereign and independent state.

This is the most important part of President Roberts’ legacy—the founding of Africa’s first independent Republic.  He rightly predicted that many others would follow—and so they did—54 in all.

Another significant part of his legacy is the fact that Roberts was so good and effective a leader that he was elected six times as President. 

A third aspect of President Roberts’ legacy was his founding of Liberia College (now University of Liberia), becoming its first president.

Another J.J. Roberts legacy is his will, in which he left everything he owned for the education of Liberian youth.  He is so far the only Liberian President to do so. 

We close this Editorial with a repeat of one of the principles that governed President Roberts’ life.  It is one that we in this country seem to have lost, and that is why we are having so much difficulty finding peace and prosperity in our country.

“. . . virtue alone . . . can ensure real happiness and solid glory . . . this must be a prevailing principle before society can attain them.”

How virtuous are we Liberians?  We saw on Wednesday how we treat our dead—we vandalize them by desecrating their graves. 

But all is not lost.  Let us commit ourselves to change for the better, by nurturing those ideals of goodness, kindness, love for one another and love for our country.  Let us never forget the virtue of our first President that led him to do all he did for Liberia.

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