American Colonization Society

The public and private funds raised by the American Colonization Society led to the settlement of approximately thirteen thousand African Americans in West Africa by 1867 and the establishment of the independent nation of Liberia. The organization’s guiding philosophy represented a middle ground between abolitionists and proslavery advocates.

Although the American Colonization Society (ACS) was not formed until December, 1816, the desire to remove black slaves from the United States had long existed. The gradual elimination of slavery in the northern states created a concern for the inferior status of free blacks in society. Some slaveholders in the South grew uneasy about their human property, and many more feared free blacks. These motivations led to the creation of the ACS, but their diversity contributed to the organization’s modest success.Abolitionist movement;and American Colonization Society[American Colonization Society]American Colonization SocietyAfrican Americans;and Africa[Africa]Emigration;African AmericansLiberiaAbolitionist movement;and American Colonization Society[American Colonization Society]American Colonization SocietyAfrican Americans;and Africa[Africa]Emigration;African
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The organizers of the ACS were varied and well connected. Reverend Finley, RobertRobert Finley, a Presbyterian minister from New Jersey, organized the first meeting, while Virginia politician Mercer, Charles FentonCharles Fenton Mercer, Congressman Clay, HenryHenry Clay of Kentucky, Key, Francis ScottFrancis Scott Key, and Congressman Randolph, JohnJohn Randolph of Virginia were among the early supporters. Supreme Court justice Washington, BushrodBushrod Washington, a nephew of George Washington, was the society’s first president. After founding the society in Washington, D.C., the officers sought federal funds to carry out their mission. Former presidents Jefferson, Thomas[p]Jefferson, Thomas;and American Colonization Society[American Colonization Society]Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, JamesMadison soon supported the cause, as did their successor, Monroe,
James Monroe, who used his influence to arrange public funding.

Liberia College, which opened in Monrovia only two decades after the American Colonization Society helped establish the first settlement of African American emigrants in Liberia. In 1951, the college became the University of Liberia.

(Library of Congress)

The goal of the ACS was to establish an African colony where free blacks and manumitted slaves would be sent. However, persuading northern free blacks to volunteer was difficult. Southerners were often eager to export free blacks but not their own slaves. Nevertheless, the first shipload of eighty-six emigrants sailed from New York on January 31, 1820. No one in Africa welcomed the settlers taking tribal lands, and the unfamiliar climate, disease, and lack of supplies ravaged the first wave of immigrants. In December, 1821, with the armed assistance of the U.S. Navy, the ACS purchased Cape Mesurado, the present site of Monrovia, Liberia. By 1833, more than thirty-one hundred African Americans had arrived. Ironically, the ACS’s mission was aided by southerners, who wanted to rid society of free blacks in the wake of Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831. Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, MississippiMississippi, and Louisiana created their own colonizing missions during the 1830’s. All were incorporated into the Liberia colony, and the ACS increasingly became a federation of state societies.

The most notable success was Liberia’s declaration of independence in 1847. This action was encouraged by the ACS, whose financial difficulties made it impossible for it to care for the colony properly. In the years between Liberian independence and the U.S. Civil War, almost six thousand African Americans emigrated. In the five years after the war, more than two thousand more went to Liberia, but with contributions down, the ACS was practically bankrupt. In the decades to come, it functioned as a Liberian aid society focusing on education and Missionaries;in Liberia[Liberia]missionary work.

The ALS evoked a wide variety of reactions before the Civil War. Certainly tinged with a racist belief that blacks would never earn equal rights, many white northerners sincerely thought that colonization was the best solution. Beginning in the 1830’s, Abolitionist movementabolition societies portrayed the ACS as antirepublican and proslavery. White southerners were largely apathetic. Most free blacks identified their future with the United States rather than an uncertain fate in a remote colony. The lack of consensus about the status of African Americans undermined the organization’s efforts and reflected the bitter divisions in American society. The ACS was formally dissolved in 1964.Abolitionist movement;and American Colonization Society[American Colonization Society]American Colonization SocietyAfrican Americans;and Africa[Africa]Emigration;African AmericansLiberia

Further Reading

  • Burin, Eric. Slavery and the Peculiar Solution: A History of the American Colonization Society. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005.
  • Staudenraus, P. J. The African Colonization Movement, 1816-1865. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961.

Abolitionist movement

African Americans and immigrants

African immigrants


Garvey, Marcus


Slave trade

Universal Negro Improvement Association