Liberia Proclaims Its Independence

A West Africa nation settled and governed by former slaves who emigrated from the United States, Liberia was a historical anomaly in black Africa. After its American settlers declared the country an independent republic in 1847, the country maintained a fragile existence outside the main currents of African history.

Summary of Event

Liberia was the first African republic to declare its independence and be recognized by Western nations. However, the nature of Liberian independence was very different from that of the modern African nations that began winning their independence in 1957. The Liberian republic was founded by freed slaves from the United States who had been encouraged to settle in Africa as an alternative both to remaining in slavery and struggling to find a place as free blacks Free blacks;and Liberia[Liberia] in white-dominated American society. The former American slaves were, for the most part, at least several generations removed from their African ancestors and had no real ties to Africa, apart from the color of their skin. Liberia
West Africa;Liberia
African Americans;and Liberia[Liberia]
[kw]Liberia Proclaims Its Independence (July 26, 1847)
[kw]Proclaims Its Independence, Liberia (July 26, 1847)
[kw]Independence, Liberia Proclaims Its (July 26, 1847)
West Africa;Liberia
African Americans;and Liberia[Liberia]
[g]Africa;July 26, 1847: Liberia Proclaims Its Independence[2520]
[g]Liberia;July 26, 1847: Liberia Proclaims Its Independence[2520]
[c]Colonization;July 26, 1847: Liberia Proclaims Its Independence[2520]
[c]Immigration;July 26, 1847: Liberia Proclaims Its Independence[2520]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;July 26, 1847: Liberia Proclaims Its Independence[2520]
Roberts, Joseph Jenkins
Benson, Stephen
Brander, Nathaniel

The plan to colonize Liberia was sponsored by the American Colonization Society American Colonization Society;and Liberia[Liberia] , a private philanthropic body. The motives of the society were mixed. Some of its supporters had a genuine humanitarian concern for the welfare of black Americans and believed that they would fare better in Africa than in the United States. Other supporters simply wanted to rid the United States of free blacks, who might encourage slaves to rise up in rebellion. Among African Americans themselves, many sought to live in a place where they would not be second-class citizens. There was also a strongly Christian Missionaries;in West Africa[West Africa] missionary tincture to the American Colonization Society, as many of its supporters hoped that the African Americans who settled in Africa would advance the propagation of the Gospel in heathen lands.

Although part of Africa, Liberia was essentially a transplanted copy of America. The settlers came to call themselves Americo-Liberians. The fact that one of the African American settlements was named Maryland Maryland (Liberia) after a slave state testifies to this strong sentiment of identification with America. Although the former slaves intended to settle in Africa permanently, there was no question of their adopting African customs. The settlers saw themselves as Christians and Americans, and were distinguished from members of the region’s indigenous peoples by always being addressed by titles such as “Mister.” There was no ban on intermarriage Marriage;in Liberia[Liberia] between settlers and native Africans, but few such marriages occurred. As a consequence, Liberia Segregation;in Liberia[Liberia] developed a society that became nearly as segregated as the American South from which the settlers had come.

Former American slaves began arriving in Liberia in 1821. By the middle of the decade, the Americo-Liberian settlement had begun to develop momentum under the leadership of Jehudi Ashmun Ashmun, Jehudi , who died prematurely in 1828. By the early 1840’s, Joseph Jenkins Roberts Roberts, Joseph Jenkins , a native of Virginia who had accumulated considerable wealth in Liberia, had risen to a high position among settlers. He was the spearhead of an Americo-Liberian leadership class that also included Stephen Benson Benson, Stephen , who spoke several local African languages, and Nathaniel Brander Brander, Nathaniel . These men found themselves in a position difficult to define in official diplomatic terms. Although the name of the country, Liberia, paid tribute to American ideas of liberty, and although its capital of Monrovia was named after James Monroe, the U.S. president when the colonization project began, there was no official connection between the government of the United States and Liberia Liberia;and United States[United States] . Moreover, the United States was not in a position to protect Liberia from other powers, particularly the British and French, who were starting to colonize the regions surrounding Liberia.

By the 1840’s, Liberia had become a financial drain on the American Colonization Society American Colonization Society;and Liberia[Liberia] , which was losing its base of funding as northern whites in the United States began to swing toward abolition of slavery and southern whites hardened in favor of retaining the institution. The U.S. Congress never appropriated funds to support Liberia, but some state legislatures did so. The American Colonization Society wanted to sever its ties with Liberia, but the Liberians were warned by British and Germans with whom they traded that they could not recognize the Society as a political authority.

Liberia’s administration got most of its revenue from customs duties that angered both the indigenous African traders and British British Empire;and Liberia[Liberia] merchants on whom the duties were levied. The British government advised Liberian authorities that it did not recognize the right of the American Colonization Society, a private organization, to levy duties. Britain’s refusal to recognize Liberian sovereignty convinced many Liberians that independence, with full taxing authority, was necessary for their survival. It was thus economic circumstances, more than any form of nationalist sentiment, that moved Liberians to seek independence. On July 26, 1847, their leaders proclaimed Liberia an independent republic. During the following year, Roberts Roberts, Joseph Jenkins was elected the new nation’s first president.

The Maryland Maryland (Liberia) enclave did not immediately join Liberia. It declared its independence from its own colonization society in 1854. In 1857, it joined Liberia as a county.

Early Liberian settlements, such as this mission station at Cape Palmas, were modeled on the plantations of the pre-Civil War American South.

(Library of Congress)

Great Britain was the first country to grant diplomatic recognition to Liberia. Several other countries, including the German city-states of Bremen, Lubeck, and Hamburg and the black-ruled Caribbean island of Haiti, soon followed suit. However, the United States, Liberia’s Liberia;and United States[United States] inspiration, did not recognize Liberia until June, 1862. The reason for this delay was not so much opposition to Liberia as an independent country but concern that there would be southern objections to receiving a black ambassador at Washington, D.C. Only after the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) was under way, when the southern states were out of the Union, did President Abraham Lincoln Lincoln, Abraham
[p]Lincoln, Abraham;and Liberia[Liberia] feel free to offer diplomatic recognition to Liberia. However, the United States did not becomes Liberia’s major foreign ally partner during the nineteenth century. Both Britain and Germany—after the latter’s unification in 1871—had closer ties to Liberia.

The new Liberian republic accomplished its first major venture in 1849, when its forces shut down a Spanish slave depot at Grand Cess. By that time, Spain was one of the few Western nations that was still actively engaged in trading slaves. Liberia’s termination of the Grand Cess slave trading station showed that Liberians remembered their origins and would remain vigilant against any continuation of the practice of enslaving Africans.

Nearly as important Africa;education in as Liberia’s political independence was its establishment of Liberia College (later the University of Liberia) in 1851. The college was modern Africa’s first African-run institution of higher education. Indeed, it could be argued that Liberia’s intellectual achievement, in providing a home for African and African American scholars, would become its greatest contribution during the nineteenth century.


Liberia was the first African country to be governed by people of African descent under Western political institutions. It was also the first black African nation to be recognized by Western nations. As an independent republic, Liberia held out promise that people of African descent could govern themselves responsibly. However, as Liberia was being built, the idea of colonization was losing its appeal in the United States, where black Americans chose to fight for freedom in the country they had helped to build, instead of settling in an Africa they had never known.

Liberia sputtered both economically and politically as the nineteenth century wore on. However, the fact that intellectuals prominent in Africa and the African diaspora, such as Edward Wilmot Blyden Blyden, Edward Wilmot and Alexander Crummell Crummell, Alexander , used Liberia as their intellectual base showed that the promise augured by Liberian independence was not merely idle. The African identity of the Americo-Liberian founders of the first Liberian republic was very different from the twentieth century ideologies of black power and pan-Africanism more commonly associated with African independence. Nevertheless, the Liberian precedent was important to both Africa and Africans.

Further Reading

  • Boley, G. E. Saigbe. Liberia: The Rise and Fall of the First Republic. New York: Macmillan, 1983. History of Liberia from its founding until the violent overthrow of its Americo-Liberian regime in 1980. Gives a brief account of the colonization and independence era, instead concentrating on the disruptive consequences of Americo-Liberian hegemony.
  • Dunn, D. Elwood, Amos J. Beyan, and Carl Patrick Burrowes. A Historical Dictionary of Liberia. 2d ed. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2001. Authoritative reference volume that includes solid mini-essays on key figures in the independence era and many other subjects.
  • Liebenow, J. Gus, Liberia: The Quest for Democracy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. Valuable overview of Liberian history and politics that includes informative maps and graphs. Gives a detailed narrative account of the colonization and independence era. Best place to look for an introductory overview.
  • Shick, Tom W. Behold the Promised Land: The History of Afro-American Settler Society in Nineteenth-Century Liberia. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980. Examination of the Liberian experience from the point of view of the Americo-Liberian settlers, examining their political and religious motivations as well as the social patterns that characterized early Liberia.
  • Taketani, Etsuko. “Postcolonial Liberia: Sarah Josepha Hale’s Africa.” American Literary History 14, no. 3 (Fall, 2002): 479-504. Discussion of the famous American journalist’s essays on Liberia that demonstrates the ironies of how the republic was perceived in the American North.

Exploration of West Africa

Congress Bans Importation of African Slaves

Social Reform Movement

Slavery Is Abolished Throughout the British Empire

American Anti-Slavery Society Is Founded

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