The Failure of Colonization

Certificate for Life Membership in the American Colonization Society.

The American Colonization Society, the premier organization advocating for the exportation of slavery to Africa, had a major supporter in Secretary of State Henry Clay in the late 1820s.

Secretary Clay “saw colonization as a responsible middle ground between abolitionism and the defense of slavery as a positive good.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 264. For him, it reinforced an active government and evoked the optimism that solutions could be found for any problem. Id.

Like-minded individuals in the American Colonization Society, and in support of colonization, believed that white racism was a given in American society and only by working around that racism could Americans achieve a result akin to emancipation. Id. Secretary Clay hoped that transporting enough blacks to Africa would result in southerners letting go of their fears of insurrection and rebellion. Id.

In the 1820s, the illegal international slave trade was transporting over 59,000 slaves a year across the Atlantic Ocean, mostly to Brazil and Cuba. Id. citing David Brion Davis, “Reconsidering the Colonization Movement,” Intellectual History Newsletter 14 (1992): 13, n. 1. While President John Quincy Adams did not support Secretary Clay’s enthusiasm for colonization, he allowed him to promote the program and continued the modest financial support that President James Monroe had allocated for the program. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 264.

Much of this came shortly after the states had begun taking action on the matter. In January 1824, the Ohio state legislature passed a resolution, “proposing colonization linked with gradual emancipation, the whole package to be accomplished at federal expense.” Id. at 265. In the year following that resolution, seven other free states and Delaware had adopted resolutions in their respective legislatures. Id. In response, six southern state legislatures “passed resolutions deploring outside interference with slavery,” as they felt that slavery was a question for the southern white public to deal with, nobody else. Id. at 264-65.

As it became clear “that the New Southwest beyond the Appalachians would absorb” slaves, “masters found it more attractive to sell surplus workers out of state than to pay for their manumission and transport to Africa.” Id. at 265. The southern states began to realize the northern states’ plans of gradual emancipation, and the southern leaders, like George Troup of Georgia and William Smith of South Carolina, harshly denounced any such plans for colonization. Id. citing Richard H. Brown, “The Missouri Crisis, Slavery, and the Politics of Jacksonianism,” South Atlantic Quarterly 65 (1966), 66-67.

Ultimately, southerners and blacks themselves would impede the objective of the American Colonization Society and advocates of colonization. Many blacks moved to Canada, as slavery had been ended in the colonies of British North America. One escaped slave, Joseph Taper, settled in Ontario in 1839, writing to his former master the following letter:

“Dear Sir,

I now take this opportunity to inform you that I am in a land of liberty, in good health . . . . Since I have been in the Queens dominions I have been well contented, Yes well contented for Sure, man is as God intended he should be. That is, all are born free & equal. This is a wholesome law, not like the Southern laws which puts man made in the image of God, on level with brutes . . . .

We have good schools, & all the colored population supplied with schools. My boy Edward who will be six years until January, is now reading, & I intend keeping him at school until he comes a good scholar . . . .

My wife and self are sitting by a good comfortable fire happy, knowing that there are none to molest [us] or make [us] afraid. God save Queen Victoria.” Quoted in John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, Runaway Slaves (New York, 1999), 294-95.

With all of the work that the federal and state governments had done to work toward a gradual emancipation through colonization, it was a failed program as the decades approached mid-century. At least some portion of blacks simply left America for Canada, as it was an easily accessible, freer society at that time.

In some ways, the concept of colonization seemed a naive attempt to emancipate American slaves. However, it captures the dilemma that Americans faced if they wished to progress as a free, equal society. While Canada had shed the burden of slavery, America was still grappling with how to begin curbing the existence of slavery. Southerners were only digging their heels in further, to ensure that their way of life and economic structure were not eroded and certainly not eliminated.

America, despite the good faith efforts of some, was running out of options for dealing with the issue of slavery in a non-confrontational, effective way. As colonization was being crossed off the list of efforts, conflict was beginning to feel more inevitable than ever before.

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