What is Liberia to a US Historian? Bicentennial Reflections Part II

Casey Donahue

Few nations’ founding loom so large in the American imagination. In US historiography, the pursuit of the Liberian Republic—begun in the early 1820s and realized in 1847—is perhaps the most highly symbolized origin story of any nation that is not the United States. It appears in our national narratives not as a critical study of African state-building, but as a palimpsest, on which generations of US thinkers have projected their judgments of American morality and racial tolerance. Throughout 2022, Liberians are set to commemorate the earliest stages of their nation’s settlement and founding. As the United States offers its well-wishes, its representatives reiterate a familiar narrative about America’s role in the making of “Africa’s Oldest Republic.” It is a narrative that dances between praise for the Black expatriates who pursued freedom in Africa, and apologies for the “oppressive conditions that led Black Americans…to seek a new beginning.” The details it includes and omits are the by-product of a two-centuries-old scholarly debate about how best to remember one of the most peculiar alternatives to emancipation in US history: African Colonization.

Two-hundred years ago to the month, 86 Black Americans, many of whom were formerly enslaved, established a bare-bones fortress on Providence Island, off Cape Mesurado. The Cape was a strip of land on West Africa’s Pepper Coast purchased from a Bassa (or, by some sources, Golah) leader at gunpoint by white agents of the American Colonization Society (ACS). Within three years, that settlement grew into Monrovia, the nucleus and eventual capital of the Liberian state. This nation-building project—animated by a blend of Black nationalism and Christian missionary zeal—resulted in “Africa’s first republic.” It actualized a vision for Black expatriates who dreamed of “a perfected America, free from racial hatred.” But it also birthed a society that systematically privileged the settlers’ “Americo-Liberian” descendants; disenfranchised the land’s Indigenous groups until 1904; fomented vast wealth inequalities that persist to this day; and collapsed in a violent 1980 coup. These historic injustices sowed the seeds of the two-part civil war that consumed the country from 1989 to 2003.

As I wrote last week, the contentious dual meanings of 1822 are not lost on the bicentennial’s Liberian organizers. Its American diplomatic supporters seem conscious of them too. At a January 7th kickoff event, US Ambassador Michael McCarthy joined Liberian President George Weah to praise the enduring relationship and “shared democratic values” between their countries—“two of the oldest republics in the world.” When discussing the long arc of Liberian history, McCarthy stuck to the bicentennial’s core themes. He recognized 1822 as the nation’s origin point, he glossed over the historic tensions between American settlers and Indigenous Africans, and he celebrated the country’s present diversity.

This is boilerplate patriotic history for pluralist liberal democracies. And notably, it resembles optimistic readings of US history, where, as Matthew Karp’s has written, “confessed historical crimes painlessly resolve into patriotic triumphs.” Just like America, Liberia was founded on an ideal that would bless and dignify all its peoples; past inequalities were aberrations from the core national mission.

Same Ship, Different Histories

More interesting was McCarthy’s depiction of how domestic US politics led to Liberia’s founding. “In 1822,” he began, “the American democracy, while ambitious, was not yet a fair society… So, it should not be a surprise that, in 1820, 86 free Black Americans chose to board a ship sailing for a new life in West Africa.” Here, McCarthy urged his audience to “consider the bravery and hope” of those settlers, casting them as refugees imbued with agency, victims who refused to be victimized by a degrading America.

Unmentioned in his speech were the accompanying white agents of the ACS—a collection of Yankee philanthropists and southern slaveholders who promoted, organized, and partially financed the relocation of free Black Americans to West African colonies. In mainstream interpretations of American history, the ACS and its inherently segregationist philosophy are a national embarrassment.

McCarthy called for a “robust, scholarly debate about the historical decisions and actions taken by our ancestors.” In fact, such a debate has been simmering in US historian circles for over two centuries, and much of it has centered on an irony that McCarthy did not—and perhaps could not—address in his diplomatic remarks: the 1822 settlers traveled to Liberia in search of freedom, but they did so with the assistance of the ACS. Liberia’s settlement and founding is therefore a curious historical case, in which Black freedom migrants and white supremacists worked together toward the same goal, often on the same ships.

White Colonizationism

For scholars of US civil rights and emancipation, Liberia is more of a symbol than a nation. It is a space imagined into existence by white “colonizationists” who, by ridding the nation of free Blacks, sought either to hasten slavery’s demise or to weaken the nation’s pool of Black abolitionists. Alternately, it is the destination of African American emigrationists, who made the dramatic and statistically rare decision to renounce US citizenship and seek land in a colony governed by Black men. Both lenses treat Liberia as an idyll pursued and established by those who did not believe in America’s capacity for interracial harmony.

Since the 1816 founding of the ACS, literature about African colonization has mostly studied the movement as a component of the broader US struggle for racial justice. If we envision US history as a long slow march toward equality, then the plan to remove Black Americans and colonize them abroad represents a failed alternative, which thankfully never gained sustained interracial or transregional traction.

William Lloyd Garrison deserves first credit for this damning consensus. His 1832 pamphlet, Thoughts on African Colonization, set the tone for generations of critics who, like the famed abolitionist, viewed the ACS as “inadequate in its design, injurious in its operation, and contrary to sound principle.” It was a searing indictment. In Stephen Brown’s assessment, the pamphlet “ushered in the immediatist phase of the abolition movement,” wherein antislavery voices dismissed all courses of action that did not directly confront and diminish “the peculiar institution.”

Post-Civil War historians largely followed in Garrison’s footsteps. A number of them focused on the intentions of the white men who touted the numerous and contradictory philosophies of African colonizationism. Was the ACS a force for gradual abolition, or a ploy to prolong and extend slavery? Were white emigrationists humanitarians trying to create a homeland for an oppressed racial class, or were they slaveholders anxious that the country’s free Black population might threaten miscegenation or rebellion? Was colonizationism an endorsement of racial separation or a realist acknowledgement of the United States’ insurmountable bigotry? A crafty historian could answer yes to any part of any of these questions; but as Stanley Harrold and Randall Miller observed in 2017, “By the 1960s, most of the scholars agreed that, regardless of its supporters’ claims, the African colonization movement appealed to racism and hampered progress toward Black freedom.”

This consensus has influenced scholarship and activism to this day. Kate Masur’s 2021 civil rights history, Until Justice Be Done, treats the ACS as an embodiment of the racist half-measures taken by white activists who protested slavery but could not imagine a harmonious interracial society. The book culminates in the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, which Masur identifies as a “rebuke to decades of colonizationist agitation.” Colonizationism gets a similar treatment in How the Word is Passed, Clint Smith’s best-selling 2021 study of slavery in the American public memory.

In the ongoing American statue wars, involvement in the ACS can be grounds for iconoclasm. Take ‘Em Down NOLA, which calls for the removal of “all symbols of white supremacy in New Orleans,” targets the city’s monument to Henry Clay, identifying him as three things: “Slaveowner, President of American Colonization Society, defender of slavery in Congress.” Clay also appears in Washington DC’s National Museum for African American History and Culture, where his role in the African colonization is framed as one in a long history of slights against the ability of Black people to truly be American.

Colonizationism—whether rooted in racial animus or do-gooder sympathy—was a white supremacist form of thought. It pursued the maintenance of a white American nation through the removal of an inconvenient demographic. But among nineteenth century US elites, it was as normal as it was racist. As Phillip Magness and Sebastian Page have argued, Abraham Lincoln entertained initiatives for Black resettlement in the Caribbean or Central America even after emancipation—an uncomfortable detail for Lincoln’s more reverential biographers.

In fact, the question of whether to remove a non-white population was a recurring one for the US Government in the nineteenth century. As Paul Frymer has argued, the 1830 Indian Removal Act and the subsequent “Trail of Tears” served as the impetus for Garrison’s reassessment and condemnation of African colonizationism. The logistical chaos of the government’s displacement of Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw peoples proved to many abolitionists that the intentions of the plan’s architects were irrelevant. Organized population removal—coerced or consensual—was a recipe for humanitarian disaster.

Black Emigrationism

But those in power were not the only ones with opinions on the matter. Just as whites debated the risks and benefits of coexistence with Blacks, Black communities weighed their prospects for prosperity and survival alongside whites.

Since the 1970s, historians have paid increasing attention to Black opinions on expatriation. In his seminal 1975 book, The Search For A Black Nationality, Floyd Miller set aside historical debates about the intentions of the ACS and focused on Black emigrationist thought. According to Miller, the ideologies spurring Black cooperation with colonizationists had been evolving for generations, and Liberia was not the inevitable destination for African American nation-builders. A year later, Nell Irvin Painter published Exodusters, which revealed that in the post-Civil War South, there was a fluid relationship between Black emigrationists and Black supporters of intra-US migration. “In the late 1870s,” notes Painter, “Liberia Fever and Kansas Fever flourished in the same fields.” Elena Abbott’s 2021 book, Beacons of Liberty, also encourages us to take a transnational approach when studying Black questions of whether, how, and to where to resettle.

By shifting the focus from white colonizationists to Black emigrationists, these scholars ask a different set of questions about racial separation in the long American nineteenth century. Liberia’s early settlers certainly represented a form of racial separation, one that was not unanimously popular among prominent Black activists. These settlers held that the best chance for Black prosperity lay abroad, and they paved the way for a nation that still restricts its citizenship to those of “Negro descent.”  But serious historians cannot draw equivalencies between the white and Black currents of anti-integrationism in an era so defined by slavery.

There has been a longstanding scholarly impasse between those studying white colonizationism and those studying Black migrationism. In 2017, Beverly Tomek and Matthew Hetrick compiled a collection of essays that acknowledged this impasse and showcased fresh perspectives on colonization studies. But of the collection’s sixteen essays, only four deal explicitly with African American opinions on emigration.

The initial voyages to Liberia involved far too many motivating ideologies and interracial dynamics for any single, cohesive history book to handle. Relations between settlers and ACS agents hinged on the success of the mission. While some histories feature ACS agents as overbearing obstructions to Black settler sovereignty, others suggest that a binary Black-white divide may not be the best way to understand Liberia’s first settlement, considering the classist and colorist hierarchies that began during the passage across the Atlantic.

A History that Ends at the Founding

No wonder that in his January 7th speech, Ambassador McCarthy chose to focus solely on the Black settlers of 1822, not their ACS counterparts. To US historians, Liberia’s conception and settlement represent two untouching sides of the American soul—the pursuit of free soil and the rejection of interracial coexistence. Easier for a US diplomat to glorify the perseverance of the settlers and apologize for American racism writ large. There is little space in this patriotic bicentennial for a foreign diplomat to parse through the awkward and often inglorious alliances that sowed the seeds of Monrovia.

But when the bicentennial celebrations die down, public-facing historians should do more to make that space. Scholars understand that Liberian history is far more complicated than the meanings they draw from its founding. But an average American might not. It is safe to guess that the casual US history buff knows two things about Liberia: it is “that country founded by slaves”; and it suffered a horrible civil war at the end of the twentieth century. This is a history that ends once American settlers reach African shores. Only in 1989 does Liberia reappear in the US consciousness as the embodiment of West African chaos, transmitted to American audiences through lurid exposes of warlordism, a la Vice News.

US-Liberian history does not end with the latter’s founding. Between 1822 and 1915, US warships intervened four times to help the Americo-Liberian ascendancy quash Indigenous insurrections. In 1926, Firestone Tire and Rubber Company set up shop outside Monrovia, brutally altering the trajectory of the local economy and Liberia’s sense of independence. Only in the last eight years have researchers—such as Gregg Mitman and ProPublica’s T. Christian Miller and Jonathan Jones—taken serious steps to inform the broader US public of US industry’s enduring and shocking influence over Liberia’s national fate.

When one country’s founding becomes a symbol for another’s progress, revelations get lost. If US historians continue to dwell on white and Black participation in Liberia’s early settlement, we will continue to learn new things about the state of American equality in the age of emancipation. But if we extend the timeline of our attention into the less explored decades of Liberia’s past, we open up new and intersecting stories of US race, capitalism, and empire.

Image: The New York chapter of the Colonization Society began in 1817. The New York Historical Society/Getty Images.

Casey is a dual Masters candidate in History and Foreign Service. He studies peace processes and sociopolitical movements in the Irish and Middle Eastern spaces. Casey is a former classroom teacher and political risk analyst. He currently works as an elementary school tutor.

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