The country of Liberia was established by freed African-Americans with the help of the American Colonization Society (ACS) between 1821 and 1822. The country was established out of ACS’s desire to create a haven for freed blacks who faced discrimination in America. Later, Liberia became one of Africa’s first independent states and modeled its government after its foster parent, the United States of America. These events are recorded on the Biblical Timeline Poster with World History during that time.
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The Free Blacks and the Foundation of the American Colonization Society (ACS)
During the early 19th century, thousands of free blacks flocked to the urban centers in the North to make a new life for themselves. Reverend Robert Finley, a Presbyterian pastor in Princeton, New Jersey, became concerned about the welfare of the free blacks who lived in the city. Although they had been freed, Finley realized that these people still lived in poverty and did not enjoy the rights and privileges of white men. In the South, on the other hand, many remained in slavery and continued to live in oppression.
While some late 18th and early 19th century thinkers advocated the assimilation of the blacks into the society, others—like Thomas Jefferson—proposed a different solution. He asserted that it was impossible for blacks and whites to live in peace, so he proposed to send the free blacks somewhere else. The idea quickly gained traction among some well-meaning abolitionists who genuinely saw it as a way to give the blacks a new start in life. Others only saw it as a convenient way to assuage their conscience and reassure themselves that they were doing the right thing.
To this end, Reverend Finley and his brother-in-law, the prominent Washington D.C. attorney Elias B. Caldwell, founded the American Colonization Society in 1816. They were later joined by prominent political personalities and wealthy men, such as Bushrod Washington, Charles Fenton Mercer, Henry Clay, General Andrew Jackson, and Colonel Henry Rutgers. Robert E. Lee’s uncles, the plantation owners Edmund Lee and Richard Bland Lee, were also members of the group.
The members’ motivations were as diverse as the men who joined the ACS. The Quakers genuinely believed that it was their duty to give the blacks a home where they could prosper and eventually spread the Christian message. Others saw the blacks’ presence and the discrimination they faced as reminders that the republic’s egalitarian philosophy applied only to its white citizens. Some (such as the Lee brothers) only wanted to get rid of the disaffected blacks for fear that they would one day rise up and rebel against their masters. Despite the differences in motivation, they all agreed that sending the free blacks to Africa would be a good plan. This project was later approved by President Monroe and funded by Congress through the Slave Trade Act of 1819.
The Foundation of Liberia
In spring of 1820, free blacks boarded the ship Elizabeth and sailed to Africa’s west coast. They were accompanied by the United States Navy, whose officers were commissioned to scout for possible locations on the Pepper Coast. The British government had established a colony for free blacks in Sierra Leone during the 1780s, so it was only sensible that the Americans would establish one near the area also. The new colonists tried to settle into Freetown but they encountered fierce resistance from the indigenous Temne people. They then coasted south to Sherbro Island but quickly found it unsuitable. They also tried the Ivory Coast but abandoned it when they found the place unfit for settlement.
In December 1821, the naval officers and crew came across Cape Mesurado. The colonists’ leaders, Navy Lieutenant R.F. Stockton and Dr. Eli Ayres, disembarked with the crew and approached King Peter of the De people. With the help of their Kru allies, the group started the negotiations to acquire the land which the De inhabited. King Peter hesitated but quickly made a decision to cede the land after Stockton threatened him with a pistol. The king then signed the treaty with the leaders of the ACS.
The first settlers left Freetown and arrived in Cape Mesurado in January 1822. They called their new home “Liberia” (or the “land of the free”) and called their new capital Monrovia after President James Monroe. The Baptist minister Lott Cary and fellow African-American Elijah Johnson became the de facto leaders of the settlers.
Life in early Liberia was not as rosy as the colonists initially envisioned. Malaria and yellow fever quickly killed some settlers, and there was the additional problem of living near the De people who felt that they had been cheated during the negotiations. The settlers—like the American pioneers—established farms which they protected with stockades. De warriors attacked the settlers in November 1822 but were easily repulsed with the help of a cannon and guns the settlers brought from America. The De made a second attempt but were thwarted with the help of British naval officers who happened to pass by the area.
The Liberians switched to trading after finding that farming was not lucrative. Their numbers increased when nearly 6,000 “recaptives” were resettled by the ACS in Liberia in the next 40 years. These “recaptives,” however, were segregated from the more influential American-born settlers. The settlers later spread along the coast, displacing indigenous peoples and slave traders alike. In 1839, an offshoot of the ACS called the Maryland State Colonization Society resettled free blacks in Cape Palmas. English was the commonwealth’s primary language, and it was ruled by an ACS-appointed governor.
The Liberian government finally declared its independence from the United States in 1847. Liberia became one of the two independent states (Ethiopia being the other) in Africa during the 19th century. The Republic of Liberia adopted a constitution and closely modeled its form of government after the United States. Liberia’s government is headed by a president, while the Senate and House of Representatives make up the country’s lawmaking body. Like the US, the country also has a supreme court.
Fyfe, Christopher. The Cambridge History of Africa: from c. 1790 to 1870. Edited by John E. Flint. Vol. 5. London: Cambridge University Press, 1976.
Pham, John-Peter. Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State. New York, NY: Reed Press, 2004.
Starr, Frederick. Liberia: Description, History, Problems. Chicago, 1913.
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