Liberia, Mexico and Racial Republicanism
by Eric Burin
The World Colonization Made: The Racial Geography of Early American Empire
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020. 253 pp
Over the past twenty years, there has been a surge in scholarship concerning the American Colonization Society (ACS), Liberia, and related topics. During this wave’s initial stages, many researchers, often focusing on a single state, emigrant party, or individual, revisited the long-standing debates about how the colonization movement affected US disputes over slavery, freedom, and race. More recently, however, scholars have reconceptualized the subject. They have peered at colonization through new analytical lenses, including, perhaps most revealingly, the lens of empire. This is the perspective showcased in Brandon Mills’s The World Colonization Made: The Racial Geography of Early American Empire, a far-ranging work that will be required reading for anyone wishing to keep atop this still-surging field.
Mills notes that colonizationism emerged during the post-Revolutionary period. It arose in response to white Americans’ fear that enslaved people would violently seize freedom, their opposition to racial equality within the nation’s boundaries, and lastly their expectation that the United States would expand across North America. Within this context, most colonizationists championed a Black colony in the West. A colony of this sort, whether loosely affiliated with the United States or wholly independent, would provide an avenue to abolition and thereby diminish the chance of a slave rebellion, preserve white supremacy in the United States, and advance the nation’s interests in the West. Some colonizationists expressed doubts about a western site, however. Among the skeptics was Thomas Jefferson, who warned that a Black colony there would impede and threaten white settlers who migrated to the region, especially those who arrived with enslaved laborers in tow. Such misgivings became more pronounced over time. Indeed, Native American resistance during the War of 1812 prompted colonizationists to consider whether a Black colony in the West would give rise to an “African Tecumseh” and invite an alliance between indigenous people and African American settlers (p. 34). For these reasons, by the mid-1810s, colonizationists were casting their eyes elsewhere.
Following the ACS’s establishment in December 1816, most colonizationists favored planting a prospective Black colony in western Africa. This change in locations necessitated an equally profound change in rationalizations. Among other things, an African venture, which struck some observers as nothing like a North American enterprise, required colonizationists to articulate a novel vision of American imperialism. To this end, colonizationists insisted that Liberia (which was founded in the early 1820s with federal aid that was available thanks to President James Monroe’s loose interpretation of the Slave Trade Act of 1819) would be different from European colonial endeavors. It would be based on enlightened and benevolent principles and in time Liberia would become an independent nation, a Black republic that reproduced US values and countenanced US interests. As Mills notes, these arguments “meshed with the anticolonial imperialism of U.S. foreign policy during this period,” particularly the Monroe Doctrine (p. 38).
Monroe’s thinking about Native Americans was also influenced by colonizationism. In the early nineteenth century, US policy mostly had aimed to appropriate Native lands in the East by encouraging indigenous people to adopt white customs and integrate into the American body politic. By contrast, Monroe proposed using federal resources to move Native Americans to western territories, where they could establish an Indian republic not unlike the one Black settlers were creating in Liberia. According to Mills, colonizationists like Monroe were entertaining “radically ambitious nation-building efforts aimed at both incorporating non-whites within the republican project and actively reinscribing racial hierarchy” (p. 92). Yet colonizationists’ racial republicanism was an unstable construct precisely because it required a simultaneous commitment to non-white self-governance and white supremacy. Those inherent tensions left both African and Indian colonization vulnerable to devastating blows during Andrew Jackson’s presidency, when the ACS’s attempts to secure additional US aid for Liberia failed miserably and Indian removal policy “all but abandoned the benevolent pretenses of early colonization proposals” (p. 66).
Robert K. Griffin, Liberian Senate, c. 1856
Although colonizationism had proved remarkably adaptable since the post-Revolutionary era, one thing that remained unchanged was the assumption that the United States was emphatically a white settler society. The fact that free Black people resided there struck colonizationists not just as unfortunate but nearly unnatural. African Americans, in their minds, simply were not legitimate occupants of the land. They were essentially aliens or foreigners. This brand of thinking encouraged white mobs to attack Black northerners and their property while government officials circumscribed their rights. If African Americans wanted to enjoy citizenship and self-determination—and in the gendered rhetoric of the day, every self-respecting “man” would desire such things—they could have them only in Liberia, which colonizationists pointedly called Black Americans’ “native” land.
Colonizationists’ beliefs regarding Liberia’s distinctive virtues grew stronger when the colony declared its national independence in 1847. The elite settlers who crafted Liberia’s Declaration of Independence did not denounce the ACS (even though over the years the organization’s officials often had been unwilling to cede political power to the colonists) but rather the United States, where racism, they wrote, was so widespread, relentless, and cruel it had driven them from the land of their birth. As for Liberia’s constitution, it proclaimed that only “Negroes or persons of Negro descent” could be citizens of the new republic (p. 141). ACS leaders privately objected to this provision, but the codification of racial privilege bolstered their claims that in Liberia alone were Black rights secure. Even so, most northern African Americans were not buying what the colonizationists were selling. The United States, they insisted with “manly” defiance, was their rightful home. Yet during the 1850s, some Black northerners expressed a newfound interest in colonization, partly because of Liberia’s status as a Black republic and partly because the Fugitive Slave Law and other manifestations of racism strengthened white settler republicanism in the United States.
Colonizationism was reimagined once again during the late 1850s and early 1860s. This time, its supporters focused on Latin America and the Caribbean. From the colonizationists’ perspective, the push to acquire “All Mexico” following the US-Mexican War and the exploits of proslavery filibusterers like William Walker constituted a highly problematic model of US expansion. They proposed instead establishing Black colonies in the region, which they contended would enhance the United States’ hemispheric power without “large-scale military interventions, the annexation of territory, the extension of slavery, or the threat of racial mixture” (p. 167). Far more than Liberia, the prospective colonies would safeguard US geopolitical and commercial interests, particularly from British encroachments. These ideas found a home in the Republican Party, and during the Civil War, they were, to a limited extent, actually implemented. As Mills observes, President Abraham Lincoln used diplomatic channels when pursuing such endeavors, but he also tellingly tapped experienced businessmen with investments in the region to oversee the enterprises. These ventures came to naught, of course. But even in failure, they illustrate how colonizationism was not merely a part of the debate over wartime emancipation but rather reflected the United States’ race-based imperial ambitions.
The United States became a global power in the postwar period. Its expansion embodied, in many ways, the ideas that colonizationists had touted for decades (that is, the establishment of racially distinct and nominally independent polities that would serve as proxies for US interests). Although colonization languished as an organized movement in the postbellum era, as Mills concludes, “Americans, whether they recognized it or not, lived in a world made by colonization” (p. 200).
At the risk of carping about “the book that should have been written,” one could highlight a certain unevenness in Mills’s monograph. For example, the discussion of the post-Revolutionary period notwithstanding, the volume mostly concerns northerners’ thoughts on colonization, leaving southerners largely silenced. Likewise, while Black Americans make periodic and important appearances in the work, white people usually occupy center stage. Nevertheless, The World Colonization Made is a superb book, one that will occupy a prominent and well-deserved place in the scholarly literature on colonization.
About the Author
Eric Burin is an assistant professor at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.
First published at the H-Net. Republished here under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Liberian Senate reproduced here under fair use. Credit: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.