The Movement Begins
After Paul Cuffee's successful trip to Sierra Leone, the American interest in colonization became a movement. The Reverend Robert S. Finley, a native of Basking Ridge, New Jersey, decided to establish a colonization society that would attempt to improve the lifes of free blacks by removing them to Africa. He gathered several local supporters, mostly from religious circles, and held meetings in Princeton and Trenton to gather support. He also contacted Paul Cuffee, who was extremely ill but still alive, to get advice for his venture. Cuffee endorsed Finley's idea and a plan was laid for how the society would be formed and how it would procede. It was decided that Finley would establish the national society in Washington, D.C., since it would be easiest there to solicit federal assistance in meeting the great expenses they would face. The society would ask the President and Congress to secure territory in Africa for settlement by American black immigrants and to help finance their transport.
Finley found wide support in Washington for his endeavor, including some of the nation's most prominent figures. Men such as Speaker of the House of Representatives Henry Clay(at right), General Andrew Jackson, Senator Daniel Webster, John Randolph, Treasury Secretary William Crawford, and Francis Scott Key all came out to the meetings held by Finley in Washington in December of 1816. Clay, in fact, presided at the first meeting. Although Finley's idea had originated out of Christian benevolence, it became steeped in politics once it reached the nation's capital. Almost all of those who came out to support Finley were from slave states, and many were slaveowners themselves. They had no interest in freeing slaves or in seeing slavery end, only in deporting the free black population to help secure the continuation of slavery and white racial superiority. In his speech to open the first meeting, Clay admitted that he was a slaveowner "without chagrin" and said that "of all classes of our population the most vicious is that of the free colored." It was decided from the outset that the group would aim only to send free blacks to Africa, not to push for colonization as a means of emancipation. John Randolph said that the society "must tend essentially to make slave property safe." Wanting to maintain the support of the powerful men who had come out to join his movement, Finley did not object to their hypocrisy.
A constitution was written for the new group, and on January 1, 1817 the American Colonization Society was officially created. Bushrod Washington, an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court and nephew of George Washington, was elected the organization's first president. The American Colonization Society had an ally in the new President of the United States, James Monroe (at left). Monroe had endorsed the removal of free blacks to Africa since the turn of the century when he had been Governor of Virginia, and was now willing to use his authority to help the new society. He was able to convince Congress to appropriate $100,000 for the cause, and also helped them to secure federal help in gaining territory. In fact, Monroe's efforts to help the American Colonization Society were seen as so monumental, the capital of Liberia, the land that blacks were transported to, was named Monrovia in his honor.
One of the major obstacles that the American Colinization Society unexpectedly faced was widespread opposition from blacks. Many denounced the membership of the society as racist deportationists whose aim was not to help black people, but rather to strengthen slavery by ridding society of a free black population. They felt that it would be better to stay in America and fight against slavery and for full rights as United States citizens. Over 3,000 blacks gathered in Philadelphia in 1817 in a protest against the plans for colonization. In addition to the opposition from many blacks, and despite the generous contributions of the federal government and several leading citizens, the society had trouble raising the money it would need for its venture. One of the chief methods of fundraising that they developed was selling lifetime membership certificates (such as the one shown above). After a promising beginning, it was not until 1820 that the American Colonization Society was able to actually begin putting its plan into practice.
To find out about the first voyage that the American Colonization Society sponsored and its outcome, continue to Across the Atlantic: Colonization Gets Underway.
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