“Better For Us To Be Separated”

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Nevertheless, despite this discouraging beginning, two more federal agents and two more colonization-society representatives were sent out, along with thirty-three more settlers, in 1821. Two of the four leaders died, but the team managed to work out arrangements for the use of forty square miles of land on the coast south of Sierra Leone. But the deal committed the society to an annual rent of three hundred dollars, and the society, when the issue was presented to it, refused to accept the agreement, considering the sum an unjustified tribute to the heathen king who controlled the land.

With all their difficulties, the colonizationists still had Monroe’s support, and now they arranged for a physician, Eli Ayres, and a Navy lieutenant, Robert F. Stockton, to be posted by the government to Africa to continue the search for a suitable site. Ayres and Stockton headed for Cape Mesurado, a promontory thirty-six miles long and three miles wide, on the Grain Coast. Earlier agents had not been able to buy the cape from the local chief, King Peter, and the first attempt by Ayres and Stockton was also fruitless. After days of waiting for King Peter to palaver again, they marched inland to his village and at pistol point forced him to sell. The price for Cape Mesurado was less than three hundred dollars in clothes, guns, powder, rum, tobacco, and trinkets. This “purchase” from an unwilling seller the American Colonization Society named Liberia—“free land”—and the first settlement there, Monrovia.

For more than forty years the society got along with varying degrees of the sort of limited federal support that had helped found Liberia. This backing was augmented by contributions from individuals and occasionally from state legislatures. Agents of the society toured the country, spreading information about colonization, raising money, starting state and local auxiliaries. This effort was aided after 1825 by the publication of a monthly paper, the African Repository and Colonial Journal . Liberia grew. By the time of the Civil War, some eleven thousand free Negroes—at least half of them newly emancipated slaves—had been resettled there.

The managers of the society never gave up hope that the federal government would eventually commit itself to resettlement on a massive scale. But they soon found themselves in an insoluble dilemma over that question. They were determined to act as a national, unifying force, but there was no way for the society to bid for federal aid and yet to avoid being caught up in the growing sectional debate or to become itself a cause for debate. For one of the burning issues of the day was the very question of whether the federal government had any power to deal with slaves (or ex-slaves) in any fashion.

Such controversy made it inevitable that until the Civil War, help for colonization from the national government would be small. And meanwhile the hope of federal assistance on a grand scale acted as a damper on private contributions, and these were further reduced by the competition of many other enterprises in philanthropy.

Moreover, the sheer size of the task to be performed was also defeating. Realistically, this was the sort of project that could not hope to succeed if left to private philanthropy. By 1830 the number of free Negroes in the United States was over 319,000; it had increased by nearly 86,000 in the preceding ten years. And in that ten-year span the American Colonization Society had raised $113,000 and resettled 1,430 free blacks.

But in spite of many obstacles and limited progress, the colonizationists remained confident that eventually the country would see things their way. Many respectable, influential men, of both North and South, belonged to the society or were in sympathy with the idea. Liberia had survived serious trials—the ever-present malaria, small wars with the native population, the unreliability of supply shipments, the difficulties of administration at long distance, and rebellions by the colonists. Settlers now held appointive posts in the government, and a newspaper, the Liberia Herald , was being published.