“Better For Us To Be Separated”


Still, the optimism of the society could not overcome a second paradox in its very nature. Just as they could not easily be healers of sectional strife while asking federal help for a program distrusted by many Southerners, so they could not avoid the fact that their program had both proslavery and antislavery implications, which conflicted with each other. Some indeed wanted emancipation and believed that if slave-holders were offered the prospect of getting rid of their bondsmen, they would be willing to sign the deeds of manumission. But others, especially in the South, wanted resettlement to be used simply to secure the peace and safety of the slave states by isolating the slaves from the contaminating influence of the free blacks. Even members of the society who were antislavery in principle had developed serious misgivings about emancipation unless it was accompanied by resettlement. As Francis Scott Key put it in 1838: I have emancipated seven of my slaves. They have done pretty well, and six of them, now alive, are supporting themselves comfortably and creditably. Yet I cannot but see that this is all they are doing now; and, when age and infirmity come upon them, they will probably suffer. … I am still a slaveholder, and could not, without the greatest inhumanity, be otherwise. … The laws of Maryland contain provisions… under which slaves, in certain circumstances, are entitled to petition the courts for their freedom. As a lawyer, I always undertook these cases with peculiar zeal, and have been thus instrumental in liberating several large families and many individuals. I cannot remember more than two instances, out of this large number, in which it did not appear that the freedom I so earnestly sought for them was their ruin. It has been so with a very large proportion of all others I have known emancipated.

Nor was this exclusively the view of a Southerner. John A. Dix of New York declared to a meeting of his state’s colonization society in 1830, “The mass of crime committed by Africans is greater, in proportion to numbers, in the non-slaveholding than in the slaveholding States; and as a rule the degree of comfort enjoyed by them is inferior. This is not an argument in favor of slavery; but it is an unanswerable argument in favor of rendering emancipation and colonization co-extensive with each other.”

Officially, the society took no line except advocating removal of free Negroes. But in the interests of “sound policy,” as a modern defender of the society points out, the organization let its members make what they wished of that aim, depending on where they worked. With some fairness, colonization was criticized in the North as being the tool of slaveholders and in the South as a tool of the abolitionists—as was bound to happen when it was depicted by its own members both as a way to eliminate and to guarantee slavery.

But the problems of trying to satisfy a northern and a southern membership were common to all organizations of the ante-bellum period, especially those seeking compromise. A much more serious handicap for the society was that it uncritically accepted the theory that blacks were inferior to whites. In this, of course, the members had the company of most of their contemporaries, for it was a belief deeply rooted in American life even though it ran against the grain of the official American credo. Both Jefferson and Lincoln had at least tentatively subscribed to it, and their support of resettlement proposals was motivated in part by it. The society did not conceal its prejudice. Negroes, said Ralph Gurley, secretary of the society and editor of the African Repository , were “a people which are injurious and dangerous to our social interests, as they are ignorant, vicious, and unhappy.” That was why it was necessary to send them to Africa.

The disparity of principles did not go unnoticed. “They can love and benefit [Negroes] four thousand miles off, but not at home,” wrote William Lloyd Garrison to a friend in 1831. “They profess to be, and really believe that they are, actuated by the most philanthropic motives; and yet are cherishing the most unmanly and unchristian prejudices.”