The Founding of Liberia
The founding of Liberia represented the intersection of America's racial conflict and foreign policy. In 1816 a group of white Americans founded the American Colonization Society to deal with the "problem" of the growing number of free blacks by resettling them in Africa. Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John Randolph and Fernando Fairfax were among the best known members. Ex-President Thomas Jefferson publicly supported the organization's goals, and President James Madison arranged public funding for the Society.
In 1818 the Society sent two representatives to West Africa to find a suitable location but they were unable to persuade local tribal leaders to sell territory. In 1820, 88 free black settlers and 3 society members sailed for Sierra Leone. Before departing they had signed a constitution requiring that an agent of the Society administer the settlement under U.S. laws. They found shelter on Scherbo Island off the west coast of Africa, but many died there from malaria. In 1821, a U.S. Navy vessel resumed the search for a place of permanent settlement in what is now Liberia. Accounts differ, but it is quite possible that the threat of force caused the indigenous leaders to agree to sell a strip of land to the Society. The Scherbo Island group moved to this new location and other blacks from the United States joined them. They suffered attacks from the local tribes and in 1824 built fortifications for protection. In that same year, the settlement was named Liberia, with its capital at Monrovia, named for President James Monroe.
Other colonization societies sponsored by individual states purchased land and sent settlers to areas near Liberia. Africans removed from slave ships by the U.S. Navy were also put ashore in Liberia. In 1838 most of these settlements, with up to 20,000 people, combined into one organization. Today, about 5 percent of the population of Liberia is descended from these settlers.
The American Colonization Society was not a sovereign state, and when Great Britain and France began to encroach on Liberian territory, it was hard-pressed to defend its interests. The United States government lent some diplomatic support, but this was not sufficient to fend off these advances. Consequently, in 1847 Liberia declared independence. Britain was the first nation to extend recognition. The United States delayed recognition until 1862 because of fears of the impact this might have on the issue of slavery domestically and objections some might have to the presence of black diplomats in Washington.
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Founding Documents Index