American Colonization Society

1816 - 1865

The American Colonization Society, founded in 1816 to assist free black people in emigrating to Africa, was the brainchild of the Reverend Robert Finley, a Presbyterian minister from Basking Ridge, New Jersey. Finley believed that blacks would never be fully integrated into American society and that they would only be able to fulfill their potential as human beings in Africa, the "land of their fathers." He saw colonization as a charitable work, one that would benefit American blacks and Africans alike through the spreading of Christianity to Africa. He also thought that it would prompt a gradual end to slavery.

In keeping with the popular thought of the day, Finley saw the presence of blacks in America as a threat to the national well-being and the quality of life for whites. He said that free blacks were "unfavorable to our industry and morals" and that removing them would save Americans from difficulties such as interracial marriage and having to provide for poor blacks.

In December 1816, Finley traveled to Washington, D.C. There he won the immediate support of his brother-in-law, Elias B. Caldwell, Clerk of the Supreme Court, and Caldwell's friend, Francis Scott Key (author of the Star Spangled Banner), both of whom had a reputation for being friendly to Washington's free blacks. Together, the three canvassed for support, and on December 21, 1816, called an organizational meeting for the society that included some of the most powerful and influential men in the country.

In a series of meetings over the next few days, the group adopted a constitution, chose officers, and decided to call themselves the "American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color in the United States." Bushrod Washington, the nephew of George Washington, was chosen as president of the society. Vice presidents included Finley, Henry Clay, and Richard Rush, the son of Benjamin Rush. Andrew Jackson was included on the list without his consent; in reality he was a staunch anti-colonizationist. Caldwell was the organization's secretary, and Key was on the board of managers.

The motives of the ACS members varied considerably. Some were genuine allies of free blacks, and were concerned for their welfare. Some hoped that colonization would eradicate slavery. Others, such as Henry Clay, wanted to maintain the institution of slavery but to rid the country of free blacks, who they believed posed a serious threat as potential fomenters of slave rebellion.

The concept of black colonization did not originate with Finley. Since 1787, efforts to find an alternative home for free blacks had sometimes been praised by blacks themselves and by staunch allies such as Anthony Benezet and Benjamin Rush. One of the most active proponents of colonization was Paul Cuffe, who felt that black people living in America would never receive the full benefits of citizenship, and that they would fare much better on the friendly shores of Africa.

The response of black Philadelphians to colonization was mixed. James Forten was a close friend of Cuffe's and a supporter of Cuffe's colonization schemes. Other prominent blacks, such as Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, knew all too well the effects of white prejudice, and African colonization seemed an attractive alternative. Yet despite their leaders' support for colonization, the common people unequivocally rejected the notion, and Philadelphia's blacks became well known as the chief opponents of the ACS.

The ACS continued its work until after the Civil War. The organization worked with the United States government to establish the African colony of Liberia, where it transported approximately 12,000 blacks over the course of its existence. Although the ACS controlled the bulk of emigration, other groups formed their own schemes. The total number of black people to emigrate from the United States to other countries was approximately 15,000.



Meeting of Free People of Color of Richmond, Virginia


The response of free blacks to the question of colonization ranged from outright rejection to full embrace of the concept as a practical alternative to racial oppression in the United States. In carefully framed language, a "respectable portion of the free people of color of the city of Richmond," Virginia met on January 24, 1817 to consider the position put forth by the American Colonization Society.

The group declared "that we prefer being colonized in the most remote corner of the land of our nativity, to being exiled to a foreign country."

A month earlier, at the first meeting of the American Colonization Society, ACS Secretary and Supreme Court Justice Elias B. Caldwell had spoken on "the practicability of colonization" within the American continent -- rejecting the idea for fear of black alliances with "Indians, or the nations bordering on our frontiers, in case of war," or that "the colony would become the asylum of fugitives and runaway slaves."

Meeting of Free People of Color of Richmond, Virginia

At a meeting of a respectable portion of the free people of color of the city of Richmond, on Friday, January 24, 1817, William Bowler was appointed chairman, and Lentey Craw, secretary. The following preamble and resolution were read, unanimously adopted, and ordered to be printed.

Whereas a Society has been formed at the seat of government, for the purpose of colonizing, with their own consent, the free people of color of the United States; therefore, we, the free people of color of the city of Richmond, have thought it advisable to assemble together under the sanction of authority, for the purpose of making a public expression of our sentiments on a question in which we are so deeply interested. We perfectly agree with the Society, that it is not only proper, but would ultimately tend to the benefit and advantage of a great portion of our suffering fellow creatures, to be colonized; but while we thus express our approbation of a measure laudable in its purposes, and beneficial in its designs, it may not be improper in us to say, that we prefer being colonized in the most remote corner of the land of our nativity, to being exiled to a foreign country-and whereas the president and board of managers of the said Society have been pleased to leave it to the entire discretion of Congress to provide a suitable place for carrying these laudable intentions into effect -- Be it therefore

Resolved, That we respectfully submit to the wisdom of Congress whether it would not be an act of charity to grant us a small portion of their territory, either on the Missouri river, or any place that may seem to them most conducive to the public good and our future welfare, subject, however, to such rules and regulations as the government of the United States may think proper to adopt.

Thoughts on African Colonization: or an impartial exhibition of the Doctrines, Principles & Purposes of the American Colonization Society. Together with the Resolutions, Addresses & Remonstrances of the Free People of Color, by William Lloyd Garrison, Boston, 1832

American Colonization Society: a Memorial to the United States Congress


With its powerful membership of politicians, philanthropists and other influential public figures, the American Colonization Society was well positioned to gain government funding for its schemes to relocate free blacks to colonies in Africa.

On February 1, 1820, building on public sentiment against free blacks and legislation the previous year against the international slave trade, the ACS issued a Memorial (a petition) to Congress that promoted its aims under the guise of suppressing the illegal slave trade and "turning [the] attention [of Africans] to the ordinary and innocent pursuits of civilized nations."

Original Document:

American Colonization Society: a Memorial to the United States Congress

To the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States:

The President and Board of Managers of the American Colonization Society respectfully represent that, being about to commence the execution of the object to which their views have been long directed, they deem it proper and necessary to address themselves to the legislative council of their country. They trust that this object will be considered, in itself, of great national importance, will be found inseparably connected with another, vitally affecting the honor and interest of this nation, and leading, in its consequences, to the most desirable results.

Believing that examination and reflection will show that such are its connexions and tendency, they are, encouraged to present themselves, and their cause' where they know that a public measure, having these advantages, cannot fail to receive all the countenance and aid it may require.

The last census shows the number of free people of color of the United States, and their rapid increase. Supposing them to increase in the same ratio, it will appear how large a proportion of our population will, in the course of even a few years, consist of persons of that description.

No argument is necessary to show that this is very far indeed from constituting an increase of our physical strength; nor can there be a population, in any country, neutral as to its effects upon society. The least observation shows that this description of persons are not, and cannot be, either useful or happy among us; and many considerations, which need not be mentioned, prove, beyond dispute, that it is best, for all the parties interested, that there should be a separation; that those who are now free may become so those who hereafter, should be provided with the means of attaining to a state of respectability and happiness, which, it is certain, they have never yet reached, and, therefore, can never be likely to reach, in this country.

The two last reports of the Society, to which your memorialists beg leave to refer, show the success of their mission to Africa, and the result of their inquiries upon that continent. From those it is manifest that a situation can be readily obtained, favorable to commerce and agriculture, in a healthy and fertile country, and that the natives are well disposed to give every encouragement to the establishment of such a settlement among them. Thus, it appears, that an object of great national concern, already expressly desired by some of the States, and truly desirable to all, receiving, also, the approbation of those upon whom it is more immediately to operate, is brought within our reach.

But this subject derives, perhaps, its chief interest from its connexion with a measure which has, already, to the honor of our country, occupied the deliberations of the Congress of the United States.

Your memorialists refer, with pleasure, to the act, passed at the last session of Congress, supplementary to the act formerly passed for the suppression of the slave trade. The means afforded, by the provisions of that act, for the accomplishment of its object are certainly great; but the total extirpation of this disgraceful trade cannot, perhaps, be expected from any measures which rely alone upon the employment of a maritime force, however considerable.

The profits attending it are so extraordinary, that the cupidity of the unprincipled will still be tempted to continue it, as long as there is any chance of escaping the vigilance of the cruisers engaged against them. From the best information your memorialists have been able to obtain, of the nature, causes, and course of this trade, and of the present situation of the coast of Africa, and the habits and dispositions of the natives, they are well assured that the suppression of the African slave trade, and the civilization of the natives, are measures of indispensable connexion....

Since the establishment of the English settlement at Sierra Leone, the slave trade has been rapidly ceasing upon that part of the coast.

Not only the kingdoms in its immediate neighborhood, but those upon the Sherbro and Bagroo rivers, and others with whom the people of that settlement have opened a communication, have been prevailed upon to abandon it, and are turning their attention to the ordinary and innocent pursuits of civilized nations.

That the same consequences will result from similar settlements cannot be doubted. When the natives there see that the European commodities, for which they have been accustomed to exchange their fellow-beings, until vast and fertile regions have become almost depopulated, can be more easily and safely obtained by other pursuits, can it be believed that they will hesitate to profit by the experience? Nor will the advantages of civilization be alone exhibited. That religion, whose mandate is "peace on earth and good will towards men," will "do its errand"; win deliver them from the bondage of their miserable superstitions, and display the same triumphs which it is achieving in every land.

No nation has it so much in its power to furnish proper settlers for such establishments as this; no nation has so deep an interest in thus disposing of them. By the law passed at the last session, and before referred to, the captives who may be taken by our cruisers, from the slave ships are to be taken to Africa, and delivered to the custody of agents appointed by the President. There will then be a settlement of captured negroes upon the coast, in consequence of the measures already adopted., And it is evidently most important, if not necessary, to such a settlement, that the Civilized people of color of this country, whose industry, enterprise, and knowledge of agriculture and the arts, would render them most useful assistants, should be connected with such an establishment.

When, therefore, the object of the Colonization Society is viewed in connection with that entire suppression of the slave trade which your memorialists trust it is resolved shall be effected, its importance becomes obvious in the extreme.

The beneficial consequences resulting from success in such a measure, it is impossible to calculate. To the general cause of humanity it will afford the most rich and noble contribution, and for the nation that regards that cause, that employs its power in its behalf, it cannot fail to procure a proportionate reward. It is by such a course that a nation insures to itself the protection and favor of the Governor of the World. Nor are there wanting views and considerations, arising from our peculiar political institutions, which would justify the sure expectation of the most signal blessings to ourselves from the accomplishment of such an object. If one of these consequences shall be the gradual and almost imperceptible removal of a national evil, which all unite in lamenting, and for which, with the most intense, but, hitherto, hopeless anxiety, the patriots and statesmen of our country have labored to discover a remedy, who can doubt, that, of all the blessings we may be permitted to bequeath to our descendants, this will receive the richest tribute of their thanks and veneration?

Your memorialists cannot believe that such an evil, universally acknowledged and deprecated, has been irremovably fixed upon us. Some way will always be opened by Providence by which a people desirous of acting justly and benevolently may be led to the attainment of a meritorious object. And they believe that, of all the plans that the most sagacious and discerning of our patriots have suggested, for effecting what they have so greatly desired the colonization of Africa, in the manner proposed, present the fairest prospects of success. But if it be admitted to be ever so doubtful, whether this happy result shall be the reward of our exertions, yet, if: great and certain benefits immediately attend them, why may not others, still greater, follow them?

In a work evidently progressive, who shall assign limits to the good that zeal and perseverance shall be permitted to accomplish? Your memorialists beg leave to state that, having expended considerable funds in prosecuting their inquiries and making preparations, they are now about to send out a colony, and complete the purchase, already stipulated for with the native kings and chiefs of Sherbro, of a suitable territory for their establishment. The number they are now enabled to transport and provide for, is but a small proportion of the people of color who have expressed their desire to go; and without a larger and more sudden increase of their funds than can be expected from the voluntary contributions of individuals, their progress must be slow and uncertain. They have always flattered themselves with the hope that when it was seen they had surmounted the difficulties of preparation, and shown that means applied to the execution of their design would lead directly and evidently to its accomplishment, they would be able to obtain for it the national countenance and assistance. To this point they have arrived; and they, therefore, respectfully request that this interesting subject may receive the consideration of your honorable body, and that the Executive Department may be authorized, in such way as may meet your approbation, to extend to this object such pecuniary and other aid as it may be thought to require and deserve.

Your memorialists further request, that the subscribers to the American Colonization Society may be incorporated, by act of Congress, to enable them to act with more efficiency in carrying on the great and important objects of the Society, and to enable them, with more economy, to manage the benevolent contributions intrusted to their care.

Signed by John Mason, W. Jones, E. B. Caldwell, and F.S. Key, committee.


February, 1, 1820

Civil Rights and the Black American

A Documentary History, edited by Albert P Blaustein and Robert L. Zangrando, published by Washington Square Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1968

"Address to the Free People of Colour of these United States"


In September, 1830, Richard Allen and other free blacks issued a call "on behalf of the Coloured Citizens of Philadelphia, and addressed to their brethren throughout the U. States, inviting them to assemble... in the city of Philadelphia."

From September 20th to the 24th, thirty-eight delegates from eight states met at Bethel AME Church, in the first of a series of national conventions, to form the American Society of Free Persons of Colour. In accordance with the Constitution adopted by the group, a "Parent Society" was established in Philadelphia "under the patronage of the General Convention," and Richard Allen was elected President.

While the Society repudiated African colonization, the "Preamble" of the organization's Constitution announced its ambitious purpose of "purchasing land, and locating a settlement in the Province of Upper Canada."

In his "Address" to the assembled delegates, Allen declared: "However great the debt which these United States may owe to injured Africa, and however unjustly her sons have been made to bleed, and her daughters to drink of the cup of affliction, still we who have been born and nurtured on this soil, we whose habits, manners, and customs are the same in common with other Americans, can never consent to take our lives in our hands, and be the bearers of the redress offered by that Society to that much afflicted country."

Allen urged the formation of auxiliary societies throughout the United States, "to assist in [the] benevolent work" of establishing a Canadian colony. He also advised that delegates be sent to "the next Convention, to be held in Philadelphia the first Monday in June next."

In 1831, fifteen delegates from five states met again in Philadelphia's Wesleyan Church. Other Negro Conventions continued to meet up until and after the Civil War to address the issue of black freedom.

Original Document:

"Address to the Free People of Colour of these United States"


To the Free People of Colour of these United States


Impressed with a firm and settled conviction, and more especially being thought by that inestimable and invaluable instrument, namely, the Declaration of Independence, that all men are born free and equal, and consequently are endowed with unalienable rights, among which are the enjoyments of life, liberty, and the pursuits of happiness.

Viewing these as incontrovertible facts, we have been led to the following conclusions; that our forlorn and deplorable situation earnestly and loudly demand of us to devise and pursue all legal means for the speedy elevation of ourselves and brethren to the scale and standing of men.

And in pursuit of this great object, various ways and means have been resorted to; among others, the African Colonization Society is the most prominent. Not doubting the sincerity of many friends who are engaged in that cause; yet we beg leave to say, that it does not meet with our approbation. However great the debt which these United States may owe to injured Africa, and however unjustly her sons have been made to bleed, and her daughters to drink of the cup of affliction, still we who have been born and nurtured on this soil, we, whose habits, manners, and customs are the same in common with other Americans, can never consent to take our lives in our hands, and be the bearers of the redress offered by that Society to that much afflicted country.

Tell it not to barbarians, lest they refuse to be civilised, and eject our christian missionaries from among them, that in the nineteenth century of the christian era, laws have been enacted in some of the states of this great republic, to compel an unprotected and harmless portion of our brethren to leave their homes and seek an asylum in foreign climes: and in taking a view of the unhappy situation of many of these, whom the oppressive laws alluded to, continually crowd into the Atlantic cities, dependent of their support upon their daily labour, and who often suffer for want of employment, we have had to lament that no means have yet been devised for their relief.

These considerations have led us to the conclusion, that the formation of a settlement in the British province of Upper Canada, would be a great advantage of the people of colour. In accordance with these views, we pledge ourselves to aid each other by all honourable means, to plant and support one in that country, and therefore we earnestly and most feelingly appeal to our coloured brethren, and to all philanthropists here and elsewhere, to assist in this benevolent and important work.

To encourage our brethren earnestly to co-operate with us, we offer the follwing, viz. 1st. Under that government no inviduous distinction of colour is recognised, but there we shall be entitled to all the rights, privileges, and immunities of other citizens. 2nd. That the language, climate, soil, and productions are similar to those in this country. 3rd. That land of the best quality can be purchased at the moderate price of one dollar and fifty cents per acre, by the one hundred acres. 4th. The market for different kinds of produce raised in that colony, is such as to render a suitable reward to the industrious farmer, equal in our opinion to that of the United States.. And lastly, as the erection of buildings must necessarily claim the attention of the emigrants, we would invite the mechanics from our large cities to embark in the enterpirse; the advancement of architechure depending much on their exertions, as they must consequently take with them the arts and improvemnts of our well regulated communities.

It will be much to the advantage of those who have large families, and desire to see them happy and respected, to locate themselves in a land where the laws and prejudices of society will have no effect in retarding their advancement to the summit of civil and religious improvement. There the diligent student will have ample opportunity to reap the reward due to industry and perserverence; whilst those of moderate attainments, if properly nurtured, may be enabled to take their stand as men in the several offices and situations necessary to promote union, peace, order and tranquility. It is to these we must look for the strength and spirit of our future prosperity.

Before we close, we would just remark, that it has been a subject of deep regret to this convention, that we as a people, have not availingly appreciated every opportunity placed within our power by the benevolent efforts of the friends of humantiy, in elevating our condition to the rank of freemen. That our mental and physical qualities have not been more actively engaged in pursuits more lasting, is attributable in a great measure to a want of unity among ourselves; whilst our only stimulus to action has been to become domestics, which at best is but a precarious and degraded situation.

It is to obviate these evils, that we have recommeded our views to our fellow-citizens in the foregoing instument, with a desire of raising the moral and political standing of ourselves; and we cannot devise any plan more likely to accomplish this end, than by encouraging agriculture and mechanical arts: for by the first, we shall be enabled to act with a degree of independence, which as yet has fallen to the lot of but few amoung us; and the faithful pursuit of the latter, in connection with the sciences, which expand and ennoble the mind, will eventually give us the standing and condition we desire.

To effect these great objects, we would earnestly request our brethren throughout the United States, to co-operate with us, by forming societies auxiliary to the Parent Institution, about being established in the city of Philadelphia, under the patronage of the General Convention. And we further recommend to our friends and brethren, who reside in places where, at present, this may be impracticable, so far to aid us, by contributing to the funds of the Parent Institution; and, if disposed, to appoint one delegate to represent them in the next Convention, to be held in Philadelphia the first Monday of June next, it being fully understood, that organized societies be at liberty to send any number of delegates not exceeding five.

Signed by order of the Convention,

Rev. Richard Allen, President,

Senior Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Churches.

Junius C. Morel, Secretary.

Minutes of the proceedings of the national Negro conventions,1830-1864., edited by Howard Holman Bell,1913

New York, Arno Press,1969.