American Colonization Society

  • Religion
  • 1816

In the early nineteenth century, American philanthropists desperately sought peaceful solutions to the horrid dilemmas of slavery. One proposal involved buying the freedom of slaves and repatriating them to western Africa. The American Colonization Society was founded in 1816 to promote this idea. It was presented as having dual benefits: restoring blacks to their rightful freedom, while introducing Christianity, the beginnings of literacy, and economic improvements to desperately poor countries as the liberated returned to the lands of their ancestry.

The ACS became a mass movement, with numerous local auxiliaries. It was collecting annual membership revenues of $15,000 by its tenth year. The society attracted support from American leaders like John Marshall, Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster, James Madison, and Henry Clay, for a variety of motives.

The ACS drew criticism from African-American civil-society organizations like the African Methodist Episcopal Church. It was also opposed by slave owners, and by some abolitionists. Yet under President James Monroe the ACS became an official partner of the U.S. government in establishing the colony that is now the nation of Liberia—where 13,000 black freedmen were ultimately settled, using a mix of privately donated and federal funds.

  • Kathleen McCarthy, American Creed: Philanthropy and the Rise of Civil Society (University of Chicago Press, 2003)