Princeton Seminary, Slavery,
The early leaders of Princeton Seminary said that they looked toward a time when slaves would be free. In 1797, Samuel Miller, then a New York City pastor, addressed the New York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves and condemned slavery with vigor. It was, he said, a “humiliating tale … that in this free country … in this country, from which has been proclaimed to distant lands, as the basis of our political existence, that ‘ALL MEN ARE BORN FREE AND EQUAL,’—in this country there are found slaves!” Miller avowed that scripture as well as the Declaration of Independence condemned slavery. “God,” he said quoting the Apostle Paul, “has made of one blood all nations of men that dwell on the face of the whole earth.” Moreover, we are commanded that we should do unto others as we would that they should do unto us. Such principles “wage eternal war both with political and domestic slavery.” Miller did admit that the Old Testament allowed slavery in ancient Israel and that the New Testament enjoined obedience upon those in servitude, but he denied that these passages justified a continuance of the institution in the present. He admitted that difficulties prevented immediate emancipation of all slaves and suggested that the remedy lay “in emancipation in a gradual manner, which will at the same time, provide for the intellectual and moral cultivation of slaves, that they may be prepared to exercise the rights, and discharge the duties of citizens.” How long would this take? Miller did not say, but he closed his address on a strongly hopeful note:
The time, I trust, is not far distant, when there shall be no slavery to lament—no oppression to oppose in the United States— …when every being, who bears the name MAN, whatever complexion an equatorial Sun may have burnt upon him, … shall enjoy the privileges, and be raised to the dignity which belong to the human character.15
Samuel Miller supplied a different response to the problem of slavery roughly a quarter century later. In 1823, he returned to the subject when he spoke in Newark to address the Presbyterian Synod of New Jersey about a school for African-Americans that it sponsored. The Miller of 1823 still espoused much that he had believed in 1797. He stressed “the enormity of the evil” of chattel slavery, and he urged the necessity of preparing slaves for freedom through education. But the sense that slavery might soon give way to freedom or that those freed might be raised to citizenship had dimmed, if not vanished altogether. Miller dwelt on the degradation that slavery wrought on its victims and the difficulty, if not impossibility, of raising them to full citizenship in the American republic. His words deserve to be quoted at length:
… while an adequate and an early remedy for the multiplied and dreadful evils of Slavery is earnestly to be desired; yet we are not to expect that any human means can be found, which will put an end to these evils at once. Such a large and complicated mass of evil cannot be removed in a day, or a month, or a year. It must be a work of time, of patient labour, and of large expenditure. We must pay, and pay much, as the penalty of our dreadful mistake and folly; and well will it be for us, if we can obtain deliverance from it almost at any price. Some have been so inconsiderate as to maintain, that because slavery is, in all cases, an evil, that, therefore, it ought to be abolished at a stroke, and every slave in our land made free in a day. But the idea of liberating, and turning loose on society, at once, a million and a half of slaves, with all the ignorance and depravity to which their bondage has contributed to reduce them, would surely be the extravagance, or rather the cruelty of benevolence. It would be to bring, not merely on the White population, but on the slaves themselves, thus suddenly liberated without being prepared for it, an accumulated curse under the name and guise of a blessing.
What then should be done? Miller continued:
And as this class of people could not be either respectable or happy, if liberated and left among the whites: so, as neighbours, they would be a constant source of annoyance, of corruption, and of danger to the whites themselves. Suppose a million and a half of such people scattered through the United States. They could never be trusted as faithful citizens. They would never feel that their interests and those of the whites were precisely the same. Each would regard the other with painful suspicion and apprehension. On the one hand, those who had lately been slaves, or who had descended from slaves, would consider every advantage they could take of their former masters, as so much fair gain, and would, therefore, be apt, as far as possible, habitually to prey upon them. On the other hand, the whites would be tempted, and could hardly fail, to cherish sentiments toward their coloured neighbours, in a great measure inconsistent with liberal, kind, or even just treatment; and would seldom think of any tiling but rendering them subservient to their pleasures, their pride or their avarice. In short, they would be mutual sources of corruption, of danger, and of trouble to each other. It would be impossible for them to be safe, pure, or happy together. It is, of course, essential to the interest of each that they be separated; and separated to such a distance from each other, as to render intercourse very seldom practicable—If this be so, then the Coloured people must be colonized. In other words, they must be severed from the white population, and sent to some distant part of the world, where they will be in no danger either of suffering themselves, or of inflicting on others, the evils already described. …16
Thus, at the end of the day, education to uplift a supposedly degraded people, followed by emigration from the United States to “a distant part of the world,” was the path to avert a social disaster.
Several years before Miller’s address to the Synod of New Jersey, Ashbel Green, president of the Seminary’s Board of Directors, supplied a similar analysis though with a more hopeful rhetoric. In 1818, he chaired a committee of the Presbyterian General Assembly charged with the question of whether a church member, who was selling a slave who happened to be a fellow believer, should be brought to discipline if the slave did not wish to be sold. Green wrote the committee’s report, which was adopted unanimously by the assembly. The report did not directly answer the question that prompted its formation. It gave no definitive ruling, only that such matters should be brought for settlement to the local church courts. The body of the report dealt with the larger moral and theological question posed by slavery. In tones reminiscent of Revolutionary-era optimism, the report declared:
We consider the voluntary enslaving of one part of the human race by another, as a gross violation of the most precious and sacred rights of human nature; as utterly inconsistent with the law of God, which requires us to love our neighbour as ourselves, and as totally irreconcilable with the spirit and principles of the gospel of Christ, which enjoin that “all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.” The report then asserted that it was the clear “duty of all Christians … to use their honest, earnest, and unwearied endeavours, to correct the errors of former times, and as speedily as possible to efface this blot on our holy religion, and to obtain the complete abolition of slavery throughout Christendom, and if possible throughout the world.” 17
But the report made clear that “as speedily as possible” did not mean any time soon. “The number of slaves, their ignorance, and their vicious habits generally,” said the Green committee, “render an immediate and universal emancipation inconsistent alike with the safety and happiness of the master and the slave.” Moreover, the Green committee’s report expressed sympathy with the plight of those “portions of the church and our country where the evil of slavery has been entailed upon them,” and it warned “others to forbear harsh censures, and uncharitable reflections on their brethren, who unhappily live among slaves, whom they cannot immediately set free.” In other words, the assembly saw slaveholders as themselves slaves of a sort caught in a system they did not create, their predicament calling for compassion not condemnation. The judicatory recommended several tangible steps to ameliorate the suffering of black Americans. Masters might instruct their slaves in Christianity and endeavor to keep their families intact. Presbyterians might also “patronize and encourage the society lately formed, for colonizing in Africa, the land of their ancestors, the free people of colour in our country.” Green’s solution was ultimately the same as Miller’s—colonization of free blacks in Africa.
Overview of Princeton Seminary and the Colonization Movement
In the longest book he ever wrote, A History of Colonization on the Western Coast of Africa, Archibald Alexander claimed with pride that the idea of the removal of freed slaves to Liberia originated in Princeton among Presbyterian clergy and professors at both the Seminary and the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University).18He recounted a meeting in 1816 in which Princeton native son and pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Basking Ridge, Rev. Dr. Robert Finley, shared his vision for ending slavery and solving America’s race problem with Alexander and the other Presbyterian clergy in Princeton:
The first public meeting which ever took place to consider the subject of African colonization in this country, was held in the Presbyterian church in the borough of Princeton. It was called by Dr. Finley, when he explained to a small assemblage the plan of the society which he wished to be formed, and called on the writer [Archibald Alexander] to address the people. He made some observations on the object aimed at. The meeting was small, but in the number of attendants were most of the professors of the College and of the Theological Seminary. It was apparent that the interest of those to whom the scheme was made known was increased the longer they thought upon it.19
Though, in fact, ideas about African colonization had been discussed in areas ranging from New England to Virginia since the Revolutionary era, the Princeton version of the conversation resonated with all such schemes: raising money and developing ecclesial, private, and governmental support for a large-scale effort to send freed slaves to Africa where they would establish a new life.
Though the New Jersey chapter of the American Colonization Society was not organized until 1824 in the congregation now known as Nassau Presbyterian Church, Finley joined several other like-minded civil and religious leaders and co-founded the national level of the colonization effort in 1816 in Washington, D.C. When the New Jersey chapter was founded a few years later, the entire faculty and about half of the Seminary’s Board of Directors were present and volunteered to play key leadership roles for the coordination of the colonization efforts in New Jersey. 20
The leadership of the Presbyterian Church’s seminary supported colonization and never seem to have wavered from this commitment for nearly the entirety of the nineteenth century. In 1877, the Seminary’s practical theologian and functional president, Rev. Dr. Alexander Taggart McGill, gave an address to the American Colonization Society. Even twelve years after the conclusion of the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery and granting full citizenship to blacks, the leader of Princeton Seminary’s faculty continued to raise money and to speak publicly in support of the colonization effort, likely motivated both by the economic and material wretchedness of the newly free black community in the United States, as well as white anxieties about competition for jobs and growing unease about financial stress related to care for poor blacks. Eleven years later, in The Princeton Press for December 22, 1888, John Miller, son of Princeton Seminary professor Samuel Miller, urged an effort “to revive the New Jersey Branch of the American Colonization Society.” After delineating the early role of Princeton in starting the American Colonization Society, John Miller urged that “Princeton that originated the scheme might now take the lead in restoring it to vigor.” 21
By this point, the Society had nearly run out of money and was unable to fund the 2,000 African-American applicants asking for passage to Liberia at the time. Miller suggested that funding their passage would be an economical means of missionary activity.
The available evidence does not indicate precisely when Princeton Seminary’s faculty finally abandoned the colonization idea; it simply fades from the written record. Colonization was still widely supported by many political and intellectual leaders in the nation, especially in the state of New Jersey, well into the mid-nineteenth century. Congress did not officially end disbursement of funds for colonization until 1864. It may be that support for the American Colonization Society by the Seminary’s faculty faded away in tandem with the decline of that organization at the end of the nineteenth and into the early years of the twentieth century. Hopefully, it was at some point well before the American Colonization Society finally went defunct in the United States in 1964. 22
The American Colonization Society never realized the extent of its vision for resettlement. During the course of the nearly half century of the organization’s determined fundraising efforts prior to the Civil War, it only resulted in the voluntary resettlement of some 20,000 people—out of a total black population of over 2,000,000. 23
In many respects, the colonization effort seemed doomed from the start given the massive amounts of money that would need to have been raised to realize its agenda, the relatively small numbers of human beings involved, and the hardened opposition from the majority of those it was supposed to have helped. Given these realities, why did the movement have such a long life among the leaders of Princeton Seminary? The answer seems to lie in the belief that colonization would provide a tidy solution to several social, economic, and theological dilemmas.
The faculty and board members of Princeton Seminary and the faculty of the College of New Jersey supported the colonization effort for at least four major reasons. First, colonization would constructively address the social evil of slavery, while making allowances for the gradual eradication of the institution. Finley, Alexander, and the other Presbyterian clergy in Princeton believed that slavery, while not strictly forbidden by scripture, was nonetheless an evil and a scourge that had to be addressed in order for God’s will to be accomplished in American society. The complexities of biblical interpretation on slavery combined with heightened sensitivity to the sensibilities of Southern Presbyterian slaveholders—not to mention the fact that Alexander and several other Princeton Presbyterian leaders like John Witherspoon and Ashbel Green had themselves owned slaves—led them to look for a solution to the problem that was gradual and voluntary. They wanted to find a way to end slavery without dividing the church and the country; the gradualism and voluntary character of colonization seemed the most viable and creative option available.
The gradualism inherent in the colonization scheme was also premised on a shared belief by Seminary leaders that slavery was on its last legs and would eventually simply run its course, given enough time. Part of the appeal of colonization had to do with mollifying Southern white slave owners during the process of slavery’s supposed inevitable phase out. They believed that it would garner support from Southerners who either did not want freed slaves in their midst for fear of potential insurrection or who wanted a way out of slavery but who could not afford to do so immediately. It also provided some incentive for Southern slaveholders who could afford to free their slaves sooner rather than later, since the newly freed slaves would have a viable place to go in order to make a fresh start.
Alexander and Miller aimed to supplement their gradualism with efforts to educate blacks in the rudiments of Christian belief, reading and writing, and social responsibility.24 Yet, the Seminary’s faculty members believed, with the vast majority of white Americans in the nineteenth century, that “non-whites could only realize their innate potential as human beings – and perhaps their equality with whites – by separating themselves from the American republic.” 25
The embrace of a middle way between support for slavery and immediate abolition led the Seminary’s faculty to rail against the abolitionists. In his lectures to third year students who were about to enter pastoral ministry, Archibald Alexander warned his charges to avoid the abolitionists and their dangerous immediatism. He saw people like William Lloyd Garrison as dangerous foes to the black race masquerading as friends. More than that, he urged that Presbyterian ministers should never entangle themselves in politics and should leave such matters to professional politicians. The abolitionists would, they feared, destroy the church and the nation by dividing both right down the middle. Their fears were not wrong; what they indirectly prophesied came to bloodily apocalyptic fact at mid-century. At root, Alexander and the rest of the Seminary faculty did not possess a theological imagination that would allow them to envision divine action through human agency to bring about a harmonious multiracial American society, even though they could easily imagine divine intervention through human agency to transform the entire continent of Africa through evangelization by black colonialists from America. Yet they simply could not envision a nation in which black and white lived together as political peers and socio-economic equals.
Second, Finley’s African colonization plan seemed to offer a constructive solution to America’s growing racial tensions. None of the Princeton Presbyterians believed that blacks were inherently inferior to whites. Quite the contrary, they believed in the ontological equality of black and white people on the basis of their reading of Genesis 1:26. The problem was not a fundamental difference in humanity so much as a massive socioeconomic chasm between the races brought about by two centuries of slavery. Blacks had been put into such a deficit economically, culturally, and educationally through the evils of slavery that seminary leaders and Princeton Presbyterians simply could not conceive of what it would take to bring them into parity with the white population. Articulating a view shared by many enlightened white Presbyterians of his day, Alexander observed:
Two races of men, nearly equal in number, but differing as much as the whites and the blacks, cannot form one harmonious society in any other way than by amalgamation; but the whites and the blacks, in this country, by no human efforts, could be amalgamated into one homogenous mass in a thousand years; and during this long period, the state of society would be perpetually disturbed by many contending factions. Either the whites must remove and give up the country to the coloured [sic] people, or the coloured people must be removed; otherwise the latter must remain in subjection to the former.26
Finley and scores of Presbyterian clergy from Princeton and across the denomination affirmed this assessment and believed in light of it that the only humane thing to do for freed slaves was to remove them from white society – at least until some distant point in the future in which blacks could attain the level of education, prosperity, and cultural development that would make it possible for black and white to interact as equals. This “benevolent civilizationism,” aptly named by American historian Brandon Mills, held open the possibility for multiracial harmony but only after a significant period of racial separation marked by black cultural and economic development to the level of white standards.27 In one of the keynote speeches delivered at the founding of the New Jersey Colonization Society in First Presbyterian Church on July 14, 1824, the Seminary’s Treasurer of the Board, James S. Green, offered this prospect to Seminary faculty and trustees along with several members of the faculty from the College of New Jersey, as quoted from an earlier speech by Pitt:
…We may live to behold the natives of Africa and her reclaimed children, engaged in the calm occupations of industry, in the pursuits of a just and legitimate commerce. We may uphold the beams of science and philosophy, breaking in upon their land, which at some happy period in still later times, may blaze with full lustre; and joining their influence to that of pure religion may illuminate and invigorate the most distant extremities of that immense continent. Then we may hope, that even Africa, though last of all the quarters of the globe shall enjoy, at length, in the evening of her days, those blessings which have descended so plentifully upon us in a much earlier period of the world!28
The minutes from the meeting indicate that after these closing words to Green’s speech, Princeton Seminary faculty member Samuel Miller rose to speak and said that he could not say anything better on the subject. Instead of adding anything to the sentiments expressed by Green, Miller simply moved to the next item on the agenda: introduction of Rev. George Boyd, “an accredited Agent of the American Colonization Society.”29
Seen from a larger perspective, a “separate until they equate” strategy characterized the bulk of progressive white Protestant thinking about Native Americans and African-Americans in the nineteenth century and not simply those of Princeton Seminary or other Princeton Presbyterians. In his book Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation, Nicholas Guyatt observes that:
Colonization enabled reformers to break the link between emancipation and integration: it allowed slavery’s opponents to acknowledge “all men are created equal” without having to imagine a race-blind society on the other side of abolition. Colonization was not just a diversion, but a rewiring of white thinking about race.30
Guyatt argues convincingly that Finley’s scheme to send freed blacks to Africa has to be seen as part of a pervasive white normativity that similarly and simultaneously lay behind efforts at Indian removal and their eventual confinement to reservations. Because white people as a whole viewed Native Americans and African-Americans as socially and culturally deficient and because most whites would not provide the kind of widespread social and economic resources to bring these two groups up to the same level as white “civilization,” the only compassionate thing to do was to remove them from a perpetually unequal societal situation in order to allow them to become civilized and prosperous enough to function as peers with white America. In this view, Native Americans should be removed beyond the zone of “civilization” to the West, and African-Americans should be removed across the Atlantic to the west coast of Africa.
Third, colonization offered a way to deal with widespread fears among whites of slave revolt or uprising. Removing a segment of the population that was not only poor and uneducated, but resentful about slavery and, therefore, capable of violence on the scale of the uprisings in Haiti would provide safety for the white population. White anxiety about racial violence by vengeful blacks repeatedly bubbled up through the anti-slavery rhetoric of those advocating colonization. Returning to James Green’s speech at the organizational meeting for the New Jersey chapter of the colonization movement, we find this anxious appeal:
And are we, Sir, entirely safe, while we breathe the same atmosphere with this powerful and disconnected horde? If intelligence should reach you, that three thousand men had landed on your shores with the avowed intention of marching to this place, to burn your buildings, to murder the inhabitants, to plunder your property, what stir, what anxiety, what exertion would everywhere mark the village, and neighborhood, and State; every man would be at his post, and the words ‘coward,’ and ‘traitor,’ would be marked in burning characters on the forehead of every one, who should refuse to join in the resistance. But for myself, I do verily believe, we have a more dangerous foe than this to content with; a foe under the disguise of slave or servant; one who is admitted without reserve into the bosom of our families; one to whom we often commit the custody of our dwellings; one to whom we frequently confide the care of our children, and yet one who secretly and cordially hates and despises the hand that feeds and maintains him. We all know that a foe in disguise is more dangerous than an open enemy. Against the last we can march, meet, face, and conquer him. The other is silent; his approach is unobserved; and the first notice that we may receive of his hostile intention may be cries and dying groans, or the midnight-conflagration of our dwellings. 31
As critics of colonization like William Lloyd Garrison pointed out even at the time, it is rather incongruous to make such claims about a group of people who purportedly seethe with hatred and await only the right opportunity to engage in wholesale slaughter of white people yet who are to be entrusted with the establishment of a model democratic society in Liberia and the evangelization of the entire continent of Africa. 32
Even as colonization provided a way to address white anxieties, it was also motivated by missionary zeal. As a fourth rationale for the colonization scheme, Finley and his Seminary and Princeton Presbyterian supporters believed that sending freed blacks (and, eventually, all blacks) back to Africa would contribute mightily to the Christian conversion of the heathen continent of Africa. This imagined benefit of colonization arose, in part, from the widespread belief that white missionaries to Africa had a tendency to die quickly from tropical diseases and that blacks seemed to have a basic immunity to such diseases. Because freed blacks sent to Liberia would now be Christian, they would be ideally suited to convert the heathen and to bring the light of Christ and “civilization” to the whole of Africa. In analyzing the theological vision of Finley on the matter of the evangelization of Africa as a primary benefit of colonization, Ben Wright points out that Finley (and, by extension, his Princeton Seminary supporters) believed rather ironically that “Training black American missionaries would turn a class of loathed, feared, or pitied Americans into pious servants of Christ. In the minds of white colonizationists, degenerate slaves and dangerous free blacks would become disciplined missionaries.” 33 Freed Christian blacks would become instruments of fulfilling evangelical Protestant millennialist visions.
Finley and the Seminary supporters also believed that sending black missionaries to convert the continent of Africa would serve as a type of penitence, providing redress for the sin of slave trading itself. Wright observes:
By the second decade of the nineteenth century a clear majority of Americans believed that the Atlantic slave trade was evil, and although it had been abolished, a moral scar endured. Finley believed that the United States had committed a grave sin, but colonization offered “the atoning sacrifice.” The slave trade robbed Africa of millions of children, encouraged violence between African nations, and hindered the progress of missionaries by linking Christianity to slavery. Finley wrote, “if wrong has been done to Africa in forcing away her weeping children, the wrong can best be redressed by that power which did the injury.”34
In other words, the evils wrought by slavery could be atoned for by sending blacks from America to Africa in order to redeem the continent from its godless ways through the preaching of the Gospel.
How the Colonization Scheme Played Out
The American Colonization Society (ACS) was founded in 1816 and remained in operation until 1964. From the beginning, Princeton played a leadership role in the colonization effort. Contrary to Archibald Alexander’s claims that the colonization vision was first articulated to the world by Finley in Princeton in the presence of faculty members from the Seminary and the College, such visions had been discussed by church leaders in New England in the three or four decades prior to Finley’s visit to Princeton in 1816. Such a scheme was known to members of the Revolutionary generation, including and especially Thomas Jefferson and other political leaders from Virginia. Black leaders like Paul Cuffe and James Forten also expressed support in the early part of the 1800s for black colonization in West Africa.35 However, the town of Princeton was a significant center for the colonization movement. It was home to one of the co- founders of the ACS and the U.S. Navy leader most responsible for the establishment of the physical reality of the colony of Liberia, Robert F. Stockton.36
The Seminary faculty benefitted directly from the leadership of Robert F. Stockton concerning the colonization effort in at least two ways. While serving in the U.S. Navy, Stockton secured, at the point of a gun, the land for ACS that eventually became Liberia. While technically speaking the land was not possessed as a colony for the government, since the United States did not want to see itself as a colonial power like Great Britain and did not formally recognize Liberia as an independent nation until 1862, the government allowed the ACS to function in a semiautonomous fashion and with varying degrees of official support.37
The colonization vision made a major step forward toward realization when Stockton “secured” the initial bit of land for ACS in the spring of 1822.
Two years after forcibly appropriating the first swath of land that eventually became Liberia, Stockton presided over the organizational meeting of the New Jersey Colonization Society on July 24, 1824, in the building of The Presbyterian Church in Princeton. In addition to offering the opening speech, Stockton was elected the first president of the organization with two Princeton Seminary board members, James Green and John T. Woodhull, elected as vice presidents (along with four other vice presidents). Seminary board member John Vancleve and the third member of the Seminary faculty, Charles Hodge, served as two of the active “Managers” for the new enterprise. The other two faculty members of the Seminary, as well as five current and one future member of the Princeton Seminary board, served as “Directors or Honorary Managers” for the local chapter of the colonization effort. The entire faculty and most of the board of the Seminary supported and took their cues from Stockton in the colonization effort.38
The colonization effort at the national level received widespread support in its early years. Such high-profile political leaders as Henry Clay, Francis Scott Key, James Monroe, and even Abraham Lincoln supported the endeavor as a way to deal with the problem of slavery in a gradual and non-divisive way. Several clergy from the Methodist, Congregationalist, Baptist, and Presbyterian traditions wholeheartedly supported the cause, particularly in its first decades. By leveraging such widespread social and spiritual capital, the ACS was able to secure Congressional funding that easily equaled and probably surpassed the amount raised through private means in special events and local chapters.
A significant challenge for the ACS involved securing freed slaves who would agree to go to Liberia. A handful of free blacks saw Liberia as a way to get out of the toxic racial maelstrom of American society and some shared the evangelical vision of converting Africa to Christianity. Most free blacks, however, strenuously resisted the colonization effort; and those who did favor emigration often looked to some other organization than the ACS or placed their hopes in a venue other than Liberia. Those who opposed colonization did so on the grounds that they had been born and raised in America and that Africa was a completely foreign place to them. Others may have shared the missionary vision but did not wish to go to such a physically challenging place to carry out the mission. It is worth noting that two African-American Princeton Seminary graduates, Thomas McCants Stewart and Hugh Mason Browne, set sail for Liberia in 1883 and spent some years there, the latter as the “Charles Hodge Professor of Intellectual and Moral Philosophy” at Liberia College and the former as professor of law and belles lettres at the same school, later serving as general agent for Liberian education, and still later as an associated justice of the Liberian Supreme Court and Deputy Attorney General. In the end, approximately 13,000 people—out of a black population of around 2,000,000 people— agreed to emigrate to Liberia. 39
Following the war an additional 2,000 emigrants went to Liberia between 1866 and 1871. In 1819, Congress passed an act which authorized the president to send a naval squadron to African waters to apprehend illegal slave traders and appropriated $100,000 to resettle captured slaves in Africa. No attempt was made to determine the actual tribes from which these recaptured slaves had come. Rather the ACS entered into agreements with the U.S. government to settle these rescued victims of the slave trade in Liberia as well. By 1867, close to 6,000 additional persons were thereby resettled in Liberia, though they had never been slaves in North America. This would account for the larger figure of close to 20,000 total settlers. On the colonization movement, see also Philip John Staudenraus, The African Colonization Movement, 1816-1865 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961). An excellent historiographical review of the published studies of the American Colonization Society may be found in Marie Tyler-McGraw, An African Republic: Black and White Virginians in the Making of Liberia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 413f
The relatively small number of people who emigrated to Liberia soon became the basis for withdrawal of support, if not outright ridicule, of the mission of the ACS.
The way colonization played out among the white population is complicated. Beyond the halls of power in Washington, D.C., the ACS initially enjoyed a broad base of support among white Protestants. White slaveholders in the South supported the effort for a time because it provided a way for free blacks to be removed from their communities and thereby not to serve as inspiration for rebellion or uprising among the multitudes of the enslaved. Some white slaveholders also supported colonization because it offered a way to salve their consciences by getting out of the slavery business without having to worry about future repercussions from their former slaves. The support among white slaveholders in the South fell off sharply after the Missouri crisis and with the rise of increasingly bold abolitionism from the North.
Northern whites seemed to support colonization as a creative and benevolent scheme until critics began to question the inherent racial assumptions at work in the ACS. Even noted abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was a member of ACS and an active supporter of colonization for a brief time. It did not take long, however, for Garrison to see the fact that the ACS was both anti-slavery and anti-black. His book, Thoughts on African Colonization, laid bare all of the contradictions, deep-seated racism, and failure of imagination at work in the ACS. In Archibald Alexander’s book on the history of African colonization written in 1846—some 14 years after the publication of Garrison’s scathing exposé of the ACS and its theological rhetoric—he echoed an accusation to the effect that Garrison was the black community’s worst enemy while being disguised as a friend. 40
Other Northern whites continued to support the colonization effort as a middle way between the evils of slavery and the specter of ecclesiastical division and even civil war over the issues of slavery and race. But another swath of Northern white support fell away as a result of the revivalism of Finney and New School Presbyterians, whose spiritual fervor often led them to support abolitionist positions. Predictably, in light of its theological commitments and tendencies, Princeton Seminary rejected revivalism and abolitionism. As already noted, the Seminary faculty continued to support colonization as the solution to America’s racial problems and tensions well after the abolition of slavery in 1865.
Although the ACS continued to exist until 1964 in the United States and until 1985 in Liberia, the official colonization effort had lost most of its support by the end of the Civil War in 1865. That it continued to survive for 99 more years stands as a sad testimony to ongoing racism in American life, to the hope of part of a minority group of African-Americans for a better life outside of the United States, and to the failure of theological imagination on the part of some of the greatest Presbyterian theological minds of the nineteenth century.
Theodore S. Wright, the Seminary’s first black graduate in 1828, offered a coda to the colonization scheme. Speaking in 1838 to an abolitionist gathering in Oneida County, New York, Wright rejected colonization on several grounds. It was inconsistent in its rationale and unworkable as policy.
It changes its hues like the chamelion [sic]. At the South its advocates say, “we don’t mean to trouble your institutions. This society never contemplated emancipation.” At the North it is the only means to ultimately remove slavery. But the Colonization Society is inadequate to the task it has undertaken. It is impossible to colonize the colored people of America on the shore of Africa. It cannot be done. You might as well think of draining the ocean with a tea spoon. The society increased to the highest state of efficiency possible cannot remove the increase alone. O how absurd the idea, and foolish—I might say “fanatical”—the attempt to remove 3,000,000 of human beings to the other side of the ocean.
It enticed African-Americans with the notion that Africa was their real home. “Where is our home,” he replied, “if it be not the place where we were born, brought up, and where we now reside? Africa is not our home; no more than England, Scotland, Germany and Switzerland, are the homes of the Americans.” Colonization, Wright insisted, “fastens and strengthens the prejudice against colored people” and “is the more dangerous as she comes to us in the garb of Piety.” Perhaps thinking of his theological alma mater, Theodore Wright also observed: “Some have been led to look favorably upon this scheme because a great many good men have been engaged in it. But good men may err; men are the same that they ever were, finite and fallible; and bad principles are very frequently found among good men.”41