Liberia: America’s “Settler State”

This paper was written for Economics 1339: Generating Wealth of Nations, a Harvard undergraduate course taught by visiting professor Jeffrey Borland.

Introduction

Despite its abolishment of the international slave trade in 1808, America in the period following the American Revolutionary War was home to an ever-increasing population of both free and enslaved African Americans. This growing demographic posed a threat to the white community, which was concerned about the implications of black assimilation into American society. Many northerners were afraid of free blacks taking their jobs, while slave owners in the South were concerned that the presence of freedmen living in slave states would encourage slave revolts and runaways. In response, some proposed an expatriation of African Americans to colonies in Africa, which would grant blacks their freedom and whites their peace of mind. This idea took hold, and in 1816, the American Colonization Society (ACS) was formed with the mission to facilitate the establishment of such settlements. In addition to the central goal of mitigating white-black tensions in America, the operation also aimed to “civilize” and evangelize African natives. The ACS also stressed the economic benefits of establishing trade agreements with the African populations via colonies, which would secure for American merchants trade currently monopolized by Europeans. In 1819, when the ACS received funding from Congress, the enterprise began in earnest, and the first of many ships set sail for West Africa, with three white ACS agents and 88 emigrants on board. Over the next few decades, the ACS would work closely with the Liberian colonies in a struggle to establish permanent, self-sufficient settlements.

Prior to the 1830s, the US government only maintained an official interest in Liberia insofar as it served as an outpost from which to execute America’s anti-slave trade campaign. The Monroe Doctrine, which stymied international involvement between the Eastern and Western hemispheres, prevented the government from taking a more direct interest in Liberia’s internal affairs. Instead, the American Colonization Society maintained control over the territory’s administration until 1838, when Liberia proclaimed itself a self-governing commonwealth. This declaration of sovereignty was prompted by criticism that accused the ACS of attempting to acquire an empire as well as the ACS’s own financial problems. At this point, ACS still maintained some control over Liberia’s internal affairs, but its political and commercial influence waned substantially. In 1847, Liberia declared itself a Republic and legislative powers found themselves in the hands of the settlers. This paper examines the ways in which government policy affected the economic growth of the Liberian settler society from the early periods of its settlement in the 1820s to the worldwide depression in the latter part of the 19th century.

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