Friday, April 26, 2013

Confederate"Heritage" Month, April 26: The American Colonization Society

Henry Wilson in the 1872 History of the Rise and Fall of The Slave Power in America, Vol 1 (Negro Universities Press; New York) wrote about the American Colonization Society and its contradictory program. Its goal was to resettle Americans of African descent in Africa. Wilson writes:

The American Colonization Society was organized in the year 1816, in the city of Washington. Auxiliary societies were soon formed in most of the States. This association, with its affiliated organizations, contributed in no small degree to influence the opinions and actions of men, and to intensify the irrepressible conflict of the last half-century. In its original formation and subsequent progress, in its avowals, arguments, and acts, it was always singularly inconsistent and illogical. It manifestly yielded and pandered to the wicked prejudice against race and color; and yet it called upon churches and Christians to assist in sustaining it as an essential part of the missionary enterprise. It cruelly aspersed and defamed the free people of color; and yet insisted that they were the preordained instruments of Heaven for the civilization of Africa. It evinced the most undisguised hostility to Abolition and Abolitionists; and yet it persistently pressed its claims on the friends of the slave. While it embraced many wise and good men, actuated by philanthropic and Christian principles, its history compels the conviction that, unwittingly or f:om design, its influence was largely instrumental in producing that sad demoralization of the nation which rendered possible the subsequent aggressions and triumphs of the Slave Power. (pp. 208-9)
It became common among critics of slavery before the civil war to refer to the Southern block of slave states as the Slave Power. It seems like a perfectly fine description to me.

Colonization was a popular notion among many white opponents of slavery. But Wilson argued that the American Colonization Society "was to render slavery and its supporters more secure." And the colonization movement was by no means all an antislavery movement. The put a major focus on resettled free blacks outside the United States. As Wilson put it:

The same principle was clearly recognized and avowed by Mr. Webster, in his 7th of March speech, in which, among his other overtures for Southern confidence, he pledged his support to any proposition "or scheme of colonization" the South might see fit to propose, "to relieve themselves from the burden of their free colored population." Though many Northern antislavery men and Christians were lending it their aid, for the promised good to Africa and the Africans, its leading members and supporters were characterizing property in man as "sacred," "as inviolable as any other in the country." They said to the slaveholders: "We know your rights, and we respect them." They claimed Southern support on the ground, as expressed by [John] Randolph at its first meeting, that it "-would prove one of the greatest securities" to such property. This idea even the" Repository" expressed, again and again, in different forms and phrases. It declared that removing free people of color" would contribute more effectually to the continuance and strength" of slavery than anything else; "would augment instead of diminishing the value of the property left behind"; "would secure slaveholders and the whole Southern country"; would render the slave who remains in America more obedient, more faithful, more honest, and, consequently, more useful to his master; and "'would provide and keep open a drain for the excess beyond the occasion of profitable employment." (p. 214)
The white racism in Northern states in antebellum times plays a big role in dishonest neo-Confederate polemics which seek to deny the role of slavery in the Civil War and wanted to minimize and detract from the nature of Southern slavery. "How could the Civil War have been about slavery when Northern whites were racists, too?" goes the argument.

For those actually trying to understand what went on, it's important to be careful to not apply anachronistic thinking, projecting current standards onto earlier times. In 2013, anyone expressing some kind of sympathy for slavery or defending it is almost certainly doing so from a white racist perspective. And most people would be very aware of that. But not even present-day segregationists for the most part would defend slavery explicitly. You can be a white racist and not defend slavery.

That was also true in the 19th century. But the immediate context was different. William Freehling has done an admirable job in explaining how the absence of slavery was also associated in the minds of the white majority with the absence of black people. Northern states voluntarily abolished slavery as the proportion of the white population grew, so abolition in the minds of many white Northerners was associated with the reduction of the number of blacks as a percentage of the population. Many whites also saw slave labor as a threat to the wages, farm income and opportunities of white workers and farmers, without making a sharp distinction in that regard between slaves and the much smaller number of free blacks. "Blacks" and "slaves" were heavily identified concepts, and so for many whites, absence of slaves equated to absence of blacks.

And so it was not only possible but common for whites to be opposed to slavery while being hostile to recognizing blacks as equals, and while being just plain hostile to blacks. White racism and antislavery sentiment could and did coexist in people's minds. A famous Southern example of that is Hinton Helper, a well-known Southern abolitionist also known even after the Civil War as an explicit racist.

As Henry Wilson observed, colonization schemes for the most part failed "to secure the confidence of the colored people." Though the American Colonization Society "was ostensibley formed in their injterest and was really incapable of accomplishing the objects of its organization without their voluntary co-operation and willing acceptance of its assistance, it was never regarded with favor by them." He mention a "national convention of colored men" as early as 1831 adopted a statement rejecting colonization as "a direct road to perpetuate slavery." Free blacks were not only a direct source of antislavery agitation and support to escaped slaves. They were also living proof of the dishonesty of white racist notions that were more and more emphasized over time by slavery propagandists presenting African-Americans as racially inferior. To supporters of colonization, they replied that:

... if we must be sacrificed to their philanthropy, we would rather die at home. Many of our father and some of us have fought and bled for the liberty, independence, and peace which you now enjoy; and surely it would be ungenerous and unfeeling in you to deny us a humble and quiet grave in that country which gave us birth.
They were Americans and insisted on being regarded as such.

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