Humanities › History & Culture American Colonization Society Early 19th Century Group Proposed Returning Enslaved People to Africa Share Flipboard Email Print Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington. Getty Images History & Culture American History Basics Important Historical Figures Key Events U.S. Presidents Native American History American Revolution America Moves Westward The Gilded Age Crimes & Disasters The Most Important Inventions of the Industrial Revolution African American History African History Ancient History and Culture Asian History European History Genealogy Inventions Latin American History Medieval & Renaissance History Military History The 20th Century Women's History View More By Robert McNamara History Expert Robert J. McNamara is a history expert and former magazine journalist. He was Amazon.com's first-ever history editor and has bylines in New York, the Chicago Tribune, and other national outlets. our editorial process Robert McNamara Updated March 31, 2018 The American Colonization Society was an organization formed in 1816 with the purpose of transporting free Black people from the United States to settle on the west coast of Africa. During the decades the society operated more than 12,000 people were transported to Africa and the African nation of Liberia was founded. The idea of moving Black people from America to Africa was always controversial. Among some supporters of the society it was considered a benevolent gesture. But some advocates of sending Black people to Africa did so with obviously racist motives, as they believed that, even if freed from enslavement, Black people were inferior to whites and incapable of living in American society. And many free Black people living in the United States were deeply offended by the encouragement to move to Africa. Having been born in America, they wanted to live in freedom and enjoy the benefits of life in their own homeland. The Founding of the American Colonization Society The idea of returning Black people to Africa had developed in the late 1700s, as some Americans came to believe that the Black and white races could never live together peacefully. But the practical idea for transporting Black people to a colony in Africa originated with a New England sea captain, Paul Cuffee, who was of Native American and African descent. Sailing from Philadelphia in 1811, Cuffee investigated the possibility of transporting Black Americans to the west coast of Africa. And in 1815 he did take 38 colonists from America to Sierra Leone, a British colony on the west coast of Africa. Cuffee's voyage seems to have been an inspiration for the American Colonization Society, which was officially launched at a meeting at the Davis Hotel in Washington, D.C. on December 21, 1816. Among the founders were Henry Clay, a prominent political figure, and John Randolph, a senator from Virginia. The organization gained prominent members. Its first president was Bushrod Washington, a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court who was an enslaver and had inherited a Virginia estate, Mount Vernon, from his uncle, George Washington. Most members of the organization were not actually enslavers. And the organization never had much support in the lower South, the cotton-growing states where the enslavement of African people was essential to the economy. Recruitment for Colonization Was Controversial The society solicited funds to buy the freedom of enslaved people who could then emigrate to Africa. So part of the organization's work could be viewed as benign, a well-meaning attempt to end enslavement. However, some supporters of the organization had other motivations. They were not concerned about the issue of slavery so much as the issue of free Black people living in American society. Many people at the time, including prominent political figures, felt Black people were inferior and could not live with white people. Some American Colonization Society members advocated that formerly enslaved people or free-born Black people should settle in Africa. Free Black people were often encouraged to leave the United States, and by some accounts, they were essentially threatened to leave. There were even some supporters of colonization who saw the organizing as essentially protecting the practice of enslavement. They believed that the presence of free Black people in America would encourage enslaved workers to revolt. That belief became more widespread when formerly enslaved people, such as Frederick Douglass, became eloquent speakers in the growing abolitionist movement. Prominent abolitionists, including William Lloyd Garrison, opposed colonization for several reasons. Besides feeling that Black people had every right to live freely in America, the abolitionists recognized that formerly enslaved people speaking and writing in America were forceful advocates for the ending of slavery. And abolitionists also wanted to make the point that free African Americans living peacefully and productively in society were a good argument against the inferiority of both Black people and the institution of slavery. Settlement in Africa Began in the 1820s The first ship sponsored by the American Colonization Society sailed to Africa carrying 88 African Americans in 1820. A second group sailed in 1821, and in 1822 a permanent settlement was founded which would become the African nation of Liberia. Between the 1820s and the end of the Civil War, approximately 12,000 Black Americans sailed to Africa and settled in Liberia. As the enslaved population by the time of the Civil War was approximately four million, the number of free Black people transported to Africa was a relatively tiny number. A common goal of the American Colonization Society was for the federal government to become involved in the effort of transporting free African Americans to the colony in Liberia. At meetings of the group, the idea would be proposed, but it never gained traction in Congress despite the organization having some powerful advocates. One of the most influential senators in American history, Daniel Webster, addressed the organization at a meeting in Washington on January 21, 1852. As reported in the New York Times days later, Webster gave a typically stirring oration in which he asserted that colonization would be "best for the North, best for the South," and would say to the Black man, "you will be happier in the land of your fathers." The Concept of Colonization Endured Though the work of the American Colonization Society never became widespread, the idea of colonization as a solution to the issue of slavery persisted. Even Abraham Lincoln, while serving as president, entertained the idea of creating a colony in Central America for formerly enslaved people. Lincoln abandoned the idea of colonization by the middle of the Civil War. And before his assassination, he created the Freedmen's Bureau, which would help formerly enslaved people become free members of American society following the war. The true legacy of the American Colonization Society would be the nation of Liberia, which has endured despite a troubled and sometimes violent history.