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  • The American Enlightenment in Africa: Jefferson’s Colonizationism and Black Virginians’ Migration to Liberia, 1776–1840
  • John Saillant (bio)

To emancipate all slaves born after the passing of the act. . . . They should continue with their parents to a certain age, then to be brought up, at the public expense, to tillage, arts, or sciences, according to their geniuses, till the females should be eighteen, and the males twenty-one years of age, when they should be colonized to such places as the circumstances of the time should render most proper.

Thomas Jefferson, 1782

As soon as the mind emerges, in contemplating the subject [of colonizing free black Americans in Africa] . . . vast and interesting objects present themselves to view. It is impossible not to revolve in it, the condition of those people, the embarrassment they have already occasioned us, and are still likely to subject us to.

James Monroe, 1801

Outlets for the free blacks are alone wanted for a rapid erasure of the blot from our Republican character.

James Madison, 1830 1

The American Enlightenment fostered the revolutionary creation of the U.S.A. and the widespread sense that this country was a new nation. The American [End Page 261] Enlightenment fostered also the continuing enslavement of African-Americans and the post-Revolutionary effort to expatriate them to West Africa or the Caribbean. For the revolutionary act of creating a new nation led a number of prominent and thoughtful individuals to inquire into the universal principles that would unite and define their country. Some familiar ready answers were a natural love of liberty and an interest in the right to property, while answers that perhaps seem less evident today were human principles of affection, benevolence, and charity. This inquiry into universal principles also led a number of Americans to turn their attention to blacks. Although well known as lovers of liberty, commonly called runaways, blacks came to appear as figures who could never unite with whites in affection, benevolence, and charity and who therefore could never be part of the new nation. A number of prominent Americans and countless others committed themselves to the expatriationist or colonizationist movement, proposed by Jefferson in 1776, broadly endorsed beginning in the 1780s, and institutionalized in the American Colonization Society in 1817. 2 Yet as white Americans sent away their exslaves and other blacks, a new universal principle common to both blacks and whites became evident—a commercial impulse. The white men who saw blacks as degraded outcasts in North America came to perceive the same black men (women and children were barely noticed, except when they died from malaria or fever) as commercial men once they were heading to West Africa. The expatriation of blacks as a solution to the problem of a postslavery society flowed from the American Enlightenment, but colonization in Liberia helped to create a new idea of liberty that broke sharply with enlightened ideas and values. The Enlightenment critique of slavery and the liberal critique of slavery were markedly different from each other. Colonization provided one bridge from the first to the second.

Three themes structure this essay. One theme is the Jeffersonian understanding of human universals, including a deep empathy and a communal phenomenology, rooted in shared sentiments and strengthened by a common education, all of which Jefferson understood as essential to the new republic. Another theme is the racialist implication of this sentimentalist social thought, the way it made crucial the question of whether blacks could unite in sentiment with whites in a republic. The third theme is the decline of sentimental social thought and the birth of a new way of thinking about blacks, expressed in antebellum abolitionism, as people who could be another set of atomistic individuals in a liberal nation. 3 The colonization movement served as one bridge to a modern way of thinking about society and race, since it began in the Revolutionary era with sentimentalist assumptions, but by the 1820s it was based on a liberal conception of black men.

My reason for writing this essay is dissatisfaction with both our understanding of Revolutionary-era and post-Revolutionary racism and our understanding of the racialism of the American Enlightenment. First, racism should...

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pp. 261-282
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