- Slavery and the Peculiar Solution: A History of the American Colonization Society
Few antebellum institutions seem to have provoked the sorts of passions and controversies as the American Colonization Society (ACS). Founded in December 1816 by a pastiche of Northern emancipationists, Southern proslavery ideologues, and economic modernizers and political moderates from both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, organization members were united only in their belief that black and white Americans could not live together. The ACS established a West African colony for the repatriation of free blacks and former slaves. That colony, Liberia, became an independent republic in 1847. In its own day, the mass of contradictions that motivated the organization's membership made the ACS a prime target for constituencies across the political spectrum. For example, the [End Page 65] colonizationist impulse provided early fodder for William Lloyd Garrison, who in Thoughts on African Colonization (1832) defined his immediatist program in stark contrast to the gradualist approach of the ACS.
The historical literature on African colonization has until recently mirrored many of these early controversies. Certainly the institutional studies born in the crucible of the political environment of the 1960s and 1970s tended to portray the ACS as a sort of Trojan horse trotted out by proslavery advocates as a means to reduce their sections' free black population. Indeed, many Southern members would have agreed with that assessment, and some more recent studies maintain that line. Even more recently, however, our understanding of this organization has undergone a fruitful revision as some scholars have attempted to reinsert colonization back into the antislavery matrix. Eric Burin's excellent Slavery and the Peculiar Solution: A History of the American Colonization Society is a most welcome addition to that literature.
Burin does not deny or shy away from the conflicting impulses driving the ACS project and in fact organizes the book by looking at the arguments and motivations of multiple constituencies. He provides an overview of the movement, looks at the motivations of those Southerners who manumitted their slaves, and surveys the complicated negotiations between slaves and masters. Burin describes the delicate interplay between Northern colonizers and Southern manumitters and the difficult and changing circumstances that made that process a logistical and legal challenge. His focus on Southern manumissions is a singular addition to the new scholarship, and his conclusions about the motivations of those individuals shed new light on the moral quandary that some Southerners wrestled with throughout the antebellum period. Far from simply strengthening the hand of proslavery ideologues, Burin demonstrates how the surprising number of manumissions, even in the late antebellum period, had a destabilizing effect on the "peculiar institution" in the South and was thus a weapon—albeit double-edged—in the antislavery struggle.
The most compelling section of the study for this reader is the final chapter, which describes the experiences of the freedpersons in Liberia. The hope that accompanied the emigrants was almost always tempered by the harsh conditions they encountered. The mortality rate among these new Americo-Liberians was horrifying. Their struggles to survive were compounded by their economic travails as the colony (and then republic) lurched toward self-sufficiency. Despite the fact that many of these new Liberians were agricultural workers, their attempts to turn their country into the "agricultural epicenter" of Africa (long [End Page 66] the dream of ACS officials) were an abject failure. And yet, no matter what the difficulties, this new breath of freedom trumped their slave experience every time. This chapter provides an important counterpoint to the complexities of the arguments presented in the rest of the book. Burin's arguments are built upon the solid foundation of excellent archival research and a database (published as very useful appendices) of information on nearly eleven thousand emigrants gleaned from ACS documents. If readers question some of Burin's conclusions, they will at the very least appreciate the quality of his scholarship. The text is well written and cogently argued. Slavery and the Peculiar Solution will prove rewarding to students...