Historians have not looked fondly on the legacy of the black colonization movement, and understandably so. Premised on a notion of racial separation, varying in means and motive but certain in its desired outcome of relocating the black population of the United States to a foreign locale, colonization strikes the modern reader as an ill-advised relic of a misguided and often deplorable racial past. Hindsight further complicates our assessment, prompting the immediate question of how a “solution” to slavery of such impractical and unworkable proportions—for colonization at its most advanced state proposed nothing less than the transport and relocation of millions of African Americans, free and slave—managed to count such imminently pragmatic figures as James Madison, Henry Clay, and Abraham Lincoln among its supporters.
The answer lies in the underexplored complexity of the deceivingly simplistic, if objectionable, colonization concept. Almost two decades ago David Brion Davis issued a call to historians to move beyond the “simple dichotomy between an [American Colonization Society (ACS)] Antichrist and abolitionist Redeemers” by recognizing the political realism in its appeal to a moderate third way between immediatist emancipation and pro-slavery radicalism, even as its moral gravity weighs heavily on our judgment (David Brion Davis, “Reconsidering the Colonization Movement,” Intellectual History Newsletter14 : 3–16).
In the intervening years, the slavery literature has inched toward a fuller treatment of colonization, showing hints of growing sophistication that both expound upon its place within the nineteenth-century political spectrum and qualify its troublesome reputation. Yet Tomek’s work is the first book-length treatment of the antebellum colonization movement to attempt a disentangling of its internal politics, external opposition, and widely disparate intellectual justifications. The result should put to rest any unidimensional characterization of the “colonizationist” middle in the slavery debate, replacing it with a complex and contradictory assortment of coexisting motives and organizations, each loosely related and sometimes allied, yet also prone to the same discord that separated them from the abolitionist and pro-slavery extremes.
The heart of this work consists of five short intellectual biographies, each tied to colonization and set amid the broader context of antislavery politics in Pennsylvania. Many readers will recognize Philadelphia merchant Elliott Cresson through his connections to the ACS, the conventional public face of the colonization enterprise, though he was far from its uncontested champion. Through Cresson, Tomek shows a genuine antislavery man who saw colonization as a means of affecting emancipation and consciously steered it in that direction, albeit with near-constant tension in the organization. What seemed to him a natural coalition against slavery proved a tenuous and ever-shifting political median, with Cresson caught between an ACS national body that consciously muted his antislavery message to avoid alienating [End Page 106]southern supporters and an emerging abolitionist movement that openly challenged the motives of black resettlement.
Cresson was something of a foil to Pennsylvania economist Mathew Carey, also a critic of slavery, but one who largely viewed the institution from afar as a political obstacle to national strength and union. Carey hailed from what could be described as the political end of the movement, coming closest to Henry Clay’s own position and illustrating the neglected overlap between some northern antislavery gradualists and southern slaveholding moderates. Carey is little known today beyond his role as the intellectual progenitor of the Whig Party’s American System of economic policies. Ironically, through his colonization pamphleteering we see that black resettlement was but a natural extension of this same philosophy, as much a key to political unity and industrialization as were protective tariffs, internal improvements subsidies, and the national bank. Colonization, Carey argued, would remove slavery as both a recurring source of disunionist sectional tension and a barrier to a homogenous—and white—labor system.
Colonization was not synonymous with the ACS though, a point Tomek abundantly documents through the organization’s Pennsylvania adversaries, including both supporters and critics of the resettlement concept. Herein we find the movement’s...