Colonization and Its Discontents: Emancipation, Emigration, and Antislavery in Antebellum Pennsylvania by Beverly C. Tomek (review)
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Slavery, Emigration, Africa, Pennsylvania, Colonization, Liberia

Colonization and Its Discontents: Emancipation, Emigration, and Antislavery in Antebellum Pennsylvania. By Beverly C. Tomek. (New York: New York University Press, 2011. Pp. xxiii + 296. Paper, $24.00.)

In Colonization and Its Discontents, Beverly C. Tomek aims to achieve two things: The first is to persuade the reader that colonization—the voluntary emigration of American slaves and free people to Africa—was of equal importance to gradual and immediate emancipation in antebellum Pennsylvania. The second is to show that in this key borderland state, the three movements—represented by the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (PAS), the Pennsylvania Colonization Society (PCS), and the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society (PASS)—were often closely intertwined. For decades they "competed for support" among different brands of abolitionists, black and white, who "contributed ideas and dreams in the larger effort to somehow solve America's racial dilemma." Antislavery in Pennsylvania, Tomek stresses, "contained elements of exclusion and limitation as well as racial improvement and black uplift all along," and schemes of emigration were part of the story from the start (17). [End Page 577]

Unlike the PAS, with the distinction of being first, and unlike the PASS, with the distinction of being right, the PCS, along with its better known parent, the American Colonization Society (ACS), has not fared well in American historiography. Although the first colonizationists in America were black New Englanders, convinced that their people had no future in the United States (see Floyd J. Miller's ground-breaking The Search for a Black Nationality: Black Emigration and Colonization, 1787-1863 [Urbana, IL, 1975]), R. J. M. Blackett, Patrick Rael, and Richard Newman among others have emphasized the degree to which Philadelphia's black activists rejected colonization, beginning with the famous mass meeting at Mother Bethel Church in 1817. The attenders, whose names are lost to posterity, reversed the course of their leaders' pro-emigrationist thinking. Southern slaveholders, like founder Charles Fenton Mercer and the society's first president, Thomas Jefferson, featured prominently in the formation of the ACS in the nation's capital the year before, as did white elites in the formation of the PCS. The early history of Sierra Leone and its American counterpart Liberia, as Tomek shows, are textbook cases on how not to create a self-governing society, with whites controlling the main organs of power, African American settlers exposed to debilitating disease environments and all the settlers surrounded by hostile slave-trading forces. As such, colonization can resemble a type of racial social engineering, comparable to the Trail of Tears or to the slave trade itself.

Placing her study in the context of recent work on the formation of a white republic, Tomek argues that, contrary to the implications of this literature, the colonizationist branch of antislavery had much in common with gradualism and was by no means rejected by all black abolitionists. Her study falls into eight deftly titled chapters ("'Calculated to remove the evils, and increase the happiness of society'" on Mathew Carey, for example; or "'They will never become a people until they come out from amongst the white people,'" on James Forten). These cover racial exclusionism in the early Quaker-led abolitionist movement, the PCS's public relations campaign in Pennsylvania, Carey's political economy of colonization, colonizationist Elliott Cresson's efforts on behalf of Liberia, James Forten's ambivalence regarding colonization, Quaker Benjamin Coates's efforts to connect black uplift with emigration, and Martin R. Delany's similar beliefs regarding self-help and emigration. The concluding chapter discusses the legacies of Pennsylvania antislavery. Tomek's study—as suits a history of ideas—is geographically wide-ranging, exploring [End Page 578] the many sources of Pennsylvanians' antislavery commitments, including Cresson's quixotic search for support in Britain, events on the ground in Africa, and Delany's efforts in his outpost in Pittsburgh. Otherwise, most of the action takes place in Philadelphia.

Tomek's volume may be read usefully in conjunction with the new anthology Antislavery and Abolition in Philadelphia: Emancipation and the Long Struggle for Racial Justice in the City of Brotherly Love (Baton Rouge, LA, 2011), edited by Richard Newman and...