“The United States of Africa”: Liberian Independence and the Contested Meaning of a Black Republic


Historians have primarily examined the African colonization movement within the context of domestic anti-slavery politics; however, because colonizationists often promoted Liberia as a nascent “United States of Africa,” it can also be understood as one of the United States’ first attempts to engineer republicanism abroad. This article examines the symbolic realization of this republican ideal by investigating the often-overlooked moment in 1847 when Liberia declared itself the world’s second black republic. Some white colonization supporters in the United States viewed Liberia’s realization of independence as validation of the idea that a black colony, through U.S. tutelage, could be elevated to become a sovereign, self-governing nation. At the same time, several African American critics argued in pamphlets, abolitionist newspapers, and black political conventions that Liberia’s independence would do little to earn international respect for African Americans and that the event was primarily aimed at garnering support for a colonization movement which had, in fact, contributed to the erosion of black rights in the United States. This article argues that U.S. observers both championed and dismissed Liberian independence as an expression of the United States’ ability to shape the world in its own image at a moment when many Americans were preoccupied with expanding onto new territory as well as policing the boundaries of racialized citizenship within the nation.