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2. L’entre-deux : espaces, pratiques et représentations
III. Intermédiaires privés et publics et zones hybrides

Non-state actor interference in diplomacy: the American Colonization Society and the U.S. - Liberia relationship (1862-1878)



L’American Colonization Society (ACS) a été fortement impliquée dans la création du Libéria et dans le développement de ses institutions. Cette organisation privée tient donc un rôle important dans l’étude de la construction de la relation États-Unis-Libéria. Avant la reconnaissance du Libéria par les États-Unis, en 1862, la conduite de la politique libérienne des États-Unis était largement déléguée à l’ACS. Cet article explore l’évolution de la relation historique entre l’ACS et le Libéria après 1862 et explique l’influence de l’ACS sur les relations diplomatiques qui se sont développées entre les deux pays à partir de la reconnaissance officielle et jusqu’à la mission du premier Ministre Résident et Consul Général noir américain au Libéria. Malgré les affirmations de nombreux historiens, qui ont considéré que l’ACS a connu un déclin après la guerre de Sécession et l’abolition de l’esclavage, l’article montre que l’ACS et le Libéria ont entretenu des liens étroits et que l’ACS est demeurée influente. La relation entre le Libéria et les États-Unis a alors été marquée par une forme d’entre-deux institutionnel, puisque l’ACS et les diplomates interagissaient avec le gouvernement libérien. En se fondant sur une analyse de la correspondance de l’ACS et des dépêches officielles des représentants américains au Libéria, l’article estime que l’ACS a directement interféré dans la relation diplomatique de cette époque.

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  • 1 The bulk of Liberian archival documents were destroyed during the civil wars of 1989-1996 and 1997- (...)

1Today’s representation of Liberia, the challenges it faces, and the transformations of its relations with the U.S. would be better understood if more attention was devoted to what happened there in the nineteenth century. The social and political history of Liberia remains understudied1 and the historiography of the U.S.-Liberia specific relationship is incomplete and largely focused on the United States.

  • 2 The ACS was created in 1816 and it was legally dissolved as late as 1964.
  • 3 After the abolition of slavery, a majority of black people rejected this idea, but black and white (...)

2Liberia (meaning “land of the free”), was created in 1821 by the American Colonization Society (ACS), a philanthropic society, thanks to U.S. financial and military support. The objective of the ACS was to send free and manumitted black Americans, as well as Africans enslaved after the abolition of the slave trade and seized by the U.S. Navy (“recaptives” or “liberated Africans”), to the west coast of Africa. The organization was founded in December 1816 by a group of white men with close ties to political circles, among whom were Robert Finley, a presbyterian pastor from New Jersey and Charles Fenton Mercer, who served in the Virginia House of delegates and then in the U.S. Congress. It gathered members with very different profiles, leading historian Eric Burin to describe it as a “hodgepodge of southern modernizers, Jeffersonian vacillators, northern evangelicals, and even a few proslavery planters” (Burin 14). The members of the organization argued that “repatriated” black people would find a way to freedom in going back to the land of their ancestors and that they would “civilize” the African continent (Sherwood 222). Colonization was seen by them as an adequate solution at a time when the population of free Blacks was growing and was seen as a threat to the existing social and racial order. As the fathering institution of Liberia that had the blessings of several American politicians, including President Monroe himself, the ACS maintained strong ties with Liberia long after the independence of the country in 1847 (Murdza 70). Before the official recognition of Liberia by the U.S. in 1862, the conduct of the U.S. Liberian policy was largely informal and delegated to the ACS. Whether the diplomatic relationship between Liberia and the U.S. then altered the status of the ACS needs to be investigated. Few authors who worked on the relationship between the two countries have paid attention to the ACS apart from its early role in Liberia (Bixler 4-23) and from black American leaders’ widespread opposition to the organization (Power-Greene). Besides, few studies have focused on the diplomats themselves, apart from the seminal work of anthropologist and former diplomat Elliott P. Skinner (Skinner 1992). In spite of revived interest in colonization – including the role of the ACS – after emancipation and until the end of the U.S. Civil War (Page, Magness and Page), the post-abolition ACS also received scant attention. There exists no complete history of the organization to this day2. Staudenraus’ and Burin’s studies, though highly informative, do not go beyond 1865 (Staudenraus; Burin 2005). The relative decline of the idea of colonization3 and the financial difficulties of the ACS in the decades that followed the abolition of slavery partly explain why historians lost interest in this organization afterwards. It is true that the enrollment of black Americans in the Union army and the prospects offered to them by the Reconstruction amendments challenged the ACS’s large scale emigration project to Liberia. So did the decline of its local auxiliaries (Staudenraus 248-249). Still, the ACS organized the voluntary emigration of more than 2,000 black Americans to Liberia between 1866 and 1871 (Burin 166). Boyd did give some details about what he called “the last serious attempt” of the ACS “to carry out its program of Negro emigration” between 1865 and 1870 (Boyd 362) but overall, historians failed to question the institutional power of the ACS regarding Liberia and to a lesser extent, the U.S. It is more particularly the role of the ACS in the development of the relationship between the two countries that has been overlooked.

3The study of this organization as an institution that did not simply amount to a “dwindling” colonization society in the post-Civil War period (Staudenraus 248) could have been the task of international relations (IR) specialists, who have paid increasing attention to the role of non-state actors in foreign affairs since the 1970s. However, IR is a recent discipline born of the ashes of World War I, and although the Peace Treaty of Westphalia (1648) is traditionally regarded as the moment when the international order was born, researchers in this field are generally more interested in looking at the 20th and 21st centuries than at the 19th century (Buzan and Lawson 46-48). This article attempts to partly fill these gaps in the historiography of the ACS and the U.S.-Liberia relationship. It considers that the ACS is a non-state actor essential to understanding the transnational and interstate connections between the two countries. It aims to show that the development of a diplomatic relationship between Liberia and the U.S. did not challenge the historical link between the ACS and Liberia. It explains how the ACS challenged this new, and somehow frail, relationship. The article first goes back to the role of the ACS in the U.S.-Liberia relationship before the country was recognized by the U.S. Then, it proceeds to comment on the beginnings of the diplomatic relationship and highlight the profiles of the first two U.S. diplomats (Abraham Hanson and John Seys). Finally, it reveals how the ACS interfered in the newly born diplomatic relationship, positioning itself as a third actor alongside the U.S and Liberian administrations.

  • 4 Most of the manuscript documents for this period were microfilmed and can be accessed at the Nation (...)
  • 5 The ACS records comprising 190, 000 documents can be found in the Manuscript Division of the Librar (...)
  • 6 The term ‘Americo-Liberians’ refers to black people who emigrated to Liberia and their descendants. (...)

4This research is based on fieldwork conducted at the National Archives and Records Administration and the Library of Congress. The National Archives at College Park provide access to the official correspondence of the U.S. diplomats with the Department of State4. The collection casts light on the subjects that emerged in the diplomatic relationship grounded in the diplomats’ empirical experience of the country. The records of the ACS offer a significant complement to this collection5. It contains a variety of exchanges between the ACS’s headquarters (most often represented by its secretary or president) and ACS agents, Americano-Liberian6 leaders, American diplomats, or again, would-be emigrants. For this article, identifying the letters exchanged between the secretary of the ACS and the first two U.S. diplomats was crucial, just as the letters between the ACS and Liberian leaders. It was also useful to explore the annual reports of the ACS as well as its official journal, the African Repository and Colonial Journal, which can both be found online. The cross analysis of the ACS collections and the diplomatic dispatches proved fruitful to analyse the interactions between the ACS and the diplomats.

5The article also draws on IR concepts and theories useful to understand the influence of the ACS in the connections between the two countries. In 1971, the American political scientists Joseph S. Nye and Robert O. Keohane questioned the “state-centric perspective” favored in the study of international interactions by realist theoreticians, considering that international exchanges were not only shaped by states through the agency of the “soldier and the diplomat” but also by non-state actors. They defined the “transnational interactions” as referring to “the movement of tangible or intangible items across state boundaries when at least one actor is not an agent of a government or intergovernmental organization” (Nye and Keohane 333). Even though Nye and Keohane referred to the increasingly globalized context of the 20th century and the growing number of non-state actors engaged in world politics, such concepts make it possible to review the role and environment of what can be considered, as argued in this article, a central actor in the U.S.-Liberia relationship between 1862 and 1878. This relationship should be understood both at the transnational and interstate levels. In the first case, the relationship between the two countries is considered as shaped by the actors connecting Liberia and the U.S. independently from U.S. administrations. In the second one, only the connections between the two states, Liberia and the U.S., are considered. The evolution of the historical Liberia-ACS relationship after 1862, and the interference of the ACS in the new diplomatic relationship can be better understood within this theoretical framework. The word “transnational” will thus be used here as it was defined by Nye and Keohane, to refer to the relationship that existed between the two countries as a consequence of the activities of a non-state actor, the ACS. The term “interstate relationship” is used to describe the connections between the two states, including, more specifically, diplomatic relations.

1. The ACS as a transnational mediator between the U.S. and Liberia before the U.S. recognition of Liberia

6Before the official recognition of Liberia by the U.S., the ACS was at the center of the transnational and interstate interactions between the two countries, a situation that can be explained by the historical role of the ACS in the creation of Liberia.

1.1 The historical role of the ACS in Liberia

7After the founding of the ACS in 1816 and the act that led Congress to authorize appropriation of public money for the colonization of Africans liberated from illegal slave ships (Slave Trade Act of 1819), the ACS and the U.S. government organized a joint expedition to find land suitable to colonizing black people on the west coast of Africa, which finally led to the creation of the colony of Liberia in 1821. This creation was attributed to the ACS, which means that Liberia was considered a private colony. The ACS was in charge of the colony from its creation to its independence in 1847. Even though the ACS was a leading actor in the creation of Liberia, the U.S. government financed part of the initial project and maintained the security of Liberia through years, which led historian Raymond W. Bixler to state that “the United States government and the American Colonization Society were in reality the cofounders of Liberia” (Bixler 9).

8The ambiguous status of Liberia – which was never officially a U.S. colony – gave rise to territorial encroachments by the British, who wanted to extend the frontiers of Sierra Leone, their neighboring colony, and argued that Liberia could not be considered a sovereign entity. Thus, the ACS itself encouraged the independence of Liberia. This status had also forced the U.S. to clarify its positioning regarding Liberia and had led U.S. Secretary of State Uphsur to declare that the government of the U.S. would be “unwilling to see [the colony] despoiled of its territory rightfully acquired” (Dunn 738). Following its independence in 1847, the country adopted a constitution that was similar to that of the U.S. Liberia was soon granted international recognition by several countries, including Great Britain in 1848 and France in 1852, and thus entered the international system, technically on an equal footing with other independent countries (Hyman 8). Despite occasional statements about Liberia, the U.S. withheld recognition of Liberia for fifteen years because of growing racial tensions at a time when the free black population increased while the institution of slavery was preserved (Hyman 10). The U.S. refusal to recognize Liberia, and thus to interact on an equal footing with a black nation, points to the racism that characterized U.S. diplomacy at the time. According to Duignan and Gann, having black Liberian diplomats and consuls appointed to the U.S. was out of the question for a majority of officials at the time: “That black diplomats, some of whom might have been former slaves, should rub shoulders with slave-owning aristocrats seemed unthinkable to the American establishment of that period” (Duigan and Gann 117). Similar retrospective analysis was provided in the U.S. press when Liberia was finally recognized. A New York Times article commented in 1862: “The slave-lords ruled in our legislative halls and dictated our national policy – foreign as well as domestic” (“Recognition of Haytian and Liberian Independence a Step in Advance” 4).

9In the absence of diplomatic recognition, there were no diplomats appointed to represent the U.S. in Liberia, or Liberian diplomats in Washington. The mid-19th century was also a period when the U.S. focused on its continental expansion and was rather isolationist in the field of foreign affairs, which might add to the reason why the U.S. did not intensify its relations with Liberia at the time.

1.2 Independent Liberia and the U.S.: the prevalence of the ACS in transnational and interstate interactions

10As long as there were no diplomatic relations, U.S.-Liberia connections were dominated by transnational ones, including the interactions between the ACS itself and the Liberian governments. At the time, the historical relationship between the ACS and Liberia, due to its role in the creation of the country and the supervision of the colony, was still strong. After the independence of Liberia, the ACS was represented in Liberia by a colonization agent acting in coordination with the Liberian administration. Its national Bureau, based on Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C., close to the U.S. federal institutions, was also in constant contact with the Liberian government through frequent correspondence. The ACS collections reveal the exchanges between this organization and Liberian presidents and officials on a variety of topics: the difficulties and progress of the Republic, the management of liberated Africans and black American colonists, international matters, the political and racial situation in the U.S. and the strategies envisioned to attract more black Americans to Liberia, as Liberia was in a state-building process and called for more emigrants. The development of Liberian institutions and the extension of “civilization” to the hinterland were among the priorities of the organization. Mutual trust is expressed in the correspondence, which seems to show that Liberian leaders and the ACS were on the same page. Liberian President Benson referred to the “unabated” “respect and gratitude to the Society” in a letter to the ACS (Benson to Gurley April 29, 1862).

  • 7 The first letters of the title are capitalized in the primary sources.

11During that period, the U.S. federal government’s official policy towards Liberia was restricted to the relocation of African slaves who had been illegally imported to the U.S. The official positioning of the U.S. government consisted in delegating their transfer back across the Atlantic to the ACS. The role of the government in the matter was thus indirect and mostly financial. The U.S. had entered a contract with the ACS which was in charge of relocating the recaptured Africans and supporting them for a year under the supervision of its local agent. The U.S. had also sent an agent in charge of the recaptured Africans to Liberia, but his role was restricted. He only had to report the number of Africans who had been cared for by the ACS. The U.S. government often complained about the inaccuracy of the data provided. This agent, John Seys, who was also a missionary, would later become Minister Resident and Consul General7 in Liberia. Both countries were indirectly bound by the contract and the ACS acted as a mediator. The ACS collections contain numerous communications between the ACS and the U.S. and between the ACS and Liberia on this question (Department of the Interior to McLain May 21, 1863). The U.S. government thus used the agency of the ACS to conduct its own policy. A transition was marked by the establishment of diplomatic relations, leading to the co-existence of the ACS-Liberia relationship and diplomatic relations.

12With the nomination of U.S. representatives to Liberia, the U.S. opened direct communications with this country. However, the formulation of the U.S. foreign policy towards Liberia remained vague, while the first two American diplomats, who had already been engaged in Liberia through previous missionary activities, worked proactively to secure more support to Liberia.

2. The beginnings of U.S. diplomacy in Liberia

2.1 U.S. motivations in the recognition of Liberia

  • 8 Haiti was spelled this way at the time.
  • 9 The project was led by Ambrose W. Thomson, a shipbuilder who offered to colonize and employ 50, 000 (...)
  • 10 The objective was to colonize contrabands in the Ile à Vaches, a small island located off Haiti’s s (...)

13In a message to Congress in December 1861, President Lincoln formulated his intention to recognize Liberia and Haiti, the two black Republics, when he declared: “If any good reason exists why we should persevere longer in withholding our recognition of the independence and sovereignty of Hayti8 and Liberia, I am unable to discern it” (Lincoln, December 3, 1861). In June 1862, the recognition of Liberia was approved by Congress, after the bill was introduced by Senator Charles Sumner (Speech of Hon. Charles Sumner). This led to the signing of a commercial treaty between the two countries. The action of recognizing a country in international relations is a significant decision in terms of foreign policy. In the case of Liberia, it is not surprising that this recognition should have materialized in a commercial treaty since it was a period when the U.S. started to realize that increased commercial relations with Liberia could benefit American merchants (“Recognition of Haytian and Liberian Independence a Step in Advance” 4). In presenting the bill, Sumner also argued that emigration to Liberia and Haiti would increase once diplomatic recognition was granted (Speech of Hon. Charles Sumner). This suggests that the recognition of Liberia and Haiti was also linked with Lincoln’s interest in colonization (Page 209, Bourhis-Mariotti 119). Before he became president, he had explained that to put an end to slavery, he would suggest to “free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia — to their own native land”, before acknowledging that this was not realistic for financial reasons (Lincoln, October 16, 1854). In the context of the civil war, the question of the future of race relations in the U.S. became more pressing. As Lincoln formulated his intention to recognize the two black republics and began to take emancipation policies, federal funds were appropriated for the colonization of contrabands (slaves who escaped to Union lines) and free Blacks (Burin 163-164). On its side, the Liberian government tried to convince the U.S. government to encourage the colonization of black people to Liberia. In April 1862, Lincoln met with Alexander Crummell and John D. Johnson, two of the three emissaries who were sent to the U.S. by Liberia for that purpose (Page 211, Moses 141-143). In August 1862, he met the former president of Liberia, Joseph Jenkins Roberts. He also hosted a delegation of black Americans at the White House to promote colonization in Central America and rejected Liberia as a field for his colonization projects, estimating that the African republic was too far from the U.S. (Burin 164, Lincoln, August 14, 1862). However, his colonization project in Central America ended in failure9, Lincoln mentioned emigration to Liberia again, when he declared that it was in black people’s interest to emigrate to Liberia and Haiti, where, as colonists, they would be treated as citizens. He also lamented that would-be emigrants “di[d] not seem so willing to migrate to those countries as to some others, nor so willing as […] their interest demand[ed]” (Lincoln, December 1, 1862). A few weeks after this address, Lincoln signed a contract to colonize 5,000 contrabands in Haiti (Bourhis-Mariotti 128-134)10. Such declarations, chronology of actions and intertwining of goals on the part of the president highlight the fact that the subject of emigration was an indirect element of the U.S. policy towards Liberia.

14Finally, the government’s interest in arousing Europe’s support for the Union in the context of the war was another reason for the U.S. to grant diplomatic recognition to the two black republics. It was an opportunity to improve the country’s image since France and Great Britain had already granted official recognition to Liberia (Bourhis-Mariotti 116). With the new diplomatic relationship, the U.S. had an opportunity to keep an eye on the country and on Africa. In a message to Congress, in December 1864, President Lincoln observed:

Official Correspondence […] gives us a pleasing view of social and political progress in that republic. It may be expected to derive new vigor from American influence, improved by the rapid disappearance of slavery in the United States. (Journal of the Senate, December 6, 1864)

15The dispatches sent by American diplomats to the State Department were precious to get direct news from another perspective than that of the ACS. The diplomatic relationship between the two countries developed through the agency of U.S. diplomats. Their appointment represented an opportunity for cooperation between the two states and for local and direct communications.

2.2 Initial aspects and objectives in the diplomatic relationship: State Department prudence versus proactive diplomats

  • 11 Hanson was appointed Commissioner and Consul General and after his death the mission was upgraded t (...)

16The U.S. recognition of Liberia was met with great enthusiasm in Liberia. The dispatches sent by Abraham Hanson (1864-1866), and John Seys (1866-1870), the first two U.S. diplomats appointed to the U.S. representation in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital (named after President Monroe) illustrated the satisfaction of Liberian governments with their nominations11. When accepting Hanson’s credentials in February 1864, Liberian President Warner said that he brought with him to the Liberian government “a commission and credentials of a higher grade than any it ha[d] [previously] had the pleasure of receiving from the hands of any other foreign public functionary commissioned to [Liberia]” (“Reception of the American Consul General”). In January 1867, John Seys, whose credentials had just been accepted, described his reception as “high, distinguished and most respectfully kind and cordial” (Seys to Seward January 5, 1867). President Warner particularly praised him for having been involved in Liberia for 30 years as a minister and agent of the U.S. in charge of recaptured Africans (Seys to Seward January 3, 1867, enclosure 4). Since both diplomats had been engaged in missionary activities prior to their nominations, their integration in the local and social life of Monrovia was made easier. But despite such nominations and the satisfaction that it provided to the Americo-Liberian elite, and other friends of the country, the instructions of the State Department were so broad that they did not make the role that the U.S. intended to have towards Liberia very straightforward, as showed in the instructions sent to John J. Henry, the first appointee, who resigned before leaving for Africa:

The United States have had many evidences that the Government and people of Liberia look upon us as their natural friends and protectors. Deriving their origin from America, adopting its constitutional forms of government and administration, and essaying to reproduce those forms on the remote and hitherto repulsive coast in a large degree upon the material aid which the philanthropists of this country could extend to them in their novel but most important enterprise, they have not at any time forgotten the ties which unite them to their native land. It will be your duty to foster this feeling, and to develop the commercial relations between these countries. […]. Much of your success will depend upon your personal intercourse with the Government and People, from which, rather than from the formalities of official correspondence, your character and influence as the Representative of the Government and People of the U.S. will be estimated. (Seward to Henry May 8, 1863)

17The U.S. policy towards Liberia seemed to be centered on commercial aspects and on the need to cultivate the friendship of American settlers and their descendants. Indeed, the instructions make it clear that the U.S. policy toward Liberia was elaborated in reference to this population only, as “people of Liberia” here excludes African-born Liberians.

18From the diplomatic dispatches it is clear that the diplomats did not restrict their activities to these instructions but proactively tried to connect the two countries and to call the attention of the State Department on a variety of subjects. From 1866 to 1868, the interstate relationship was marked by their concern regarding the preservation of the authority of the Liberian government as well as the territorial integrity of the country. John Seys and the Liberian chargé d’affaires in New York, H.M. Schieffelin, pointed to the need for the visit of a U.S. warship in Liberia to intimidate the ethnic groups who were challenging the authority of the government. Their demand was satisfied (Schieffelin to Seward January 11, 1867; Seward to Schieffelin, February 5, 1867). Such military protection would later be granted several times by the U.S., to protect Liberian institutions and territory against African-born Liberians deemed rebellious and foreign aggressions. This led historian Buell to state that “through visits of U.S. warships to Liberian ports and through more urbane gestures, the U.S. has posted a keep-off-the-grass sign on Liberian soil” (Buell 1). Despite the absence of clear instructions, the consuls’ initiatives and advice to the State Department were not always taken into account. Seys’s recommendations were actually rarely followed by action. In 1867, he argued that the negotiation of a direct postal convention between the two countries would have a positive impact on their commercial relations and would reduce the country’s commercial exchanges with England, but nothing was decided afterwards in that field (Seys to Seward, January 24, 1867; Seward to Seys, April 16, 1867). Seys and Hanson also praised the colonization of black Americans in Africa, which was never formally encouraged or discouraged by the State Department, while their successor opposed it and criticized the ACS.

3. The diplomats and the ACS: either cooperation or distance

3.1 The first two diplomats’ interest in the colonization of black Americans to Liberia

19The diplomatic dispatches betray the American diplomats’ interest in colonization and their proximity to the ACS. In December 1865, Hanson asked the State Department if he could give his opinion about the work of the ACS on the occasion of its anniversary, and the Secretary of State said that the Department had “no objection” to it (Seward to Hanson, December 26, 1865). The resulting address can be found in the 1866 annual report of the ACS and speaks for itself. After a careful introduction meant to demonstrate that he did not intend to “make proselytes secure emigrants, or induce the public to enlarge the contributions to this Society”, Hanson conceded: “if any, or even all of these results should legitimately flow from my humble testimony, no one will be more deeply or sincerely gratified than myself” (“Address of Hon. Abraham Hanson”). He did not fail to mention that as a Consul General to Liberia he was very well informed about the country and said:

Were I a member of that race, with the knowledge of the tremendous weight that still oppresses them, and of the illimitable field which invites them to Liberia, with its innumerable facilities for comfort, independence, and usefulness, I should gather my family around me, and embark on board the first vessel bound for that distant shore, even if I had to avail myself of the generous aid which this Society offers. (“Address of Hon. Abraham Hanson”)

20As for Seys, in January 1867, he made a few recommendations to the State Department on the subject. He said that he was “persuaded that the tide of immigration [was] setting toward Liberia with increased momentum, and that the noble scheme of African colonization […] [was] yet but in its incipient stage of great and glorious success” (Seys to Seward January 26, 1867). Alluding to the ACS’s difficulties to provide for all the emigrants in a context when the organization faced financial dilemmas, he went so far as to plead for an appropriation of “one dollar per capita for every freedman who voluntarily chooses to leave the U.S. and settle in Liberia” (Seys to Seward January 26, 1867). The State Department’s reaction was to say that only Congress could grant such authorization, which was not followed by action (Seward to Seys April 4, 1867). This sheds light on the Department’s reluctance to incorporate colonization into official policy.

21Colonization seems to have played a large part in the diplomats’ professional and personal positioning. Both Hanson and Seys were Methodist ministers and were interested in the “civilization” of Africa. Both of them interacted with the ACS. As U.S. representatives to Liberia, they tried to influence the State Department’s policy in favor of colonization. This open interest in colonization on the part of the diplomats was also clearly shared by the Liberian government. This was demonstrated when the Liberian President appointed a white member of the New York Colonization Society, an auxiliary branch of the ACS, as first Consul General to the U.S. He told the ACS that it would “give general satisfaction to the friends of colonization in the U.S.” (Benson to Gurley, February 20, 1863). This choice also points to the paradoxical alliance between black separatist leaders advocating the emigration of black Americans to Liberia and mainly white officers of the ACS in the U.S. This decision may also highlight the racial bias that was taken into account by Americo-Liberian leaders in their dealings with the U.S. Indeed, when they had called for the U.S. to grant their country official recognition in the aftermath of Liberia’s independence, they had argued that they would be willing to be represented by a white representative to avoid upsetting the U.S. Liberia also faced significant financial issues and may have been hardly able to finance a Liberian diplomatic representation on its own (Franchi 140).

22The fact that the U.S. presidents should have appointed diplomats involved in colonization is to be taken into account when thinking about the U.S-Liberia relationship. Despite the discretion of the U.S. Executive and State Department on the question, the appointment of Hanson by President Abraham Lincoln, and then of Seys by President Andrew Jonhson, shows that those administrations were not hostile to the idea of colonization. Since the appointment of a diplomat is a political decision, such nominations were no coincidence. John Seys was even directly recommended by the ACS for the position (Coppinger to Seys, October 6, 1866). To a certain extent, this points to the credit given to the ACS at the time, even though the State Department did not eventually include colonization in the conduct of its Liberian policy. It should also be noted that the State Department never rebuked the diplomats for their interest in colonization in the letters they exchanged. It is not clear from the primary sources whether Lincoln’s and Johnson’s intent in appointing Hanson and Seys was also to allow themselves the opportunity of using Liberia as a field for the colonization of black Americans in Liberia. As already mentioned, Lincoln had favored other destinations for his colonization schemes, but it may be assumed that he still hoped to encourage a portion of the black population to emigrate to Liberia at the time he appointed Hanson. Indeed, historians Sebastian Page and Philipp Magness have explained that after he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the president did not relinquish his conviction that emigration would be beneficial for black Americans (Magness and Page). However, as far as Seys is concerned, his attempts to convince the State Department to allocate funds for colonization were unsuccessful and they would likely have met with opposition from radical Republicans in Congress.

3.2 Intertwined missions and interests: the diplomats’ dual allegiance

  • 12 The letters exchanged between the secretary of the ACS and the diplomats are scattered in the subse (...)

23Beyond Seys’ efforts to influence the U.S. policy towards Liberia in a way that would serve colonization in his correspondence with the U.S. State Department, the ACS records also reveal the existence of a private correspondence between the first two American diplomats and the organization12. Their exchanges show that they actively supported the ACS and took advantage of their position to advance its agenda in Liberia. For example, in August 1864, Hanson wrote the ACS that he “ha[d] not failed to make [emigration from the U.S.] a constant topic of conversation” and that the ACS “might depend upon [his] doing all in [his] power” to “forward” its views regarding emigration. Hanson obeyed the Society’s intention of influencing the Liberian policy regarding colonization (Hanson to Coppinger, August 31, 1864). Such positioning reveals that Hanson followed the views of the ACS, which led him to exceed his diplomatic duties. The letter also points to the fact that the ACS gave instructions to the diplomats, who were willing to provide the organization with the information requested.

24Like his predecessor, Seys was in constant touch with the ACS. Although it ultimately failed, it is worth mentioning that his attempt to convince the government to establish a direct line of steamers between Liberia and the U.S. and to appropriate money for the sake of colonization was something he openly discussed in his letters to the secretary of the ACS, William Coppinger. On February 2, 1867, Coppinger wrote to him:

  • 13 Emphasis in original. Seys’s handwriting is sometimes hard to decipher. My transcription of this ex (...)

I have most warmly recommended an appropriation for your Soc. of $100 per capita for each emigrant needing aid, a postal convention or treaty between the two countries (…) a monthly line of small steamers, involving an appropriation of $100, 000 per annum (…) All this is strict confidence to you. If they tell you of these things at the State Department, why well - if not, you are a “Know Nothing13. (Seys to Coppinger, February 2, 1867)

  • 14 Seys had previously been agent of the ACS for the States of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. See Padgett (...)

25This proves that Seys kept the ACS informed of the suggestion he made to the Department almost simultaneously as he sent his dispatches. As soon as Seys’s diplomatic mission ended, the secretary of the ACS offered him to resume his mission as agent of the ACS14 and to choose between the States of Kentucky, Indiana, Missouri and Tennessee “as a field” to raise money for colonization purposes (Coppinger to Seys, June 13, 1870). The secretary of the ACS also trusted him enough to privately share his opinion with him regarding the appointment of the following Minister Resident and Consul General, James Milton Turner (Coppinger to Seys, June 13, 1870).

26These examples reveal that the diplomats’ allegiance to the ACS and their official duties were intertwined. The State Department and the ACS both gave directions to the diplomats, who adopted a dual mode of communication, the diplomatic dispatches on the one hand and the private correspondence with the ACS on the other hand. Whether the U.S. State Department was aware of this situation is not known. Indeed, advocating colonization and shaping the diplomatic relationship in answering the State Department’s instructions was not exactly the same thing. Such intertwining of different missions shows that the influence of the ACS and the colonization paradigm were still powerful to the point that it actually had an impact on the development of the diplomatic relationship. However, the proximity of U.S. diplomats with the ACS ceased, at least for a time, with James Milton Turner’s appointment, in 1871.

3.3 Towards a diplomatic relationship freed from the ACS?

  • 15 Diplomatic representation below the level of an embassy.

27Turner was the first black American appointed to the U.S. legation15 in Liberia. He was appointed by President Grant and his nomination was based on political considerations since it rewarded him for supporting Grant’s election (Kremer 40-57). He was a leading figure in Missouri at the time and he played a part in convincing black people to vote for Grant. His nomination was also based on racial criteria at a time when several black leaders tried to secure the position of black people in U.S. society and advocated for the appointment of black Americans to the U.S. representation in Liberia. According to Skinner:

Thanks to [Turner’s] political action, African Americans for the first time in history became official participants in the foreign policy-making process of the United States of America in relation to an African state. (Skinner 69)

28From that moment and until the first decades of the 20th century, this diplomatic mission would systematically be attributed to black Americans. Turner’s nomination was also a change in profile. Unlike his two white predecessors, he opposed emigration to Liberia and the ACS. The secretary of the ACS thus denounced the “shabby style” he found Turner had treated him in when they met, in a letter addressed to his predecessor, John Seys (Coppinger to Seys, June 5, 1870). Turner wanted to advance black Americans’ newly acquired rights during Reconstruction. He thought that emigration should no longer be considered an option for black Americans. He rejected the work of the ACS as having an adverse impact on black people’s rights in the U.S. However, the ACS still had significant knowledge of Liberia and most Liberian officials still shared a common agenda with the organization regarding emigration since they called for more black American colonists in order to reinforce Liberian institutions.

29During his mission to Liberia Turner experienced great difficulties with Liberian officials, including with the Liberian Secretary of State, particularly when his fierce opposition to emigration was made public. In one of his dispatches to the State Department, Turner openly accused the ACS of presenting Liberia as an idyllic land, thus ignoring the difficulties that emigrants would face there (Turner to Evarts, September 3, 1877). As Democrats regained political control in the South, lower-class black Americans who faced a difficult condition developed an increasing interest in emigrating to Liberia, which worried Turner. The content of his dispatch was revealed to the Liberian administration and infuriated the Liberian Secretary of State. Turner subsequently reported a series of “unfriendly behavior and indeed downright mistreatment directed against [him]” on the part of Liberian officials (Turner to Evarts, April 15, 1878). It seems that Liberian leaders tended to trust the ACS more than a diplomat who openly rejected colonization, which made him look hostile to the interests of Liberia at the time. The ACS thus still had an influence on the diplomatic relationship. This was all the more significant as the secretary of the ACS, based in Washington, was appointed secretary of the Liberian legation in the U.S., in 1871. Once more, with this nomination, the ACS represented Liberia in the U.S.

30The organization was also able to get access to the U.S. administration during that period, which, at times, disturbed Turner’s mission. Learning that the ACS had been aware of a U.S. warship visit to Liberia before being himself informed about it by his own administration, he wrote a dispatch to denounce such interference:

Perhaps it is of little if any consequence to the Department, that Mr. Coppinger, Agent of the ACS at Washington, has written a letter to ex President D. B. Warner, Vice President elect of Liberia in which Mr. Warner is requested to inform the President and government of Liberia, that the US Steamer Essex was to sail from Norfolk, Virginia on the 20th of July, under orders to go to Monrovia, direct where she would remain throughout 30 days. I have reason to believe the above information so far as the statement contained in the letter from Mr. Coppinger, to be authentic. (Turner, to Evarts, August 30, 1877)

31The ACS’s ability to access both Liberian and U.S. administrations thus complicated Turner’s mission at the time.


32The U.S.-Liberia relationship cannot be understood without taking into account the historical ties between the two countries and the role of the ACS. IR concepts are useful to analyze the influence of the ACS and to review this relationship from a more comprehensive perspective. The ACS remained part of the “system” connecting Liberia and the U.S. after 1862 and this organization had multifaceted influence. It was in contact with Liberian officials and supervised the settlement process in Liberia. Liberian governments also repeatedly delegated the diplomatic representation of their country in the U.S. to this organization. The first two U.S. diplomats appointed to Liberia were closely related to the ACS and the colonization ideology, which helped the ACS to interfere in the diplomatic relationship. In the U.S., the ACS adapted its rhetoric after the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. In the eyes of the ACS and Liberian officials, colonization and emigration were not outdated as social equality between Blacks and Whites in the U.S. would be impossible. Towards the end of Reconstruction, the emigration spirit was revived, particularly in the South. In that context, James Milton Turner denounced colonization agents and believed that, as a Minister Resident and Consul General to Liberia, he had a duty to warn potential emigrants of the difficulties they would find in that country. The expression of his point of view caused a crisis in the diplomatic relationship and led Liberian officials to question Turner’s positioning.

33This article only focuses on the 1862-1878 transitional phase that saw the appointment of the first U.S. diplomatic representatives to Liberia, and the initial and broad formulation of a foreign policy regarding Liberia contrasting with the diplomats’ proactivity. The positioning of subsequent diplomats needs to be studied along with the evolution of the role of the ACS to further understand the development of the relationship between the two countries and the actors that shaped it.

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1 The bulk of Liberian archival documents were destroyed during the civil wars of 1989-1996 and 1997-2003. A collection of a few photocopied items can be accessed at Indiana University. Some of them are online.

2 The ACS was created in 1816 and it was legally dissolved as late as 1964.

3 After the abolition of slavery, a majority of black people rejected this idea, but black and white separatists believed that emigration to Africa was better than living together.

4 Most of the manuscript documents for this period were microfilmed and can be accessed at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland. A small portion of them were published and transcribed in the Foreign Relations of the United States, which is a selection of documents coming from a variety of official institutions and dealing with major decisions in the field. I used both collections.

5 The ACS records comprising 190, 000 documents can be found in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. Documents are arranged in 7 categories: Incoming Correspondence, Outgoing Correspondence, General Correspondence, Financial Papers, Business Papers, Subject File and Miscellany. The website provides a digitized version of the microfilms. In either case the collections are somehow difficult to navigate because of the significant number of documents with no specific classification other than (partially) chronological and a few variations in the numbering. I identified and transcribed the letters sent by the U.S. diplomats to the ACS and was also interested in reading some of the letters exchanged between the secretary of the ACS and Liberian leaders. The subseries “Domestic Letters” and “Letters from Liberia” were the most helpful in that direction.

6 The term ‘Americo-Liberians’ refers to black people who emigrated to Liberia and their descendants. They formed the ruling elite of the country until the 1980s.

7 The first letters of the title are capitalized in the primary sources.

8 Haiti was spelled this way at the time.

9 The project was led by Ambrose W. Thomson, a shipbuilder who offered to colonize and employ 50, 000 freedmen on coalmines in Chiriqui, a province in present-day Panama. Corruption, diplomatic issues and poor coal quality led the project to a total failure. No emigrants were ever sent there.

10 The objective was to colonize contrabands in the Ile à Vaches, a small island located off Haiti’s southwest peninsula. The project was led by Bernard Kock, an unscrupulous entrepreneur, who presented it to the U.S. government in the fall of 1862. It ended in scandal, as the first and final convoy of 500 contrabands who were sent there were robbed and mistreated by Koch.

11 Hanson was appointed Commissioner and Consul General and after his death the mission was upgraded to the rank of Minister Resident and Consul General. The salary was $4, 000 a year.

12 The letters exchanged between the secretary of the ACS and the diplomats are scattered in the subseries Domestic Letters and Letters from Liberia. As the majority of the letters in these subseries, the correspondences were not meant to be made public and some of the documents that I analyzed clearly bore the mention “private”.

13 Emphasis in original. Seys’s handwriting is sometimes hard to decipher. My transcription of this excerpt is as faithful as possible.

14 Seys had previously been agent of the ACS for the States of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. See Padgett, 53-55.

15 Diplomatic representation below the level of an embassy.

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Barbara FRANCHI, « Non-state actor interference in diplomacy: the American Colonization Society and the U.S. - Liberia relationship (1862-1878) »e-Rea [En ligne], 20.1 | 2022, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2022, consulté le 13 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès, laboratoire Cultures Anglo-Saxonnes
Barbara Franchi holds a PhD in U.S history from the University of Toulouse Jean Jaurès. Her dissertation focuses on the construction of the U.S.-Liberia relationship from 1862 to 1935.
She is ATER at Université Bordeaux Montaigne and works on a revised version of her doctoral dissertation for publication as a monograph.

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