The West African nation of Liberia was established in 1822 by the American Colonization Society (ACS) as a settlement for freed American slaves. Its capital, Monrovia, is named for the fifth U.S. president, James Monroe, who served in the White House from 1817 to 1825 and was a supporter of the ACS. The organization was founded in 1816, eight years after a federal law went into effect banning the importation of slaves to the U.S. (domestic slave trading continued and slavery wasn’t abolished in America until the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865). ACS members included a seemingly unlikely coalition of abolitionists as well as slave owners who were concerned about the possibility that free blacks and emancipated slaves could incite a slave rebellion and therefore wanted to repatriate them to Africa.

Map of Sierra Leone and Liberia. (Credit: omersukrugoksu/www.istockphoto.com)
Map of Sierra Leone and Liberia. (Credit: omersukrugoksu/www.istockphoto.com)

James Monroe had firsthand experience with slavery. In addition to a lengthy career in public service—his pre-presidency resume included stints as a U.S. senator, foreign minister to France and the United Kingdom, and U.S. secretary of state—he was a Virginia plantation owner and had slaves throughout his life. Monroe viewed slavery as an evil institution yet thought it should be ended gradually, in order to avoid race wars. He felt the problem eventually could be solved through the repatriation of freed slaves.

ACS agents were involved with running Liberia until the 1940s; in 1847, it became an independent republic. By that time, some 10,000 free blacks had relocated there. Ultimately, however, huge numbers of former slaves didn’t move to Liberia, and the ACS was largely defunct by the early 20th century. Today, Liberia, whose motto is “The love of liberty brought us here,” is Africa’s oldest republic. It’s been estimated that about 5 percent of the population are descendants of slaves.

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