Liberia was founded by free African-Americans and freed slaves from the United States in 1822 through the help of the American Colonization Society (ACS). Founded to find home for free African-Americans where they could exercise freedom and Democracy, the American Colonization Society was established in 1816 by Robert Finley, a Presbyterian minister as an attempt to rid America of freed slaves and repatriate them to Africa. There were three groups involved in founding ACS. One group consisted of philanthropists and abolitionist who wanted to free African slaves and their descendents and send them to Africa. The second group consisted of clergy, who thought that sending back free blacks to Africa was an opportunity to establish a beachhead for Christianity on the ‘dark continent’ of Africa. The third group consisted of slave holders who felt that freed slaves posed danger to the welfare of their slave enterprise and to the institution of slavery. One member of the third group was John Randolph who famously said that free blacks were “promoters of mischief.” The three groups have one thing in common, though. They felt that free blacks would not easily assimilate in the American society because of prejudice and wanted to find a place for them where they could enjoy their freedom.
Other members of ACS were Henry Clay, a congressman from Kentucky, a sympathizer of the plight of free blacks who felt that black could never mix with white in America, James Monroe, Bushrod Washington (nephew of George Washington), Andrew Jackson, a congressman from Tennessee who later became president, Francis Scott Key, Daniel Webster, among others. These groups met in Washington D.C. on December 21, 1816 at the Davis Hotel to establish ACS. Henry Clay presided over the meeting. ACS members pressured congress and the president for financial support and got $100,000 in 1819. By January 1820, the first ship, the Elizabeth, with free blacks on board, was ready to leave for Africa and sailed from New York with 88 free blacks and three white ACS agents. The federal government continued providing financial assistance to ACS until Andrew Jackson cut it off when he became president. ACS was trustee for Liberia until its dissolution in 1912.
The first group of immigrants established a settlement on January 7, 1822 near Mesurado River and called it Christopolis in honor of Christ to assure their supporters, many of whom were Christian, of their continued desire to serve Christ. The city was later renamed Monrovia in honor of US President James Monroe who was their major financier.
Thousands of freed American slaves and free blacks joined the colony and it grew. ACS employed white agents to govern them. Among them was Thomas Buchanan, in honor of whom the city of Buchanan was named. He was the brother of future US president James Buchanan. The ACS settled more than 10,000 freed blacks, some of who were captured from interdicted ships, from 1822 to 1867 in Liberia.
Under pressure from the British, Liberia declared its independence in 1847 with Joseph Jenkins Roberts, a Virginian immigrant as its first president. A number of countries recognized Liberia’s independence status but America refused to recognize until after the emancipation in 1863. Congress was reluctant to recognize Liberia because it was concerned that black representation in Washington D.C. would lead to slave revolts.
The style of government and constitution was modeled on that of the United States of America but the settlers monopolized political power and excluded the indigenous tribes from participating until 1946. As a matter of fact, the Americo-Liberians settled along the coast from Cape Mount County to Maryland County, barely moving more than 30 miles inland, although they claimed almost twice the area of today’s Liberia. Under pressure from the British and French, President Arthur Barclay extended government control over the hinterland area in 1904. Liberia, in fact, lost parts of its territory to the French and British. These governments thought that Liberia was unable or unwilling to control all of its territory and therefore seized some and annexed them to Guinea, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone.
The opening up of the hinterland to the settlers was a mixed blessing for the natives. It created an opportunity for the indigenous population to connect with the settlers who brought new ideas and skills from America that the natives could learn and use. Unfortunately, the settlers saw the natives as a tool and an expendable resource. The government used members of the Frontier Force to coerce natives to work for government, government officials, their family members and influential citizens without compensation. In almost all cases, the workers fed themselves and were responsible for their own healthcare. In the 1920s, the services of many native laborers were contracted with the Spanish to work in cocoa plantations on the Island of Fernando Po, now called Bioko in Equatorial Guinea. President Charles D. B. King was accused by the League of Nations of engaging in slavery and was forced to resign in 1930 along with Allen Yancey, his vice president. In spite of King’s resignation, forced labor continued until 1972 when President William Tolbert abolished it.
Tolbert was overthrown in 1980 by members of the Arm Forces of Liberia. Samuel Doe succeeded Tolbert but he too was overthrown in 1990 in a war initiated by Charles Taylor of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia. The war dragged on for a while as politicians haggle over who should succeed Doe. Taylor was elected in 1997 but was forced to resign in 2003 as part of a peace deal and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was elected in 2005. Johnson-Sirleaf stood for a second term in spite of her pledge not to seek re-election and was re-elected in 2011.