The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia / Edition 1

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In nineteenth-century America, the belief that blacks and whites could not live in social harmony and political equality in the same country led to a movement to relocate African Americans to Liberia, a West African colony established by the United States government and the American Colonization Society in 1822. In The Price of Liberty, Claude Clegg accounts for 2,030 North Carolina blacks who left the state and took up residence in Liberia between 1825 and 1893. By examining both the American and African sides of this experience, Clegg produces a textured account of an important chapter in the historical evolution of the Atlantic world.

For almost a century, Liberian emigration connected African Americans to the broader cultures, commerce, communication networks, and epidemiological patterns of the Afro-Atlantic region. But for many individuals, dreams of a Pan-African utopia in Liberia were tempered by complicated relationships with the Africans, whom they dispossessed of land. Liberia soon became a politically unstable mix of newcomers, indigenous peoples, and "recaptured" Africans from westbound slave ships. Ultimately, Clegg argues, in the process of forging the world's second black-ruled republic, the emigrants constructed a settler society marred by many of the same exclusionary, oppressive characteristics common to modern colonial regimes.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"An engaging and thoroughly researched account of how just over 2,000 North Carolinian blacks left for Africa between 1820 and 1893 and of the role they played in the establishment of the nascent state of Liberia. . . . Brilliant."

"A welcome addition to the literature on the colonization movement . . . the most comprehensive and scholarly study that has yet been undertaken on the subject. . . . Essential reading for everyone interested in the colonization movement of Liberian history."
American Historical Review

The Price of Liberty is outstanding scholarship that richly captures the meaning, the hopes, and the tragedy of the colonization movement both in the United States and Liberia. (David S. Cecelski, author of The Waterman's Song: Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina)

In the first book to examine closely both the American background and the post-migration lives of a substantial number of Liberian emigrants, Clegg focuses on the experiences of over 2,000 black North Carolinians who traded the racial crisis in North Carolina for a new set of challenges facing them in Liberia.

This is a brilliant and fascinating account that has filled in many gaps. . . . The narrative has a deep human quality, depicting the real predicament that the option of colonization posed for black people. This book will definitely illuminate the Liberia story and enliven an important period of American history. . . . There is a lot that Liberians can learn from this work that should provide a context for reconciliation and reconstruction. (Amos Sawyer, Interim President of Liberia (1990-1994) and author of The Emergence of Autocracy in Liberia)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807855164
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 4/26/2004
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 344
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Claude A. Clegg III is associate professor of history at Indiana University at Bloomington. He is author of An Original Man: The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad.

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Read an Excerpt

The Price of Liberty

African Americans and the Making of Liberia
By Claude A. Clegg III

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2004 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

Chapter One


Like much of the North Carolina Piedmont, Guilford County was a rolling, picturesque plateau during the eighteenth century, adorned with deciduous forests and a matrix of winding streams and natural clearings. The soils were rich enough for a variety of purposes, and indigenous peoples, namely the Saura and the Keyauwee, found it possible to subsist without substantially altering the ecology. European settlers who entered the area by mid-century found the pastoral ambiance of the area alluring, as well as the possibility of hewing a life from this terrain. Gradually, the region, having been designated a county and named after Lord Francis North, the first Earl of Guilford, was adapted to the new rhythms of white immigrant cultures. By the 1770s, a frontier studded with oak cabins, water-powered gristmills, cultivated fields, and a courthouse was etched into the land, and yeoman communities emerged among the toiling newcomers.

Of the German Lutherans, Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, and other groups who settled in what became Guilford County, the Society of Friends (or "Quakers") would eventually become the most influential. These largely English immigrants came in steady waves between 1750 and 1775, hailing from several places, including Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Nantucket Island. Accompanied by trains of cattle, sheep, and hogs, they brought farm implements and housewares in their canvas-covered wagons, cultural markers of an agrarian past. Significantly, they also carried ideas about family, worship, education, and civic life, which would inform their efforts to create a viable community in the Piedmont. Similar to other European immigrants, they named their settlements after existing places, thus inventing a sort of imagined familiarity that perhaps added meaning to their migration. The New Garden settlement, established in 1750 and named after Quaker enclaves in Pennsylvania and Ireland, was the first and principal town, hosting the Friends' monthly meetings as early as 1754. As the Quaker presence in Guilford County grew, their Piedmont villages displaced the older communities of Friends in the eastern counties of Pasquotank and Perquimans as the primary centers of the faith. By 1790, New Garden regularly sponsored the North Carolina Yearly Meeting of the Quakers, setting the tone for the continuing evolution of the group's views and practices.

Immigration and natural growth necessitated the founding of other settlements in Guilford County, which had assumed a distinctively Quaker character by the Revolutionary period. The Jamestown community on Deep River emerged as one of the more substantial villages by the 1790s, taking full advantage of its proximity to water to power sawmills, gristmills, and other enterprises. Much labor was, of course, expended on the necessary daily regimens of clearing land, planting crops, building houses, and spinning cloth. Nonetheless, Jamestown did develop a small retail and service sector, which produced guns, hats, and other goods. Additionally, a social life unfolded outside of the meetinghouse, which led to the establishment of fraternal orders, a temperance society, and a literary club. By the turn of the century, Jamestown boasted a number of brick structures, and a federal road coursed through the settlement. Only the county seat of Greensborough (later Greensboro), created in 1809, seemed to eclipse the Quaker village in civic importance, the former becoming a self-governing town in 1824.

On the surface, there appears to have been a methodical simplicity to Quaker life in Guilford County. From the founding of small farming villages in New Garden and Jamestown to their ascetic social life, Friends embraced an ethos that stressed restraint and reflection in public and private matters. This observation is especially pertinent regarding the group's mode of worship. The architecture of their meetinghouses lacked the ornate pretensions of other Protestant sects. There was no stained glass or church bell, benches were without backs, and musical instruments had no place in services. Worship itself was wholly meditative, with no pastor leading prayer or choir offering song. It was not unusual for a meeting to commence and adjourn with not a word spoken by anyone. Even in their most sacrosanct of collective rituals, each worshiper remained an individual capable of experiencing a transcendent connection with God that required no audible expression. Those moved to speak were always free to, though economy of language and forbearance were highly regarded. Typically, silence prevailed during most Quaker services, compromised only by the irrepressible sounds of nature that occasionally echoed through their sylvan sanctuaries.

If the Friends' manner of worship appeared sedate, even uninspired, to observers, the issues addressed in their business meetings certainly revealed a rigorous engagement with communal concerns that could sometimes be contentious. Generally held on Saturdays, these sessions were occasionally segregated by sex, with men and women deliberating on matters that were supposedly best resolved along gender lines. Important issues that affected numerous persons or required an evocation of communal values and authority were often open to discussion by both sexes. Consistent with their moderate, deliberative approach to most matters, the Friends countenanced a range of questions and concerns in their business meetings. Illustratively, marriage proposals were routinely scrutinized to discern the "clearness" of prospective spouses as a precaution against bigamy. Moreover, itinerant Quakers were frequently required to submit to investigations to determine whether they were reputable enough to represent the group in other communities. Potentially scandalous reports of bastardy probably always gained some attention, though no New Garden man was censured for siring a "base-born child" until 1805. Although other, more serious topics certainly preoccupied Guilford County Quakers during the late eighteenth century, no issue more consistently embroiled North Carolina Friends during this period than slavery. In a singular way, African American bondage challenged the essence of what the Quakers believed about themselves and the structured, insular worlds that they had struggled to erect in New Garden and elsewhere. Unlike the marriage or bastardy cases they handled, often with some difficulty, man's ownership of man was a problem, a grating dilemma, that rented the fabric of Quaker life and faith for not only years, but generations.

By the late eighteenth century, when slavery became a common topic of discussion in Quaker meetings, the institution was over a century old in North Carolina. Geography and natural resources substantially determined both the nature and diffusion of slavery across the state. The lack of readily accessible seaports resulted in African slaves entering the area largely through Norfolk and Charleston. Attitudes toward slavery, ranging from advocacy and indifference to abhorrence of the institution, were also imported from adjacent states by white immigrants who introduced the first slaves to North Carolina in the seventeenth century. Notably, the state often patterned its laws regulating black bondage after the statutes of Virginia, South Carolina, and other states. While eastern agricultural counties, such as Bertie, Northampton, Halifax, New Hanover, and Warren, became heavily dependent upon slave labor for producing tobacco, rice, naval stores, and later cotton, North Carolina never developed a plantation economy comparable to its neighbors' in size and overall importance to the state's economy. In 1790, only 25 percent of the state's population was composed of African American slaves, compared to 43 percent in South Carolina, 39 percent in Virginia, and 32 percent in Maryland.

As in other colonies, African bondage in North Carolina was socially articulated and legally codified over time, affected by variables such as geography, economic conditions, migratory patterns, slave resistance, and evolving cultural concepts of racial difference. In 1669, the Fundamental Constitutions of the Carolinas recognized the right of a master to exercise "absolute power and authority over his negro slaves, of what opinion or religion soever." Statutes passed by the colonial government in 1715 and 1741 further elaborated on the shape and texture of chattel slavery in North Carolina by prohibiting unauthorized commercial exchanges between enslaved and free people, establishing "slave courts" to punish a variety of offenses, and mandating that manumissions be approved by county officials. The constitutional guarantee of masters' "absolute power and authority" over their bond servants in practice allowed slaveholders much latitude over their property. Prior to 1774, even the willful killing of a slave by his or her master was legally permissible. Furthermore, individuals who murdered the slaves of others could only be sued for damages based on the bondperson's market value as determined by the courts. As the number of black slaves in North Carolina increased from approximately 800 in 1712 to 100,783 in 1790, notions of race and the realities of African American bondage were becoming reified in the developing character of the state's culture and politics, as well as its long-term economic trajectory. Shaped by a myriad of forces that resulted in a highly uneven distribution of bondpeople throughout the state, slavery, and its profits and perils, fostered an array of correspondingly uneven interests and ideals that both strengthened and contested the institution's growing presence.

During the eighteenth century, the Quakers of North Carolina and the larger Atlantic world came to envision slavery as an aberrant relationship between human beings, void of socially redeeming value. Although they would eventually become known as the Christian group most inalterably opposed to black bondage in the United States, their early experiences with slavery betrayed little that was suggestive of any natural antipathy toward the institution. For instance, in seventeenth-century Barbados, where Quaker influence blossomed amidst thriving sugar plantations, slaveholding Friends offered few moral critiques of their investment in African thralldom. Similarly, Pennsylvania, a Quaker stronghold, passed numerous acts regarding bonded and free blacks, such as a 1725-26 law that rivaled the draconian slave codes of southern colonies. Friends were deeply involved in the slave trade out of Philadelphia and Providence as late as the 1760s, and slaveholding among members of the North Carolina group lasted well into the nineteenth century. Prior to the 1750s, most Quakers accepted or at least tolerated the existence of slavery, even when they were not directly complicit in its perpetuation. There were, of course, Friends, like William Edmundson, who were appalled by the treatment of slaves by Quakers in Barbados and elsewhere. These radical humanists forthrightly proclaimed the ways in which African bondage contradicted core values of the Society, such as pacifism, the brotherhood of man, and the primacy of the salvational Inner Light. Nonetheless, few were listening to the likes of Edmundson in the seventeenth century, and such compunctions about slavery guided the activities and lifestyles of few Friends of that period.

Much of the Quakers' accumulating discomfort with slavery during the eighteenth century was a matter of degree and was not distinguished by any sudden turn toward abolitionism. It was an evolutionary phenomenon and by necessity had to be, given the slow, consensus-building style of decision-making that characterized the group's contemplation of any major change of policy. Since the most important reforms required the sanction of the Yearly Meetings, issues facing the group sometimes went unresolved, or even candidly discussed, for long periods of time. This inertia had the effect of diminishing, at least symbolically, the urgency of the matter at hand and precluding a rash, hastily derived conclusion. Still, a decisive tilt occurred in Quaker views of slavery, which allowed for the advancement of a new logic that recast the institution in a way that made it less morally digestible.

From firsthand experience and observation, Friends-master and nonslaveholder alike-had witnessed the ways in which African bondage had corrupted their faith. Slavery violated the precepts of marriage, denying legally recognized marital unions between slaves and the legitimacy of their offspring. It allowed, indeed, encouraged violence borne of fear, retribution, and sadistic whims since every slave code included provisions for the corporal punishment of slaves and offered owners power over life and death. In most colonies, the slave was refused access to intellectual improvement through literacy. Further, Christian instruction, where such religious teachings were allowed, was emphatically uncoupled from the notion that the slave, as a Christian, might be entitled to the legal status of person. As a people who had experienced religious persecution and who self-consciously attempted to level social distinctions among themselves, the ill fit of slavery with the Christian ethics of brotherhood, equality before God, and the possibility of redemption from sin was glaringly apparent to many Quakers by the 1750s. If black slaves were ignorant, savage, degraded, and immoral as many observers believed them to be, slavery had allowed, even forced them to be so. If the bondman was mired in sin because slavery, through law, custom, or practice, reduced him to such, then slavery, some began to reason, must be a sin in itself. This moral equation, not wholly an invention of eighteenth-century Quakers, informed the gradual shift of the Society away from slave trafficking and slaveholding. A century in the making, this formula for stigmatizing slavery itself-and not just the refusal of certain masters to become kinder managers of their property-became the framework for the most potent philosophical attacks on the institution during the next one hundred years.

While the Friends' moral bearings regarding slavery were in adjustment, the materialist, secular context of these changes both spurred and made possible this reimagining and assertion of Quaker religious convictions. It was perhaps easier to think about the feasibility of disassociating oneself from owning and trading Africans once the economics of continuing slave importation made less fiscal sense. Pennsylvania, the North Carolina Piedmont, and other Quaker bastions had limited uses for slave labor by the 1750s, for no pervasive plantation cultures existed in these areas that required huge concentrations of bonded agricultural labor. Nonslaveholding Friends who found themselves competing with the slaves of their neighbors in farming endeavors and trades had fewer qualms about entertaining opposition to slavery.


Excerpted from The Price of Liberty by Claude A. Clegg III Copyright © 2004 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
1 Origins 7
2 Between slavery and freedom 29
3 The first wave 53
4 Inventing Liberia 77
5 The price of liberty 129
6 Emigration renaissance 163
7 To live and die in Liberia 201
8 The last wave 249
Epilogue : everything is upside down 271
Notes 275
Bibliography 305
Index 323
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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 10, 2004

    A Fascinating Read

    Professor Clegg tells the compelling story of freed African Americans who helped found Liberia, the West African country whose destiny, for better or for worse, has been intertwined with its 'stepchild-like' relationship with the United States. The book is well written and a fascinating read both for the specialist and the general reader. My only critique is that by focusing on one particular group of individuals, Professor Clegg sacrifices the proverbial forest for a tree, albeit in this case a most alluring tree. This book would best be read by someone who has first taken a look through a good political history of Liberia like the ones written by Professors A.C. Sawyer, S. Ellis, or J.P. Pham.

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