RECAP: “The Politics of Slavery and Black Expatriation in 19th-Century America,” Colloquium w/ Prof. Andy Hammann

At first glance, the title of Kinder Institute Postdoc Andy Hammann’s October 21 talk seems equal parts troubling and incredible. A title for a talk that shouldn’t exist. It’s hard to believe that an expatriation movement so thoroughly wrong, absurd, and impractical ever came to be. It’s hard to believe that this movement existed in the political mainstream versus on the margins, and it’s hard to believe that it drew the support of some of the most significant figures of the era. And yet starting with Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, variations on the belief that ending slavery would require a federal system of Black expatriation permeated the national consciousness.

Jefferson’s Notes, Prof. Hammann explained, were something of a preface to the establishment of the American Colonization Society (ACS), founded by Henry Clay with help from John Marshall, John Randolph, Bushrod Washington, and Francis Scott Key, among other notable members. Regardless of any rhetorical posturing regarding emancipation, the ACS’ goal of expatriating Black Americans, both free and enslaved, to Liberia was motivated by two racialized premises: the idea that Black freedom was a problem in American society, at least in part based on the Jeffersonian grounds that the practice of enslavement had created a prejudice so ineradicable that it rendered Blacks an “unassimilable caste”; and that exclusion, whether via expatriation to Africa or the legal denial of rights within the U.S., was thus a national imperative and, as far as expatriation went, an imperative worthy of federal funding. Woven into these premises, Prof. Hammann added in decoding ACS rhetoric, was the notion that expatriation would ultimately strengthen the institution of slavery by removing a population of freedpeople who were perceived as threatening its [slavery’s] foundations via the fomentation of uprisings.

Enslavers in the Lower South, who saw federal support for expatriation as anathema both to states’ rights and slavery’s permanent existence, would end up derailing the efforts of the ACS, which was primarily the project of the Upper South slaveholding elite (Jackson, for example, pocket vetoed the Clay Land Bill, which sought federal funding for colonization and internal improvements). That said, the legacy of the ACS far outlasted the peak of its historical prominence as well as the presence of slavery in the United States. We can, Prof. Hammann showed, observe this longevity from two drastically different vantage points. Though they functionally (more on this in a moment) abandoned any interest in securing federal funds for expatriation, Southern Democrats persistently invoked the ideology of the ACS post-1863 as a way to challenge Black voting rights. Authored by former Confederate generals who were surging back to power in the wake of Reconstruction’s collapse, the 1890 Butler Bill may have purported to seek a $5 million appropriation to support voluntary Black repatriation, but its actual goal was simply to invent a platform for giving hours of speeches in Congress that cited the likes of Lincoln, Webster, and Jefferson to pre-emptively drum up opposition to the Lodge Bill, which sought stricter enforcement of the 15th Amendment. So while it might have technically failed to achieve its goal, the corrosive spirit motivating the ACS’ push for Black expatriation was nonetheless instrumental to a movement to exclude Black citizens that very much succeeded in the Lower South. Mississippi revised its constitution to deny Black men the franchise in 1890, followed by South Carolina (1895), Louisiana (1898), and Alabama (1901).

This weaponization of the rhetoric of colonization for alternative, equally insidious ends was precisely what Black activists of the period feared. Not only did leading voices including Samuel Cornish, Frederick Douglass, Benjamin Tanner, and Anna Julia Cooper publicly decry the ACS’ stated objective. Collectively—and, again, quite presciently—they also feared the ways in which the vision of colonization might be elaborated on and appropriated to buttress slavery and compromise Black civic equality. They realized all too well, that is, that the success or failure of any legislation regarding expatriation had little to no bearing on how the movement would shape national discourse, ideologies, and behaviors.