Book Review: The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia, by Claude A. Clegg III

Liberian Senate drawn by Robert K. Griffin, Monrovia, Liberia 1856, public domain via the Library of Congress

The Price of Liberty is not a new publication, but I found this book which I read and reviewed for one of my seminars so interesting I thought I’d share it here with you:

In his 2004 book The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia, Claude A. Clegg III examines the history of African-American migration to Liberia, a colony established for free African-Americans, previously enslaved and otherwise. Clegg chooses the experiences of colonists from North Carolina to West Africa as his case study. His examination reveals the complex issues of African-American liberation from slavery and its wider effects. From the struggles of African-Americans nominally repatriated as they formed a colony in an unfamiliar country in the continent of their ancestors’ birth, to the impact of their colonization on African peoples displaced or made neighbours by these foreigners from American shores, Liberia was at once a place of hope, promise, turmoil, and struggle. While the book focuses on three major waves of emigration throughout the nineteenth century, Clegg’s epilogue rounds out the story with a brief history of Liberia in the twentieth century and up to the time the book was written.

The Price of Liberty’s first chapter lays the groundwork with the backstory of the colonization movement in the eighteenth century, centred on American Quakers’ evolving beliefs about the morality of chattel slavery and their attempts to work around laws that prohibited manumission or at least rendered it prohibitively expensive. The colonization movement, though lambasted by abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass as a racist attempt to rid the United States of those Americans who did so much to build it with so little reward, was also considered by many, both black and white, to be a ready if expensive way to resolve interracial conflict. Clegg then describes three major waves of emigration of North Carolinian freepersons to Liberia. The first wave included two main periods. The first, from 1825 – 1830, saw 652 emigrants to Liberia, Haiti, and other places, mostly to the former (Liberty p 75). Negative reports about the dangers of emigration, especially of high rates of mortality from malaria, led the movement to lull. The second period followed white reprisals and repressions sparked by Nat Turner’s slave uprising. The deadliness of white raids and assaults gave new urgency to the movement, so from 1831 – 1833, an additional 203 North Carolinians settled in Liberia, among many hundreds more from other states (Liberty pp 138, 141). The second wave, from 1850 – 1864, was also sparked by crisis: the 1850’s Fugitive Slave Law and subsequent legal attacks on the rights of black Americans such as the 1857 Dred Scott case. These engendered new dangers not only for escaped slaves and those still in thrall, but also for free black Americans, who could be captured and pressed into slavery with few legal remedies left to alleviate their plight. Again, with reports of Liberian struggles with malaria, poverty, and conflict with neighbouring Africans combined with the end of the Civil War and emancipation, the colonization movement again dwindled and virtually disappeared by the end of the 1850’s. The final and longest wave began in 1865 following the institution of repressive Black Codes, attacks by the Ku Klux Klan, and general lack of opportunities for freed African-Americans to lift themselves out of poverty. 1879 saw the last relatively large number of North Carolinian freeperson emigrants to Liberia (Liberty p 267).

Though freeperson colonists suffered poverty, armed and political conflicts with neighbouring West African peoples and those who shared their communities, and difficulties wresting a living from the rocky soil in communities decimated by malaria and other diseases. Liberia continued on and does so today as Africa’s oldest republic (Holsoe). Though emigrating African-American freepeople hoped to find a country in which their ancestry would no longer render them separate and unequal in their new societies, they found themselves separated from the African people they found on it West Coast by a wide gulf created by cultural and religious differences; in fact, many West Africans considered these immigrants whites who just happened to have black skin (Liberty p 97). Clegg’s study of the origins and history of the Amero-Liberian colonization movement offers a compelling example of the difficulties in forming a stable society built on the ideals of equality, liberty, and democracy while resting upon a foundation of colonization and displacement and, in many instances, of the exploitation of native Africans. It also reveals the promise and problems of the Pan-Africanist movement, of building identity on a broad basis of shared ancestry and struggle rather than the cultural and religious affinities and community ties that more commonly bind humanity together.

Bibliography

Clegg, Claude Andrew. The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia. The University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Holsoe, Svend E. et al. ‘Liberia.’ Encyclopædia Britannica. 9 February, 2018. Accessed 23 February 23, 2018 at www.britannica.com/place/Liberia

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