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.


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

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Bad Things Happen for a Reason, and Other Idiocies of Theodicy, by Jason Blum

Ancient of Days by William Blake

Ancient of Days by William Blake

The problem of evil is a classic dilemma in the philosophy of religion. The relative ease with which the problem can be stated belies the depth of the challenge that it presents to traditional monotheism. Roughly, it can be summarised as follows:

If God is omnipotent, then He has the power to create a world without evil.

If God is omniscient, then no moment of evil goes divinely unnoticed.

If God is omnibenevolent, then He has the desire to rid the world of evil.

Therefore, the world should be perfect, or at least free of undeserved suffering. Yet, a cursory glance reveals a world that clearly is not inherently just or free from undeserved suffering.

Hence, the problem of evil: how can a perfect deity allow such injustice and rampant evil in the world that He created?

Many solutions to the problem of evil – called ‘theodicies’ – have been proposed. There is the argument of free will, attributing evil not to God but to humanity’s misuse of its own freedom. Others have argued that certain kinds of moral goodness – compassion, for instance – are not possible in a world without evil, and the value of these types of goodness outweighs the evils on which their existence depends. There is also what I call ‘the big-picture defence’, claiming that evil only appears as such from our limited perspectives. Were we able to see things from the perspective of God, we would see that, in the grand scheme of things, every apparent evil plays a necessary role in making the world more perfect.

The philosopher Gottfried Leibniz’s simple solution was to argue in 1710 that this world is necessarily the best of all possible worlds. Leibniz depicts God assessing in His infinite mind all the various possible worlds that He could create. Because He is a loving God, the one He chooses to create is surely the ‘best of all possible worlds’. Leibniz’s argument suggests that it is ultimately meaningless to complain about this evil or that injustice; because this is the best of all possible worlds. We should take comfort in the fact that everything is, in the final analysis, as good as it can possibly be.

Voltaire derided Leibniz’s solution, writing a book to satirise it. In Candide (1759), the eponymous hero and his companions stumble through the world, constantly beset by bad luck and predations. They witness even greater tragedies in the world around them. Their troubles arise from the uncaring forces of the natural world, but also from the naiveté of Candide, who is constantly assured by his mentor, Professor Pangloss, that this is indeed the best of all possible worlds. In juxtaposing vivid depictions of myriad cruelties and Professor Pangloss’s blind insistence on the ultimate goodness of the universe, Voltaire demonstrates that there is a poignant reality to the experience of suffering that cannot be rationalised away. The claim that justice naturally inheres in the order of things does not bear scrutiny.

There is also a profound moral danger to certain types of theodicy.

The essential difficulty of the problem of evil is how to reconcile its apparent existence with a loving, all-powerful deity. One popular method has been to reassert the inherent justice of the world, implying, if not explicitly claiming, the righteousness of the suffering that we witness throughout it. The result is, essentially, a theological form of victim-blaming.

For example, the American evangelical preacher Pat Robertson explained the 2010 earthquake in Haiti – which killed between 220,000-316,000 people, and injured another 300,000 – as the fault of the Haitian people. The people of Haiti had apparently sworn a pact with Satan in exchange for delivering them from French rule, and the earthquake was divine retribution for that bargain (delivered approximately two centuries later). Robertson similarly suggested that both Hurricane Katrina and terrorism were divine punishment for the fact that abortion is still legal in the United States. Robertson, of course, is not alone. An Iranian mullah has blamed earthquakes on women dressing immodestly; a New York rabbi blamed the advancement of gay rights in the US for another earthquake in 2011; many Burmese Buddhists blamed a 2008 cyclone that killed approximately 130,000 people on bad karma.

The desire that motivates these interpretations is understandable. Natural disasters and terrorist attacks are either random events in a chaotic world, or they are explicable events within a discernible pattern. In the former case, we inhabit an essentially amoral universe: bad things happen to good people, children die premature deaths, and tragedy strikes without remorse, all without rhyme or reason. In the latter case, we inhabit a much more hospitable universe where there is some sort of inherent order: a place where morality is inscribed into the very fabric of things, assuring us that, if only we play by the rules, evil will be punished, goodness will be rewarded, and justice will reign supreme.

It is easy to understand the attraction of that vision. But it has a substantial dark side. Like any theodicy, it cannot simply unmake suffering, and so it instead tries to justify it. The claim that the universe is inherently just then implies that those who suffer deserve it. The existence of a just God and a moral universe is gained at the cost of condemning victims of misfortune as blameworthy. And so, hundreds of thousands of Haitians died because their ancestors made a pact with the devil. Women and homosexuals agitating for equal rights are blamed for deadly natural disasters.

Such a worldview conveniently scapegoats someone, usually whatever population someone wishes to demonise: women, homosexuals, the poor, etc. It also normalises social ills that could otherwise be addressed and meliorated. In a dark irony, holding that the universe is ultimately a just place ends up condoning the suffering and injustice that happens within it, often on the backs of those most in need.

Visions of a just universe need not function this way. Theodicy authorises only the suffering of the less fortunate when it indulges in willful blindness and insists on justice as a foregone conclusion, denying reality in favour of comforting ignorance. Alternatively, when justice is construed as hope – as a vision of what the world could possibly be – it functions as a lodestar. This acknowledges the disturbing realities with which we are surrounded, and refuses to be disillusioned by them. By regarding justice as an ideal rather than a present reality, one’s vision of the inequalities and brutalities of the present moment remains unobstructed, allowing them to be faced. The just universe in which we should believe is the one that can be created only through dedicated effort and real action on our part. But that can happen only if we refuse to take shelter in soothing fantasies. Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Jason Blum is a visiting assistant professor on the college writing programme at Davidson College in North Carolina. His first book is Zen and the Unspeakable God (2015). (Bio credit: Aeon)

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