Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

John Saillant

Liberia; Or, Mr. Peyton’s Experiments

Liberia; Or, Mr. Peyton's Experiments (1853) is a hybrid work containing fiction, history, and biography along with transcriptions of documents on Liberia. The work argued that free blacks could not prosper in North America but had opportunities for advancement and self-determination in Liberia, a black Christian republic. The Americo-Liberian settlers would not only rise themselves but would also bring the supposed benefits of commerce, Christianity, and civilization to indigenous Africans. Thus the work promoted the expatriation movement known as African colonization.

[caption id="attachment_18985" align="alignright" width="210"]Engraving of Godey's Lady's Book editor Sarah Josepha Hale. Sarah Josepha Hale, author of  Liberia; Or, Mr. Peyton's Experiments, also edited Godey's Lady's Book for four decades. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Sarah Josepha Hale (1788–1879), listed as editor of the work, was more author than editor. A Philadelphia resident and major spokeswoman for both American patriotism and moderate progress for women in the nineteenth century, Hale promoted efforts like the establishment of the national Thanksgiving holiday, the construction of the Bunker Hill monument, and the preservation of George Washington's plantation, Mount Vernon. She extolled the moral and domestic virtues of middle class white women, yet she envisioned their participation in the workplace and she assisted in the founding of Vassar College.

The book begins with a fictional account of the white Virginian Peyton family and their black slaves. After his slaves prove loyal during a slave insurrection, Charles Peyton experiments with manumitting them, initially into agricultural labor with the opportunity for freeholding, then into urban employment and self-determination in Philadelphia, and at last, after 1820, into citizenship in a so-called black republic, Liberia. Following is a semifictional account weaving the lives of freed Peyton slaves Keziah, Polydore, Nathan, Junius, Ben, and Clara into the history of Liberia as Hale garnered it from contemporary publications. Hale generally stayed true to her sources on Liberia, although she tailored the biographies of some early settlers to suit her work. Finally is a collection of transcribed letters, addresses, and legal documents on Liberia.

Philadelphia’s Dual Roles

Philadelphia played two crucial roles in Liberia. It was the city to which Peyton sent his freed slaves (after the failure of the rural agricultural experiment) to test whether they would advance as urban dwellers, and it was the origin of several of the Americo-Liberians whose letters Hale included. Hale apparently focused on Philadelphia partly because she lived and worked there (as editor from 1837 to 1877 of Godey's Lady's Book) and partly because the city was indeed home to a significant population of free African Americans.

[caption id="attachment_18981" align="alignright" width="200"]A caricature from "Life in Philadelphia," depicting two African-American Masons talking in broken English. "Life in Philadelphia," a series of caricatures about African Americans in antebellum Philadelphia, portrayed racist views echoed in Liberia. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

As a testing ground of freedom for Ben, Clara, and Americus (another freed Peyton slave), Philadelphia fails miserably. Ben and Clara initially fare well, employed by well-to-do white Philadelphians as a carriage driver and a seamstress. However, they are lured into improvident consumption such as extravagant clothing and music lessons for their daughter. Americus is beaten by a marauding white mob as he is, at his employer's request, accompanying a young white woman to her home after a social event. Having failed to save for hard times, Ben and Clara become impoverished when illness causes the loss of Ben's job. He becomes an alcoholic and his family become dependent on the charity of whites for food and clothes. Only communications from the freedpeople who had emigrated to Liberia give the new black Philadelphians reason to improve themselves, and only Liberia itself provides the context for self-improvement.

Philadelphia is, in Liberia, a city in which free blacks leap to dizzying heights of conspicuous consumption while ignoring the facts that they are skating on thin ice economically and that white America will never fully accept them. In this, Hale was following broadside caricatures of free black Philadelphians that Edward Williams Clay (1799–1857) had published around 1830. Hale's Americus, after visiting Paris, returns to Philadelphia more desirous of fine possessions and more bitter about American racism.

Hopes for Prosperity in Africa

[caption id="attachment_18982" align="alignright" width="215"]A membership certificate for the Pennsylvania Colonization Society, an organization that supported the colonization movement. (Library Company of Philadelphia) The colonization movement encouraged free blacks to settle in Liberia, as depicted here on a membership certificate for the Pennsylvania Colonization Society. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

It was essential to Hale's colonizationist views to present "facts" about black Philadelphians in Liberia. Some of the emigrants came from nearby locations like Camden, New Jersey, while others left Philadelphia first for Baltimore, then for Monrovia. Hale understood that the greater Philadelphia region was deeply involved in colonization. The view of Liberia expressed in the letters Hale collected is that black Philadelphians, if committed to solid advancement and not frippery, can prosper in Africa. For instance, Charles Deputie (1809–68), "born free . . . a native of Pennsylvania," wrote from Monrovia on January 10, 1853, that only "industrious men and good mechanics" were wanted in Liberia. He proposed to plant 500 acres of coffee trees and "have it settled by none but respectable people from Pennsylvania." He continued, "some from Philadelphia . . . would have a good effect." Writing from Buchanan, January 17, 1853, H. M. West, who closed his letter with, "I was originally from Philadelphia," assured the reader that in Liberia, "'The flesh-pots of Egypt' present no attraction to me." Despite her low opinion of free black Philadelphians, Hale believed that Philadelphia could funnel "industrious men" and their families to a new and better home in Africa.

Colonizationist thought was racist and pessimistic. It assumed that free blacks could never adapt to social life in North America. It took for granted that a critical mass of whites would bar equality for African Americans. Still, Hale criticized slave traders and slaveholders, she was sensitive to the sufferings of the poor (even if she sometimes blamed them for hard circumstances), and she condemned whites for behavior ranging from violence against blacks to refusal to hire free African Americans. Liberia clearly encompasses both racist sentiments and objections to anti-black racism.

John Saillant is Professor of English and History at Western Michigan University. He is the author of the monograph Black Puritan, Black Republican: The Life and Thought of Lemuel Haynes.

Common Sense

Published in Philadelphia in its first edition in January 1776, Thomas Paine's Common Sense became one of the most widely disseminated and most often read political treatises in history. It looked forward to democratic politics and universal human rights, yet it also reflected local circumstances in Philadelphia. Common Sense was thus an overture to democracy and human rights as well as part of Philadelphia print culture and local politics.

[caption id="attachment_16327" align="alignright" width="166"]Title page of Thomas Paine's Common Sense In Common Sense, Thomas Paine cast himself as "under no sort of Influence public or private, but the influence of reason and principle." (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Born in England, Paine (1737-1809) adopted Philadelphia as a temporary home in November 1774, when he arrived with a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin (1706-90), whom he had met in London. Franklin recognized Paine's skills as a writer and polemicist, and his letter helped Paine secure a position as the first editor of The Pennsylvania Magazine. In eight months as editor, Paine increased subscriptions and popularized colonial essays and poetry (as opposed to reprints of British material). Upon leaving The Pennsylvania Magazine, Paine was encouraged by Franklin and Benjamin Rush (1746-1813) to write Common Sense.

Philadelphia, the leading colonial political and mercantile city, was central to American resistance to exertions of British power in the 1770s. Delegates from most of the North American British colonies met in Philadelphia as the first Continental Congress in September and October 1774. A second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia in May 1775, then declared independence in July 1776. Throughout 1776, Philadelphians feared invasion by water as well as by land. British ships blockaded Delaware Bay, while British soldiers moved south from New York through New Jersey toward Philadelphia. Appearing in the midst of this heightened political state, Common Sense found an audience in Philadelphia and elsewhere.

Attacking Traditional Authority

[caption id="attachment_16326" align="alignright" width="209"]Engraving of Thomas Paine created by George Romney. Born in England, Thomas Paine (1737-1809) adopted Philadelphia as a temporary home in November 1774, when he arrived with a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Paine's renown in his own time and in later eras rested on his attack on traditional political authority and his defense of a radical form of democratic political participation. Paine had little inkling that politics dominated by white men would be, beginning in the nineteenth century, challenged by women and racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities. But he did define political participation and representation in ways that were in theory open to all. Much of American political thought after the War of Independence has entailed accepting or rejecting the notion of full political participation that Paine enunciated in Common Sense.

Paine's arguments against traditional political authority dissected notions like the divine right of kings, the legitimacy of custom, the social value of aristocrats, and the ability of monarchs to ensure peace and prosperity for their subjects. Often Paine used familial metaphors such as King George III as a father who had turned against his children. The implication was that ordinary people, who had experienced familial relations, could make informed judgments about weighty political matters. He cast the situation in the Anglo-American colonies in 1776 as historic and universal. "The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind," he wrote. "Many circumstances hath, and will arise, which are not local, but universal, and through which the principles of all Lovers of Mankind are affected."

Accordingly, in Common Sense, Paine cast himself as "under no sort of Influence public or private, but the influence of reason and principle." His arguments for democratic politics rested on a broad suffrage, annual elections, and a large unicameral body of legislators. He aimed for representative government close to voters and responsive to their interests. Since the government recommended in Common Sense was a revolutionary alternative to the English Parliament, the British Crown, and the colonial royal governors and councils, then Paine's conclusion was obvious. Reconciliation between Americans and the British government was impossible, and separation, independence, and unification of the colonies into a new nation should proceed.

First Edition Published Anonymously

The form of government Common Sense recommended—a unicameral legislature with annual elections—was indeed crafted in 1776 by a Pennsylvania convention charged with writing a constitution for the new state. Most of the former colonies wrote new constitutions at this time as replacements for their colonial charters.  The first edition of Common Sense was published anonymously by Scottish-born Philadelphia printer Robert Bell (c. 1732-84), who risked a charge of treason for disseminating the work. After arguing with Bell about profits and copyright, Paine appealed to Bell's competitors, the Bradford Brothers, who published several enlarged editions, including the one most known to posterity, a third edition with new front and end matter and, for the first time, with Paine's name on the title page. The wrangling over the work simply added to its notoriety. Moreover, Paine castigated Pennsylvania Quakers for mixing religion and politics in their appeals for peace. The book was quickly republished in a number of American and European cities.

[caption id="attachment_16328" align="alignright" width="187"]Title page of Plain Truth by James Chalmers. Critics of Common Sense included  James Chalmers (1734-1806), a loyalist living in Chestertown, Md., whose Plain Truth attacked the views expressed by Paine as quackery. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

In the mid-1770s many Americans as well as many Philadelphians were torn between loyalty to the British empire and anger over the incursions of imperial power into the colonies in the late 1760s and early 1770s. Paine's contemporaries (like modern scholars) perceived Common Sense as the decisive text that propelled colonial sentiment into independence. George Washington (1732-99), for instance, praised its "sound Doctrine, and unanswerable reasoning." Edmund Randolph (1753-1813) wrote that after the dissemination of Common Sense, "public sentiment which a few weeks before had shuddered at the tremendous obstacles, with which independence was environed, overleaped every barrier." Still, Common Sense also had critics, for example James Chalmers (1734-1806) in Plain Truth (1776, printed by Bell).

Paine continued to exhort for the patriot cause in a series of essays, American Crisis. Some of the language that Americans associate with the revolution—for example, "These are the times that try men's souls"—flowed from Paine's pen in these years. But in 1790 Pennsylvanians dismantled and modified their radically democratic government. A new constitution enacted mixed government, balancing a lower house with an upper house and a governor. By then Paine had moved to England (where he wrote Rights of Man) and then France (where he wrote The Age of Reason).

In sum, Common Sense was one of the most significant catalysts of the War of Independence as well as a bellwether of democratic thought. Although the radical structure of government that Paine recommended proved short lived in Pennsylvania, Americans at large have since the revolution grappled with some of the central concerns of Common Sense. Americans still contest the balance between popularly elected governments (both state and federal) and individual rights. Moreover, Paine, often called "a citizen of the world," wrote in the American Crisis, "My attachment is to all the world, and not to any particular part." His sense of world citizenship remains pertinent in the twenty-first century, an era of energetic human migration, instantaneous electronic communication, and global ecological interdependence.

John Saillant is Professor of English and History at Western Michigan University. He is the author of the monograph Black Puritan, Black Republican: The Life and Thought of Lemuel Haynes.

Colonization Movement (Africa)

The African colonization movement, dedicated to resettling North American free blacks in West Africa, caused heated debates in Philadelphia in the early nineteenth century. Proposals to remove free blacks from North America date from the 1770s, but the heyday of African colonization occurred between 1818 and 1865. Often described as a "return to Africa," the resettlement plans actually focused on free blacks who had never set foot on African soil. Colonization is better described as a semivoluntary expatriation than as a return to a homeland.

[caption id="attachment_13908" align="alignright" width="300"]A map of the Liberian coast, showing the names of cities and separate sections of the colony.  Over three thousand free African Americans were in Liberia by the 1850s, populating dozens of coastal towns and engaging in both trade and battles with local groups. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

White Americans were the most active in promoting colonization, but many blacks desired opportunities outside North America in places that appeared to offer greater self-determination and economic gain. The first colonizationists, black and white, envisioned various territories for expatriates. The West Indies, which after 1776 seemed separate from the mainland to most citizens of the United States, were a possibility. Haiti was the most commonly mentioned island. In West Africa, Sierra Leone, a British colony (first proprietary, then Crown), also seemed a possibility, since its residents included black settlers from England, North America, and Jamaica. By the early 1820s, American colonizationists focused on Cape Mesurado in Africa, where Monrovia (named for President James Monroe) was established in a territory soon called Liberia (after the Latin word for freedom). Some also proposed removing free blacks to the American western frontier, where they might be distant from white Americans as well as useful as a buffer against Native Americans.

Although often considered an American colony, Liberia was a territory initially purchased by American settlers from African chiefs in several transactions in the 1820s with financial support from the American Colonization Society, a national organization founded in Washington, D.C., in 1817. The Americo-Liberian settlement expanded from the coastal town of Monrovia along the banks of the St. Paul and Mesurado Rivers. Settlers declared Liberia an independent nation, with its own constitution, in 1847. It was then home to about 3,000 Americo-Liberians, a number sufficient to establish political dominance over native Africans but far fewer than the number of free blacks that colonizationists had hoped to resettle from the United States.

[caption id="attachment_13910" align="alignright" width="211"]Profile Portrait of James Forten James Forten, Philadelphia business owner and abolitionist leader, supported the colonization movement in the 1810s, but moderated his views when the removal effort came under sharp criticism. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

In Philadelphia, members of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society discussed colonization in the 1810s as a response to the growing number of freedpeople or runaways coming to Philadelphia from Southern states. At that time, leaders of black Philadelphia including Richard Allen (1760–1831) and James Forten (1766–1842) endorsed colonization. But soon, in Philadelphia and elsewhere, colonizationist sentiment was attacked from several angles. In 1817 a gathering of black Philadelphians at Mother Bethel Church denounced colonization as an insult to African Americans and a forced removal hidden behind a thin veil of voluntary emigration.

Reversal of Views

Allen and Forten modified their earlier views although at times they articulated lukewarm support for colonization. Allen declared: "This land which we have watered with our tears and our blood, is now our mother country, and we are well satisfied to stay where wisdom abounds and the gospel is free." Similarly, in an 1818 address to white Pennsylvanians, Forten stated the desires of free blacks to remain in their homes and to assist in the abolition of slavery and the improvement of black life in the United States. In 1818, the Pennsylvania Abolition Society moved firmly against colonization by noting that most free blacks were committed to remaining in the country of their birth, that progress for free African Americans was most likely to occur in the United States, and that Sierra Leone had failed to thrive, after two decades, as a home for black emigrants from Canada and England. Still, the Pennsylvania Abolition Society expressed belief that resettlement might be salutary in some circumstances.

Despite these mixed opinions, the American Colonization Society enjoyed strong support in the Greater Philadelphia region. Robert Finley (1772–1817), who led the committee that established the American Colonization Society, was born in Princeton, New Jersey. Like most states beginning in the 1820s, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland had local colonization societies that identified likely settlers and drummed up financial support for travel and the needs of the Liberian settlements. Often these societies raised funds for the national organization as well. A settlement at Cape Palmas was known as "Maryland in Africa," then the Republic of Maryland, until it was annexed by Liberia in 1857. Baltimore was a common point of embarkation for emigration to Liberia. Delaware politicians joined with their counterparts in Southern states in the call for colonization.

Even after the Pennsylvania Abolition Society condemned African colonization in 1818, Philadelphians were involved in the movement of free blacks to Liberia. Episcopal Bishop William White (1748-1836) became a vice president of the American Colonization Society in 1819. Philadelphia Quaker Roberts Vaux (1786-1836) became a colonizationist in the 1820s, when he decided that a Liberian settlement would help suppress the African slave trade as well as provide a home for victims of the slave trade (known as recaptives) who were seized by the American government, sometimes at sea, from illicit slave-traders. Other Quakers including Joseph Hemphill (1770-1842) and Sarah Moore Grimké (1792-1873) adopted the colonizationist cause. Philadelphia luminaries such as Mathew Carey (1760-1839) and Elliott Cresson (1796-1854) also supported colonization.

Colonization Societies Emerge

[caption id="attachment_13909" align="alignright" width="214"]A paper certificate for the Pennsylvania Colonization Society with a small image of people getting off boats on a beach. Donors to the Pennsylvania Colonization Society would receive a certificate of lifetime membership, which depicted freed African Americans taking their first steps on the Liberian coast. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

The Pennsylvania Colonization Society formed in 1828 to promote black emigration from Pennsylvania as well as to fund transportation of freedpeople from other states to Liberia. It was followed in 1834 by the Young Men's Colonization Society of Pennsylvania, which, in cooperation with the national society and the Colonization Society of the City of New-York funded the travel of 126 freed Afro-Virginians from Norfolk to a new settlement in Liberia called Bassa Cove. In 1835 this settlement was attacked by the dominant local slave trader, King Joe. Although the new settlers were routed in the first battle, they were able, with the assistance of the Monrovian settlers, to force King Joe to cede territory to the United Colonization Societies of New-York and Pennsylvania. However, the Young Men's Colonization Society of Pennsylvania could not maintain itself as a separate organization and was absorbed into the American Colonization Society in 1838.

A Philadelphia Ladies' Liberia School Association formed in 1832 under the leadership of Quaker Beulah Biddle Sansom (1768-1837). The Young Men's Colonization Society of Pennsylvania had been calling for women to support the work of colonization, and in the early 1830s Philadelphia women began raising money to support schools in Liberia. Such charitable support was part of a larger pattern of women's benevolence in antebellum America. Missions and schools were considered natural interests of middle-class Christian women. The enthusiasm of the Ladies' Liberia School Association remained high throughout the 1830s, as its members funded construction of schoolhouses and selected teachers for its schools in Liberia. This enthusiasm declined in the 1840s as the funds raised by the association proved inadequate to maintain the Liberian schools and as the growth of the American Anti-Slavery Society (always opposed to colonization) dimmed the association's Liberian hopes. Indeed, one of the association's teachers, Massachusetts-born Ishmael Locke, left Liberia in despair over the state of the schools and ultimately settled in Philadelphia, where he became principal of the Institute for Colored Youth in the 1850s. His grandson, born in Philadelphia, was Alain Leroy Locke (1885-1954), proponent of the arts and thought of the Harlem Renaissance.

Some of the early Americo-Liberian settlers were black Philadelphians. By 1822, about fifty-four black Philadelphians had emigrated to Liberia (a tiny number compared to about 10,000 free blacks in Philadelphia, but significant in the settlement). One of the folk heroes of early Liberia was Matilda Newport, a young woman who emigrated from Philadelphia in 1820 around age twenty-five and, according to the legend, stood her ground singlehandedly with a rifle in a battle with local people in 1822.

Both black and white residents of the Philadelphia region thus participated in a resettlement effort that would have momentous implications in the modern world. Although colonization's advocates and its foes expressed mixed sentiments about the resettlement, and Philadelphians' initiatives were mostly limited to the 1820s and 1830s, the repercussions of colonization both in the United States and in West Africa made it a crucial phase in Philadelphia's history.

John Saillant is Professor of English and History at Western Michigan University. He is the author of the monograph Black Puritan, Black Republican: The Life and Thought of Lemuel Haynes.

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