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The Constitution of the Colony of Maryland in Liberia

Last September, Betty came across our copy of Constitution and laws of Maryland in Liberia, which needed full cataloging. We knew then that we wanted to talk about this founding document of one of the older democratic governments in Africa. Liberia’s roots extend back to 1821, when former enslaved persons and free-born Blacks first founded it with financial and logistical support from the United States government and the American Colonization Society (ACS).

Ordinance of the Temporary Government of the Colony of Maryland in Liberia [photo by Betty Lupinacci]

The federal government started the colonization movement in response to slaveholder anxieties, some born from the reaction to Haiti establishing independence in 1804. Maryland followed the federal government’s lead in 1831, with the establishment of its Maryland Colonization Society. Both the ACS and the Maryland Colonization Society’s purpose stemmed from a desire to remove “free blacks who posed a threat to slavery in the Southern parts of the United States. If enslaved people saw free blacks traipsing around they would, in turn, aspire for that freedom.” Maryland purchased land for the colony at Las Palmas in 1834. Prior to that time, Liberia was a group of Indigenous settlements and land buys that were adjacent. The Colony of Maryland in Liberia, situated to the southeastern part of Liberia and bordering what is now Côte d’Ivoire, was established with funds appropriated by the State of Maryland; the Maryland General Assembly commit[ed] itself to paying the society an annual sum of $10,000 for twenty years. (Campbell, 195).

Maryland was not the only state to support the colonization movement; other states did as well: Virginia, Mississippi, Georgia, and Kentucky (Campbell, 196). Maryland was deeply invested in the colonization movement because of its large population of free blacks; in 1850, there were 74,723 free Blacks (equal to 82% of the enslaved persons population at the time) and the number continued to grow. When the colony started, the Maryland State Colonization Society wrote the constitution for the colony and established several laws. “Echoing the United States Declaration of Independence, the constitution promised that it becomes the duty of the State Society to afford to the settlements which they may cause to be established, a system of equal laws, that Shall secure to every Emigrant and his descendants the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The number of Black Americans moving to Liberia was never large. “[The American Colonization Society’s] colony of Liberia, founded in 1821, recruited only ten thousand migrants from the United States over the four decades before the Civil War.” Some white Americans of the time thought colonization was a liberal idea, giving free Blacks the potential for rights and self-governance that no one believed they would achieve in the United States. However, “while African Americans reserved the right to debate questions of emigration and Black Nationalism, they were overwhelmingly critical of an organization managed entirely by white people and supported by slaveholders.” David Walker wrote, “Here is a demonstrative proof, of a plan got up, by a gang of slave-holders to select the free people of colour from among the slaves, that our more miserable brethren may be the better secured in ignorance and wretchedness, to work their farms and dig their mines, and thus go on enriching the Christians with their blood and groans. What our brethren could have been thinking about, who have left their native land and home and gone away to Africa, I am unable to say.”

United States Navy Department, and William Francis Lynch. Maryland in Liberia. [Washington, D.C.: U.S. Senate, 1853] Map.

Liberia established itself as a sovereign state on July 26, 1847. The Colony of Maryland established its independence from the Maryland Colonization Society in 1854, but suffered from a poor economy and military attacks from the Indigenous populations. It voted in favor of annexation by Liberia in 1857, and became a county. Maryland has one of the largest number of descendants of former enslaved persons living in modern Liberia.

Today, approximately five percent of the population of Liberia is descended from the original 20,000 settlers that came from the United States. The United States officially recognized Liberia in 1862, and the first president of Liberia, Joseph Jenkins Roberts, was from Virginia, and ten of Liberia’s presidents were born in the United States. The impact of the countries on each other has been deep.

Sources

KSN231.5.M37.M37 1837 Maryland in Liberia, jurisdiction governed. Constitution and laws of Maryland in Liberia : with an appendix of precedents.

E448.C17 Campbell, Penelope. Maryland in Africa; the Maryland State Colonization Society, 1831-1857.

F347.J48 H84 2004 Huffman, Alan. Mississippi in Africa.

E448.K37 Kentucky Colonization Society. The Proceedings of the colonization society of Kentucky, with the address of the Hon. Daniel Mayes, at the annual meeting. at Frankfort, December 1st, 1831.

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