James Madison Is Grateful For Words of Praise For the American Colonization Society, Which He Supported

The Society encouraged the migration of free African Americans to the continent of Africa, and was instrumental in founding Liberia

The recipient is William B. Sprague, the first great American autograph collector, so this was once part of his collection

The Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of America, commonly known as the American Colonization Society, was a group established in 1816 which supported the migration of free African...

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James Madison Is Grateful For Words of Praise For the American Colonization Society, Which He Supported

The Society encouraged the migration of free African Americans to the continent of Africa, and was instrumental in founding Liberia

The recipient is William B. Sprague, the first great American autograph collector, so this was once part of his collection

The Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of America, commonly known as the American Colonization Society, was a group established in 1816 which supported the migration of free African Americans to the continent of Africa. It was founded by groups otherwise opposed to each other on the issue of slavery, being a coalition made up mostly of those who supported the abolition of slavery (such as Quakers) and believed black people would face better chances for advancement in Africa than in the United States, and some slaveholders who saw repatriation as a way to remove free black people from slave societies, discourage slave rebellions, and also give them a better and less noticeable chance at life elsewhere. The Society was especially prominent among slaveowners in the Virginia Piedmont region in the 1820s and 1830s. Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and James Madison were among its supporters. James Madison served as the Society’s president in the early 1830s.

Eliphalet Nott was President of Union College and integral to the founding of the Society in New York. He wrote on the subject of colonization, maintaining that it was practical and desirable. He refused to look into the motives of the promoters of the idea, and defended the morality of slaveholders.

Rev. William Buell Sprague was a minister, author, and the first great American collector of historical documents and pamphlets. He became the first person ever to gather a complete set of the autographs of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Sprague wrote approvingly of the American Colonization Society, and apparently wrote to Madison, perhaps to ingratiate himself and gain an autograph for his collection, sending him some pamphlets praising the Society.

This is an uncommon letter of Madison directly related to the Society, sent to the first great American autograph collector. Autograph letter signed in the 3rd person, Montpelier, February 5, 1830, to Sprague. “J. Madison with his respects to Mr. Sprague, returns his thanks for the little pamphlet on the ‘Colonization Society’. The interesting object could not be more ably or impressively inculcated than is done by Doctor Nott. J.M. adds his thanks to Mr. Sprague for the other pamphlets previously received; which breathe the eloquent strains characterizing other productions of the same origin.” The integral free frank, with Madison’s full signature, is still attached to the letter.

Though Madison had words of praise for Nott, some, like abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, considered Nott an apologist for slaveholders. Garrison wrote of the Society in 1832, they, “in their Fifteenth Annual Report, declare that ‘an ordination of Providence’ prevents the general improvement of the people of color in this land! How is our country dishonored, how are the requirements of the gospel contemned, by this ungodly plea! Having satisfied himself that the Creator is alone blameable for the past and present degradation of the free blacks, Dr. Nott draws the natural and unavoidable inference that ‘here, therefore, they must be forever debased, for ever useless, for ever a nuisance, for ever a calamity;’ and then gravely declares, (mark the climax!) and yet THEY, AND THEY ONLY, are qualified for colonizing Africa’! ‘Why, then,’ he asks, ‘in the name of God,’ (the abrupt appeal, in this connection, seems almost profane,) ‘should we hesitate to encourage their departure?’”

From 1821, the Society helped to found a colony in West Africa known as Liberia, as a place for free-born or freed American blacks. Thousands of free blacks, who faced legislated restrictions in much of the U.S., moved there. For over twenty years, the colony continued to grow and establish economic stability. In 1847, the legislature of Liberia declared the nation an independent state. By 1867, the American Colonization Society had assisted in the emigration of more than 13,000 Americans to Liberia.

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