CHESAPEAKE FREE BLACKS AND THE ORIGINS OF THE LIBERIAN STATE, 1776-1848
ROWLAND, LESLIE S.
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This dissertation examines the phased, uneven, and contradictory development of republican ideas in the political thought of Chesapeake free blacks who migrated to Cape Mesurado, West Africa, between the founding of the Liberia colony in 1822 and Liberia’s declaration of independence in 1847, and how their republican ideas shaped the creation of the Liberian state. A key finding is the extent to which the origin of the Liberian state was specifically tied to the development of an embryonic petit-bourgeois social layer of artisans, small traders, shopkeepers, and aspiring merchants among Christian evangelical small property-holding Chesapeake free blacks whose ideas and actions drove the events, thus linking the formation of the Liberian state to the peculiar history of this group. The establishment of capitalist property relations was the founding principle of the Liberian state, and although religion and race were of considerable significance, they were, contrary to what much of the historiography has claimed, of secondary importance in explaining the state’s origins. Liberia’s Chesapeake free black founders tied citizenship to property ownership as well as to race, thereby rooting the state’s origins in a political economy of black identity. The coming into being of Liberian identity was powerfully informed and conditioned by the ideology of property, revealing the tension between the hierarchies intrinsic to the Chesapeake free blacks’ property-bound conception of citizenship and the egalitarian impulse behind their anti-slavery views. The interplay of political and economic events in and around Cape Mesurado during Liberia’s founding, gave rise to a particular social identity – an imagined black nationhood – linked to the idea of property. The development of race consciousness specific to that time and place – for example, the idea of Liberia as an exclusively black space – was tied to a theory of property ownership and to the exigencies of state formation that entailed absorbing and subordinating local African polities, thereby creating new identities and social hierarchies. A careful reading of the correspondence between the American Colonization Society in Washington and the Chesapeake free black leadership at Cape Mesurado shows that by December 1823, within months of settlement, this incipient class of free black property-holders had announced its intentions, to the dismay of its ACS benefactors. In doing so, the free blacks set in motion a series of actions that would lead them, twenty-five years after the colony’s creation, amid debates reflected in published accounts and polemics by both supporters and detractors, to declare Liberia’s independence.