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1837

Dauphin County Citizens Petition Congress
 in Support of African Colonization

Harrisburg, like many northern communities, saw its free African American community expand rapidly through the early decades of the nineteenth century.  The census of 1820 enumerated 497 "free coloured persons" in the entire county of Dauphin.  That number jumped to 893 in the 1830 census, and grew less rapidly, to 957, in 1840.  Harrisburg's numbers, for the same years, were 177 in 1820, 492 in 1830, and 645 in 1840.  Clearly, many African Americans were moving from the outer areas of the county and settling into the growing African American community in Harrisburg.

This trend was reflected throughout the larger towns and cities of the north, fueled by the effects of the gradual emancipation laws, and by an influx of southern fugitives fleeing slavery, or southern free Blacks forced out by repressive laws designed to limit their freedom.  Equally large increases occurred in the populations of free Blacks in the southern states, with the largest concentrations in southern cities and in the tidewater areas of Virginia and Maryland.

Whites in these areas viewed the growing free African American populations with alarm.  Various methods of control were discussed, but the most enduring solution was the removal of free Blacks from the United States, to "colonies," in Africa and later Haiti.  This process was embodied in the mission of the American Colonization Society, established in 1816.  The ACS acquired territory on the western coast of Africa in 1821 and named the new land "Liberia."  Harrisburg residents organized an auxiliary branch of the Pennsylvania Colonization Society  in 1819, but the national organization foundered in the next few decades.  In its place rose two state societies:  the Colonization Society of the City of New York and the Young Men's Colonization Society of Pennsylvania.  The two organizations joined forces in 1834 and became a powerful  force in the colonization movement.  In October 1834, the United Colonization Societies of New York and Pennsylvania sent settlers to a new colony on the western coast of Africa they named "Bassa Cove."

Competition between rival state colonization organizations and internal strife among the various American settlements in Africa eventually led to a reorganization of the ACS in 1838, which in turn led to the uniting of the various American colonies as the "Commonwealth of Liberia" the following year.

The text below was printed in the Harrisburg Keystone newspaper in 1837, when the united Pennsylvania and New York societies were at their height of influence.  The arguments presented below in favor of colonization are that it will "improve the condition of the free or manumitted negroes."  The real motives are easily detected, however, as references are made to "millions of blacks" who would disturb the peace and tranquility and side with enemy forces in time of war.  This white paranoia was strong in the Jacksonian era, and manifested itself in many ways, including the subjugation of free African Americans by laws that limited their rights, pressure to remove them from American society by colonization, and terrorizing them with mob violence.

 

Memorial to Congress on the Subject of Colonization

To the senate and house of representatives of the United States, in congress assembled.
The subscribers respectfully beg leave to inform your honorable bodies that they were appointed a committee by a large and respectable meeting of the citizens of Dauphin County, convened in the borough of Harrisburg on the twenty-eighth day of August last, “to prepare a memorial to each house of congress, praying the appropriation by the General Government of a sum sufficient to remove to Africa free Negroes willing to remove, and manumitted slaves, equal in amount to the whole annual increase of the coloured population of this country; and also such additional number as in the wisdom of congress the finances of the nation and other considerations may justify, if in their opinion, the constitution of the United States will justify such appropriation; and if not, then to adopt measures to effect such an alteration of it, as will authorize the measure.”

In discharging the duty confided to us by our fellow citizens we cannot forbear remarking that we are fully aware of the difficult, delicate and important nature of the subject to which we are commissioned to invite your attention. Considered by minds of cool discriminating reflection it presents nothing but a simple question of EXPEDIENCY, devoid of all feeling, interest and passion, but involved, as some may regard it, in its consequences, with other questions of vital concern to a large portion of our brethren of the Union, we are impressed with a lively fear of the possibility that its nature may be mistaken, its tendency misconceived, and the motives which prompted it, misrepresented or calumniated. Anxious to avoid the remotest possibility of a misunderstanding on this point, we will state explicitly and unreservedly that it is not the design, nor do we believe it will be the effect of granting the object sought by this memorial, to touch directly or indirectly the vested rights or interests of any man, or any community of men in the United States, except eventually to improve the condition of the FREE OR MANUMITTED NEGROES living among us. It would be as impolitic as it would be repugnant to our feelings of respect and justice to our southern brethren, to solicit the interference of congress in their domestic concerns. However unfortunate we may deem their situation, it is still one which no legislative body has the power of altering or controlling but their own state legislatures. These and these alone, as representatives of the people of their respective states, have the right of applying correctives if evils exist, and these and these only are responsible for the consequences of their continuance.

The removal of the free negroes in this country from among the white population is a matter in which the citizens in every state in the Union must feel a deep solicitude, as it is one on which the safety, harmony and good order of society materially depend. Occupying a subordinate station, destitute of the means, motives, and energy of character essential to an improvement of their condition, they are now, and must continue to be, for generations to come, with few exceptions, the most worthless and degraded portions of society. The calendars of our jails and penitentiaries, and the records of our poor houses, bear ample testimony of this truth. The relative proportion of negro criminals and paupers in every state of the Union, on a comparison of the numbers of the black and white population, is a melancholy but instructive commentary on their condition. We need say nothing further than merely to advert to this fact for the purpose of showing the extent and magnitude of the evil which we call on you to redress. It affects us in its operation as a nation, and it must be obvious to all, that by national intervention only can it be removed. To insure the aid of the General Government it appears to us that these three positions are to be established: First, is it expedient to carry into execution the purpose for which we were appointed to address you? Is it feasible to do it? And, does congress possess the power necessary for the purpose?

In addition to the foregoing observations, the expediency of the measure may be further proven by other reasons no less cogent and alarming. There are at present in the United States about two millions seven hundred and fifty thousand free blacks and slaves, which number will augment at the rate of the last ten year's increase, to the enormous and fearful number of more than ten millions in forty years from the present time! As the whole mass of coloured population grows in number, the free and manumitted portion of it will accelerate its increase to an appalling degree of rapidity, operated upon as it will be by various causes, and if already this miserable caste crowd our prisons and poor houses, corrupting by their vicious and idle example one part of community, and depending for subsistence on their depredations or the charity of the other part, how much more lamentable and hopeless is the condition to which the free white population of this country is hastening, than that which it has at present reached, but which is confessedly fraught with such difficulties and dangers. These are not the only evils that threaten us. Can human foresight be so short?—can human reason be so weak, as not to perceive the portentous change which will be wrought in our condition when a population of blacks amounting to more than ten millions, exist among us, with all the means and motives which they will possess, to disturb the peace and tranquility of society, or to take part with our enemies in seasons of war with foreign powers? The nation of American blacks will then outnumber the nation of American freemen who challenged and defeated the giant power of England on their own soil, and on the seas—who established a free republic unparalleled in the history of the world—who reared innumerable towns and cities—constructed works of internal improvements, more useful and stupendous than any other nations of the same age—who enlarged the empire of the arts and sciences almost one half beyond its former boundaries in less than a single century—and who gloried in teaching the nations of the world their duties and their rights.—Who will be so hardy as to maintain that this vast mass of ten millions of human beings however inferior they may be in natural and acquired intellectual powers, will repose quietly in their state of degradation—submit to the servile conditions imposed on their existence—cowering humbly under the uplifted hand of the white man, and remain forever ignorant and inert amidst the universal activity of enterprise, and beneath the noontide blaze of science, light and liberty? Such a population might be harmless under the benighted tyrannies of he old world, but that man must be ignorant of human nature, he must be blind to the irresistible energies which freedom imparts to the humblest human mind—he must forget the history of his country who does not know that it is far different here. It would be as easy to shut out the rays of the sun from the broad bosom of our free country, as to withhold from the African some share of that knowledge which will whet up the bloody daggers of hate and revenge. Wherever he may be, whether he lives at the north or at the south, bond or free, you cannot entirely close up every avenue to his mind; some of the light that beams from our thousand colleges and schools, our constitutions of government, our laws, our papers and our glorious declaration of independence must reach him, and all furnish him with claims to equality of rights, or to inducements to seek it, in the death of us, whom he regards as his oppressors. Evade this subject as we may, this is the deplorable tendency of its continuance in its present state, and no man of reflection can doubt it. Events are daily transpiring around us, which fill the heart of the patriot and philanthropist with the profoundest apprehension. Sympathy, when rightly directed, the most estimable of the virtues, but when misdirected one of the most dangerous influences which can control the mind of man, is calling into action the passions and prejudices of a party vigorously acquiring strength and influence, whose action unchecked, will shortly defy stay or control. You have witnessed its development in all quarters of the land. By its efforts the north is trembling in agitation, and the south is in a flame of phrenzy and desperation. The bloody tragedy of Southampton haunts their midnight slumbers at the south, and contemplated scenes of widespread conflagration and ruin excite their constant alarm. The general government is invoked to protect them through one of it departments against endeavors, the consequences of which no one can foretell. It is of no avail that a majority of the citizens of the northern states neither advise nor participate in their proceedings. Those who do are shielded by the free principles of our constitutions, and act under no other restraint, than their own sense of justice prescribes. To allow this discussion and agitation of the subject to take full range, or to remove the cause itself, are the only alternatives left. No remedy can be offered which will do aught but postpone the fatal crisis a few years—it will come upon us, or upon our children, as certain as the present generation neglects to eradicate the cause.

We have forborne to offer a single observation on the justice of the measure we recommend. We say nothing of the duty which we owe to the degraded and friendless free blacks of this country, to restore them to the land of their fathers, where they may enjoy unmolested, that equality of rights and dignity of character which they appeal to our declaration of independence, as proving to be their natural inheritance. We leave the benefits which the blacks themselves are to receive, entirely out of consideration, and present the subject to your view, exclusively on the ground of politic expediency for our own adoption. On this basis we rest this part of the argument and cheerfully leave the expediency, nay necessity of our application, to stand or fall, as it is supported by duty, justice and truth. Secondly, the feasibility of removing the free blacks and manumitted slaves according to the design of the resolution under which we act, is, we apprehend, very readily demonstrated. The entire black population of this country, at present, as above stated, is about 2 3/4 millions, the annual increase of which at the rate of increase during the last ten years, is about 70,000. These may be removed to Liberia, or some other part of the coast of Africa, and maintained there for six months, at an average price of thirty dollars each person, or at a gross amount of less than two millions and a half of dollars. Perhaps a portion of the national vessels might be employed in the transportation of them, and this reduce the sum still lower.

No difficulty can arise in procuring a sufficient number of free blacks and manumitted slaves for removal. Thousands are now ready to go, if means were provided, and thousands more would be manumitted by their masters, on condition of their immediate transportation from the country. The expense of their maintenance till they can support themselves in Africa will be mere nothing. The soil of Liberia is fertile beyond measure. The climate salubrious and genial, the very one which the GOD of Nature designed them to enjoy. A regular government based on principles of freedom, fashioned after our own perfect model, is established there, and will stretch forth its hand to receive and welcome the negro back to his fatherland.

The treasury of the general government is full and overflowing. The national debt is extinguished. The resources and the enterprise of the American people unparalleled. Their means more than equal to the task; their policy and their safety demanding its accomplishments, who can doubt their readiness to embark in this undertaking? At the present time, the evil is within the reach of remedy, but before another generation passes away, it will be incurable.

In the third place; Does congress possess the power necessary for the purpose? This question, like all others arising out of the construction of those powers in the constitution, not clearly, unequivocally, and plainly delegated, must be viewed through the medium of prejudice, preconceived opinion, jealousy, and local interest which embarrass its discussion with never ending doubts and difficulties. We shall not enter upon an argument to sustain the affirmative of the proposition, further than to remark, that if the objections existing to the power are insuperable, the amendment of the constitution may be speedily effected, should the object to be attained warrant it. We cannot omit suggesting that there is one source, from whence enough may be drawn, to execute this purpose, without trespassing on the constitution, we mean the revenue derived from the public lands. No objections we trust from any quarter will be started to this measure, for the states to be benefitted most, are those whose cession created the fund to be employed, and all are to be benefitted to the extent of their full proportion of interest in it.

In this opinion, we are supported by the concurrence of some of the most distinguished lawyers, statesmen and patriots who ever adorned this or any country. The legislatures of eleven states, have at different periods instructed their senators, and requested their representatives in congress, to promote in the general government, measures for removing such free persons of colour as are desirous of emigrating to Africa, and the legislatures of fourteen states have passed resolutions approving of the scheme of colonizing the free colored population of this country, and most of them approving of the colonization society. These considerations we think must satisfy your honorable bodies, that our application is fully sanctioned by general public sentiment, and that your action on this subject will receive the universal commendation of your fellow citizens.

In conclusion we take occasion to assure you, as the result of our impression from past experience, that we consider individual efforts entirely inadequate to the achievement of this great work of patriotism and philanthropy. If ever done at all, it must be by the aid of the governmental arm. Let this be exerted, and our country will be rescued from the gulph of inextricable confusion, servile war, and bloodshed into which it is fast plunging. We earnestly appeal to you, as you regard the liberties of your children, as you feel for the degraded condition of the Negroes in this country, as you revere the free institutions under which we live, and as you hope for their perpetuation, to adopt some measures for the removal of the blacks, either such as we recommend, or as your own wisdom may suggest, better suited to the purpose, or if you consider the possession of the power questionable, we pray you, to take the necessary steps for the amendment of the constitution, to authorise the action of congress upon the subject. And as in duty bound we will every pray, &c.

The following short article appeared elsewhere in the same issue of the newspaper, calling attention to the memorial, above.

We invite the attention of the public to the memorial contained in another column of this paper, addressed to congress by a committee appointed for that purpose, at a meeting convened in Harrisburg, a little more than a year ago. It is a condensed and comprehensive view of the subject, sustained by facts and arguments, presenting as a whole, a masterly and unanswerable defence of the system of African colonization. It was presented to congress—printed and laid on the table for future action. We hope it will receive the further consideration of the national legislature. We trust our fellow citizens in this state, and in all sections of the Union, who are friendly to the measure, will prepare, circulate for signatures and forward to congress similar memorials—or they might if preferable, adapt the substance of this, to their own peculiar sentiments on the subject, and transmit them to Washington as speedily as possible.

Since writing the above, we understand the auxiliary society of Dauphin county will print, and send through the State, a number of these memorials, in a circular form. We hope they will be signed and sent on immediately.

The memorial was prepared and signed by the following gentlemen, viz: HON. CALVIN BLYTHE, GEO. W. HARRIS, OVID F. JOHNSON, JOHN M. FORSTER, ALEXANDER MAHON, C.C. RAWN, A.M. PIPER and J.B. WEIDMAN, Esquires.

Notes

This was not the first petition to Congress by the citizens of Dauphin County on this subject.  The records of the 24th Congress (1835-1836) contain document #S.doc.151, 24-1, "Petition of citizens of Dauphin county, Pennsylvania, for appropriation to remove to Africa all free negroes and manumitted slaves."  (LexisNexis Index of Congressional Documents, Historical Indexes).

The earlier 1836 petition is probably the same one referenced by a short article in The Liberator, 20 February 1836, which records:  

SENATE, Tuesday, Feb. 9.
Mr. Buchanan presented a petition from a Committee of the citizens of Dauphin county, Pennsylvania, appointed at a meeting at Harrisburg, praying that Congress would make appropriations to transport to Africa the free people of color; and that the constitution might be submitted for amendment on that point, if it does not now give the power.

Sources

The Keystone (Harrisburg), Wednesday, 25 January 1837
Microfilm #3045, “Harrisburg Newspapers, 1792-1866” Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

Further Reading

For an example of how Harrisburg passed laws limiting the rights of free African Americans, see "Harrisburg's 'Free Person of Colour' Registration Ordinance of 1821."

For the opinion of many in Harrisburg's African American community, see Harrisburg's African American Community Opposes Colonization, 1831.

 


Covering the history of African Americans in central Pennsylvania from the colonial era through the Civil War.

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