Black Christian Republicanism: A Southern Ideology in Early Liberia, 1822 to 1847

Article excerpt

As African-American repatriates in Liberia moved to declare their independence in 1847, Hilary Teage--the man who, as editor of the Liberia Herald, had done more than any other to further the drive toward independence - cited "a nation of colored people on the soil of Africa, adorned and dignified with the attributes of a civilized and Christian community" as the "grand object which at first brought us to Africa." In referring to a "nation" comprised of "colored people" in a "Christian community," Teage, an immigrant from Richmond, Virginia, was referring respectively to republicanism, Black Nationalism and Christianity, three intellectual traditions that undergirded the thinking of those early repatriates who sought to found a new nation, which they appropriately named Liberia (i.e., Latin for "freedom"). Samuel Benedict, president of the Liberian Constitutional Convention of 1847, who, in presenting the finished document to the citizenry, repeated these three themes:

It is our earnest desire that the affairs of this government may be so conducted as to merit the approbation of all Christendom, and restore to Africa her long lost glory, and that Liberia under the guidance of Heaven may continue a happy asylum for our long oppressed race. (1)

While Liberia was a colony, it encompassed nine scattered coastal towns with a population of 2,390. Only 27 percent were locally born, including a few indigenous persons who had adopted Liberian ways. By 1847, African-Americans from southern states were demographically and politically dominant, constituting 4,963 out of 5,602 immigrants to Liberia and providing 11 out of 12 delegates to the Liberian Constitutional Convention. (2) Despite being few in number and having a fragile state, early Liberians possessed an ideology that fueled a sense of mission, as reflected in the lofty pronouncements of Teage and Benedict. This study argues that republicanism, Black Consciousness and an African influenced Christianity formed important elements of a Southern ideology that was evident between 1822, when Liberia was established as a colony of free African Americans, and 1847, when the repatriates declared their independence from the American Colonization Society (ACS). (3)

This study is based on the perspectives of African-American repatriates to Liberia, African colonization and Liberian history, (4) surviving issues of five periodicals that reported intensively on ninteenth-century Liberia, (5) various state papers, including the Liberian Constitution and Declaration of Independence of 1847; letters from African-American repatriates to their relatives, friends and former slave holders in the United States; (6) letters by noted Liberian leaders, including 71 news articles and editorials, seven poems, two sermons, four major speeches and a treatise on self-government by blacks.

Most of the individually authored documents were written by three political leaders: Joseph Jenkins Roberts (1809-1876), who served as the last governor of the Commonwealth of Liberia and as the first president of the republic; John Naustedlau Lewis (1791-1876), who was a council member in the colonial government, secretary to the governor, supervisor of the government warehouse and poor farm, and secretary of state under four presidents; Hilary Teage (1802-1853), who served as colonial secretary, editor of the Liberia Herald newspaper, author of Liberia's Declaration of Independence, senator, attorney general, and secretary of state. (7) Sources were selected on the basis of availability, relevance and reliability. To guard against unconscious or deliberate biases, each document or set of documents was checked against others drawn from different individual, political and institutional sources. The selected documents were subjected to "discourse analysis," meaning the search "to uncover the codes, constructi ons, cultural assumptions, connotations, values, and beliefs embedded in the text by locating correspondences between a text and social structures and identities, noting recurring patterns, such as the repetition of certain themes, phrases, rhetoric, and so on in the discourse. …