"We Feel Sadly the Effects": America's Civil War, Colonization, and Liberia's Struggle to Build Up a Nation

Beth Garcia

Advisor: Yevette Richards Jordan, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Jane Hooper, Wendi Manuel-Scott, Randolph Scully

Online Location, Online
August 06, 2020, 01:00 PM to 03:00 PM


This dissertation explores the impact of the American Civil War on the Liberian nation-building project. While the American Civil War serves as an end point in most studies of colonization and the making of Liberia, this dissertation argues that the war was a pivotal moment in the Liberian nation-building project, a moment when conflicting ideas about how to build up a nation were most forcefully articulated as colonizationists and Liberians competed to define the Liberian nation.

While most African Americans rejected colonization as a ploy to secure slavery, on the eve of America’s war, nearly 13,000 had settled in Liberia. Though shrouded in the pretext of building up an African nationality, Liberia, at mid-century, remained a nation of African American emigrants. Founded on Western tenets of Christianity and civilization that effectively excluded the majority indigenous population, the infant republic would endure only so long as emigration from America continued.  Thus, when America’s war erupted and emigration virtually ceased, those invested in building up an African American republic were forced to rethink their Liberian project. Though a failed attempt to secure federal colonization funds and an unsuccessful experiment in Barbadian emigration seemed to foretell the end of the Liberian project, the racial violence and economic desperation that America’s newly-freed men and women confronted turned many towards emigration. However, as the American Colonization Society (ACS) began to land these emigrants in Liberia by the hundreds, Liberians pleaded that no more such emigrants be sent. Utterly destitute by condition of enslavement and thrown upon the struggling west African nation with no means of support, their suffering convinced Liberians that more was needed than African American population to build up a nation. Against pleas for increased emigrant aid and support for education, the ACS continued to send out shipload after shipload of destitute freedmen, upholding race as the sole determinant of nation.

With the ACS recommitted to emigration, Liberians turned inward after the American Civil War to the hundreds of thousands of indigenous peoples that had long been excluded from their nation-building efforts. However, unwilling to abandon the tenets of classical black nationalism upon which they had built up their young nation, Liberians did not extend any meaningful terms of inclusion. Rather, they would continue their nation-building project for another century until Liberia’s own civil war finally dismantled the remnants of the colonization project.

Despite its enduring connection to the United States, Liberia is notably absent from Civil War historiography. While this dissertation adds to recent historiography by expanding the geographic boundaries of Civil War scholarship, it also reveals much about how African Americans understood freedom and how they envisioned both the American and Liberian nation. Ultimately, this is a study of nationalism. In examining the impact of America’s Civil War on Liberia, it explores the ways that various nationalisms coexisted and competed in the struggle to build up the Liberian nation.