Reconfiguring the Old South: Solving the Problem of Slavery, 1787–1838

Teaching the Article
Exercise 3

American Colonization Society

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Taking advantage of the wave of nationalism that swept the country following the War of 1812, supporters of a state-approved and federally assisted program to colonize ex-slaves and other free blacks outside the United States wasted no time pushing their cause. In 1816 the Virginia Federalist Charles Fenton Mercer won the support of Francis Scott Key, one of the nation’s leading lawyers, and others for the formation of a national voluntary association, the American Colonization Society (acs), to spearhead the work.

Initially, the acs received a warm reception in the upper South. An impressive array of upper South slaveholders attended the organizational meeting in December 1816, and its founding members included Henry Clay, John Randolph, and William Bland Lee. Bushrod Washington, George Washington’s nephew, was elected the society’s first president. Soon the names of other prominent Virginians, including James Madison, John Marshall, and James Monroe, appeared on the society’s membership rolls. Moreover, prominent upper South politicians gave the acs rhetorical and financial support for many years. Local acs auxiliaries appeared with some frequency in the region, and in 1816 the Virginia legislature quietly endorsed the idea of colonizing free blacks.

Over time, however, the Missouri debates of 1820–1821 and the Denmark Vesey insurrection scare of 1822 turned lower South whites into fierce critics of the acs and triggered a new wariness of the organization in the upper South. In August 1825 John White Nash, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates from a slave-majority county in the Old Dominion’s eastern Piedmont, began publishing a series of anticolonization essays in the Richmond Enquirer under the pseudonym “Caius Gracchus.” Nash expressed an increasingly common sentiment among southern slaveholders, namely, that the acs had become a “repository of all the fanatical spirits in the country” and a “viper . . . whose sting is to poison every source of domestic quietude, and to wrap our country in misery.”


  1. What arguments did Caius Gracchus advance against the acs in his 1825 polemics?
    1. Caius Gracchus [John White Nash], “To the President and Members of the Auxiliary Colonization Society recently established in Powhatan County,” Richmond Enquirer, Aug. 19, 1825.
  2. How did the Virginia native Jesse Burton Harrison try to defend the colonization movement against attacks like that of Caius Gracchus?
    1. Remarks of Jesse Burton Harrison, “Annual Meeting of the American Colonization Society,” African Repository and Colonial Journal, 3 (Jan. 1828), 331–37.
  3. What does the letter by the white southerner Benjamin M. Palmer tell you about popular attitudes toward slavery and colonization in the lower South in the 1820s?
    1. Benjamin M. Palmer (Charleston) to Robert R. Gurley, president of the acs, April 8, 1827, American Colonization Society Papers, Library of Congress.

Further Reading