New Research

The World Colonization Made: The Racial Geography of Early American Empire – Dr. Brandon Mills

By Dr. Brandon Mills

In 1821, a group of private citizens from the United States, supported by the U.S. Navy, founded a settlement on the west coast of Africa. In this location, the colony of Liberia would grow into an independent republic by 1847, a process which violently displaced the region’s indigenous peoples. The white Americans who supported this effort claimed that this colony would become a place where both free and formerly enslaved African Americans from the United States could come and establish their own society modelled on U.S. republican ideals. This movement thrived during a time when the United States remained a relatively weak and economically undeveloped country with little international power or influence. So, how do we account for the creation of such a colony?

U.S. historians have tended to focus on two interrelated angles for understanding the significance of Liberia and the movement which led to its creation. Many have emphasized how colonizationism functioned as a “moderate” anti-slavery position: it was supported by whites who desired to see an eventual end to slavery but could not envision African Americans remaining as citizens within the United States. Others have emphasized how it became a focus of political organization for free African Americans living in the North, who rejected the movement’s racist assumptions and influenced white abolitionists to distinguish themselves from colonizationists. However, in looking at this topic primarily through the lens of slavery and anti-slavery, historians have often overlooked equally compelling questions, such as:Why did so many Americans feel that such a settlement made sense in the first place? How was the colony shaped by the ways that the United States was then rapidly colonizing Native American lands and excluding African Americans from citizenship on those lands?How did plans for such colonies shift alongside the early United States’ approach towards empire building? 

My book, The World Colonization Made: The Racial Geography of Early American Empire, attempts to answer these questions by situating the creation of Liberia within a much broader constellation of ideas within the early United States. It traces how the colonization movement intersected with debates concerning racialized citizenship rights, foreign policy objectives, strategies of settler colonization, and visions of economic expansion. I argue that the ideology of this movement, or “colonizationism,” as it was often called, gained traction, in part, because it allowed white Americans to conceptualize evolving geographic boundaries and racial justifications for their nation’s imperial expansion, in North America and beyond. My book uses colonizationism as a lens for examining how the United States simultaneously fashioned itself as both an expansive racial settler state and an incipient global empire.

To illustrate, let me turn to a map from my book which shows many of the suggested locations for African American colonies from 1770s through the 1860s.

While Liberia proved to be the most sustained and successful of these proposals, this map reveals a wide range of regions encompassing a vast geographic scope. The fact that it includes sites both within and beyond current U.S. borders, begs questions like: Why were many of these colonies abandoned and eventually claimed for settlement by white Americans? Alternatively, why didn’t Liberia become a U.S. state? More fundamentally, it raises the question: what place did African Americans have in the United States’ shifting conception of its empire? This suggests a story of contestation over how the United States was geographically configured and how that configuration was explained in racial terms. My book traces this evolution during the century following the founding of the United States, but I also suggest how they helped lay the groundwork for the nation’s increasingly global expansion in the coming century.

By proposing that African Americans, who were violently enslaved and politically disenfranchised during this period, could settle colonies that might serve as proxies for U.S. institutions and interests, colonizationism offered a framework for self-government that upheld, and even harnessed, racial hierarchies. This allowed white Americans to support a deeply compromised vision of political sovereignty for racially marginalized populations. In doing so, such an idea moved beyond the notion of merely colonizing territory and towards using nominally independent states governed by non-white peoples to further U.S. objectives. Such a vision of empire would only become more relevant as the United States expanded its reach in subsequent decades, long after the colonization movement was a distant memory.

Dr. Brandon Mills teaches in the Department of History at the University of Colorado Denver.

The World Colonization Made: The Racial Geography of Early American Empire is available now through the University of Pennsylvania Press: