The Success And Failure Of The American Colonization Society In Eric Burin's Slavery And The Peculiar Solution Essay Samples

Type of paper: Essay

Topic: Slavery, Colonialism, Colonization, Organization, City, Town, Urbanization, Slave

Pages: 4

Words: 1100

Published: 2020/10/18

In Slavery and the Peculiar Solution: A History of the American Colonization Society, Eric Burin discusses the role and the impact of the American Colonization Society (ACS) on slavery, from two perspectives. The first one would be the effect of the movement on black bondage, assessed by panoramically analyzing the crusade of the colonists. The second one would be the activities of the ACS, assessed by the way they were played out locally (p. 2). Throughout the seven chapters, the author presents the ACS development, its impact on slavery, the mannumitters' motivations, the negotiations between the slaves and their masters in anticipation of the upcoming freedom (colonization), the predominant northern funding of the organization, regional and local responses to the organization's manumissions, resulting legal battles, as well as the consequences of the freed slaves' reporting about Liberia living conditions.
Burin engages in a detailed analysis of the organization's records in order to put together a comprehensive database on manumissions and the Liberian emigrants, and enriches this data with that taken from family papers and letters of manumitters and manumittees alike. He portrays both the white colonists from in the South and their interaction with the black, both locally and personally. It is maybe the first time in the ACS history when the focus is on manumitters as individuals, on how they think and how they interact with their slaves, and Burin succeeds to present everything in a completely new light.
Previous works covering the ACS focused on the organization's failure at providing significant changes in the southern society, since they managed to colonize less than 1% of the blacks in America. While acknowledging their failure, Burin argues that they played a fundamental role in the national debates that preceded the war, "destabilizing slavery" (p. 5). For him, the movement profoundly shaped that time's debates related to race, slavery and freedom (p. 167).
Burin supports the history of the ACS with small, detailed local evidence, which is a completely new investigation approach and justifies his conclusion regarding the organization's contribution at slavery destabilization. His research seems to be just the first step, the trendsetter in investigating the ACS history at a local level.
While the author does deliver on his promise to expose the organization's activity at a local level, the local evidence he provides is extensive but does not spotlight a single place. It may have been helpful to see Burin's data contextualized, enriched with comprehensive case studies, to show in detail how the organization's officials, the manumitters, the slaves, the free blacks and the public opinion influencers interacted in a specific place over time.
For example, the author argues that the increasing number of removal laws adopted in the southern states after 1840 and the North's improved legislation against immigration caused a rise in the number of ACS manumissions. According to him, if slave owners could have previously permitted that their former slaves remain in the area, they now had no other alternative but to send them to Africa (p. 45). While this may have happened, Burin's assessment is not accurate without specific mapping. In Virginia, for example, the removal act was passed in 1806, no less than 35 years before the mentioned spike.
The historian also argues that ACS manumissions were made regularly in some rural counties in Virginia, since successive companies exited from the same area throughout time (p. 109). Dinwiddie County, the leader, registered no less than 16 departures between 1820 and 1860. The rest of the counties had 10 departures or fewer throughout this period. Burin acknowledges that the low departure rate fails at proving the ACS omnipresence, but he does not extrapolate, he makes no distinction between the various counties. This leaves room for questions as to whether all counties shares demographic similarities and were all predominantly rural.
Let us take Dinwiddie County as an example: around 1860, 42 % of its population were slaves, 6 % of the whites were slave owners and 19 % of these whites owned at least 10 slaves. However, one cannot neglect Dinwiddie County's proximity to Petersburg, a city with an impressive free blacks population. Other counties bordering urban areas were Frederick (close to Winchester), Campbell (close to Lynchburg) and Spotsylvania (close to Fredericksburg). Did their proximity to the free blacks urban areas have no impact on their demographics?
Another intriguing part in Burin's book is his discussion of the Nat Turner rebellion in Virginia, of the legislation flurry following 1831. It is difficult to grasp how state-appropriated funds for colonization were distributed or how restriction and removal were enforced at a local level. Perhaps an analysis of the 1833 colonization censuses mandated by the state of Virginia would have made things more clear.
Burin agrees with the ideas Ira Berlin expresses in Slaves Without Masters arguing that the communities acceptance of manumission was closely influenced by the frequency of the transactions (p. 101). Starting from his research on Virginia, where over 1/3 of the ACS manumissions took place, he argues that, even though the urban areas in the east saw the highest manumission rates, the rural areas saw the highest ACS manumission rates (p. 36). There were 186 ACS emancipators in Virginia, freeing and colonizing 2,214 ex-slaves, while 1,230 free blacks joined the Liberian emigration, and over 60% of them took place in rural areas.
Buring argues that the differences between the rural and the urban areas appeared because, while urban slaves were not willing to give up the independence and the facilities that city life offered and did not find emigration to Liberia appealing, their attitude helped boost ACS activities in the rural areas (p. 36). The urban areas were the ones where the negative effects of colonization on slaves were denunciated. The newspapers in the urban South published long articles condemning the colonization and the ACS (114-115). This opposition to the ACS actions may have been the main reason for missionaries to focus on the rural areas.
Burin consider that the emigrations made possible by the ACS between 1820 and 1860 demonstrate the organization's success at destabilizing slavery. However, a different interpretation is possible: the ACS activities and the emigration they made possible and desirable may have actually supported slavery. The slaveowners' decision of freeing slaves and have them move to Liberia may have been just a reaction to the uprising slavery related crisis and an strategy to consolidate the organization. These powerful whites witnessed northern abolitionists conspiring to eliminate slavery, and the ACS provided them with a solution to protect their interests. As Burin himself shows, 40 % of the 1820-1860 emigrants were not slaves, but free blacks. The remaining 60% were ex-slaves whose freedom depended on their acceptance of emigrating to Liberia. Although they had completely different intentions, the ACS actually helped with the removal of the free blacks from the slave society, accentuating the differences between the black slaves and the white citizens even further. The organization made it possible for slaveowners to free slaves without raising the number of the free blacks and without weakening the institution that slavery was. But, leaving interpretations aside, numbers speak, and, despite the efforts of the ACS, extremely few blacks, free or slaves, emigrated to Liberia.
Burin's research serves to underline the weakness of the colonization plan compared to the deeply rooted slave system in which slaveowners enjoyed high social influence and could mould their own reality, one in which freeing slaves was not a threat to slavery. Colonization failed to reach its goal even among the free blacks in the rural areas, who considered it a "bittersweet fruit", but not sweet enough (p. 159). It would not be far from the truth to say that the ACS and their efforts were partially shaped by the ongoing national debate on race, slavery and freedom that followed 1820, as well as by the culture of personalism shared by the blacks and whites in rural areas, who favored the face-to-face relationships.
Burin argues that rural manumissions destabilized slave control and increased slaves' rebelliousness. In turn, it prejudiced the proslavery whites, who saw the free blacks crossing their neighborhoods as an abomination (p. 109). Both the whites and the blacks in the countryside had embraces a deep personal culture favoring face-to-face interactions. The strangers mobs passing by fascinated and frightened them at the same time. They may have had the same reaction to the ACS missionaries, often perceived as unknown, or questionable reputation and unworthy of trust. They may have been more concerned about the strangeness, and foreignness of the missionaries that about their real goals, and this very culture may have negatively influenced the outcome of the ACS efforts.
Leaving potential questions and interpretations, aside, Eric Burin's impressive research and innovative perspective will make a great starting point for researchers ready to cross the invisible lines set by the writings of some ACSociety officials. Slavery and the Peculiar Solution enables readers to enrich statistics and official records with more traditional social history evidence and will provide captivate anyone with an interest in colonization with the thorough research it relies on and the exciting and intriguing questions it proposes.


Burin, Eric. Slavery And The Peculiar Solution. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2005. Print.

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