The ACS had its origins in 1816, when a Presbyterian minister, Rev. Robert Finlay, suggested at the inaugural meeting of an African Society that a colony be established in Africa that was to take freed slaves deported from the United States.
Beginning in the 1830s, the society was harshly attacked by abolitionists, who tried to discredit colonization as a slaveholder's scheme and the American Colonization Society as merely palliative propaganda for the contination of slavery in the United States. The presidents of the ACS tended to be southerners, it is true. The first president of the ACS was ex-president James Monroe of Virgina, for whom Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, was renamed. Henry Clay of Kentucky was ACS president from 1836 to 1849.
The ACS did not intend to purchase the freedom of American slaves and pay their passage to Liberia as is sometimes imagined. Emigration was offered to free black Americans. For many years the ACS tried to persuade the United States Congress to appropriate funds to send colonists to Liberia. Although Henry Clay led the campaign, it failed. The society did, however, succeed in its appeals to some state legislatures. In 1850, Virginia set aside $30,000 annually for five years to aid and support emigration. In its Thirty-Fourth Annual Report, the society acclaimed the news as "a great Moral demonstration of the propriety and necessity of state action!" During the 1850s, the society also received several thousand dollars from the New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Missouri, and Maryland legislatures.
Jehudi Ashmun, an early leader of the American Colonization Society colony envisioned an American empire in Africa. During 1825 and 1826, Ashmun took steps to lease, annex, or buy tribal lands along the coast and along major rivers leading inland. Like his predecessor Lt. Robert Stockton, who in 1821 established the site for Monrovia by persuading a local chief referred to as "King Peter" to sell Cape Montserado (or Mesurado) by pointing a pistol at his head, Ashmun was prepared to use force to extend the colony's territory. His aggressive actions quickly increased Liberia's power over its neighbors. In a treaty of May 1825 deposited by the ACS in the U.S. Library of Congress, King Peter and other native kings agreed to sell land in return for 500 bars of tobacco, three barrels of rum, five casks of powder, five umbrellas, ten iron posts, and ten pairs of shoes, among other items.
In March 1825, the ACS began a quarterly, The African Repository and Colonial Journal, edited by Ralph Randolph Gurley (1797-1872), who headed the Society until 1844. Conceived as the Society's propaganda organ, the Repository promoted both colonization and Liberia. Among the items printed were articles about Africa, letters of praise, official dispatches stressing the prosperity and steady growth of the colony, information about emigrants, and lists of donors.
The Society controlled the formation of Liberia until 1847 when, under the perception that the British might annex the settlement, Liberia was proclaimed a free and independent state, and provided with a constitution that was said to be fashioned after the American model. By 1867, the Society had sent more than 13,000 emigrants. After the Civil War, when many blacks wanted to go to Liberia, financial support for colonization had waned. During its later years the society focussed on educational and missionary efforts in Liberia rather than emigration.
In 1913 and at its dissolution in 1964, the society donated its records to the Library of Congress. The material contains a wealth of information about the foundation of the society, its role in establishing Liberia, efforts to manage and defend the colony, fund-raising, recruitment of settlers, and the way in which black settlers built and led the new nation.