In the 1820s and 1830s the preferred approach to the slavery question among antislavery Columbians was not immediate abolition but colonization – that is gradually ending slavery and encouraging or requiring the freed slaves (and blacks already free) to leave the country. The Manumission Society had not coupled calls for abolition with any plan for the removal of blacks from New York State or the country. Its members assumed that blacks who gained their freedom would remain in the United States as a laboring class. But the formation of the American Colonization Society (ACS) in 1816 marked a dramatic shift in discourse about slavery. Colonization became the respectable approach to the problem of slavery, attracting support from leading politicians across the political spectrum – from James Monroe to Henry Clay and, later, Abraham Lincoln. It promised a gradual, peaceful process that would rid the country of slavery, with the consent of slaveholders, and of the rapidly growing free black population. Unfortunately for the aspirations of colonizationists, nearly all free blacks rejected this policy. They insisted that they had a right to remain in the United States and enjoy the same rights as other Americans. They charged that by describing blacks as a dangerous, degraded population that could never achieve equality in this country, colonizationists exacerbated the very racism that they claimed made abolition without removal impossible.[i]
The formation of the American Colonization Society was followed by the creation of a series of auxiliary organizations in New York City. These aimed to raise money for the parent group and spread the colonization message. The movement attracted support from prominent New Yorkers, including a succession of mayors and governors. From the outset, Columbians played a prominent role. The New-York Auxiliary Colonization Society, founded in 1817, held its initial meeting in the office of Mayor John Radcliffe, a Columbia trustee (and, at least until 1810, a slaveowner). Its president was Henry Rutgers, a wealthy 1766 graduate of King’s who went on to a political career in the early republic, owned five slaves in 1800, three in 1810, and as late as 1823, in his will, provided for the support of “the negro wench slave named Hannah, being superannuated.” John Murray, Jr., a Columbia trustee, was one of the vice-presidents, and Dr. John Beck, an 1813 graduate and later a trustee, the recording secretary. One of the managers was John Griscom, a Professor of Chemistry at Columbia, who took an “active interest for many years” in colonization. Shortly before his death, he forwarded two large boxes of books to a school in Liberia. Other founding members included John B. Romeyn, Class of 1795 and a trustee, who owned two slaves as late as 1810, and Alexander McLeod, an 1818 graduate of the college.[ii]
Every college president in New England, New York, and New Jersey endorsed the movement, including William A. Duer, Columbia’s president from 1829 to 1842. Duer’s family had long-standing connections to slavery. His grandfather owned a large slave plantation in Antigua and his father, William Duer, a revolutionary-era patriot, an estate in Rhinebeck on the Hudson River until various banking and land schemes landed him in debtor’s prison. William A. Duer became a lawyer, member of the state assembly, and judge on the state Supreme Court. Into the nineteenth century, he owned slaves, but he also signed a petition to Congress calling for abolition of the slave trade. When the Colonization Society of the City of New York was founded in 1830, Duer, by now at the helm of Columbia, became its president. The Society’s first publication, which carried Duer’s signature, acknowledged the wrongs done to blacks in the United States but warned that the most pressing problem facing the nation was growth of “a numerous free population of a distinct and inferior race” in its large cities. This led to a spirited response from a public meeting of black New Yorkers. “We claim this country, the place of our birth, and not Africa,” they declared, “as our mother country.” They denounced the Society and Duer for deepening prejudice and unfairly denigrating the city’s black community.[iii]
Duer resigned as president of the society in 1838 because his Columbia duties left him with little free time. Before that, however, he presided at numerous public meetings to support the idea of colonization and raise funds for the ACS and for a settlement in Liberia the New York group was planning in cooperation with Philadelphia colonizationists. Like other advocates of colonization, Duer denounced the immediate abolitionist movement. A bitter divide existed between radical abolitionists, black and white, who insisted that slaves should not only be speedily freed but should become equal members of American society, and advocates of colonization. Colonizationists played a major role in New York’s anti-black, anti-abolitionist riot of 1834, and many opposed efforts to promote black education on the grounds that it would make blacks less likely to leave the United States. At the annual meeting of the New York Society in 1835, Duer insisted that by causing “resentment and alarm” among white southerners, abolitionism set back the cause of the “gradual extinction of slavery,” since nothing could be achieved “without the consent and cooperation of the South.”[iv]
Duer also promoted his views in a series of works on “constitutional jurisprudence” designed as textbooks for college lecturers. The first, which appeared in 1833, said almost nothing about slavery. The second, published ten years later, mentioned that slave labor was less efficient than free labor, and then turned to a vigorous denunciation of the abolitionists, “zealots” who, “with the blindness of ignorance, the virulence of bigotry ... and madness of fanaticism,” had seriously retarded the work of ending slavery. In 1856, as the sectional crisis accelerated, Duer published a new edition that praised the American Colonization Society and opposed the westward expansion of slavery. But again, his strongest language was directed against abolitionists, “who, with the blindness of ignorance and fanaticism, denounce all who refuse to cooperate in their impracticable schemes.” Presumably, he meant advocates of colonization like himself.[v]
Along with Duer, numerous other Columbians were connected to the colonization societies of New York City and New York State. They included, among officers, the rev. Gardiner Spring, a trustee, and graduates Alexander Proudift, Hugh Maxwell, John W. Mulligan, and Garbriel Disosway. Rev. Jonathan Wainwright, a Columbia trustee and “member for life” of the American Colonization Society, delivered sermons insisting that abolition without colonization would lead to “the immediate destruction of the white population.” A number of faculty were also involved in the colonization movement at one time or another, including Professor of Hebrew Language and Literature Samuel Turner, Professor of Chemistry Charles Chandler, and Professor of Mathematics and Science John Kemp.[vi]
Other Columbians also attacked the abolitionist movement. Chemistry Professor James Renwick, who wrote political biographies on the side, in 1841 published a life of John Jay that carefully distinguished Jay’s belief in gradual emancipation from the views of “the modern abolitionists.” Jay, Renwick insisted, did not “deny the abstract right of holding slaves” or call for an “exertion of authority by the federal government” against slavery, and “avoided any attempt at agitation in those States where the condition of society had not prepared them for the measure.” In short, Jay was “a sound statesman,” not “a fanatic and disorganizer.” Jay’s son William, himself a prominent abolitionist, condemned Renwick’s account as a distortion of his father’s views, attributing it to the “cupidity” of the publisher, Harper and Brothers, anxious to market the book in the South.[vii]
[i]. Foner, Gateway, 52-54.
[ii]. Sarah Schutz, “‘Africa’s Glory and America’s Hope’: Columbia’s Involvement in the African Colonization Movement,” Seminar Paper, Columbia and Slavery, Spring 2015, 2; Eli Seifman, A History of the New York State Colonization Society (New York, 1966), 50-52; Craig S. Wilder, “‘Driven ... from the School of the Prophets’: The Colonisationist Ascendance at the General Theological Seminary,” New York History, 93 (Summer 2012), 167; “Henry Rutgers,” Columbia University Quarterly, 11 (March 1909), 189; Manumission Certificate, John R. Murray, American Historical Manuscripts Collection, New-York Historical Society; John H. Griscom, Memoir of John Griscom (New York, 1859), 320-21.
[iii].Wilder, Ebony and Ivy, 265, 270, 402n.; African Repository, 5 (January 1830), 341-42; Resolutions of the People of Color at a Meeting Held ... 25th January 1831 (New York, 1831), 4-8.
[iv]. African Repository, 8 (April 1832), 60; 9 (October 1833), 47; 11 (January 1835), 14, (June 1835), 186, (July 1835), 214; 14 (May 1838), 145; Leonard Richards, Gentlemen of Property and Standing: Anti-Abolition Mobs in Jacksonian America (New York, 1970), 77; Proceedings of the Colonization Society of the City of New York (New York, 1835), 4.
[v]. William A. Duer, Outlines of the Constitutional Jurisprudence of the United States (New York, 1833); William A. Duer, A Course of Lectures on the Constitutional Jurisprudence of the United States; Delivered Annually in Columbia College, New York (New York, 1843), 210; William A. Duer A Course of Lectures on the Constitutional Jurisprudence of the United States: Delivered Annually in Columbia College (2d ed. Boston, 1856), 266-74.
[vi]. Schutz, “‘Africa’s Glory,” 3-6, 17-23; African Repository, 11 (July 1835), 221; National Anti-Slavery Standard, January 14, 1854; Seifman, Colonization Society, 96-106.
[vii]. Frank Leslie’s Weekly, January 31, 1863; Liberator, February 19, 1841.