Teaching U.S. History with Liberia

Bronwen Everill

Liberian Senate, by Robert K. Griffin, Monrovia, ca. 1856. Courtesy Library of Congress.

I teach American history in Britain, which has given me an education in viewing America from the outside. One thing that always jumps out at me here is the atemporal idea of “The United States” as a nation‒state comparable to a modern European state. Students who approach the American Revolution knowing something about the French Revolution already have a very different way of thinking about the causes and outcomes of the Age of Revolutions than I ever experienced as a student in the U.S. I think this was where part of my idea for thinking comparatively across African and American history really emerged.

The American Revolution was not a foregone conclusion. Neither was the state-building that followed.  I like to point to the “one-party rule” that emerged with the rise of the Democratic-Republicans from 1801—there may have been a robust party system at the local and state level, but outside observers would not have been remiss to question the health of this postcolonial democracy. Or the contingency of the early republic can be illustrated by the “can they, can’t they” of New Jersey women’s right to vote until 1807. Another good example in this vein is the establishment of Liberia.

In our North American history survey—as in many—the role of Liberia is an awkward fit. But several recent articles in the JER can help to frame the position of Liberia in a way that covers a variety of different themes in the U.S. survey: settler colonialism, systemic racism, American national identity, abolitionism, and foreign relations. And using the lens of Liberia can achieve this while centring Black voices as they struggled with these quintessentially American themes.

Take, for instance, Brandon Mills’s 2014 article, which explores the ways that ideas of settler colonialism and territorial expansion infused the Liberian project. In the 1840s and 1850s, territorial expansion was transforming the United States, but until its independence in 1848, Liberia sat uncomfortably within the sphere of U.S. influence without a clear mandate in international law or a formal colonial relationship to define the boundaries of U.S., British, and indigenous Liberian control, as an article by Eugene van Sickle explores.  With independence, Liberia’s settlers were able to define their own national values, including the codification of a racial basis for citizenship, which reflected back onto the U.S. its own white supremacist doctrines.

Or look at Robert Murray’s 2019 article, which explores the repeated transformations of racial identification that took place as people moved between the U.S. and Liberia. There was neither one coherent Black American identity nor an attempt to recover a unified experience of “Africanness” once settlers arrived in Liberia. The article presents clear examples of some of the dilemmas of “double consciousness” articulated by W. E. B. DuBois.

In addition to these readings, there are a lot of available online primary resources for Liberian history, including letter collections from Liberian immigrants and the African Repository, the official newspaper of the American Colonization Society.

The letter collections are great for exploring the ways that Black Americans were articulating their own struggles with questions of belonging, race, and identification with the “American project,” The African Repository is a fairly defensive publication, revealing the level of distrust of the colonization project, as well as highlighting the celebration of American influence abroad, American values as carried to Liberia by the settlers, and the stakes of the debates over racial equality within America.

So how might Liberia be incorporated into a survey, practically? The natural place might be in a discussion of slavery, abolitionism, and (typically) the sectional crisis. Placing an article like Mills’s in discussion with the narrative of Manifest Destiny would offer a good opportunity for a response paper asking students to consider how questions of the racial make-up of the U.S. were at the heart of territorial expansion.

Alternatively, perhaps in a class discussion, looking at the primary sources written by Liberians[1], alongside extracts from Tocqueville[2] and political speeches from the 1830s[3], might help students to think about the creation of national cultural and political identities in the early republic. How are people in this decade thinking about ideas like American democracy and “American civilization”? What are the roles of religion, education, race, material culture, and democracy in the various visions of American identity? Political parties are going to sell a particular vision of America to their voters; Tocqueville is thinking about these concepts as an outsider, contrasting with Europe; how do American emigrants to Liberia engage with or challenge these ideas after they have arrived in West Africa?

In a fast and furious survey of U.S. history, it can be hard to convey the variety of avenues untaken and the false starts in the face of apparently “irrepressible” conflicts like the Civil War, or the relentless and preordained march of “manifest destiny.” But approaching these topics from a slightly oblique angle through the history of Liberian colonization—either as a case study or woven into other thematic discussions—can cast fresh light on some of these themes without conveying a sense of inevitability and from a perspective that illuminates the contradictions baked into the foundation of the country.


Endnotes

[1] For instance, Aaron Davis, The African Repository and Colonial Journal 13‒14 (1837‒1838), 103;  Samson Ceasar to Henry F. Westfall, June 2, 1834;  Mary Michie to Dr. James H. Minor,  Feb. 4, 1857.

[2] For instance, “How the Instruction, the Habits, and the Practical Experience of the Americans Promote the Success of Their Democratic Institutions,” in Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. Part the Second, Part the Second (New York: J. & H.G. Langley, 1840).

[3] For example, Andrew Jackson’s farewell address in 1837.

15 July 2020

About the Author

Bronwen Everill is 1973 Lecturer in History at Gonville & Caius College, University of Cambridge.

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