By the early nineteenth century, the emancipation of slaves in the northern states and the outlawing of the African slave trade nourished the optimistic view that slavery was a dying institution. In 1787 the Continental Congress barred slavery from the Old Northwest. The number of slaves freed by their masters in the upper South rose dramatically during the 1780s and 1790s. By 1804, nine states north of Maryland and Delaware had either freed their slaves or adopted gradual emancipation plans. Both the United States and Britain in 1808 outlawed the African slave trade. In 1791, a religious leader predicted that within fifty years it will "be as shameful for a man to hold a Negro slave, as to be guilty of common robbery or theft."
Yet a belief that blacks and whites could not coexist as free and equal citizens encouraged futile efforts at deportation and overseas colonization. In 1817, a group of prominent ministers and politicians formed the American Colonization Society to resettle free blacks in West Africa. Many of these colonizationists were confident that a successful colony of free black settlers in Africa would encourage planters to voluntarily emancipate their slaves, and create a group of black missionaries who would spread Christianity in Africa. In this way, colonizationists hoped not only to end slavery but to expiate the nation's guilt.
With some aid from federal and state governmetns the Colonization Society sent a party of blacks to the British colony of Sierra Leone, and beginning in 1822, to the newly founded colony of Liberia. The colonzation project was bitterly opposed, however, by many American free blacks and by slaveholders in the Deep South, who saw the American Colonization Society as a Trojan Horse for abolitionists. Deprived of significant federal support in the late 1820s, and viciously attacked by radical abolitionists in the 1830s, colonization remained a kind of vague ideal which attracted disillusioned black leaders in the 1850s, and which still appealed to Abraham Lincoln early in the Civil War.
Soon after the commencement of the present session of Congress the expediency of colonizing free people of colour became a subject of consideration with many gentlemen of respectability from the different states. The propriety of such a measure could it be carried into effect, was generally admitted. It was thought that a design of such importance so intimately connected with the best interest of the citizens of the U. States, and promising at the same time to improve and meliorate that class of the community for which provision was to be made, should not be abandoned without a vigorous effort to carry it into execution.
The formation of a colonization society was therefore proposed.... The following preamble and resolution were approved by the House of Delegates of [Virginia]....
Whereas the General assembly of Virginia have repeatedly sought to obtain an asylum, beyond the limits of the United States, for such persons of color, as have been, or might be, emancipated under the laws of this commonwealth, but have hitherto found all their efforts frustrated, either by the disturbed state of other nations, or domestic causes equally unpropitious to its success.
They now avail themselves of a period when peace has healed the wounds of humanity, and the principal nations of Europe have concurred, with the government of the U. States, in abolishing the African slave trade, (a traffic, which this commonwealth, both before and since the revolution, zealously sought to terminate) to renew this effort....
[Henry] Clay said...that class, of the mixt population of our country was in a peculiar situation. They neither enjoyed the immunities of freemen, nor were they subject to the incapacities of slaves, but partook in some degree of the qualities of both. From their condition, and the unconquerable prejudices resulting from their color, they never could amalgamate with the free whites of this country. It was desirable, therefore, both as it respected them, and the residue of the population of the country, to drain them off. Various schemes of colonization had been thought of, and a part of our own continent, it was thought by some, might furnish a suitable establishment for them. But for his part Mr. Clay said he had a decided preference for some part of the coast of Africa. There ample provision might be made for the colony itself, and it might be rendered instrument to the introduction, into that extensive part of the globe, of the arts, civilization and Christianity. There was a peculiar, a moral fitness in restoring them to the lands of their fathers. And if, instead of the evils and sufferings which we had been the innocent cause of inflicting upon the inhabitants of Africa, we can transmit to her the blessings of our arts, our civilization and our religion, may we not hope that America will extinguish a great portion of that moral debt which she has contracted to that unfortunate continent?