Click to enlarge:
A rare blank membership certificate, signed in advance by the Society’s President. It would have conferred a life membership in the controversial American Colonization Society, which advocated gradual manumission of slaves and colonization of freed blacks to Liberia.
Signed membership certificates from the Society are relatively rare. Only four have appeared in major auction records in the last 30 years. According to the Library of Congress, “Selling life memberships was a standard fund-raising practice of benevolent societies such as the American Colonization Society. At thirty dollars each, the memberships were a popular gift for ministers. In 1825, one of the agents who sold the certificates in New England estimated that ‘not less than $50,000 have in this way been poured into the treasury of the Lord.’”
This is a superb artifact of antebellum America. It marks the commitment of the “Father of the Constitution” to a solution to the race dilemma that would be castigated today, but which was moderate for its time. JAMES MADISON.
Document Signed. “Office of the Colonization Society.”
Washington, [ca. 1833-1836]. With Society’s seal engraved at bottom center (a ship sailing towards Liberia, with Latin motto “Lex in Tenebris”
– light amid darkness). 1 p., 8¼ x 11⅛ in.
Office of the Colonization Society
This certifies that ______________ is a Member for life of the
AMERICAN COLONZATION SOCIETY.
Lux in Tenebris
Am Col: Soc: A.D. 1816.
The A.C.S. was founded in 1816 as the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color of the United States. Its mission was to promote the voluntary manumission of slaves by their owners, and to remove free blacks from the United States and relocate them to the African colony of Liberia.
Madison, James Monroe, Bushrod Washington, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Andrew Jackson and Francis Scott Key were among the luminaries who lent their names to the A.C.S. Most A.C.S. members were slaveowners from the upper South, like Madison, Monroe, Clay, and Jackson. The animating ideas behind it – that slavery was evil, but that whites and free blacks could never live together in peace – long predated its inception. Thomas Jefferson himself urged the removal of blacks when he wrote his Notes on the State of Virginia in 1782. He and Madison hated slavery, for its effect on the economy, for its psychological impact on white youths, and for its injustice, but they shared a nightmare vision of an America torn apart by race. As Jefferson predicted, “Deep-rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained ... will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions, which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.”
Madison joined the A.C.S. in 1816, but he had written a “Memorandum on an African Colony for Freed Slaves” in 1789. He justified his position in a letter to the Marquis de Lafayette, explaining that “the two races cannot co-exist, both being free and equal. The great sina qua non, therefore, is some external asylum for the coloured race.” (Ketchum, James Madison, 628). Historian Drew McCoy writes that “Madison’s antislavery motives … are unimpeachable. He never supported colonization because he wanted to deport free blacks; he consistently supported it because he wanted to eradicate slavery. And since his analysis never explicitly led to the conclusion that blacks were inherently deficient or inferior [as it had for Jefferson], perhaps it is misleading to consider his formal position, in any meaningful sense of the term, ‘racist.”
With a $100,000 bequest from Congress, the first boatload of settlers arrived in Liberia in 1822. The capital of Liberia – Monrovia – was named after James Monroe, U.S. President at the time and a member of A.C.S. Most voluntary emigrants fell victim to diseases within months of their arrival. Only about 2,600 blacks made the journey over the next decade. No more than 15,000 did so over the life of the Society.
Madison became president of the A.C.S. in 1833, three years before his death, and a few months after Nat Turner’s Revolt frightened the Virginia planter class, and with it, the state legislature, into its last antebellum flirtation with abolition. It was assumed by some that Virginia would take the leadership of the South in finally passing a bill for gradual emancipation, but they did not. In fact, Nat Turner’s Revolt helped to harden the attitudes of Southern whites, leading to the development of more open defenses of slavery as a positive good. Around the time of Madison’s death, Southerners in Congress began to enforce the “gag rule,” outlawing the reading of abolitionist petitions on the floor of Congress.
Despite the inability of abolitionists to achieve political success at either the national or state level, the vision of colonization persisted into the Civil War Era. Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant each briefly toyed with colonization schemes during their own presidencies. Only in 1964 did America finally reject the idea of separatism in favor of full legal equality. For it was in that year that Congress passed and Lyndon Johnson signed into law landmark civil rights legislation. Not coincidentally, that same year, the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color of the United States finally dissolved its charter.
Christie’s Seller’s Description, 12 June 2008.
Ketcham, Ralph. James Madison, A Biography (Charlottesville, 1990), pp. 627-629.
McCoy, Drew. The Last of the Fathers: James Madison and the Republican Legacy
(Cambridge, 1989), pp. 271-286.