Liberia was founded as the first free African country by a small group of freed slaves and three members of the ACS. As with any relatively new country Liberia has had to deal with many issues. In my paper I will look at the economic, political and religious origins of Liberia and how they continue to affect the country today.
The Background of Liberia
The history of Liberia begins with the founding of the American Colonization Society (ACS) in 1816. The ACS, which was made up of mostly Quakers and slaveholders who lived in Washington, D.C. Both groups felt that free slaves should be returned to Africa. (Johnston). The Quakers because they felt that slavery was wrong, and they felt that the freed slaves had an opportunity for a better life living in Africa than remaining in America. They also believed that by sending freed slaves back to Africa Christianity would spread. The slaveholders only wished to send the slaves back to Africa as a way to avoid a slave rebellion. Even though many abolitionists disapproved of the undertaking. The ACS sent a couple of representatives West Africa in 1818 to scout the area for land on which to establish the new colony. They faced opposition from local tribe leaders who were unwilling to sell them any land (Johnston).
In 1820 a group of 88 free African-American settlers along with three members of ACS sailed for Sierra Leone. Before departing a constitution was signed stating that the settlement must be run by a member of the ACS under the laws of the United States government. Large number of the of the group succumbed to malaria before reaching their destination (Johnston). In 1821, Lieutenant Robert Stockton of the U.S Navy acquired a parcel of land from a local tribe leader. The survivors who had been living on the island of Scherbo on the West coast of Africa relocated to the newly acquired territory (Johnston). Soon after a large number of African Americans joined them. Due to the continual attacks on the colony by the indigenous tribes. In 1824 the settlers erected walls around their city for protection. Also in 1824 the colony was given the name Liberia and Monrovia was named its capital (Johnston)
The Political Structure of Early Liberia
Between 1822-1867 the ACS repatriated 19,000 freed slaves to Liberia (Johnston). The colonists first settled in Cape Mezurado, which later became known as Monrovia. In 1847 the men and women who had repatriated to Liberia declared their independence from the United States. Thus creating the first republic in Africa, and the only modern black state after Haiti (Johnston). During this time the Liberians created a written constitution, which like the United States constitution divides the political power among the judicial, legislative and executive branches. The President was elected for two years and the members of the House of Representatives for two years, while the Senators held office for four years.
This changed in 1986 when the Constitution was amended. As a result of this amendment in the constitution the “President and Vice-President now serve a term of four years, House of Representatives four years and the Senate for six years. The President and the members of the House are elected by the people” (Ellis). The only hindrance to voting is property qualification (Ellis). The President appoints the other government officials with the approval of the Senate (Ellis). The “Cabinet, which acts in an advisory capacity to the President are there at the President’s discretion and may be removed from office with a two-thirds vote by the Legislature” (Ellis). The President can only be impeached, if the process begins in the House of Representatives. The Senators then “act as judges and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court acts as the presiding officer” (Ellis).
The judicial branch consists of the “Supreme Court is made up of three judges, and quarterly, probate and justice courts for each of the countries and territories” (Ellis). The judges can be removed from office by the President for any reason, but the removal must be approved by the Legislature (Ellis)
The Economics of Liberia
Upon arriving at Liberia the three ACS members and the repatriated men and women began rebuilding their lives. They created a society that was similar to the American society from which they had left. They built large plantation like homes, schools and churches and they spoke English. The relationship that they had with the native people was quite multifaceted. The new settlers were constantly trying to indoctrinate the native people to their culture and beliefs. A countless number of repatriated slaves intermarried with the natives, while there were others that discriminated against them (Johnston)
After Liberia decided to separate from the United States in 1847. The people of Liberia elected a freeborn Black man from Virginia named Joseph J. Roberts as their first President. Roberts and his American-born Senators worked diligently to make the newly formed nation of Liberia, a country that was based on equality and justice (Johnston). During the early period of their country they established trade, agriculture and shipbuilding. They also were continuously expanding the infrastructure of the country (Johnston).
Despite the positive steps forward that the Liberian settlers made in creating a strong and sustainable country there were many issues. The government was constantly trying to exercise their control over the natives, which caused some hostilities. The biggest issue that the Liberians had to deal with was economic. Liberia as a country relied primarily on agriculture for trade, unfortunately the revenue from their exports was not larger than the money they spent on imports into the country. This caused a large amount of financial strain which was compounded even higher when the ACS withdrew its financial support upon leaving the country. (Johnston)
The country soon acquired a large amount of loans from Britain and by 1909 the country was bankrupt. As a result of the country being bankrupt the government decided to lease land to Firestone and other American companies. This turned out to be an erroneous decision because even though the rubber plant helps improve the country economic situation. Allowing the country to improve its infrastructure by building roads and airports (History of Liberia). The work practices of these companies were proven as the United Nations put it “forced laborhardly distinguishable from slavery”. (History of Liberia) This resulted in the collapse of the Liberian government after which the new President Edwin Barclay decided to deal with issues by repressing the rights of the Liberian people.
The Religion of Liberia
Christianity has dominated the religious climate of Liberia since its inception. The country was founded by the ACS, which was a Christian organization and the signers of the country’s Declaration of Independence were all members of the church. Despite this Liberia does not define itself as a Christian nation, but a secular one. The Liberian Constitution promotes and protects religious freedoms and practices. Of course, this does not mean that there is not religious intolerance amongst the people of Liberia.
Once the 20th century arrived Liberia underwent a number of changes, not all of which were positive. In 1944 William Tubman was elected President and later he would become one of the original members of the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity. He opened up international investments and trade and he used the profits from both to modernize many coastal regions of the country (Duva). He also had hospitals, roads and schools built (Duva). He had laws passed that helped incorporate tribal people into mainstream society and gave them the right to vote (Duva). Despite the number of positive changes that Tubman instituted as President. He was thought to be “too influenced by American influences in the area” His Presidency eventually took an authoritarian turn when he amended the Constitution to give himself unlimited terms (of which he used seven) (Duva). He also put limits on the freedom of the press and put “spies in place to report all political activity” (Duva)
After Tubman’s death in 1971, the new President, William Tolbert attempted to introduce a number of new changes intended to improve the economic and political situation in the country (Ellis). His attempts were interpreted poorly and in 1980 he was assassinated by Samuel Doe. Doe than took over the Presidency. His government quickly became extremely corrupt and repressive. Eventually the people revolted and in 1990 Doe was executed, but Civil War had broken out and would last for seven years (Johnston). In 2006 Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (the current incumbent) was elected to office and has had the job of revitalizing the broken country.
Currently Liberia is in a state of repair as the Nation continues to heal from the devastation of Civil War and they are in the process of returning to their position on the world stage as a free, Democratic African nation.
Burin, E. "Maps of Liberia, 1830-1870 * The Liberian Letters." Journal of American History 100.2 (2013): 613-15. Web.
Duva, Anjali. "The Lone State:The Story of Liberia." PBS: Global Connections. PBS. Web. 31 Jan. 2016.
Ellis, George W. “Political Institutions in Liberia”. The American Political Science Review 5.2 (1911): 213–223. Web..
"HISTORY OF LIBERIA." HISTORY OF LIBERIA. Web. 31 Jan. 2016.
Johnston, Harry Hamilton, Sir, 1858-1927. Liberia. London: Hutchinson & co., 1906.