The love of Liberty brought us here...

A nation closely tied to America

Comparison of the American and Liberian constitutions

The love of Liberty brought us here...

1.   Introduction

2.1 Presentation of the Liberian Constitution (‘LC’) of 1839

2.2 Presentation of the American Constitution (‘AC’) of 1787

3.   Comparison and analysis of the two constitutions

4.   Interpretation and the function of the Liberian Constitution-
      the role of the American Colonization Society in the development of Liberia

5.   The American Colonization Society (‘ACS’)
5.1 Motives for supporting the black people willing to emigrate to Liberia
5.2 The process of establishing a colony initiated by the ACS- a brief survey on the early years of Liberia

6.   Reflection

7.   Bibliography

1.   Introduction:
Liberia – what do we associate with that name?

Certainly, that is a country where every citizen lives in freedom. Moreover, it seems to be the ideal country in which all virtues are put into reality.
In the beginning of the 19th century some white upper-class Americans formed the American Colonization Society, which aimed to found a colony in Africa to offer the black Americans a place to start a new existence free of racial discrimination. In the following paper it shall be examined in which relationship the American and Liberian constitutions stand to each other. They have something in common: they both are supposed to unite several smaller territories to one country. Nonetheless the level is completely different. In America thirteen huge states were united whereas in Liberia only a few colonies, one should rather say settlements, merged into the Commonwealth of Liberia.
It cannot be denied that Liberia is closely tied to America. One very obvious example is the Liberian flag -the Lone Star- which is designed after the American flag. Other evidence can be found when regarding some Liberian place names, like Monrovia, the capital or Buchanan or Bushrod Island- all names of prominent American politicians who were somehow involved in the colonisation issue. James Monroe was American president from 1817 to 1825.
Liberia prides herself on being the first independent nation (1847) on the whole African continent. Apparently, Liberia was a shining example for American virtues and democracy.
The task now is to assess whether this glorious past of Liberia is really as glorious as some accounts mention it. Who tied Liberia to America? What was America’s attitude towards Liberia?

-A lot of questions which will hopefully be answered in the course of the text-

2.1 Presentation of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Liberia of 1839:

Up to 1839 the territory of, what we now call Liberia, consisted of 8 colonies which were founded by the ACS or other similar institutions concerned about colonization (eg. Maryland Colonization Society). By establishing this constitution (under the patronage of the ACS) these 8 colonies merged into one nation – the Commonwealth of Liberia. The constitution is drafted in a way that it divides the power into three sections: the legislative, executive and judicial power.
The legislative power is entrusted to the Council of Liberia which is allowed to pass laws. But before they come into force the ACS has to approve them. Altogether, there are 40 representatives who are elected by the citizens of the various colonies of the Commonwealth. The Governor of Liberia forms the head of the Council and therefore has the right to reject all laws. He is appointed by the ACS. Furthermore all acts passed by the Council and other proceedings must be recorded and afterwards be brought to the ACS. The Council can for instance declare war or make treaties. It is also in charge of naturalisation. Consequently, only coloured people, exclusively from the U.S. can obtain the Liberian nationality. The natives were not even considered being part of the Commonwealth.
Secondly, the executive power is represented by the Governor of Liberia who also is head of the Council. He is entitled to command the armed forces of Liberia whenever it is necessary. The land and property owned by the ACS has to be run by the Governor as well. The Lieutenant Governor is the vice governor. When the Governor of Liberia is absent for whatever reason he takes over his position. He represents the people of Liberia because he is elected by them.
The third power in Liberia is the Supreme Court which can be split into several inferior courts. The Governor holds the position of the Chief Justice of Liberia. The Supreme Court adopts the civil code of law from the former colonies.
After explaining the subdivision of power the constitution defines some other points which concern slavery, elections, armed forces and the economy. Thus, slavery as well as slave trading is prohibited. All men aged 21 and older are allowed to vote by ballot. It is also important that the constitution explicitly declares the armed forces to be dependent on the civil power, i.e. the three different powers mentioned at the top of the page. Finally there is an outlook onto the economy of Liberia. It shall consist of farming and the production of industrial goods. Besides, Liberia aims to create a ‘moral, social and political’ society. The highest good is to maintain the national independence.

2.2 Presentation of the Constitution of the United States of America of 1787:

Although the Constitution of America is much more comprehensive and complex than its Liberian counterpart the presentation of it cannot be that detailed than its content would require. Moreover, it would exceed the limit of this work because, as the title announces, the focus lies rather on Liberia than on America.
We again have that separation of powers: the legislative powers are the Senate and the House of Representatives. Both together they are called the Congress of the United States. The number of representatives (of the House of Representatives) is determined every 2 years according to the population in the several states: the ratio of representatives to the population is 1:30.000. In the Senate it is a bit different: Each state has to elect 2 Senators for a period of 6 years. The Congress can pass laws but before they are carried out they have to be first approved by the president.
The way the president is chosen is quite a complex procedure: The people of each state have to elect a certain number of electors who are privileged to choose a president by their majority of votes. The position of the President of the United States includes following authorities: he is chief- commander of the armed forces, he has the right to make treaties provided that two thirds of the Senate agree and he can appoint ambassadors, ministers, officers and the judges of the Supreme Court.
The jurisdiction which is the Supreme Court represents the third power. This institution is for example responsible to solve all quarrels between different states or cases of high treason.
In the following the relationship of the states among one another are regulated as well as the integration of new states within the newly created United States of America. An important feature of this document is that it permits amendments of the constitution whenever the Congress is in favour of it (provided that it has got a majority of two thirds).

3.   Comparison and Analysis of the American and Liberian constitutions:

One basic difference between those two constitutions is their extent. The American constitution (‘AC’) contains much more information and details about what the new state should look like whereas the Liberian constitution (‘LC’) leaves a lot of questions unanswered. For example, the LC does not tell us what majority is required to pass a law (in America a majority of two thirds is needed). Besides, the LC does not define who can become representative nor does it forbid the representatives to take a civil office nor does it promise the representatives to receive a compensation for their jobs. Those aspects are all mentioned in the AC . They mean to ensure that the representatives are independent in making decisions. There is a feature of the LC which clearly indicates that it is not a particular democratic constitution: Although the Council of Liberia is to be elected by all men over 21 years the constitution does not prescribe how often those election should take place. Despite those lacking details we have to remember that it is a difference to govern and administer a couple of settlements at the west coast of Africa which had a population of not more than 3.000 people . America, in that time, was already a huge nation with a large population.

Nevertheless it cannot be denied that the LC has its roots in the AC. That is not very surprising because the people who designed the LC were members of the ACS. The members of that institution were usually patriotic white upper-class Americans, some of them even famous American politicians (e.g. Bushrod Washington, nephew of George Washington ). When drawing up the LC they just copied literally some expressions of the AC: all legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in[...] . Of course that does not directly mean that the AC and LC are identical but it shows that the people who designed the LC were very familiar with the AC.
But when we examine the content of both constitutions it becomes obvious that they are related. We have this apparent separation of powers in both cases. Even though the various institutions have different names (except from the Supreme Court) it is not hard to find an equivalent for each institution. The Council of Liberia has the same function (namely to pass laws) as the Congress of the United States, for instance.
Another fact also illustrates the close relationship between the two states. The LC determines that the American “standards of weight, measure and money” are adopted in the Commonwealth of Liberia which is, of course, for practical reason. It also implies that the Liberian economy is definitely orientated towards America.
In spite of those similarities there have been made a few, yet significant alterations when ‘copying’ the AC. To be concrete it is the ACS’s right to reject all laws passed by the Council of Liberia . It shows that this legislative organ is completely unable to take any action without the consent of the ACS. Another fact emphasizes that as well: the Governor of Liberia is appointed by the ACS. His office includes the administration of the property belonging to the ACS. So he is the direct representation of the ACS in the Commonwealth of Liberia. He also holds the position of the president of the Council as well as he is the Chief Justice of Liberia. That means that there is no longer a separation of power in Liberia. The Governor, representative of the ACS, has executive, legislative and judicial powers. It is very characteristic for the LC that a representative of the ACS holds the highest position in Liberia because it shows who had the power in Liberia. One could go as far as to claim that the LC is actually an authoritarian constitution.

Another difference is that slavery including slave trade is prohibited by the LC whereas slavery was generally accepted in America in that time, at least up to the American Civil War when the North and the South fought about the issue of abolition of slavery. To mention this fact may seem unnecessary because the African-American colonists had left America in order to escape from slavery. In Liberia they intended to live as free people. But we should remember that there were also some native tribes living on the territory which belonged to the Commonwealth of Liberia. Sometimes the different clans fought each other. The captives used to be sold on the slave market but this became forbidden according to the new constitution. Nonetheless many Liberian colonists oppressed the native population, they were not even entitled to vote; Many natives were employed as forced labour convicts. Apparently, the former American slaves, now free people, did not keep their own experiences in mind very well.

4.   Conclusion and the function of the LC – the role of the ACS in the development of Liberia:

As we have seen now the LC and the AC have quite a lot in common but there are also some major differences. After the first regard you think the AC and LC are quite similar but after a thorough examination it becomes clear that they are really different. The most remarkable difference is that the Commonwealth of Liberia seems to be totally dependent on the ACS. Admittedly, in 1839 when this constitution was established the 8 colonies were, first of all, united. The step to independence from the ACS has been made just in 1847.

But what was the function of this constitution, then?

Firstly, the ACS aimed to unite all those scattered settlements and colonies established by the various colonization societies from each American state. Particularly in the very first years after the foundation of a few settlements along the Westafrican coastline the colonists were exposed to a couple of serious threats. Many people died of diseases like yellow fever (almost one third of the crew from the first expedition ship to Liberia in 1820 died within three weeks ). Indigenous tribes constantly combated the settlers because the settlers had occupied their land. Furthermore, other imperial powers (Great Britain, France) had interests in that area. In order to better tackle those menaces and to improve administration the colonies were united under the constitution of the Commonwealth of Liberia.
Secondly, the LC could be a first attempt by the ACS to make the Liberians familiar with democracy. So far the coloured Americans had been totally excluded from any political participation in America. In case they would fail to govern themselves the ACS could still interfere. Many members of the ACS were racists and considered coloured people not being capable of running a country. In addition, the ACS may have realized at that time that supporting these colonies was an expensive business. Therefore, they may have already planned at this time to dismiss Liberia into independence because they saw a problem of raising enough money to maintain Liberia. Evidence for that thesis could be that, in 1847, Liberia was ordered by the ACS to declare independence which was reluctantly accepted because it meant the absence of the so much needed aid by the ACS.
As we have seen now the ACS was the dominant ruling institution in Liberia. Therefore, we should have a closer look at that society, their motivation and action to better understand Liberia’s link to America.

5.   The American Colonization Society (ACS):

The ACS was founded in 1816 in Washington. In their constitution they declared that they intend to colonize “the free people of color, residing in our country, in Africa” (only with their agreement). In order to support colonization the society attempted to raise as much money as possible from their members and the government of the United States. Many famous politicians as well as other Americans from the upper-class supported this scheme and became members. Despite a few black members the ACS was dominated by white people.

5.1 Motives for supporting the American Colonization Society

They were motivated by two different, nay, contradictory reasons. But first of all they had agreed upon a premise: The co-existence of the black and white race is not possible in America. The American society is white and black people will never get rid of the discrimination against them. President Thomas Jefferson once said: “Their amalgamation [of the white people] with other colors produces a degradation to which no lover of this country, no lover of excellence in human character, can innocently consent” . That’s why the ACS wanted to help them building up a new existence in the “land of their fathers”. This idea was called ‘repatriation’ . But that is only partially true because you cannot just take some black people, for instance from Namibia, let them live for a few generations in America and then bring them ‘back’ to the shores of Liberia. Africa is not a homogeneous country but it consists of a multitude of different people, various tribes living in completely different landscapes and climatic conditions.
However, the one group of supporters of the ACS were the philanthropists. They believed the freed slaves to be happier in Africa where they could be among themselves, have self-government without racial discrimination. The well-being of the blacks was their sincere concern. Besides, the clergy thought that the colonists would be able to christianize and civilize ‘pagan Africa’.
On the other hand there were many slave holders who were afraid of an alliance of blacks against the white hegemony in Africa. According to the American censuses the number of free African-Americans was increasing rapidly. As they were excluded from education many blacks ended up living in poverty which led to general dissatisfaction among the blacks. Thus, many slave owners feared a slave uprising. The easiest solution was to establish some sort of an ‘apartheid system’ which meant the separation of blacks and whites. More concretely, it meant to aid every free African-American willing to emigrate to Liberia. Although the constitution of the ACS explicitly says that the black people should only “with their consent” be brought to Liberia the ACS spread lots of propaganda information about ‘paradise-like’ Liberia . Reality often looked different. Furthermore, many slaves were only freed on the condition that they would emigrate to Liberia. Otherwise, in case they refused to do so, they would be sold back into slavery. So we can say they were indirectly forced to emigrate because every slave would prefer the lesser of two evils which was to go to Liberia instead of remaining a slave.
So now, we arrive at the conclusion that the relationship between Liberia and the ACS has to some extent been determined by racist motives. Many Americans considered Liberia a good place to get rid of their black population.
Nevertheless this huge project was opposed by blacks as well as whites. A lot of blacks believed that they should stay in America to continue their fight for equality. After all they had helped to build up this nation and felt at home in America. There were a few white opponents who believed in human rights and realized that the African-Americans were equal and had a right to be a part of the American society.

5.2 The process of establishing a colony initiated by the ACS - a brief survey on the early years of Liberia

The first action was taken when, in 1820, the ship “Elizabeth” was sent to the Westafrican coast containing 88 black emigrants and 3 agents of the ACS. They arrived at Sherbro Island in Sierra Leone but due to the tropical diseases almost one third of them died within a short time because they were not used to that climate. This first attempt to establish a colony had definitely failed – the remaining settlers had to move to a safer place. In 1821, a second expedition (the ship was called “Nautilus”) set out to find a better place. But they encountered a new problem: the land was inhabited by indigenious tribes, who did not want to sell their land. Allegedly, the land was acquired by pointing a gun on the chief who instantly agreed to sign any treaty. Gradually, the little settlements developed and were governed by the ACS agent Jehudi Ashmun. In 1824, the country was for the first time called “Liberia”. The settlement Christopolis was renamed “Monrovia” in honour of James Monroe, the American president at that time.
This first success encouraged more and more Americans to form other Colonization Societies auxiliary to the ACS. They arranged the establishment of further colonies which remained independent from the original colony at Cape Montserado (see p.12). In order to make it easier to cope with external threats the colonies were united by proclaming the Commonwealth of Liberia.
The society in those colonies was divided into three section: 1.the black emigrants from America 2. The U.S. government passed an act according to which the people captured on slave vessels who were illegaly heading for America were to be freed and brought to Liberia. 3. These were the native tribes which were considered inferiour to the other groups.
Economy increased slowly. The most important export goods were rice, palm oil, ivory, tortoise shell, gold, coffee, sugar cane and various timber .
1842 marks an important date because it was the first time the ACS invested Joseph Jenkins Roberts, an African-American, with the power of the governor. That was a first tiny little step towards self-government. He seemed to be in favour of the ACS agents, though. That can be proved by the fact that he obeyed the order of the ACS to declare independence in 1847 although the Liberians opposed it. Another reason for this reluctant independence was that the Commonwealth was threatened by the British. Liberia did not really had any powerful protectors which could prevent the British from occupying Liberia. Particularly when America refused to claim sovereignity over Liberia they saw themselves urged to declare independence to be at least a true nation. Now they drew up a constitution which was based on the separation of powers and people’s sovereignity. In the newly created Liberian Republic only people of black skin were granted the right of citizenship.

6.   Reflection:

Having examined several aspects of Liberian history (and consequently also the history of the ACS) by comparing the American and Liberian constitutions everybody will see the necessity to revise our image of the relationship between America and Liberia. It may seem hard to understand why the Americans did not recognize the Liberian Republic as an independent nation when they declared independence in 1847. The reason for that was that Liberia had the right to send an ambassador to America which would have annoyed the South-American states which were still run by racists . Racism was a motive which dominated the Americo-Liberian relationship throughout Liberia’s early years. Even in the ACS racism was the driving force to achieve the separation of races. When recruiting emigrants they were promised for the first time to enjoy freedom (remember the name Liberia). After their arrival they had to realize that nothing really had changed (at least up to 1847). As we have seen in the comparison of the two constitutions the ACS refused to grant the African-Americans their right of self-government. Racially motivated they still distrusted the black people.
Soon, the ACS encountered difficulties in raising enough money, especially because the American government did not support this scheme to the extent the ACS had expected.
That is the true reason why the ACS abandoned its colony in 1847. The fact that Liberia is the first African country to become independent is very impressive to foreigners but to the Liberians it meant a very severe fight for survival (in respects of the maintenance of independence and the fight against hunger and diseases).
The link between America and Liberia was established by the ACS. But when it turned out to be a “financial burden” they left Liberia alone with her problems. Even nowadays, Liberians reproach America for not having claimed souvereignity over Liberia. “Liberia sees America as its protector and partner for development and security”, very much like former British and French colonies do .
Right from the early beginning which has been presented here America has always denied to play that role although Liberia would actually very much need some support.

7.   bibliography:

primary sources:

- The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Liberia (1839)
- The Constitution of the United States (1787)
- The Constitution of the American Society, for colonizing the free people of color of
the United States;
- article: Formation of the ACS, Mathew Carey (1760-1839);

secondary sources:

- History of Liberia: A time line;
- The American Society for colonizing the free people of color of the United States;
Afro-American Almanac;
- Liberian Writing, Liberia as seen by her own writers was well as by German
authors; Horst Erdmann Verlag; Tübingen 1970
- The American Colonization Society
- History: Liberia, Africa
- Liberia: America’s impoverished orphan in Africa; article from the Washington Post;
URL: inter-national/spotlight/liberia/article2.htm
- Bird’s-eye View of Liberian History and Government; Joseph Tellewoyan;
- personal communication with Joseph Tellewoyan by email (

© Bernhard Schlevogt  2003