In his first inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln tried to calm the fears of his political opponents: “While the people retain their virtue and vigilance no Administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly can very seriously injure the Government in the short space of four years.” The Confederates didn’t buy it, and they got what was coming to them. These words, however, resonate deeply in the present. Now more than ever, when there seems to be no shortage of wickedness and folly emanating from the current administration, the people must retain their virtue and vigilance.
This past January was a historic month for immigration policy. The executive branch affirmed their plans to erect a wall on the United States’ southern border, to proscribe immigration from several Muslim-majority countries (where Mr. Trump lacks business interests), to reverse the protections the Obama administration afforded to immigrant children (which has only become more baffling since I began drafting this post), and, perhaps most harrowingly, to commence publishing a weekly list of crimes committed by first-generation Americans, regardless of their status, in order to besmirch sanctuary cities.
As it stands, the president has issued executive orders for all of these policies with the notable exception of undoing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (although the future of the program is uncertain at best). The recent decision of federal Judge James Robart to issue a temporary stay on the ban (and that of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold that stay) is a short term solution, and one whose future will likely depend on the truncated Supreme Court.
These are troubling realities, and they have an even more troubling pedigree.
There is a long tradition in the United States and its colonial forebears of policing the movement of people of color. From African chattel slavery, Indian removal, and Chinese exclusion in the nineteenth century to Jim Crow, and Japanese internment in the twentieth, the United States has rarely distributed its favors equally. Indeed, the administration of Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into law during the ten year window between the centennial of the Declaration of Independence and the dedication of the Statue of Liberty in 1886.
In a flurry of historical comparison, scholars and journalists have noted that the current administration’s actions evoke the turmoil and heartbreak of fugitive slave renditions in the wake of the Armistice of 1850. David F. Ericson, a scholar of American political development, has called African slaves the “first proscribed immigrant group.” While recognizing that the nature of immigration has changed significantly since the early nineteenth century, I believe that taking Ericson’s observation seriously can help us to understand the United States’ painful history of policing the movement of minority residents.
Black chattel slavery depended first upon the ability of Europeans to compel the immigration of Africans to the Americas, beginning with the Caribbean and spreading outward to the mainland. In British North America, the institution began in 1619 when a Dutch ship transported some twenty Afro-West Indian captives from the Spanish Caribbean to Virginia, where labor-starved colonists purchased their lives and welcomed their immigration. In 1655, the first documented transatlantic slaving voyage to North America (distinct from the robust intercolonial slave trade) deposited 391 West Central Africans in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, known today as New York. All told, the transatlantic slave trade carried some 11 million men, women, and children across an ocean to labor for others in all parts of the Americas, north and south. At least a million and a half never made it to shore.
Then as now, proponents of the “go home to Africa” movement did not especially care that the targets of their derision had been born in the United States (and in some cases had families who had been in the Americas for longer than they had); that was irrelevant.
In the wake of the U.S. War for Independence, a coalition of soft antislavery activists and hardline proslavery ideologues began debating the future of black America. After centuries of forced African immigration to the Americas, many believed it was time to abolish this practice in favor of free white labor. But what to do with the millions of persons of African descent already living in the country? Colonization abroad was the popular answer.
Two hundred years ago this past January, around three thousand free African Americans gathered in Philadelphia at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church to discuss strategies for cooperating with the recently formed American Colonization Society (ACS). The goal of the ACS was essentially to deport free blacks to Africa. Then as now, proponents of the “go home to Africa” movement did not especially care that the targets of their derision had been born in the United States (and in some cases had families who had been in the Americas for longer than they had); that was irrelevant.
Prominent black leaders like Richard Allen, James Forten, and Absalom Jones all spoke in favor of colonization. The movement did have some black support, especially from well-to-do folks who were tired of staring through the stained glass ceiling that separated white and black America. Colonization would create leadership opportunities for frustrated African American professionals as well as put some distance between white racism and black progress. The arrangement seemed promising.
Yet when Forten called for supporters to come forward, not a single one of the three thousand attendees raised their hand. The rank-and-file representatives of black Philadelphia rejected colonization in a unanimous voice. Forten later reflected that “there was not a soul that was in favor of going to Africa” and that the force of their dissent seemed liable to “bring down the walls of the building.” This was a profound victory for democracy in an age where the state did not recognize the legitimacy of most Americans’ political voices. In Philadelphia the people were piloting the ship, and they elected to keep it anchored on American shores.
After much deliberation, the assembly voted on several resolutions dismissing colonization. Here is a brief overview of the language they employed: as the direct descendants of “the first cultivators of the wilds of America,” black Philadelphians claimed a right to “the blessings of her luxuriant soil, which their blood and sweat manured.” They expressed particular disdain for the “unmerited stigma” that free people of color posed a threat to the safety of a republic founded on principles of liberty for all. They associated military service with citizenship and suffrage, reminding advocates of colonization that, despite lacking the vote, black Patriots had “rallied around the standard of their country” to defeat the British during the Revolution. Most incredibly, however, the three thousand attendees of the Mother Bethel anti-colonization meeting vowed never to “separate [themselves] voluntarily from the slave population in this country; they are our brethren by the ties of consanguinity, of suffering, and of wrongs; and we feel that there is more virtue in suffering privations with them, than fancied advantages for a season.”
This is a remarkable document. In an act of democratic dissent, thousands of former slaves and their children announced that they would not be moved. They asserted their kinship with southern slaves and denounced all efforts to strip them of their northern allies. They firmly disavowed Jefferson’s hypothesis in his Notes on the State of Virginia that “if a slave can have a country in this world, it must be any other in preference to that in which he is born to live and labour for another.” Sensitive to the demands of his fellow countrymen, James Forten worked to oppose colonization and gradual abolition throughout the 1820s, sustaining the abolition movement in the face of white apathy, or what one historian has called the “perishability of revolutionary time.”
They forcefully reminded their opponents that black and unfree Americans had toiled, sweat, bled, fought, and died for the United States, which was their country. They fought for the principle of inclusion by refusing to abandon their homes—by demanding to be seen. So too must we refuse to be moved.
The Philadelphia leadership continued to disavow colonization on the behest of their constituents. Within two years, the activists had explicitly tied colonization to the propagation of slavery in the United States. They recognized that colonizationists had no intention to “interfere with a species of property which they hold sacred” and that “any plan of colonization without the American continent or islands, will completely and permanently fix slavery in our common country.” Note that the protesters expressed concern for their “common country,” thereby asserting their right to a place in the nation they helped to build. Black Philadelphia came out against “every measure that may have a tendency to convey an idea that they give the project a single particle of countenance or encouragement.” It was due to the continued agitation of black men and women that American abolitionism rejected colonization in favor of a racially integrated politics.
This is an inspiring lesson for those of us striving today for a more just and tolerant society. The movement to oppose deportation was headed by a grassroots coalition who understood that skin color should not form the basis of American citizenship. They forcefully reminded their opponents that black and unfree Americans had toiled, sweat, bled, fought, and died for the United States, which was their country. They fought for the principle of inclusion by refusing to abandon their homes—by demanding to be seen. So too must we refuse to be moved.
In 1852, Frederick Douglass delivered his now famous “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” address in front of the Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society in Western New York (my hometown, where I can assure you he remains in his grave undisturbed). He condemned slavery with fiery rhetoric and despaired the failures of the revolutionary freedom movement. Yet he knew that the slave’s history was American history and that this shared experience provided a way forward: “We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and future.” Douglass concluded his speech that day by reciting William Lloyd Garrison’s poem, “God Speed the Year of Jubilee.” I will conclude my own thoughts with the last stanza of that work, which calls for vigilance in the face of staggering adversity:
Until that year, day, hour, arrive,
With head, and heart, and hand I’ll strive,
To break the rod, and rend the gyve,
The spoiler of his prey deprive-
So witness Heaven!
And never from my chosen post,
Whate’er the peril or the cost,
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 I have borrowed this phrase from Manish Sinha, who correctly recognizes that the various laws Congress passed at midcentury were more of a ceasefire than a long-term solution. See The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), 490
 David F. Ericson, Slavery in the American Republic: Developing the Federal Government, 1791-1861 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas), 49
 See http://www.slavevoyages.org/voyage/11295/variables. The Transatlantic Slave Trade Database is a breathtaking resource.
 Gary Nash, Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Free Black Community, 1720-1840 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 235-7
 Quoted in Nash, Forging Freedom, 238
 “Colonization,” American Watchman (Wilmington, DE), September 20, 1817, p. 4 cited in Gary J. Kornblith, ed. Slavery and Sectional Strife in the Early American Republic, 1776-1821 (New York: Rowman and Littlefield), 137-8
 David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823 (New York: Oxford University Press), 306
 “Protest and Remonstrance of the People of Colour,” American Watchman (Wilmington, DE), November 24, 1819, p. 3