Review of Colonization and Its Discontents: Emancipation, Emigration, and Antislavery in Antebellum Pennsylvania by Beverly C. Tomek New York University Press

Colonization and Its Discontents: Emancipation, Emigration, and Antislavery in Antebellum Pennsylvania. Beverly C. Tomek. New York and London: New York University Press, 2011. ISBN: 9780814783481

The author Beverly C.Tomek is a historian at Wharton County Junior College, Texas and in her book she introduces that Pennsylvania provides a comprehensive lens to view the determinants of the anti-slavery movement through its different stages up to the American Civil war. For the author,  the following three distinct groups present Pennsylvania as the site for this study: 1.“gradualists” who are the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (PAS), 2. “colonizationists” who form the Pennsylvania Colonization Society (PCS), and 3. “immedialists” or “modern”abolitionists of Pennsylvania’s Anti-Slavery Society (PASS).

This book is about antebellum Pennsylvania, a period of history in Pennsylvania before the American Civil War. Looking at the title “Colonization and its Discontents: Emancipation, Emigration, and Antislavery in Antebellum Pennsylvania” the reader  can infer that it is about the dissatisfaction of colonization—discontents means dissatisfaction with ones circumstances, so here it would mean that Colonization is dissatisfied with its own circumstances. Of the keywords in the subtitle the first one is “emancipation” and here I would like to know to whose emancipation it refers, is it the slaves? And how is this term being defined? The second key word is “emigration” which refers to the act of moving permanently from one’s place of residence to another and is from the perspective of the country or region of origin—so who is moving permanently from where here?  The point of reference is Pennsylvania so it must refer to some people who moved from Pennsylvania permanently.  However, towards the end of the book it becomes clear that emigration is referring to the idea of moving the black population to Africa, but it is not clearly introduced so the reader has to labor through this part of the argument. The next term is “Antislavery”, this has been dealt with in great depth and full justice by the author.

Tomek complicates the understanding of “Colonization” by not only viewing it as an antislavery movement but also breaking down the components of the interest groups involved in the anti-slavery movement and helps the reader to view the seams and to understand the complexity in the movement. Tomek differentiates for instance between the terms “abolitionists” and “Anti-slavery” and notes the nuanced distinctions among the abolitionists in Pennyslvania of “gradualists” or “emancipationists” depending on whether a group argued for an immediate abolition of slavery or a “gradual emancipation” as was  the stance of the Pennsylvania Abolition  Society (PAS).  In this book Tomek reveals the tensions between the radical immediatists, the gradualists and the colonizationists. She also reveals the politics and thus weaves in the term “anti-slavery” by creating the two categories of “political anti-slavery” and what she calls a “social movement known as abolition” (p.4).

Tomek’s goal is to present a holistic perspective of the debates around Colonization and, in the process, critiques the African American social historians who established that colonization was a proslavery movement (p.4).Tomek makes the claim that colonization is an anti-slavery movement to complicate the prior one-sided/simplistic understanding by mid 19th century abolitionist oriented/influenced historian’s critique of the American Colonization Society founded in 1817 as a proslavery movement and racist. She brings in the opinions of other historians who disagreed with this quote and had missionary agendas of emancipation and “civilizing” of “blacks” at home and in Africa. She notes that some humanitarians were attracted to the this group as well as to those who believed that this was the only way for the blacks to have at least some freedom, if not complete emancipation. Tomek brings into the discussion the aspect of political slavery and how there were political agendas behind the Colonizationist’s anti-slavery stance, which was out of concern for racism.
In this book Tomek wants to show the seams of the knitwear of the antislavery movement in antebellum Pennsylvania and critiques the desire by all three groups PAS, the PCS, and PASS to control the black population. For instance, the PAS wanted to curtail the import of slaves into the state and “anglify” the blacks living within the white society to help those blacks to become “fit” for living in a free society. Thus this proslavery ideology was supporting colonization and bondage as a means of “civilizing blacks”. Because of Pennsylvania’s unique geography and demography as a border state it played an important role in the growth and development of the colonization movement. Here the aim was assimilation of a small number of free blacks into a majority white society to ensure their control. Early abolitionists as well as colonizationists pondered on the issue of removing the black populations away to western states and away from the white populations.

By the mid 1830’s “humanitarian colonizationists” dominated the PCS who although they believed that white American society would never accept blacks, their work on uplifting blacks in the field of education became the bridge between the PAS, PASS and the PCS. Thus, by1830’s more people within the PCS began to understand the implications of the two different strains of the colonization movement namely 1)humanitarian colonization and 2) Colonization as political agenda, and many stopped supporting the movement. These two groups had to work together often even though their motives differed since the latter viewed racial homogeneity as an integral feature of a cohesive nation state.
Tomek also discusses the rise of the immediate abolition movement in this book. The presence of these three groups: gradualists, colonizationists and immediatists made the antislavery movement in Pennsylvania in 1830’s onwards very happening indeed. Tomek delicately conveys how these different groups learned from each other and, how, through their interaction and work, they brought the antislavery movement to a broader audience which was not paying attention to this issue. Later, many of these people, as a result of their earlier exposure to the colonization society, would go on to become key players in the immediatist group.

Tomek makes some important connections between “the black question” in the founding years and the threat that they provided to the ultimate goal of a “homogeneous nation” which meant a “white nation”. Later, she also hints at a connection between the early republic and antebellum years and the white identity formation with the Republican ideology but she does not elaborate on it or take it any further. I would have preferred that she had developed this further as it is pertinent to twenty-first century issues in American society, which is composed of mainly non-white immigrants. Perhaps students using this work can ponder on these connections and develop them further. But with regard to the historical contributions of this work there are numerous, and for those I will now proceed with a brief discussion of the contents of the eight main chapters.

In chapter one Tomek discusses the urge, even within some of the anti-slavery abolitionists, to protect their society from an un-wanted population which, in turn, manifested itself in different forms of legislation to control the blacks in order to ensure that they behaved “properly” In her subsequent chapter Tomek elaborates on these controls imposed on the blacks, and how some of them backfired. After Chapter one where Tomek traces the history and organization of the PAS up to 1817 when the ACS were coming into formation.

In Chapter two, she gets into the efforts of the ACS to expand their support. They marketed well, used the fear of Pennsylvanians of racial mixing, and emphasized their humanitarian grounds. As a result, they gained many key members. In the next five chapters of the book Tomek uses the method of case studies of key players in this drama of anti-slavery movement to situate and ground the complexity of the historical scenario. I really appreciate this approach of Tomek and in a move similar to Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” Tomek attempts, with these case studies, to portray different sides and the complexity of the situation in Pennsylvania. Chapter three, subtitled “Mathew Carey and African Colonization”, is the story of PAS member Mathew Carey who, though opposed to bondage in any form, was also full supporter of political aspects of colonization and believed that it could help in modernization of the republic. Using the story of his life and his work for ACS Tomek shows her reader the political side of the movement, which is very fruitful.

In chapter four, subtitled “Elliott Cresson and the Humanitarian Agenda,” Tomek reveals another subtle difference in the motivations among those in the PCS. Cresson joined in the PCS missionary goal of attacking slave trade at its root in Africa and also for the uplifting of blacks in the Unites States. With his case study Tomek wants to show the more unselfish motives of some gradualists and colonizationists but nevertheless Cresson also sought to control the blacks he was working to emancipate. By way of the stories of Carey and Cresson in these two chapters Tomek successfully displays to her readers two different motives of the colonizationists both of which worked for emancipation of blacks.
Next, Tomek moves to a case study of James Forten, (a leader of black resistance to colonization), in an effort to show the role played by the free black leaders within this interaction of the three antislavery groups of antislavery. Leaders like Forten resisted the control policies which were part of the formula suggested by emancipationary movements. Once leaders like Forten saw dim chances of attaining true leadership, they decided not to go along with the colonizationists efforts and thus rejected the ACS. In chapter five, through Forten’s life and work, Tomek shows the transition for black leaders from both colonization and gradual abolition towards beginnings of immediatism.

In Chapters six and seven Tomek gets into the Civil War years where she considers two case studies which highlight the dimension of “self-help” in colonization. The first one is about Benjamin Coates who thought that “a thorough abolitionist could not be such without being a colonizationist” (p.163). He worked for uplifting the blacks through the Free Produce movement. He played an important role in shifting the focus of the colonialists from freeing slaves to working for their uplift. Tomek’s selection of Coates’s case study adds another subtle layer of complexity in the drama of colonization discourse since Coates has an interesting position as part of both PAS and PCS, and through both these organizations he worked for black education. Thus, through this role, he was a bridge between gradualism and colonization.

The last case study of the book is in Chapter seven and it is of Martin R. Delany. As in the case of Coates, Tomek focuses here on the role of self-help and emigration in black uplift. For this final case study Tomek decided to move outside Pennsylvania as Delany is from Pittsburgh and here she argues that her reason for that is that she is looking once again at the African American perspective. Tomek displays, through his case study, his emigration scheme developed in the 1850’s about an African colony independent of the ACS, that grows cotton and competes with slave-grown southern cotton. He was aiming for black self-determination and saw opportunity within the African colonization. In the process of reading chapter seven I was not convinced on the selection and relevance of Delany’s case study. However its relevance became clearer to me towards the final chapters of the book, especially the epilogue, wherein Tomek outlines Delany’s key role in the black coalition responsible for shifting the course of history of the Civil War. Tomek only gets into this in the epilogue of the book, noting that had it not been for leaders like Delany, Lincoln’s fight for the union would not have changed to a fight against human bondage.

In the last chapter, chapter eight, Tomek assesses the successes and failures of Pennsylvania’s competing anti-slavery agendas. Here, Tomek brings up the key issues of western cultural bias and imperialism and questions the subjects of her case studies, (Carey, Creson, Coates and Forten, and Delany), all of whom sought to transform Africa, asking: “who benefited from their vision of African resettlement?” (p.237). The question remains unanswered but this book successfully shows how complicated this scenario of antislavery was.  With great intricacy and detail Tomek unveils the different elements of “exclusion” and “limitation,” along with “racial improvement” and black uplift during the first half of the nineteenth century. Towards the goal of understanding the leaders and intellectuals who supported colonization and emigration, her methodology of selected case studies works well. The author chose people who were right at the center of the movement and thus considers the arguments from the perspectives of the different actors involved in this drama of “anti-slavery” efforts. Through this detailed journey into the American Civil War era she helps her readers understand the nuances of the movement as she assesses the legacies of “gradualism”, “colonization” and “immediatism”.

The audience for this book is a very specialized one. It is for historians of the antebellum era or for students who are involved in a detailed study of the period of antebellum Pennsylvania leading to the American Civil War. Students who want to make the connections between the beginnings or founding era of the republic will find ample material to begin their study. But for them to continue making the connections to present day they will only find hints and suggestions in this text and so they may have to do a lot of spade work elsewhere. The author assumes her readers are familiar with the context of basic American history , as such, for a reader lacking this contextual background, this book can be a heavy read.

Reference: Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. HarperCollins New York, 1999.

Reviewed by Feriyal Amal Aslam, Pakistan Institute of Development Economics
Edited by Martin Pflug

(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 7, Fall, 2013. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]