Joseph Jenkins Roberts

Joseph Jenkins Roberts, First President of Liberia, rejoices in leaving America to go to "the land of the free and the home of the oppressed"

Joseph Jenkins Roberts, First President of Liberia, Rejoices in Leaving America to Go “the land of the free and the home of the Oppressed”

 

Joseph Jenkins Roberts was born in Virginia as the son of a white planter and his slave concubine. Raised free in Norfolk and Petersburg, Roberts left the United States to settle in Africa under the auspices of the American Colonization Society. There, he became a businessman and eventually governor of the colony. When Liberia declared independence in 1847, Roberts was elected the first president of the new republic. In this wonderful letter to Quaker supporter Benjamin Coates, Roberts, whom the Society had recently appointed deputy governor, reflects on his visit to the United States, his voyage back to Liberia, and conditions there.

 

JOSEPH JENKINS ROBERTS, Manuscript Letter Signed either in a clerical hand or actually penned by Roberts in an earlier but dissimilar hand (although there are some evident similarities) to an example we found from The Library of Congress. It is sold as the former but clearly contains the marvelous thoughts and intentions of Roberts and is not a retained copy as it traveled through the mails, to Benjamin Coates, November 7, 1839, Monrovia, Liberia. 3 pp., 8” x 9.75”.

 

Condition:  Document bright and clean with strong contrasting ink, expected mailing folds, red wax seal present on verso, small tear to second page due to opening of seal.  

 

Complete Transcript

Monrovia November 7th 1839

Mr B. Coates

Dear Sir

            From the caption of this you will perceive that I am again in Terifirma. “In the land of the free and the home of the Oppressed.” Rejoice with me! For I assure you Sir I was hartily sick of America and rejoiced to hear it said embark & be off. My treatment in Am. sometimes bore hard, particularly when traveling. In justice to same I must say whenever I met with Gentlemen I found no difficulty. It was lamentable however I too often found vagabonds under that Garbs. Enough of this

            We had a fine passage of thirty eight days out from Norfolk. Peace and concord existed among all; the Missionaries were very agreeable, all enjoyed good, except Mr. Teage who took Cold after a few days which brought on the plurisey and after a short illness of some eight or ten days, and sixteen days out from Norfolk; Your very obliging letter by Mr Pinney dated at Phila 27th July I received same six or eight days before my arrival at this place.

Should been pleased to have answered it before my departure; Allow me however at this late stage to acknowledge your kindness in seeing Mr Caldwell and obtaining an assurance that there existed no difficulty about the drafts

            My business at Washington was not arranged entirely to my satisfaction, probably they done as well as could be expected under the embarrased state of the society. I had one small bill not paid

            The ship after her arrival at Norfolk was so crowded I could get but little [prone?] freight on board, it is however all well; I find things at home better than could be expected; The Colony decidedly advancing, much however remains yet to be done, much more would have been done but for the rainy season and the bad health of the Gov.

            Gov. Buchanan’s health is now good. And allow me to assure you he is an efficient man, he has allready given things a new spring and should his health be continued, I hesitate not to say that within twelve months the Colony will be advanced fifty p.Ct. This is saying much, but if the friends in America will sustain him it will be verified. Much has to be done that will require money. I know that the Society Society has complained about the disbursements in Africa, and in some instances justly too. But in Gov. Buchanan I think they repose full confidence, for as a business man, he has not been excelled by any Agent for the Society.

My impression respecting a certain Gent & abolitionism is yet, I was going to say the same the matter I confess pussels me, sometimes, I think, I am wright, and at another meeting I conclude I may be in error I have observed him closely and have finally concluded to give it up for time to determine; With your favour of the 27th I read a Number of the Pennsylvania Freeman and rather pleased with the spirit & tone of several Paragraphs, more so than I expected to be with any paper supported by the New School Abolitionists. Am sorry I did not subscribe to it. I have read attentively the Inquiry &c. &c. you were pleased to present to me, and think it a valuable production. The author in my opinion has produced many uncontrovertible facts in support of Colonization

            Mrs Roberts requests that I would present her most respectful compliments, and thank you for Whittier’s Poem[s] and to say she has read it with much pleasure; [tear]

            I have requested her to make notes of those s[he?] likes best and transmit them to you;

            On my return home I found that the price of the Herald had been reduced to one 50/100 dollars per annum  I therefore paid the small difference and ordered you three coppies of that paper

I cannot close this without expressing my gratitude by acknowledging your very polite attention to me during my stay in Phila  Believe me sir you will allways be gratefully remembered by

                                                                        Your obt servant

                                                                        J. J. Roberts

 

I have a box of curiosities all packed, but the vessel goes tonight and impossible to get them off. I will send them by next opportunity, and larger selection. I regret much they cannot go.

In great haste.                                                 J. J. Roberts.

[Address:] Mr. Benjamin Coates / Philadelphia (postmarked Norfolk, Va / JAN 16 [1840])

[Docketing:] J J Roberts / Liberia / Novr 7, 1839

 

Historical Background

“Mr Teage” who was ill on the voyage was likely Hilary Teague (1802-1853), who was born free in Virginia and emigrated with his family to Liberia in 1821. He served as a Baptist minister and merchant in Monrovia. In 1835, he became the owner and editor of the Liberia Herald. He combined republicanism, black nationalism, and Christianity to make the case for Liberian independence. Also in 1835, he became Colonial Secretary for the colony of Liberia. He was an important figure at the Constitutional Convention of 1847, and wrote both the nation’s Declaration of Independence and its hymn of independence. He became the republic’s first secretary of state and was serving as attorney general at the time of his death.

 

The “Inquiry” that Coates presented Roberts may be Thomas Hodgkin’s An Inquiry into the Merits of the American Colonization Society: And a Reply to the Charges Brought Against It: With an Account of the British African Colonization Society, published in London in 1833.

 

The Pennsylvania Freeman was published in Philadelphia from 1838 to 1854 by the Eastern District of the Anti-Slavery Society of Pennsylvania. Quaker John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892), the “poet of the anti-slavery cause,” was a frequent contributor and from March 1838 to February 1840, editor of the Pennsylvania Freeman. In 1837, Whittier published Poems written during the Progress of the Abolition Question in the United States (Boston: Isaac Knapp, 1837), which is likely the volume that Coates sent to Mrs. Roberts.

 

Joseph Jenkins Roberts (1809-1876) was born a free African American in Norfolk, Virginia, the son of a Welsh planter and his mulatto slave concubine. His father freed his mother and her children when she was still young. She married James Roberts, a free black man, who raised her children as his own. Joseph Roberts likely had seven-eighths European ancestry. He grew up working on a flatboat on the James River. His family moved to Petersburg. In 1829, Roberts emigrated to the African coast with his mother and most of his siblings under the sponsorship of the American Colonization Society. In Monrovia, he and two of his brothers established an import/export business. After his first wife and child died within a year of arriving in Africa, he remarried in 1836 to Jane Rose Waring, who had also migrated to Liberia with her parents. In 1833, Roberts became high sheriff of the colony, and in 1839, the American Colonization Society appointed Roberts vice governor. After Governor Thomas Buchanan died in September 1841, the society appointed Roberts as the first black governor of Liberia. In 1846, he asked the legislature to declare independence, and in a referendum, voters chose independence. On July 26, 1847, Roberts declared Liberia independent. He won the first presidential election in October and assumed office in January 1848 as the first president of Liberia. He won re-election three times and served until 1856. After his presidency, Roberts served as a major general in the Liberian Army and as diplomatic representative to France and Great Britain. He returned to the presidency for two terms from 1872 to 1876.

 

Benjamin Coates (1808-1887) was born in Pennsylvania into a Quaker family and attended the William Penn school before entering business as a dry goods merchant and later wool merchant. He was actively involved in abolition, education, and colonization. As a member of the American Colonization Society from 1835, Coates actively worked with Joseph Jenkins Roberts to encourage emigration to Liberia as the best strategy for ending slavery in the United States and give African Americans a positive fresh start. In 1869, Coates became a partner in the publishing firm of Porter & Coates in Philadelphia.

 

Thomas Buchanan (1808-1841) was the first governor of Liberia from 1839 to 1841. He first went to Liberia as an envoy of the American Colonization Society and leader of the Bassa Cove settlement in 1836. He was a cousin of James Buchanan, later President of the United States.

 

John B. Pinney (1806-1882) was born in Baltimore and grew up in Connecticut. He graduated from the University of Georgia and was admitted to the bar in 1828. He then chose to become a minister and graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1830. He became the first foreign missionary of the Presbytery of Philadelphia in 1832. In 1833, the American Colonization Society sent him to Africa as a missionary. He served as colonial agent of the American Colonization Society in Liberia from January 1834 to May 1835. In 1836, he wrote a report on the state of Liberia for the New York Colonization Society. In 1837, he became Corresponding Secretary to the New England branch of the American Colonization Society and apparently returned to Liberia. He resigned in 1847, when Liberia became an independent nation and accepted a pastorate in Washington, Pennsylvania. From 1863 to 1865, Pinney served as the first consul-general to Liberia after President Abraham Lincoln’s formal recognition of its status as an independent nation.  In 1878, he briefly served as President of the College of Monrovia.

 

 

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