Joseph Jenkins Roberts' Inaugural Address (1848)
Fellow Citizens:—Before I proceed to add the solemnity of an oath to the obligations imposed on me, it is with great pleasure I avail myself of the occasion, now presented, to express the profound impressions made on me by the call of my fellow-citizens to the station, and the duties, to which I am now about to pledge myself. So distinguished a mark of confidence, proceeding from the deliberate suffrage of my fellow citizens, would, under any circumstances, have commanded my gratitude, as well as filled me with an awful sense of the trust to be assumed. But I feel particularly gratified at this evidence of the confidence of my fellow citizens, in as much as it strengthens the impression on me, that my endeavours to discharge faithfully the duties which devolved on me as Chief Executive officer of the Commonwealth, during the last six years of our political connection with the American Colonization Society, have been favourably estimated. I, nevertheless, meet the responsibilities of this day with feelings of the deepest solicitude. I feel, fellow citizens, that the present is a momentous period in the history of Liberia; and I assure you, under the various circumstances which give peculiar solemnity to the crisis, I am sensible that both the honour and the responsibility allotted to me, are inexpressibly enhanced.
We have just entered upon a new and important career. To give effect to all the measures and powers of the government, we have found it necessary to remodel our Constitution and to erect ourselves into an independent State; which, in its infancy, is exposed to numberless hazards and perils, and which can never attain to maturity, or ripen into firmness, unless it is managed with affectionate assiduity, and guarded by great abilities; I therefore deeply deplore my want of talents, and feel my mind filled with anxiety and uneasiness, to find myself so unequal to the duties of the important station to which I am called. When I reflect upon the weight and magnitude now belonging to the station, and the many difficulties which, in the nature of things, must necessarily attend it, I feel more like retreating from the responsible position, than attempting to go forward in the discharge of the duties of my office.
Indeed, gentlemen of the Legislature, if I had less reliance upon your co-operation and the indulgence and support of a reflecting people, and felt less deeply a consciousness of the duty I owe my country and a conviction of the guidance of an all-wise Providence in the management of our political affairs,—I should be compelled to shrink from the task.—I, however, enter upon the duties assigned me, relying upon your wisdom and virtue to supply my defects; and under the full conviction that my fellow citizens at large, who, on the most trying occasions, have always manifested a degree of patriotism, perseverance, and fidelity, that would reflect credit upon the citizens of any country, will support the government established by their voluntary consent, and appointed by their own free choice.
While I congratulate my fellow citizens on the dawn of a new and more perfect government, I would also remind them of the increased responsibility they too have assumed.
Indeed, if there ever was a period in the annals of Liberia, for popular jealousy to be awakened, and popular virtue to exert itself, it is the present. Other eras, I know, have been marked by dangers and difficulties which “tried men's souls,“ but whatever was their measure, disappointment and overthrow have generally been their fate. The patriotism and virtue which distinguish men, of every age, clime, and color, who are determined to be free, never forsook that little band of patriots—the pioneers in this noble enterprise—in the hour of important trial. At a time when they were almost without arms, ammunition, discipline, or government—a mere handful of insulated christian pilgrims, in pursuit of civil and religious liberty, surrounded by savage and warlike tribes bent upon their ruin and total annihilation—with “a staff and a sling” only, as it were, they determined, in the name of the “Lord of Hosts” to stand their ground and defend themselves to the last extremity against their powerful adversary. And need I remind you, fellow citizens, how signally Almighty God delivered them, and how he has hitherto prospered and crowned all our efforts with success.
These first adventurers, inspired by the love of liberty and equal rights, supported by industry, and protected by Heaven, became inured to toil, to hardships, and to war. In spite, however, of every obstacle, they obtained a settlement, and happily, under God, succeeded in laying here the foundation of a free government. Their attention, of course, was then turned to the security of those rights for which they had encountered so many perils and inconveniences.—For this purpose, a constitution or form of Government, anomalous it is true, was adopted.
Under the circumstances, expediency required that certain powers of the government should be delegated to the American Colonization Society, their patrons and benefactors—with the understanding that whenever the colonies should feel themselves capable of assuming the whole responsibility of the government, that institution would resign the delegated power, and leave the people to the government of themselves.
At that time it was scarcely supposed, I presume, that the colonies would advance so rapidly as to make it necessary, or even desirable on the part of the colonists, to dissolve that connection within the short space of twenty-five years; such, however, is the case: necessity has demanded it.
Under the fostering care of the American Colonization Society, these infant settlements soon began to prosper and flourish; and a profitable trade, in a few years, opened an intercourse between them and the subjects and citizens offoreign countries. This intercourse eventually involved us into difficulties with British traders, and of consequence with the British government, which could not be settled, for the want of certain powers in the government here, not provided for in the Constitution.—Nor indeed would the British government recognize in the people of Liberia the rights of sovereignty—"such as imposing custom dues and levying taxes upon British commerce"—so long as their political connection with the Colonization Society continued. Under these circumstances, a change in our relations with the Society, and the adoption of a new constitution, were deemed, by a large majority of the citizens of the Commonwealth absolutely necessary. Such also was the opinion of the Board of Directors of the American Colonization Society, who recommended the measure as the only means of relieving the government from these embarrassments, and the citizens from innumerable inconveniences.
In view of these facts, to have shrunk from the responsibility, notwithstanding weighty reasons, adverse to the measure, suggested themselves, would have betrayed a weakness and timidity unbecoming freemen.
Therefore, on full consideration of all the circumstances, it appeared that the period had arrived when it became the duty of the people of Liberia to assume a new position:—such a one that foreign powers would consider them an independent nation.
As you are aware, fellow citizens, the independence of Liberia has been the subject of much speculation, and some animadversion, both at home and abroad.
1st. We are told that the pecuniary assistance the government here has hitherto received from the Colonization Society will now cease; and that in a few years we will find ourselves groaning under enormous taxes, or the affairs of the government will be exceedingly embarrassed, if not totally paralyzed.
I am persuaded, however, that this conclusion by no means follows. To what extent, if at all, the Society contemplates withdrawing the pecuniary aid hitherto granted to the Commonwealth, from the new government, I am not advised; nor have I any data upon which to form even an opinion in regard to it. We have this assurance, however, from Rev. Mr. McLain, Secretary of the Society, "That the interest of the Board of Directors, in all that concerns the people of Liberia, will not be diminished—but rather increased—by the alteration in the present relations subsisting between them and the American Colonization Society; and that it is the intention of the Society to prosecute its work as vigorously as heretofore, and on the same high and liberal principles."
We are truly, fellow-citizens, under many obligations to the Colonization Society; indeed, it is impossible for one people to have stronger ties upon the gratitude of another, than that Society has upon the people of Liberia.
To the wisdom, philanthropy, and magnanimity of the members of the Colonization Society, who, for more than a quarter of a century, have watched with the deepest solicitude the progress of these colonies, and have devoted much of their time and substance to support them, we owe, under God, the political, civil, and religious liberty and independence we this day enjoy; and I have no doubt, in my own mind, but that they will continue to aid us in every way the circumstances of the Society will admit of.
The necessity of imposing additional taxes upon the people to meet the additional expenses of the government, consequent upon the new order of things, is very evident; but I confess, fellow-citizens, I can see no just grounds of fear that they will be enormous or oppressive.
It is true, that for the first few years, in the absence of any foreign assistance, we may find our finances somewhat limited; perhaps barely sufficient to defray the ordinary expenses of the government; but in a country like ours, abounding in a sufficiency of natural resources, which are so easily developed, it is scarcely probable that the government at any time will be greatly embarrassed—certainly not totally paralyzed.
2dly. It has been urged that the numerical strength of the government is yet too small; and that we have not sufficient intelligence, experience, or wealth, to command respect abroad; and that in the event foreign powers should refuse to acknowledge our independence, the embarrassments of the government,and its citizens, will be increased rather than diminished.
Now, according to the best computation I am at present able to make—and which I believe is pretty nearly correct—the population of Liberia proper—including, of course, the aboriginal inhabitants who have incorporated themselves with us, and subscribed to the constitution and laws of the Republic—is now upwards of eighty thousand; and we may reasonably suppose that the inhabitants will increase almost in the ratio of compound interest. I have no doubt that the natural population of the Republic, in the course of twenty years, will be doubled; and we have great reason to believe that the number of imigrants arriving from America, and perhaps other countries, will also be very considerable. The free people of color in the United States, wearied with beating the air to advance themselves to equal immunities with the whites in that country, and tired of the oppression •which weighs them down there, are seriously turning their attention to Liberia as the only asylum they can flee to and be happy.
While we exceedingly lament the want of greater intelligence and more experience to fit us for the proper, or more perfect management of our public affairs, we flatter ourselves that the adverse circumstances under which we so long labored in the land of our birth; and the integrity of our motives, will plead excuse for our want of abilities; and that in the candour and charity of an impartial world, our well-meant, however feeble efforts, will find an apology. I am also persuaded, that no magnanimous nation will seek to abridge our rights, or withhold from the Republic those civilities, and “that comity which marks the friendly intercourse between civilised and independent communities”—in consequence of our weakness and present poverty.
And with respect to the independence of Liberia, I know it to be a favorable object with many great and good men, both in Europe and in the United States; and I have great reason to believe with several European powers, who entertain commercial views.
3d. We are gravely accused, fellow-citizens, of acting prematurely and without due reflection, in this whole matter, with regard to the probable consequences of taking into our own hands the whole work of self-government, including the management of our foreign relations; and I have also heard it remarked, that fears are entertained, by some persons abroad, that the citizens of Liberia, when thrown upon their own resources, will probably not sustain the government, and that anarchy and its attendant ruins will be the result of their independence.
The impression, however, that the people have acted prematurely, and without regard to consequences, is evidently erroneous. And, to judge of the future from the past, I have no hesitancy in asserting that the fears entertained respecting the disposition of the people here to insubordination, are totally groundless. No people, perhaps, have exhibited greater devotion for their government and institutions, and have submitted more readily to lawful authority than the citizens of Liberia; which, indeed, must be obvious to every one at all familiar with the past history of these colonies. But to return. It is well known that the object of independence has been agitating the public mind for more than five years, and that every consideration, for and against it, has been warmly discussed.
I am sensible, however, it is no uncommon thing for men to be warm in a cause, and yet not know why it is they are warm. In such cases the passion of one is lighted up by the passion of another, and the whole circle is in a flame; but the mind in the meantime is like a dark chamber, without a single ray of light to pervade it; in this case it will happen, that when the hasty passion shall have spent its force, all virtuous and patriotic resolutions which it kindled up will also die with it. As in the great affairs of religion, a strong flash of ideas on the fancy may excite a combustion of devotion; but unless the reason is engaged to feed and supply the burning, it will die away, and neither light nor heat will be found remaining in it.
It was the commendation of a certain people of whom we read in the Bible, that when the gospel was first preached to them, "they searched the Scriptures daily, whether these things were so." Those who, without examination, had received it, without examination might also give it up; but this more "honorable" people had maturely weighed the doctrine, and embracing it, they gave ground to believe, that as they were rational, so they would be persevering Christians.
The political concerns of Liberia have been equally the objects of attentive consideration. And it affords the most pleasing reflection that the people of these colonies have not acted rashly or unadvisedly with respect to their independence; but all the measures which have been adopted in regard to it, are strongly marked with great caution and matured deliberation, and will bear the strictest scrutiny of reason and conscience.
The time has been, I admit, when men—without being chargeable with timidity, or with a disposition to undervalue the capacities of the African race, might have doubted the success of the Colonization enterprise, and the feasibility of establishing an independent Christian state on this coast, composed of, and conducted wholly by colored men,—but, fellow-citizens, that time has past. The American Colonization Society has redeemed its pledge, and I believe in my soul, that the permanency of the government of the Republic of Liberia is now fixed upon as firm a basis as human wisdom is capable of devising. Nor is there any reason to apprehend that the Divine Disposer of human events, after having separated us from the house of bondage, and led us safely through so many dangers; towards the land of liberty and promise, will leave the work of our political redemption, and consequent happiness, unfinished; and either permit us to perish in a wilderness of difficulties, or suffer us to be carried back in chains to that country of prejudices, from whose oppression he has mercifully delivered us with his outstretched arm.
And, fellow-citizens, it must afford the most heartfelt pleasure and satisfaction to every friend of Liberia, and real lover of liberty in general, to observe by what a fortunate train of circumstances and incidents the people of these colonies have arrived at absolute freedom and independence. When we look abroad and see by what slow and painful steps, marked with blood and ills of every kind, other states of the world have advanced to liberty and independence; we cannot but admire and praise that all gracious Providence, who, by his unerring ways, has, with so few sufferings on our part, compared with other states, led us to this happy stage in our progress towards those great and important objects. That it is the will of Heaven that mankind should be free, is clearly evidenced by the wealth, vigour, virtue and consequent happiness of all free states. But the idea that Providence will establish such governments as he shall deem most fit for his creatures, and will give them wealth, influence, and happiness, without their efforts, is palpably absurd. God's moral government of the earth is always performed by the intervention of second causes. Therefore, fellow-citizens, while with pious gratitude we survey the frequent interpositions of Heaven in our behalf, we ought to remember, that as the disbelief of an overruling providence is atheism, so an absolute confidence of having our government relieved from every embarrassment, and its citizens made respectable and happy by the immediate hand of God, without our own exertions, is the most culpable presumption. Nor have we any reason to expect that he will miraculously make Liberia a paradise, and deliver us, in a moment of time, from all the ills and inconveniences, consequent upon the peculiar circumstances under which we are placed, merely to convince us that he favours our cause and government.
Sufficient notifications of his will are always given, and those who will not then believe, neither would they believe though one should rise from the dead to inform them. Who can trace the progress of these colonies, and mark the incidents of the wars in which they have been engaged, without seeing evident tokens of providential favor. Let us, therefore, inflexibly persevere in exerting our most strenuous efforts, in an humble and rational dependence on the great Governor of all the world, and we have the fairest prospects of surmounting all the difficulties which may be thrown in our way. And that we may expect, and that we shall have difficulties, sore difficulties yet to contend against, in our progress to maturity, is certain:—And, as the political happiness or wretchedness of ourselves and our children, and of generations yet unborn, is in our hands, nay more, the redemption of Africa from the deep degradation, superstition, and idolatry in which she has so long been involved, it becomes us to lay our shoulders to the wheel, and manfully resist every obstacle which may oppose our progress in the great work which lies before us. The Gospel, fellow citizens, is yet to be preached to vast numbers inhabiting this dark continent, and I have the highest reason to believe, that it was one of the great objects of the Almighty in establishing these colonies, that they might be the means of introducing civilization and religion among the barbarous nations of this country; and to what work more noble could our powers be applied, than that of bringing up from darkness, debasement, and misery, our fellow-men, and shedding abroad over them the light of science and christianity. The means of doing so, fellow-citizens, are within our reach, and if we neglect, or do not make use of them, what excuse shall we make to our Creator and final Judge? This is a question of the deepest concern to us all, and which, in my opinion, will materially affect our happiness in the world to come. And surely, if ever it has been incumbent on the people of Liberia to know truth and to follow it, it is now. Rouse, therefore, fellow-citizens, and do your duty like men: and be persuaded, that Divine Providence, as heretofore, will continue to bless all your virtuous efforts.
But if there be any among us dead to all sense of honor and love of their country; if deaf to all the calls of liberty, virtue, and religion; if forgetful of the benevolence and magnanimity of those who have procured this asylum for them, and the future happiness of their children; if neither the examples nor the success of other nations, the dictates of reason and of nature, or the great duties they owe to their God, themselves, and their posterity, have no effect upon them;—if neither the injuries they received in the land whence they came, the prize they are contending for, the future blessings or curses of their children, the applause or reproach of all mankind, the approbation or displeasure of the great Judge, nor the happiness or misery consequent upon their conduct, in this and a future state, can move them; then, let them be assured, that they deserve to be slaves, and are entitled to nothing but anguish and tribulation. Let them banish, for ever, from their minds, the hope of obtaining that freedom, reputation, and happiness, which, as men, they are entitled to. Let them forget every duty, human and divine, remember not that they have children, and beware how they call to mind the justice of the Supreme Being: let them return into slavery, and hug their chains, and be a reproach and a by-word among all nations.
But I am persuaded, fellow-citizens, that we have none such among us;—that every citizen will do his duty, and exert himself to the utmost of his abilities to sustain the honor of his country, promote her interests, and the interests of his fellow-citizens, and to hand down unimpaired to future generations, the freedom and independence we this day enjoy.
As to myself, fellow-citizens, I assure you, I have never been indifferent to what concerns the interests of Liberia—my adopted country;—and I am sensible of no passion which could seduce me knowingly, from the path of duty, or of justice: the weakness of human nature, and the limits of my own understanding may, no doubt will, produce errors of judgment. I repeat, therefore, that I shall need the indulgence I have hitherto received at your hands. I shall need, too, the favour of that Being in whose hands we are, who has led us, as Israel of old, from our native land, and planted us in a country abounding in all the necessaries and comforts of life; who has covered our infancy with his Providence, and to whose goodness I ask you to join with me in supplications, that he will so enlighten the minds of your servants, guide their councils, and prosper their measures, that whatsoever they do shall result in your good, and shall secure to you the peace, friendship, and approbation of all nations.