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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 496

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This is the grave of Jehudi Ashmun.

Born in 1794 in Champlain, New York, Ashmun went to Middlebury College before transferring to the University of Vermont, where he graduated in 1816. He became a minister and moved to Maine. He was a professor at Bangor Theological Seminary, a new college to train the next generation of ministers, but only stayed for two years. There was some controversy over his marriage while he was there and he quit. He moved to Baltimore and then to Washington to edit religious newspapers, though he seems to have failed both times.

Ashmun was someone who was horrified by slavery but who also couldn’t imagine a scenario where whites and free blacks could live side by side. In this, he was like many early abolitionists, who still believed the United States was a white man’s nation. while working out the paradox of slavery and race in his head. In 1816, the American Colonization Society had been founded. It’s goal was to end slavery by sending black people back to Africa. Liberia was founded as a nation designated for this. The entire thing was a disaster from the beginning. The vast majority of African-Americans would not go. When some of James Madison’s slaves were given this option after his death, they refused and were sold to Louisiana instead. After all, they were Americans, not Africans. For those who did go to Liberia, they brought with them white American racial ideology and held themselves as above the people already living there. Despite their common background, such as it was, the colony was marked by imperialism. repression, and death. On the side of African-Americans, it was disease that killed so, especially from malaria.

For Ashmun, Liberia became a cause. This was the solution for America’s racial problem, he believed. Eliminate slavery and send them all away. But he was more committed than most. He first started a newspaper to promote emigration to the colony. He also wrote a biography of Samuel Bacon, who was one of the ACS’ founders and who had gone to Liberia, where he died of malaria. Despite the dangers to his health, Ashmun wanted to go to Liberia himself and lead the project. The paradox of a white man leading this project of black nationhood would likely not have caused a second thought in the mind of someone such as Ashmun. In 1822, he and his wife joined 37 black settlers to head to Liberia. Ashmun was named the ACS’ agent in Liberia, which effectively made him the governor. He stayed there until 1828. The situation was a mess when he got there. Local tribes were furious at the new migrants for their violence and condescension. A lot of people were dying of disease. Supplies were lacking. Ashmun simply took over. He had no real authority to become what was essentially a dictator, but for awhile that’s basically what he was. As he did not believe in equality between blacks and whites, at first, he did not want to allow any black self-government. This actually caused a rebellion and in 1824, he had to flee to Cape Verde for awhile, though he came back. He eventually did liberalize the government a bit to at least let black people participate in the government–though certainly not the people native to Liberia. He also sought to create economic opportunities for western investment–which missionaries did all over the place, making them the frontier agents for imperialism. He also forced the neighboring tribes to give up more land to the new colony and promoted agricultural development, though most of the African-Americans who had moved there wanted to operate as merchants to supply Africans with western goods. In 1826, Ashmun wrote the first history of the Liberian colony, History of the American Colony in Liberia, 1821-1823.

Eventually, the climate of Liberia got to Ashmun as it got to so many Americans. His wife died while he was there and he got sick too. He returned to the U.S. before he died, but didn’t make it for too long after. He died in 1828, at the age of 34.

Jehudi Ashmun is buried in Grove Street Cemetery, New Haven, Connecticut.

If you would like this series to visit more famous American missionaries, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Adoniram Judson, the first North American missionary to Burma, is buried in Plymouth, Massachusetts (although he may in fact be in Burma and he is just listed on the family tombstone) and the Southern Baptist missionary Lottie Moon is in Crewe, Virginia. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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