Jehudi Ashmun, the Father of Liberia

One man's devotion. One man's dream.

He was a man with a mission. He was an intense and devoted man that a clergyman once wrote to him that should he continue to overwork himself by preaching, he would burn out. “The Father of a Country,” he is the George Washington of Liberia. He is Jehudi Ashmun.

"History is rarely a black or white proposition. That's what makes it interesting. Otherwise, it would be nothing but two-dimensional cartoon figures of superheroes and arch villains.”

Jehudi Ashmun
Champlain's 1938 tribute to the Father of Liberia, Jehudi Ashmun.

The third of ten siblings, he was born on Oak Street, April 21, 1794 to Samuel and Parthenia Ashmun. His parents were one of the founding families and first settlers of the Town of Champlain. “Samuel Ashmun came up with my relative Pliny Moore in 1788 when he founded Champlain (which is on the Canadian border 20 miles north of Plattsburgh),” David Patrick, an expert on Champlain history says. “Samuel Ashmun served in the Revolutionary War and received land from the State of New York like twenty-five other people did in Champlain.  Samuel built a house on Oak Street (within sight of the border) and this is where Jehudi was born.  Ashmun joined the newly established Presbyterian and Congregational Church and Society and was baptized there along with his children.  He was a 40-year member of the church. Jehudi was baptized there in 1807.”

Samuel could only afford to educate his children at common schools, but he still hoped they would be able to make a decent living in the agricultural sector with this training. However, Ashmun hungered for more—he wanted more for himself. He convinced his parents and went on to pursue a liberal education. He was just fourteen when the Rev. Amos Pettingill tutored him, preparing him for college. And in 1812, Ashmun studied at Middlebury College before transferring to the University of Vermont (UVM) in 1814 due to financial setbacks. Even though he struggled to cope with bad health, he still graduated from UVM with degrees of A.B. and A.M. and with literary honors in 1816. Around this time, he also served as a Presbyterian minister.

The 1959 unveiling of the plaque
The 1959, 350th celebration. The unveiling of the Jehudi Ashmun plaque.

Before he turned 22-years-old, Ashmun left home— never again to see his family. “I couldn't vouch for it 100 percent, but once Jehudi got his "calling" for re-colonizing freed American slaves, there would have been little reason for him to stay in such an isolated spot as Champlain,” says Robert Pelletier, historical researcher who had published a historical article about Ashmun life in Lake Champlain Weekly.

In 1818, he became the principal of a theological academy in Maine, but resigned shortly after due to a mysterious misunderstanding over his marriage. He then became editor of a Washington monthly magazine published in the interest of the Episcopal Church called “Theological Repertory”. It was about this time too that Ashmun learned of the American Colonization Society (ACS), a society that was founded mainly by southerners to establish a home-land for free blacks and freed slaves in Africa.

“The issue of the African Colonization movement is quite controversial,” Pelletier says. “It wasn't really to set the free slaves free in Africa nor was it born out of the generosity of slave owners. It was mostly slave owners from the South who feared free slaves who might organize slave revolts.” But nevertheless, Ashmun was fascinated; in fact, the society eventually filled up with people who genuinely devoted themselves to the cause of the Blacks. The society intrigued so much so that in 1820, he started a newspaper called the “African Intelligence” to promote the ACS program of sending free African Americans from America to a colony in West Africa. The paper shut down soon after. However, Ashmun's interest with the Liberian settlement didn't end with the paper, if anything it only grew.

ACS managed to persuade Congress to purchase land on the west coast of Africa from native leaders in order to populate it with freed blacks. And finally in 1820 the first shipload of settlers sailed to the colony. They struggled with health and after one agent died, they left. And in 1822, Ashmun published “Memoir of the Life…of Samuel Bacon” about that agent who had died from malaria.

That same year, Ashmun was assigned to lead thirty-seven emigrants in their quest to Africa. Ashmun's real dilemma began when he sailed on June 19, 1822; he found the colony in a disastrous condition—the natives were violently protesting. As a result, ACS sent Ashmun with the second ship of settlers. His wife Catharine Gray accompanied him. Ashmun's wife died from malaria shortly after, but instead of returning, Ashmun stayed on for six-years, before his own health deteriorated.

“Ashmun's behavior in Liberia has been described as sometimes being dictatorial. He was also probably quite inexperienced in actual people management, for some of his decisions prompted a revolt against him by the ex-slaves,” says Pelletier. How he had treated the Liberian natives may have been questionable says Pelletier. “The African kings in the area were not too keen on his project and zeal against the slave trade, since some profited handsomely from collaborating with Arab and Spanish slave traders. The ACS did not shy away from using force to pry land away from the local tribes to resettle the freed American slaves. Their presence would have created some resentment among the locals, since many came from different areas of Africa and from different tribes then them. Another point of friction was the introduction of Christian missionaries which sought to replace the local Muslim and animist beliefs.”

jehudi plaque
The 1959 plaque honoring Jehudi Ashmun up-close.

Ashmun had expanded the colony's territory, its commerce and agriculture; he modified its laws and formed a democratic government. But in 1828, due to his failing health, he returned to United States where he died of fever on August 25, 1828 at the age of thirty-four.

Today, the remains of Jehudi Ashmun lie in the Grove Street Haven, Connecticut. In 1938, during Champlain's 150th anniversary, the New York State Education Department devoted a historical plaque in front of the home-site where he was born, Champlain. And in 1959, the Village of Champlain devoted a tribute to Jehudi Ashmun on public school grounds at the unveiling the Secretary of the Liberian Embassy in Washington participated.

“Maybe that Ashmun toiled for what he felt was an African Zion, where freed American slaves could prosper without the yoke of prejudice, and that he displayed missionary zeal and a degree of ruthlessness in attaining that dream,” Pelletier says. “However, the American Colonization Society's core mission was not abolition of slavery or equal rights, and Ashmun's efforts would have probably been more productive and long lasting had he focused on those objectives instead, as did the freed slaves like Frederick Douglass who chose to stay in America and fight oppression. History is rarely a black or white proposition. That's what makes it interesting. Otherwise, it would be nothing, but two-dimensional cartoon figures of superheroes and arch villains.”

What do you know about Liberia?



More About Ashmun

In one of Weare Holbrook's books Ashmun is described as the “one of the forgotten men in history.” However, it is clear that he isn't forgotten in Liberia. This native-born of Clinton County has Liberian postage stamps issued in his honor- in 1949 the first Jehudi Ashmun stamps depicting “Battle of Fort Hill” - a battle of 800 warriors revolting against the colonists. A second series was issued in 1952.

And did you know that Jehudi Ashmun is one of the only men besides Roger Williams who founded the state of Rhode Island, to find a nation.

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