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My purpose is to provide contexts for seven Liberian state-constituting documents coupled with three important draft constitutions and six amendment documents. Criteria for selection of documents include principal constitutions that span the period from the first formal organization of a new political order in 1820 (Constitution of 1820), the turning points in the evolution of that order (Constitutions of 1825 and the Maryland Constitution of 1833), and echoes of a debate about constitutional rearrangements. This debate entailed the drafting of three documents that failed of adoption. They include the "Constitution of General Government, for the American Settlements on the Western Coast of Africa" (1837); "Articles of Association Between and among the Colonies of Liberia, being Colonies of Free Coloured Persons from the United States of America on the Western Coast of Africa" (1838); the "Monrovia Draft" Constitution of the Liberian emigrants themselves (1839); and the Plan of Civil Government of 1841. Colonial settlements consolidating into a league of states went forward with adoption of the Commonwealth Constitution of 1839, followed eight years later with the independence Constitution which accompanied the formal declaration of independence in 1847.

Documents selection criteria included availability either of the original or a printed version. Given the civil war that ravaged Liberia for 14 years (1989-2003), the Liberian National Archives have availed little. Most of the documents found were either in the papers of the American Colonization Society (the parent society that founded the Liberian state), the papers of the Maryland State Colonization Society, in Charles Huberich’s two volume study The Political and Legislative History of Liberia, or other sources. In the course of compiling there developed the prospect of finding in a sealed safe in Monrovia the original of the 1847 Constitution. Alas bureaucratic complications dashed our hopes. We were therefore left with printed versions of most documents. Special thanks we owe to the Library of Congress and Yale University Library who provided copies of the little manuscript material which was available.

Editorial principles involved verifying original or printed versions of documents. In case of original, faithful image, and for the printed versions, exact words, spelling, capitalization and punctuation of official texts were primary concerns. Where alterations of any sort were deemed necessary, endnotes explanations are provided.

The nine constitutional documents tell in part the story of the transfer of modern constitutionalism from the United States to West Africa in the first half of the 19th century. They also highlight state implantation and early development. Following many false starts the entity that became Liberia was established in 1822 as consequence of the signing in December 1821 of the Dukor Contract between indigenous leaders and representatives, respectively, of the ACS and the U.S. government. Though both contained some elementary constitutional principles, the 1820 and 1825 Constitutions were each largely dictates from the ACS to their agents in West Africa.

A parallel development in the nearby settlement of “Maryland in Africa”, established by the Maryland State Colonization Society accounts for the Constitutions of 1833 and 1853. The 1833 document is comparatively progressive, reportedly based on Nathan Dane’s Ordinance of 1787 for government of the Northwest Territory of the United States. When charge of affairs of this settlement came fully into the hands of the colonists they were governed under the 1853 constitution.

In the Liberian Settlement proper political stirrings by the colonists soon led the ACS Board of Managers to consider rationalizing the situation and relinquishing control. Three draft constitutions that were not adopted led the way. The first was a resolve in 1837 of the ACS for a “Constitution of General Government…” to be recommended to associated auxiliary colonization societies of New York, Pennsylvania, and the State of Maryland. With the failure of this plan for the formation of a federal state, the concern persisted that the continuation of the system of “independent” entities was “costly, dangerous and inexpedient” (Huberich, vol. I, p. 560). Accordingly, a Convention of Societies having colonies on the coast of Africa was held in September 1838, and the result was the “Articles of Association…”. This, too, failed of adoption.

Perhaps in response to echoes of discontent in the settlement, the ACS Board requested of its agent that the people be consulted in reference to possible alterations in the old or 1825 Constitution and Digest Laws. A committee of leading citizens seized the opportunity not only to revise but also to attempt what the framers of the American Constitution of 1787 did, that is, to scrap the old documents and replace them with a completely new one. The product was the “Monrovia Draft” Constitution of 1838. Rather than this draft the Society opted to adopt a “Buchanan Draft” which became in January 1839 the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Liberia.

Barely eight years later circumstances in the Commonwealth that then incorporated Montserrado, Grand Bassa, and Sinoe counties necessitated both the July 26, 1847 Declaration of Independence, and the independence Constitution which was adopted the same year.

Select Bibliography

Alexander, Archibald, A History of Colonization on the Western Coast of Africa, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969.

American (The) Colonization Society, A Register of Its Records in the Library of Congress, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division 34 p.

Azikiwe, Nmamdi, Liberia In World Politics, London: A.H. Stockwell, 1934.

Brown, George W., The Economic History of Liberia, Washington, DC: Associated Publishers, 1941.

Brown, Robert T., “Simon Greenleaf and the Liberian Constitution of 1847”, Liberian Studies Journal 9, no. 2 (1980-81) 51-60.

Burrowes, Carl Patrick, “Black Christian Republicans: Delegates to the 1847 Liberian Constitutional Convention”, Liberian Studies Journal, 14, no. 2 (1989) 64-87.

Burrowes, Carl Patrick, “Textual Sources of the 1847 Liberian Constitution”, Liberian Studies Journal, 28, no. 1 (1998), 1-41.

Campbell, Penelope, Maryland In Africa, The Maryland State Colonization Society 1831-1857, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1971.

Dormu, Alfonso K., Constitution (The) of the Republic of Liberia and the Declaration of Independence, with notes, New York: Exposition Press, 1970.

Dunn, D. Elwood & Byron Tarr, Liberia: A National Polity in Transition, Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1988.

Huberich, Charles Henry, The Political and Legislative History of Liberia, 2 vols., New York: Central Book Company, 1947.

Latrobe, John H.B., Maryland in Liberia: A History of the Colony Planted by the Maryland State Colonization Society Under the Auspices of the State of Maryland, U.S. at Cape Palmas on the South-West Coast of Africa, 1833-1853, Maryland Historical Society Fund Publication 21, Baltimore: John Murphy, 1885.

Liberia, Republic of, The Independent republic of Liberia: Its Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Issued Chiefly for Use by the Free People of Color, Philadelphia: William F. Geddes, 1848.

Maryland State Colonization Society, Annual Reports of the Board of Managers: 1835-1846; Feb., 1852; Jan., 1856; Jan., 1858, Baltimore: John D. Toy (Microfilm).

Poore, Benjamin, The Federal and State Constitutions, Colonial Charters, and Organic Laws of the United States, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1878.

Staudenraus, P.J., The African Colonization Movement, 1816-1865, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1961.