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Dr. Robert Finley, Founder of the American Colonization Society

Dr. Robert Finley’s Work To Help Blacks, Defeat Slavery and Colonize Liberia

The American Colonization Society (ACS) was formed in 1817 to send free African-Americans to Africa as an alternative to emancipation in the United States. In 1822, the society established on the west coast of Africa a colony that in 1847 became the independent nation of Liberia.

Many remember that Dr. and Reverend Robert Finley was a pastor for 20 years at a Presbyterian church in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. Finley and also taught school at a boys’ academy known locally as the Brick Academy.

Rendering of the Brick Academy off Oak Street and Finley Avenue in Basking Ridge, New Jersey
Rendering of the Brick Academy off Oak Street and Finley Avenue in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. While he originally taught the boys at the nearby Presbyterian Church, Finley orchestrated the building of the Academy in 1809, as a prep school to prepare boys to go on to the College of New Jersey, which later became Princeton University.

Dr. Robert Finley was born in Princeton,New Jersey on February 13, 1772 to his parents James and Ann Finley. He attended the College of New Jersey and graduated at the age of only 15!

Robert and Esther Caldwell were married
on May 16, 1798.

Robert later married Esther Flynt Caldwell from Elizabeth on May 16, 1798 who was the daughter of Dr. James Caldwell. They had nine children; Mary Louise Ogden Finley; Helen Smith Finley; James Caldwell Finley; Robert Smith Finley; Josiah Coldwell Finley; Anna Morford Finley; John Edwards Caldwell Finley; Susan Bradford Finley and Hannah Smith McKinley.

In 1795, he was ordained as the 4th Pastor of the Presbyterian Church at Basking Ridge, where he served for 20 years as a popular preacher and noted educator, and originated the concept of the modern Sunday School.

Historic image of the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church in Basking Ridge
Historic image of the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church in Basking Ridge where Dr. Robert Finley preached.

His name honors his history and support when Main Street in Basking Ridge was renamed in his honor.

But what many people don’t know is Dr. Robert Finley was distressed
with the way in which blacks were being treated in America so he founded The American Colonization Society (ACS) in 1816 with George Washington’s nephew Bushrod Washington, proposing to abolish slavery and relocate free American blacks to a colony in West Africa.

An abolitionist, as the name implies, is a person who sought to abolish slavery during the 19th century. Finley, an abolitionist, believed that black people would face better chances for freedom and prosperity in Africa than in the United States. Also, if there were a colony available to them where they could be resettled, abolitionists hoped to gain more manumissions of slaves and eventually end the institution. African Americans gradually moved into positions in the government. The Republic of Liberia declared its independence on July 26, 1847. Between January 7, 1822, and during the American Civil War, more than 15,000 freed and free-born American black people, and 3,198 Afro-Caribbeans, relocated to the African settlement.

Philadelphia Protest

This black protest took place in Philadelphia in 2020. But what many people don’t know is the first large black protest took place in the old town section of Philadelphia in 1817 to protest Finley’s American Colonization Society.

On January 15, 1817 nearly 3,000 African American men met at the Bethel A.M.E. Church (popularly known as Mother Bethel AME) in Philadelphia and denounced the American Colonization Society’s plan to resettle free blacks in West Africa.  This gathering was the first black mass protest meeting in the United States. The black leaders who summoned the men to the church endorsed the ACS scheme and fully expected the black men who gathered there to follow their leadership.  Instead they rejected the scheme and forced the black leaders to embrace their position.

See Mother Bethel AME Church Today just seven blocks south of Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell – Click Here

Bishop Allen and other black leaders who had endorsed the ACS called the meeting in Bethel A.M.E. Church.  Some 3,000 black men, virtually the entire black male population of Philadelphia, gathered to hear about colonization. The black leaders expected the African American men of the city to endorse the ACS and Cuffee colonization schemes.  What they received instead was a denunciation of the plan.  Apparently the black men feared that all free blacks would be compelled to go to Africa including especially those in the slaveholding states. They saw (correctly as it turns out) that the ACS scheme allowed slaveholders to get rid of free blacks.

The January 1817 gathering of African American men became the first African American protest meeting on U.S. soil.

Finley Goes to Georgia

In 1817, Finley fell ill while traveling south to assume his new position as president of the University of Georgia. He died three months after his arrival on October 3, 1817 at the age of 49. He was buried in Jackson Street Cemetery on the school’s north campus in Athens, Georgia. He never got to recognize his dream of helping blacks become a free and self-determining group.

Post Finley Fallout

The Society gained support from both some abolitionists and slaveholders, for differing reasons. Free blacks faced discrimination in both the free states of the North, where slavery was abolished after the Revolution (in a gradual process in some places) and in the slave societies of the South. In the latter areas, free blacks were feared as being influential in disrupting slaves and leading slave rebellions.

Dr. Robert Finley and the American Colonization Society worked to help blacks during the 19th century way before emancipation and the Civil War. Click Here

ACS Downfall

While President after President endorsed the ACS, ultimately the country and the concept fell apart for a number of reasons. The emigrants dealt with severe challenges upon their arrival in Liberia and the poor living conditions in the colony deterred other free Black people from settling in the colony.

The settlers suffered from a high mortality rate and faced hostility from the indigenous peoples who tried to defend their homeland from colonizers.
The ACS’s efforts to receive funding from state and federal governments, as well as private donors, also deteriorated as reports from Liberia revealed difficulties in settling the land. These reports also undermined interest from the free Black community and created additional funding problems for the colony. The ACS also lacked the funding to successfully support multiple voyages to and from Liberia, and to maintain and protect the colony. Despite having significant private and public backing at the local and national levels at the beginning, the ACS and colonization were not sustainable ideas. After Liberia gained its independence in 1847, the organization further stagnated and the American Colonization Society formally dissolved in 1964.


In theory, colonization appeared to be an ideal solution to complicated and intertwined problems involving slavery, race relations, and the preservation of the Union.

U.S. Presidents during Finley’s pastorate included George Washington, John
Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison who all agreed with the policies of the American Colonization Society. Many members viewed their efforts as benevolent, but they gave little consideration to the opinions of free African Americans or how these measures would impact individuals, families, and communities of color.

Additional Information

If you’re having trouble reading the embedded version: First pub. New Brunswick, 1819, with title: Memoirs of the Rev. Robert Finley (1772-1817).
Click here to view
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