Joseph Jenkins Roberts

Joseph Jenkins Roberts
Credit: Wikipedia, LOC

Joseph Jenkins Roberts

Term 1st President: 1848 – 1856
7th President: 1872 – 1876
Born March 15, 1809, Norfolk, Virginia, USA
Died February 24, 1876, Monrovia, Liberia
Race/Ethnicity Mulatto, Americo-Liberian
County of Origin Montserrado
Profession Businessman
Political Party True Liberian Party


Joe Roberts was born of slave parents in Petersburg, Virginia, USA in 1809. He taught himself to read and write, and as a young boy, worked as a cabin boy and deck laborer on the Appomattox River boats. Having lost his father at the age, the young Roberts used most of his hard earned wages to buy his mother’s freedom out of slavery. At nineteen, he signed up to join the negro colony in Africa, convincing his mother and two brothers to relocate to the settlement at Cape Mesurado in 1829.


Roberts received basic early education in Virginia, but eventually taught himself to read and write.


1830 Trader/Businessman
1833 High sheriff
1838 – 1841 Vice Governor of the Commonwealth of Liberia
1841 – 1848 Governor of the Commonwealth of Liberia
1848 – 1856 President of Liberia

Vice Presidents
1848 – 1850: Nathaniel Brander
1850 – 1854: Anthony D. Williams
1854 – 1856: Stephen Allen Benson

1871 – 1876 President of Liberia

Vice President
Anthony W. Gardner

Morrow describes Roberts at age 20 as noteworthy, and one of influence. He was a successful businessman and ran Roberts, Colson and Company firm in partnership with William Nelson Colson who was in the US. Colson would buy goods and ship them to Roberts to sell. Their business prospered and they were able to purchase a vessel, the Caroline, that transported goods and people between the US and Liberia.

In 1839 the secretary general of the ACS, Ralph Gurley proposed a plan to unify the various settlements (Monrovia, New Georgia, Caldwell, Millsburg, Marshall, Edina, Bixley, Buchanan, Sinoe and Maryland) into the Commonwealth of Liberia. With the exception of Maryland and Sinoe, the settlements united to form the Commonwealth. As defined in the constitution of 1839, Thomas Buchanan of Philadelphia was elected governor and Joseph Jenkins Roberts was his vice governor. The elder governor and his young assistant were about thirty years apart in age, but were both strong Christians and peacefully compatible.

Upon Buchanan’s death on September 3, 1841, Roberts became the governor of the Commonwealth of Liberia. He then worked on improving farming, churches and schools. He even visited the US and was well received at churches, but completely ignored by Washington. During this time, he faced problems with the British refusing to pay for trade, and the French trying to infringe on the northern territory. Britain asserted that Liberia could not claim custom duties and the commonwealth was: “no more than a commercial experiment of a philanthropic society” (Wilson, 1971).

Governor Roberts then saw the need for Liberia to become an independent republic, as this status would enable her to legally trade with other countries, and be recognized as a sovereign nation. As stated in his annual message of 1846:

And, in my opinion, it only remains for the Government of Liberia, by a formal act, to announce her independence – that she is now, and has always been a sovereign independent state – and that documents of this proceeding, duly certified by the Colonization Society, be presented to the British, as well as other governments, and by that means obtain from Great Britain and other powers, a just and formal recognition of the Government of Liberia. …

We should remember, with feelings of deep gratitude, the obligations we are under to the American Colonization Society- they have made us what we are, and they are deeply interested in our welfare – and I firmly believe they will place no obstacles in the way of our future advancement and success.

-Joseph Jenkins Roberts, The African Repository, 1846


Under his leadership, the Republic of Liberia was founded on July 26, 1847 with the counties of Montserrado, Bassa and Sinoe. Roberts won the first election held in October 1847, making him Liberia’s first president. He helped the nation attain acknowledgement from the European nations. These included England, France and Belgium in 1848, and Portugal, Brazil, Sardinia, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Hamburg, Brenem, Lubeck and Haiti in 1849. The Liberia College (University of Liberia) was also established and the Liberian coastline was extended to 100 miles during his tenure.

President Roberts was succeeded by Stephen Allen Benson in 1856. However, with the country in chaos after E. J. Roye was deposed by the Republicans in 1870, an election was held and the former president returned to power uncontested. Roberts was seen as an elder statesman in the position to lead the nation he helped establish. There was animosity between Roye and Roberts and some attributed it to their racial differences.

Returning to the presidency, Roberts continued pushing for expansion in education and the need for more schools. He also visited various settlements in the nation to assess their progress. The loan of 1871 was still a problem and the northern boundary issue with the British persisted. Another crisis on Robert’s watch was wars between the native kingdoms and the Liberian military. Aging and tired Roberts, served his nation and Liberia College well into his sixties, although his failing health had him reliant on others. His Vice President, James Spriggs Payne, succeeded him in 1876.

Post Presidency

Shortly after his term ended, Roberts died on February 24, 1876. He was honored in a great funeral and buried at the Pine Grove Cemetery in Monrovia.


Cahoon, Ben. “Liberia.” World Statesmen. N.p., 2000. Web. 12 Apr. 2013.

Cassell, Abayomi. Liberia: History of the First African Republic. New York. Fountainhead Publishers, 1970. Print.

Emigrants Database, Virginia Emigrants to Liberia, Virginia Center for Digital History, University of Virginia.

“Governor Roberts’ Annual Message.” The African Repository 22(1846): N. pag. Web. 13 Apr. 2013.

Huberich, Charles Henry. The Political and Legislative History of Liberia : a Documentary History of the Constitutions, Laws and Treaties of Liberia from the Earliest Settlements to the Establishment of the Republic, a Sketch of the Activities of the American Colonization Societies, a Commentary on the Constitution of the Republic and a Survey of the Political and Social Legislation from 1847 to 1944 : with Appendices Containing the Laws of the Colony of Liberia, 1820-1839, and Acts of the Governor and Council, 1839-1847. New York: Central Book Co., 1947. Print.

Richardson, Nathaniel R. Liberia’s Past and Present. Diplomatic Press and Pub. Co., 1959. Print.

The African Repository and Colonial Journal V22.1. The American Colonization Society. C. Alexander: Washington. Jan. 1846.

The African Repository and Colonial Journal V25.1. The American Colonization Society. C. Alexander: Washington. Jan. 1849.

Wilson, Charles Morrow. Liberia: Black Africa in Microcosm. [1st ed.]. Harper & Row, 1971. Print.