The True Whigs take Power

The True Whig Party
True Whig Party logo
Credit: Wikipedia

The young republic was divided into two political parties. The Mulattoes were in the True Liberian Party and the dark skinned Americo-Liberians made up the Old Whig Party. The parties names later changed with the True Liberian Party becoming the Republican Party, and the Old Whigs changing their name to the True Whig Party.

The Old Whigs won the presidential election in 1869 with E.J. Roye as their standard bearer. After Roye was deposed and killed in 1871, the Whigs influence weakened significantly for a number of years. They regrouped as the True Whig Party and included the Congoes (recaptured slaves) in their party, thus increasing their numbers. They returned to power in 1878, defeating Republican incumbent James S. Payne.

The party gained such political power over the years that they did not allow viable opposition. It was highly intertwined with the government as well as the Grand Masons of Liberia. A majority of the population, especially government employees, were members of the True Whig Party. Towards the middle and end of its glorious century, political challengers were threatened, jailed or exiled. Basically, Liberia was a one party state for the next century from Gardner in 1878 to the coup and death of Tolbert in 1980.

Anthony William Gardner (1878 – 1883)

Having defeated the Republicans, Gardner and his VP Russell assumed office in January 1878. The northern boundary issue came up early in Gardner’s presidency. US President Porter reached out to the Liberian government wishing to send more freed slaves to Liberia. This proposal was accepted by the Legislature which considered Liberia “the home of the dispersed children of Africa” (Cassell, 1970).

One of his goals was to reach and influence, develop and integrate the indigenous tribes of the hinterland. Gardner believed that it was the duty of the Christian Government to bring about the “unification, civilization and Christianization of the thousands of heathen now sitting in darkness and in the region and shadow of death” (Cassell, 1970). In 1880, the Medina territory joined Liberia through a treaty with the Vai Kings and Princes.

SMS Victoria in 1881
Credit: Wikipedia

Looting of the wrecked German vessel Carlos wrecked on the Kru shore caused Germany to dispatch the gunboat Victoria that attacked and destroyed several Kru villages along the shore.

Liberia had to pay the Germans for their merchandise with what little money she had. The President asked the US and France to intervene, but the French refused and Washington did not respond.

This rejection resulted in Liberia putting more effort into internal affairs and consequently improving relationship with some of the natives. The indigenous did prove to be just as intelligent as the settlers. After competitive testing, Lincoln University of Pennsylvania in 1882 accepted 8 Liberian students including 1 Americo-Liberian, 1 Vai, 2 Congolese (descendents of the recaptured slaves) and 4 Bassas. Integration was slow, but did prove beneficial for both sides. The Americo-Liberians had also adopted the native cuisine.

The British again started infringing on the rights of Liberia in 1883. Previous negotiations in Sierra Leone had failed. The new British Governor at Sierra Leone came to Monrovia with 4 gunboats, demanding that the region north and west of the Mano River be given to them. He also wanted repayment to some of their traders for losses caused by Liberia. Gardner and the Senate did not comply with their demands. This land grab would have given them about 150 miles of the coat and 50 million acres of land.

Although the British withdrew for a while, they returned with similar show of force. Fatigued with this constant harassment, President Gardner resigned on January 20, 1883. Efforts to dissuade him failed and the remainder of his term was completed by Vice President Alfred F. Russell.

Alfred Francis Russell (1883 – 1884)

Russell did not want the presidential nomination for the next election, but rather focused on completing his short term without introducing any new policies. During his term, the British government in Sierra took control of the areas between Sherbro Island and Mano River which belonged to Liberia.

Hilary Richard Wright Johnson (1884 – 1892)

Both the True Whig Party and the Republicans nominated Hilary Richard Wright Johnson and James Thompson for President and Vice President in 1883. Johnson took office in 1884 as the first President that was born on Liberian soil. He also faced the threat of the British, French and Germans trying to take away Liberian lands. There was still the issue of maintaining peaceful relationships with the natives and evasion of duties payment by foreign and tribal traders.

Johnson won reelection with an array of special projects. In improving education, he visited all of the schools, organized teaching clinics and encouraged the tribal chiefs in opening more schools. He also ordered a survey of the churches and missions in Liberia. His next focus was having more indigenous converted to Christianity and granting them “full rights of citizenship”. Finally, his programs provided scholarships for Liberia College and the formation of agricultural projects.

Joseph James Cheeseman (1892 – 1896)

In 1892, Cheeseman became President of Liberia with William David Coleman as his Vice President. By now the True Whig Party was less focused on skin color and the Republican Party had lost its influence. A new political party called the New Republicans emerged with Anthony D. Williams Jr. as their candidate, but they lost to the Whigs.

In 1892, France took the land between the Cavalla River and San Pedro River
Credit: Library of Congress

Cheeseman’s economic policies increased the nation’s revenue and large portion of the public debt was settled. The French were set on taking the Liberian region beyond the Cavalla River, claiming a larger area and said it would cede that land to Liberia if she got the land west of the Cavalla (which she really wanted).

Liberia asked the US to intercede and in seeking a fair agreement between both parties, Belgian citizen Baron de Stein served as Liberia’s counsel in these talks in Paris. In the end France took this land area of about 1,000 square miles, annoying the Liberian government and the Grebo tribe.

Cheesman ordered the closing of Liberia College in 1895 due to a lack of order on the campus that made it pointless for the faculty to keep teaching. The President died suddenly on November 15, 1896.

William David Coleman (1896 – 1900)
Liberia College
Credit: Liberia Past and Present

Vice President Coleman succeeded Cheeseman in 1896 and won the next election with Joseph James Ross as his VP. Coleman reopened Liberia College gave it more financial support to than any of his predecessors. He began his term with grand ideas about expanding into the hinterland. He tried to assert authority over the north east but this effort was defeated by the Golas and their allies.

His interior policy was condemned by most Liberians and Coleman resigned in 1900. His VP had died a few months prior so he was succeeded by Secretary of State Garretson Gibson.

Garretson Wilmot Gibson (1900 – 1904)

During this era there were 6 expeditions into the interior in search of minerals by the Union Mining Operations. Alexander Whyte also did a comprehensive study on the flora of Liberia. Survey of the northern boundary also occurred under his leadership and for his term, relationship with the British and French improved. The nation’s financial situation was dire and after serving an elected term, Gibson was succeeded by Arthur Barclay in 1904.

Arthur Barclay (1904 – 1912)

Barclay sought a loan of 100,000 pounds ($500,000) from the British, but needed a trustee or underwriter. Sir Harry Hamilton Johnston took advantage of this opportunity to create his limited liability company and joined with Liberia in getting the loan. The loan was granted but regrettably, Liberia received about 80% of the loan. Regardless of financial hardships, the government managed to repay this loan. Under unfavorable conditions, Liberia received another loan from the US to avoid bankruptcy in 1912.

Under his administration, the interior regions were considered a part of Liberia to protect the land from British and French. This was however a form of indirect rule where the natives lived with their own rules and customs but paid taxes to the Liberian government. The Presidential term was increased from 2 to 4 years, Representatives term also increased from 2 to 4 years and Senate term was changed from 4 to 6 years. Barclay was succeeded by Daniel E. Howard.

Daniel Edward Howard (1912 – 1920)

Most of Howard’s 2 terms saw the nation with wars in all directions and the country’s economy and finances were still in a bad state. As a businessman, he understood that Liberia did not have enough funds to maintain the government and other projects. In an effort to fix the financial crisis, Howard dissolved the military.

World War I occurred during his presidency and knowing Liberia’s strength and weaknesses, he decided that the country would remain absolutely neutral. Liberia still suffered economically as her exports were not demanding during the war and merchant ships also avoided her coasts. With US persuasion and Liberia trying to avoid economic breakdown, the nation declared war on January 12, 1918.

A German submarine attacked Monrovia in April when the Howard administration refused to turn over certain foreigners that were in Monrovia. A few buildings were destroyed along with the French radio station and 3 Liberians were killed. Shortly after the attack commenced, a British ship came to Liberia’s aid and the submarine retreated. The nation elected C.D.B. King as president in 1919.

Charles Dunbar Burgess King (1920 – 1930)
Native workers at Firestone Plantations Company carrying buckets loaded with latex.
Credit: Princeton University

Under King, Liberia signed the concession with Firestone Plantations granting them a million acres of land for their rubber plantation. This deal benefited Liberia in obtaining a US loan of $5 million.

King also provided tribal laborers to the plantation, taking them away from farming to reliance on the company for sustenance. Liberia had long abolished slavery and although the natives had forms of wardship, there was no serious slavery as seen in the Americas.

He made history with the first fraudulent election in Liberia in 1927, and was recorded in the Guinness World Record. In the election against Thomas J. R. Faulkner, with 15,000 eligible voters in the nation, King won with about 235,000 votes against Faulkner’s 9,000 votes. Graham Green noted that the results of the elections were already set, while everyone behaved like the votes, speeches and pamphlets mattered during these elections.

Cocoa production and export was booming in parts of West Africa including the Spanish island colony of Fernando Po, off the coast of present day Cameroon. The island was in need of laborers and Liberia worked with the Spanish and started sending tribal workers, some involuntarily, to the island with slave-like conditions. The administration collected a portion of their wages and licensing fees on each worker. Some of these men died and did not return to their families in Liberia. The Americo-Liberians also used the natives as slaves on their farms.

League of Nations Christy Report, 1930.
Credit: US Department of State

Following Faulkner’s loss, he drew attention to the situation in Liberia, accusing the president and numerous high ranking officials of slavery and forced labor. Washington learned about the labor trafficking and confronted King in 1929, and Liberia agreed to a League of Nations investigation.

This task was charged to former President Arthur Barclay, American scholar Charles Johnson and British tropical disease expert Cuthbert Christy. Johnson and Christy traveled into the hinterland to investigate the allegations. They learned that government officers intimated, harassed and extorted the natives.

Johnson noted the “natives voicing their fervent desire to find a way of peace with the new demands for hut taxes, government rice, road labor, carriers, plantation labor, export labor, custom charges, and head money” (Ciment, 2013).

Their final report stated that the labor trafficking fell short of slavery, but they still recommended numerous improvements in the hinterland. Consequently, King immediately stopped the labor trade, he and VP Yancy resigned in 1930. Overall, Faulkner was successful in revealing this issue to the world and bringing down the administration. King was succeeded by Secretary of State, Edwin Barclay, nephew of former President Arthur Barclay.


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Ciment, James. Another America : the Story of Liberia and the Former Slaves Who Ruled It. 1st ed. New York: Hill and Wang, 2013. Print.

Elections in Liberia. African Elections Database. 25 Nov. 2011. Web. 04 Aug. 2013.

Johann Buttikofer, “The Life of Liberians: Social Conditions,” in Henk Dop and Philip T. Robinson (eds), Travel Sketches from Liberia: John Buttikofer’s 19th Century Rainforest Expeditions in West Africa (Boston: Brill, 2013), pp. 537-564. (BB).

Kapuściński, Ryszard. The Shadow of the Sun. 1st ed. New York: A.A. Knopf, 2001. Print.

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