Tubman the Emancipator

The Emancipator

Photograph presented to President John F. Kennedy by President William V.S. Tubman during his state visit to the White House on October 19, 1961. Autographed in green pen “Sincerely, W. Tubman 19-10-61”.
Credit: JFK Library

Tubman was the Emancipator, one to unite the country and integrate the natives into the Liberian society through his Unification Program. He made more changes in this aspect than any of his predecessors, although the concept was introduced many decades prior.

This integration effort also stemmed from education and exposure of the natives, the wave of nationalism as other African nations gained independence and many Liberians traveling to Europe, America, and other African nations. Moreover, there was some guilt in the Americo-Liberian circles as some of them had connections to native communities.

He encouraged training of the Liberian Frontier Force instead of just parading as they did in the past. The Civil Service law was enacted to allow qualified applicants into government positions instead of nepotism as had been the case. This measure was unpopular with the Americo-Liberian ruling class.

The national public school system was established and Liberia College was rebuilt and revived. The issue of illiteracy among the natives was also considered. Numerous hospitals and clinics were built, as well as the construction of roads connecting Monrovia and the hinterland areas. He toured the various provinces even before the roads were built. The coming of the President and his entourage was a time of celebration for local chiefs and everyone in the vicinity.

Although the natives became citizens in 1904, this was done to prevent European encroachment on the interior regions and extend the government’s control over them. It was Tubman who extended suffrage to the natives, created the hinterland counties and allowed full representation of the interior regions into the national legislature.

According to Liebenow, it was again respectable to have tribal names in Liberian circles. Regardless of these improvements, Liberia still had a division between the Congo and Country people.

Tubman is sometimes considered a conflicted leader – creating jobs for his loyalists and extending voting rights and full legislative participation to the natives. He even joined the Poro society to consolidate his friendship with the indigenous Liberians while still upholding the beliefs of the Americo-Liberian class – civilize and Christianize the native while keeping them away from key political positions.

His leadership and approachability were his biggest assets. Although termed the emancipator, he was also a benevolent dictator. The natives were kept in their place in terms of limited education and development. Not everything he did was pleasing to the Americo-Liberians and the True Whig upper class, but his relationship with the natives meant he had unwavering support from this majority demography.

Decolonization of Africa

The 1950’s and 1960’s saw many African nations gaining independence from former colonial masters and the rise of African nationalism. Liberia as a nation had not established any interactions with the neighboring colonies as she had relied on the US or other western nations for aid and trade. There was concern that these new African nations would arise with their own ideologies and the effects on Liberia.

Nevertheless, Liberia saw an opportunity to assert herself as a leading force in the independence of these countries and at the United Nations. So embassies were opened in the new nations, trade and other agreements were signed and Liberia attended and hosted many related conferences. Angie Brooks- Randolph, Liberian delegate to the UN, was selected as the first African President of the UN General Assembly in 1969.

Economic and Infrastructural Development

Ariel view of the Executive Mansion, Temple of Justice and Capitol Building
Credit: 45 Spaces

Tubman’s extensive term saw more economic and development changes than the previous century as he worked to implement the social and economic policies of his predecessors. The Open Door Policy he embraced and advanced brought in foreign investments of more than 1 billion dollars.

The road network (though unpaved) linking many of Liberia’s towns and cities were developed during his term. Liberia’s economy grew with the increase in foreign capital which resulted in an increase in cash crops and iron ore mining. By the time he died, Liberia was 1st in Africa and 3rd in the world in iron ore exports. It also had the largest rubber plantation and commercial fleet in the world.

The Executive Mansion costing more than half of the national budget was constructed. He claimed it was too flamboyant for him, but adequate for the President of Liberia. Other developments included the Temple of Justice, the Capitol Building, the Freeport of Monrovia, the JFK Medical Center and improvements in the Central Monrovia. Many Liberians were also granted scholarships to study abroad.

All of the foreign investments did not necessarily benefit the nation as expected. Investors “exported their production, nearly all unprocessed, to processing industries in economically more developed countries” (Kraaj). They sometimes took advantage of Liberia’s lack of control on her resources and inexperienced administrators. Liberia also did not gain much from the profits as lax taxation on these investors hindered some of the government’s income.

Girls washing clothes in a river, 1957 – 1960
Credit: ELCA Archives

Moreover, providing labor for these foreign companies took away from sustenance farming and production, making the country more dependent on food imports especially rice.

It is important to note that Tubman’s development efforts were focused mainly in parts of Monrovia and his hometown of Harper, Maryland County. The limited road network in the nation was not paved and almost impossible to travel during the rainy season. The majority of Liberians lacked medical facilities, electricity, schools and other basic amenities.

A Political Dictator

The True Whig party had political monopoly since 1877 with Gardner’s election and Tubman’s era from 1944 to 1971 would be even worse. By now the True Whig Party controlled the electoral process with their representatives on the Elections Commission which could declare a political party as illegal. He allowed the formation of other political parties but said he was sure that they could not defeat the True Whig candidates. Tubman’s image and political concerns had him establish a Public Relations Office with people to inform him of what was going on in the government and his presumed political adversaries.

In 1951, for example, the Reformation Party was declared an illegal group by the Election Commission and denied the right to contest Tubman’s bid for a second term. …

In 1955 the Legislature made the decision easier for the commission, outlawing by statute both the Independent True Whig Party and the Reformation Party “because of their dangerous, unpatriotic, unconstitutional, illegal and conscienceless acts”.


Life wasn’t easy or safe for opposition leaders. Didhow Twe who challenged Tubman in 1951 fled Liberia before the election and was charged with treason. Edwin Barclay ran against Tubman in 1955 and was charged with attempted murder. Liberia also experienced suppression of the independent press which began in Edwin Barclay’s era that followed the Fernando Po scandal and the government needed to maintain its image.

Statue of President Tubman, 1970, Johnsonville, Liberia.
Credit: LiberiaInfo

The Tubman Presidency introduced the dominance of the president in Liberian politics as well as the lessening of the powers of the other branches of the government. His popularity also started a period of adulation, personal enrichment and flamboyance of the president at the expense of the nation. Many buildings, bridges, streets were named after the president, and numerous presidential statues were erected around the country.

There were lavished birthday parties for the President with deductions from government employee’s salaries. His birthday presents from the nation over the years included a new car, yacht, plane and a number of buildings. To top it all, the nation built a new Executive Mansion at about $15 million with a national budget of $27 million.

With his firm hold on the presidency, the constitution was changed so that Tubman could hold office indefinitely. The single presidential term of 8 years was altered allowing him to be reelected 6 times after his initial 8 years. He was the nations longest serving president with 27 years in office. Having won the election in 1971, he would have begun his 7th term in 1972. As fate would have it, Tubman died while receiving treatment in a London hospital before beginning said term. Given the times and political atmosphere, it seems this was surely the only means by which the Emancipator would have left the presidency.

The end of an era

Tubman was a beloved president who connected with many, especially the indigenous Liberians. He lived in grandiose and was adulated by most Liberians. Hence, his death was mourned and celebrated in splendor. He was replaced by Vice President Tolbert who had been in Tubman’s shadows for 19 years. Again, another True Whig President would rule the nation.


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

Anderson, Robert Earle. Liberia, America’s African Friend. University of North Carolina Press, 1952. Print.

Elections in Liberia. African Elections Database. 25 Nov. 2011. Web.

Hlophe, Stephen S. Class, Ethnicity, and Politics in Liberia : A Class Analysis of Power Struggles in the Tubman and Tolbert Administrations, from 1944-1975. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1979. Print.

Huffman, Alan. Mississippi in Africa. New York, N.Y.: Gotham Books, 2004. Print.

Kraaij, F. The Open Door Policy of Liberia : an Economic History of Modern Liberia. Bremen: Im Selbstverlag des Museums, 1983. Print.

Liebenow, J. Liberia : the Quest for Democracy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

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