Who was J. J. Roberts? – March 2022

J. J. Roberts was Liberia’s first president.                 

March 15 is a National Holiday in Liberia, commemorating J. J. Roberts’s birthday.

History of J.J. Robert’s Birthday

Joseph Jenkins Roberts was born free in Norfolk, Virginia, USA on 15 March 1809.

The Republic of Liberia began as a settlement of the American Colonization Society (ACS), who believed black people would face better chances for freedom in Africa than in the United States. As part of this initiative, Roberts emigrated to Liberia in 1829.

When Liberia gained its independence from the US on 26 July 1847, Roberts was elected as the first president for the Republic of Liberia, serving until 1856. In 1872 he was elected again as Liberia’s seventh president. Roberts died on 24 February 1876, less than two months after his second term had ended.


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.


1833High sheriff
1838 – 1841Vice Governor of the Commonwealth of Liberia
1841 – 1848Governor of the Commonwealth of Liberia
1848 – 1856President of Liberia Vice Presidents
1848 – 1850: Nathaniel Brander
1850 – 1854: Anthony D. Williams
1854 – 1856: Stephen Allen Benson
1871 – 1876President 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.                    

Lithograph of the former home of Joseph Roberts In Monrovia
President Robert’s house, Monrovia / Wagner & McGuigan’s Lith. Phil.


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.

President Roberts statue , Monrovia
A Liberian 5 Dollar Note

Marriage and family

In 1828, Roberts married an 18-year-old woman named Sarah. They had an infant child whom they took with them when they emigrated the next year to the new colony of Liberia under the auspices of the American Colonization Society. Both Sarah and the child died in the first year of living in the colony. There was a very high rate of mortality due to disease among settlers to the new colony.

Some time after his wife’s death, Roberts married again, to Jane Rose Waring, in 1836 in Monrovia, Liberia.[6] She was a daughter of Colston Waring and Harriet Graves, other Virginians who had emigrated to the colony.

Jane Rose Waring Roberts
Jane Roberts
Widow of Joseph Jenkins Roberts in London, 1905

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.

Daguerreotype likely taken between 1840 and 1860.


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.

*Article is a compilation of information taken Wikipedia.org, Britannica,com, Loc.gov.

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