Disunion – Slavery in Washington, D.C., circa Feb. 1861

Yesterday’s Disunion blog in the New York Times has a nice piece by Adam Goodheart exploring slavery as it still existed in Washington, D.C., when Abraham Lincoln arrived there toward the end of February 1861. One of the interesting things Goodheart notes is that slave trading, albeit in a more limited fashion than before, was still occurring in the nation’s capital, following the letter if not the spirit of the Compromise of 1850.

Adam Goodheart writes:

The slave trade – although supposedly outlawed in Washington more than a decade earlier – still operated there quite openly, with black men and women frequently advertised for sale in the newspapers, and occasionally even sent to the auction block just a few hundred yards from the White House. The ban, passed as part of the Compromise of 1850, technically only forbade the importation of blacks into the District of Columbia to be sold out of state. The law permitted a local master to sell his or her own slaves – and there was little to keep them from being sent across the river to Alexandria, where slave trading flourished on an industrial scale, and the unfortunate captives might easily be forced aboard a cramped schooner bound for New Orleans or Mobile. Nor was it an uncommon sight to see a black woman going door-to-door in the most fashionable neighborhoods of Washington, begging for small donations toward buying her children out of slavery.

So Lincoln found slavery in the nation’s capital essentially as well entrenched as when he had spent a term as Congressman there in the late 1840s, still an integral part of the city’s economy and society.  Adam Goodheart observes:

Congressman Lincoln was so appalled by his experiences that in January 1849 he introduced a bill to completely – albeit gradually – abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. The law would have provided compensation to masters for emancipating their slaves, a scheme similar to the one eventually implemented in Washington (and attempted in Delaware) during Lincoln’s presidency. The proposal was a topic of lively conversation at Sprigg’s boardinghouse. “Our whole mess remained in the dining-room after tea, and conversed upon the subject of Mr. Lincoln’s bill to abolish slavery,” one congressman wrote in his diary. “It was approved by all; I believe it as good a bill as we could get at this time.”

Not surprisingly, Goodheart adds “The proposal went nowhere in Congress.

Of course, as President, Abraham Lincoln would have more power to deal with slavery and over the course of the war would work to abolish it. But it should be remembered in February 1861, Lincoln was merely determined to stop the institution’s further spread west and still hopeful he could achieve reconciliation with the southern states, including those who had already seceded. An important purpose of Civil War Emancipation is to see day-to-day the events that transformed Lincoln from merely a free-soiler into the “Great Emancipator.”

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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