Emancipation Day – Another Reason to Thank the Slaves

Today, April 15, Emancipation Day is observed in the District of Columbia. Normally, this holiday is celebrated in Washington, D.C. on April 16. However, since in 2011, April 16 falls on a Saturday, the observance has been moved one day earlier to give people who get public holidays off a three-day weekend.

Emancipation Day commemorates the day–April 16, 1862–when Abraham Lincoln signed a law freeing the slaves in Washington, D.C. (nearly 3,000 in all). The District of Columbia Emancipation Act also is referred to as the “Compensated Emancipation Act” because it is one of the few instances during the Civil War in which slaveholders received payment when the government freed their slaves. Since Fall 1861, Lincoln had tried coaxing the remaining four loyal slave states to enact compensated emancipation. Rebuffed, Lincoln and his supporters in Congress decided to implement the idea in the one jurisdiction completely under their control–the District of Columbia. Under the law, loyal slaveholders would receive up to $300 for each slave they owned. It also sought to encourage the emigration of the freed slaves by offering them $100 if they would leave the country.

The emigration provision reflected Lincoln’s conviction early in the war–shared by many other people–that freed slaves could not possibly live peaceably with white Americans in a post-emancipation society. The idea eventually floundered on African-American opposition, the growing realization that co-existence was both possible and desirable, and the great impracticality of the forced emigration of four million former slaves.

Yet the District of Columbia Emancipation Act was still an important milestone on the path to ending slavery in the United States. It demonstrated Lincoln’s shift from tolerating slavery in the earliest days of his administration to at the very least tentatively exploring ways to end the peculiar institution. And as Abraham Lincoln embarked on this journey, he would soon come to realize the difficulty of freeing only a portion of the slaves, and shift increasingly toward freeing them all.

The District of Columbia Emancipation Act also has great relevance for Americans in 2011. Normally, April 15 is the deadline for people in the United States to file their tax returns. However, because many of the Washingtonians celebrating Emancipation Day today are government workers, some of those employed by the Internal Revenue Service, the federal government has extended the tax filing deadline in 2011 to Monday, April 18. So Emancipation Day has given all Americans–but tax procrastinators particularly–yet another reason to thank the slaves.

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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