The Slaveholders’ Rebellion Bill

The July 8 edition of Civil War Emancipation discussed the lead taken by Congress in Summer 1861 in nudging the United States in the direction of emancipation, at the same time Lincoln was attempting to placate Unionist slaveholders in the border states. It explored a resolution passed by the U.S. House Representatives on July 9, 1861, stating “That in the judgment of this House it is no part of the duty of the soldiers of the United States to capture and return fugitive slaves.” The resolution was the brainchild of abolitionist Congressman Owen Lovejoy of Illinois.

Opponents of slavery in the U.S. Senate also acted that month. Most especially, Samuel C. Pomeroy, who had recently joined the Senate from the newly admitted state of Kansas. A veteran of the freesoil forces in Bleeding Kansas during the late 1850s, Pomeroy had an abiding hatred for slavery and slaveholders. On July 16, 1861, he introduced a bill that quickly became referred to “The Slaveholders’ Rebellion bill.” The proposed legislation anticipated the Second Confiscation Act that would be passed by Congress a year later in July 1862. According to the bill:

That, from and after the passage of this act, there shall be no slavery or involuntary servitude in any of the States of this Union that claim to have seceded from the government, and are in open and armed resistance to the execution of the laws and the provisions of the Constitution of the United States.

Pomeroy’s bill clearly identified slavery as the cause of the Civil War. In the preamble, it stated:

. . . is it essential to its self-preservation that, in “providing for the general welfare,” the united government should crush from the soil of the Union every germ of despotism that threatens its liberty; and whereas in this republic has culminated in a formidable rebellion, which threatens the liberties of the whole; and whereas the rise of the slave power within its limits proves how utterly incompatible with republican institutions is every form of despotism; and whereas the great question before this nation, which it is called upon to settle now–and settle forever–once for all, and for which the loyal people and States of this country are pouring out their blood and lavishing their treasure, is, whether American slavery shall die or American freedom shall live.

Samuel Pomeroy’s bill also provided for recruiting black soldiers to fight for the Union. Both he and his colleague, Senator James H. Lane, were much in favor of African-American military service. Lane would form the first official black unit in the Union army, the First Kansas (Colored) Infantry Regiment, during Summer 1862. But a year earlier, the idea of permanently freeing slaves and recruiting black soldiers was considered too radical. Too many Americans still agreed with Senator John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky, “The bill is a congressional act of emancipation intended to arm the slaves. It is not only to confiscate the whole property, but it is to ferment a servile war.” So, Pomeroy’s bill did not become law but pointed the way to future. Of it, the New York Times‘ correspondent wrote prophetically:

At present there is not a majority in the Senate that will favor such a bill, but I question whether a majority will be wanting twelve months longer, if the war continues. We must yet learn, that the only effective remedy for this rebellion, is to remove the cause. Gen. POMEROY will tell how he would do that when he gets the floor. His colleague, Gen. LANE, will sustain the same view. These Kansas Senators have had an education more severe than the catechism of the Priest, and they are bearing early fruit in consequence of that education.

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
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