Lincoln’s Delaware Emancipation Bill

Up to late November 1861, Abraham Lincoln carefully avoided any policy in regard to slavery that would bring freedom to the slaves, in whole or in part. Even his support of Gen. Benjamin Butler’s contraband-of-war policy and the Confiscation Act that effectively made it law, although practically speaking a tremendous blow against slavery, did not formally challenge its legality. While the act confiscated the slaves of disloyal owners it did not free them. Instead, “contrabands,” as they were known, became what amounted to wards of the federal government–no longer slaves, but not truly free yet either.

Therefore, it was highly significant when on November 26, 1861, Lincoln drafted a bill for the Delaware legislature that would have provided for the gradual compensated emancipation of the state’s slaves. This action represents Lincoln’s first affirmative step as President toward promoting formal freedom for the slaves. Admittedly, it was highly limited. Delaware had less than 2,000 slaves on the eve of the Civil War, and of the loyal border states it by far was  the closest to having slavery die out on its own. Lincoln reasoned it would be the easiest state to enact gradual compensated emancipation and that with success there, he could persuade the other loyal border states to follow suit. As he wrote George Fisher, Delaware’s lone U.S. Representative, “If I can get this plan started in Delaware I have no fear but that all the other border states will accept it.”

The bill, if it had been enacted, would have had the U.S. government compensate Delaware, essentially trading federal bonds in installments for the gradual emancipation of the state’s slaves over a five-year period. The original version of the draft bill provided for annual federal bond payments with slavery ending for good in 1867. The second version, which Lincoln evidently thought more workable, lengthened the process to thirty annual installments with slavery definitively ending in 1893 (although the process could be shortened if Delaware’s legislature preferred). The revised version freed all slaves when the reached 35 years old until 1893, when all remaining slaves became free. Both versions provided for apprenticing slaves younger than twenty-one for males and younger than eighteen for females, a move designed to allow slaveholders to keep minors even when their parents became free. To view the text of Lincoln’s draft bills for Delaware emancipation, please <click here>.

As Allen Guelzo describes in Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (2004), how Lincoln’s bill failed to become law. Guelzo writes:

Fisher confidently caucused with friends in the Delaware legislature, quietly circulated a petition favoring the emancipation bill with enough names to impress the waverers, and soothed the fearful with assurances “that we could have a large sum of money to compensate the slave holders for all losses that they might sustain by the loss of their slaves.” But Fisher was surprised to find, over and over again, that even Unionists “who look upon slavery as a curse” were so deeply dyed by racial hatred that “we look upon freedom possessed by a negro, except in a very few cases, as a greater curse.”

Fisher struggled on, publishing the text of his “Act for the Gradual Emancipation of Slaves in the State of Delaware” in the newspapers at the beginning of February 1862 and squeaking through the Delaware Senate by a five-to-four vote, despite a Democratic majority. But in the Delaware House, a straw poll showed Fisher that the bill would fail by a single vote. Hoping to fight another day, Fisher had the bill withdrawn.

Clearly, despite a large free black population and few slaves, even whites in Delaware feared a final end to the peculiar institution, with its seeming spectre of disruption and violence. For the same reason, Abraham Lincoln would find resistance to gradual compensated emancipation even more fervent in the other loyal border states. Yet it is significant that Lincoln kept trying to push this gradual compensated emancipation in the loyal border states in the first half of 1862. He no doubt was aware from his vantage point as commander-in-chief of the subversive influence Union forces were having on slavery, even when commanders clearly wanted to protect the property rights of loyal slaveholders. Slaves and ordinary Union soldiers clearly had more power to undermine slavery in the border states than Union leaders had the ability to enforce it. With slavery in trouble even where it was less subject to the Confiscation Act, it was clearly under threat. Better, Lincoln must have thought, to encourage the loyal border states to adopt an orderly end to slavery, with the ex-slaves leaving the country, than risk the evils he and many other whites were convinced would come from a sudden, uncontrolled emancipation. It would take a further six months of mounting casualties, Union setbacks, and softening support for the war to get President Lincoln to adopt a more radical approach that would be embodied in the Emancipation Proclamation. But by late 1861, it was clear through his actions, Abraham Lincoln no longer believed the free soil approach to emancipation–hemming slavery in where it already existed and waiting for it to die on its own–was the correct policy of the federal government to the peculiar institution.

Sources: 1); 2) Allen Guelzo, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004), 103.

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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1 Response to Lincoln’s Delaware Emancipation Bill

  1. RaymondC Short says:

    Way back
    in 1968 I exercised the option senior year at Phillips Academy to write a term
    paper in lieu of taking the final exam
    in American History. Being from Bridgeville De I decided to write about Lincoln’s Compenasated Emancipation proposal. My recollection a half century later is that the one vote failure in the House was the result of personal animosity and little else? I vaguely remember that it involved a member of the Townsend family. Does this jive with your understanding of events in any way!

    Raymond Short

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