Methods of Emancipation

By Spring 1862, the discussion in the North about slavery increasingly was not whether to free the slaves, but instead about the best way to achieve this goal. Opinion on this question was divided, first, on whether emancipation should be immediate or gradual. Second, there was a difference over whether or not loyal slaveholders should be compensated (under the terms of the first Confiscation Act, compensation for rebel slaveholders was out of the question). Third, disagreement existed over whether freed slaves should be required to leave the United States.

So, for example, in March 1862, President Lincoln reiterated his support for gradual, compensated emancipation initiated at the state level with federal financial assistance to pay off slaveholders and purchase ex-slaves transportation outside the United States. As he wrote influential newspaper editor Horace Greeley on March 24, 1862:

If I were to suggest anything it would be that as the North are already for the measure [i.e., slave emancipation], we should urge it persuasively, and not menacingly, upon the South. I am little uneasy about the abolishment of slavery in this District [i.e., Washington, D.C.], not but I would be glad to see it abolished, but as to the time and manner of doing it. If some one or more of the border-states would move fast, should greatly prefer it; but if this can not be in a reasonable time, I would like the bill to have the three main features—gradual—compensation—and vote of the people.

Lincoln in Spring 1862, preferred emancipation initiated at the state level, because given 1857’s Dred Scott decision (which ruled unconstitutional federal legislation to control the spread of slavery), any attempt to pass legislation in the U.S. Congress to free the slaves outside the District of Columbia would be subject to challenge in the federal courts, where it likely would be overturned.

Others looked to foreign precedents on how slave emancipation might be accomplished peacefully and with a minimum of social disruption. In its March 16, 1862 issue, for instance, Harper’s Weekly published an article entitled, “What to do with the Negroes.” Harper’s considered examples of peaceful emancipation in the Caribbean under the British and French. It read, in part:

With the exception of the crazy people down South who are being whipped into reason by the armies of the Union, every body now agrees that, sooner or later, in one way or another, slavery ought to be abolished on American soil. The main question thus decided, it is high time that the people began to think of and discuss the questions yet undetermined of the how and the when.

We have two historical precedents—that of Great Britain and that of France. In the year 1833 the British Parliament passed an act emancipating the slaves in the British West India Islands, with compensation ($100,000,000) to the owners; the act was only to take effect in 1838. In 1848 the revolutionary Government of France with a stroke of the pen freed all the slaves in the French West Indies: no compensation was granted to the owners, and the act took effect immediately.

These two plans of emancipation were carried under the most diametrically opposite circumstances. Emancipation in the British colonies had been brought before Parliament every year for twenty years, and only succeeded at last through the support of London bankers, creditors of the slave-owners in Jamaica and Barbados, who saw in a parliamentary grant their only chance of collecting the debts due them. The measure was adopted after full deliberation, and five years were granted the slaves and their owners to prepare for the change. In France emancipation was decreed from the impulse of the moment, without outside pressure from any quarter, and without preliminary notice of any kind to the parties immediately concerned.

So far as practical results show, the French scheme succeeded better than the English. The British colonies began to decay after emancipation, relapsed almost into a desert condition, and have only begun to recover very recently. The French colonies have undergone but little change.

It would, however, be rash hence to infer, that immediate and unconditional emancipation works better than the gradual and conditioned abolition of slavery. Emancipation worked badly in the British colonies mainly in consequence of the besotted and imbecile nature of the white slave-owners. With stolid pigheadedness, they refused to accommodate themselves to the new condition of things; haughtily declined to pay wages to the colored laborers who had once been slaves, and sank into ruin with their estates for want of common sense. Slavery had rotted their hearts and minds out, as it has done with the whites of several of our Southern States; and the failure of emancipation, for nearly a quarter of a century, was due to their stupidity. The slave-holders of the French islands, on the contrary, with their national versatility, adapted themselves at once to the new order of things, paid wages cheerfully to the emancipated slaves, and went on growing tropical products as before.

In neither case was it proposed to expatriate the slaves after emancipation, and both British and French colonies, since the abolition of slavery, so far from seeking to get rid of the negroes, have complained loudly of the want of labor. The Jamaica government has even tried to import free negroes from the United States.

In studying these precedents it must be remembered that the slaves in our Southern States are at least ten times as numerous as the slaves in either the British or the French colonies. They now exceed four millions in number, and men now living will, in all probability, see the colored race on this continent more numerous than the entire population of the country at the present time.

In Jamaica and Barbados the mulattoes are steadily gaining power and influence, and the end can not be mistaken. The white race must eventually go to the wall. To avoid this result, Mr. Lincoln, Mr. Doolittle, Mr. Blair, and those who agree with them, propose to colonize the negroes of our Southern States—to send them to Hayti, or Central America, or somewhere else.

To be effectual this remedy must be thorough. The entire four millions must be exported.

Let us assume that the National Legislature adopts the colonization scheme, and decides to carry it into effect. To carry the 4,000,000 slaves now in the Slave States to a foreign port would require at least 8000 vessels of 1000 tons each—in other words, all the large sailing vessels in the world for a couple of years. The cost of transportation alone, assuming that the place of disembarkation were in the West Indies or Central America, could not fall short of $100,000,000. It would likewise be necessary to support the 4,000,000 slaves so exiled for at least one year in. their new abode, which could not well cost less than $100,000,000 more. The moment they were sent away our Southern States would raise the cry which has been raised by the British West Indies ever since emancipation—for more labor. Cotton, sugar, and rice plantations would go to ruin for want of labor. Prosperous regions would relapse into wilderness, and we should be driven, as the maritime nations of Europe have been driven, into adopting systems of coolie and negro immigration. In the mean while, under the fostering influence of a tropical sun, a negro empire would be rearing its head menacingly somewhere on our Southern border. This empire would number 10,000,000 souls in 1875, and 30,000,000 in 1900. Would not such a neighbor be more dangerous than any of the perils which we have tried to ward off by adopting the Monroe doctrine?

We have said nothing of the probability that the negroes would object to be exiled, and of the monstrous difficulty of exporting 4,000,000 human beings against their will. This is an obstacle which could be surmounted, though to overcome it would involve much expenditure of money, time, and energy.

So, while not directly advocating a position, Harper’s Weekly with simple logic, demonstrated just how impractical it would be deporting nearly four million ex-slaves. Not to mention the cost of compensating  slaveholders in merely the loyal slave states. The fact they were even being discussed was due to the specter of Haiti, where emancipation had come in the 1790s through a bloody race war. Many Americans, North as well as South, were convinced that large numbers of former slaves could not be trusted to live peaceably with their ex-owners and other white Southerners. These concerns, of course, would prove illusory. But to many white Northerners that favored emancipation in Spring 1862, they seemed all too real.

Sources: 1); 2)

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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