Emancipation in Washington, D.C.

On April 16, 1862, slavery came to an end in the nation’s capital. President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill passed by the U.S. Congress abolishing slavery in Washington, D.C.

Many members of Congress wanted to do more, but felt limited by 1857’s Dred Scott decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, which largely ended Congress’ ability to legislate about slavery. In his majority opinion in Dred Scott v. Sanford, Chief Justice Roger Taney had written, “The Constitution of the United States recognises slaves as property, and pledges the Federal Government to protect it. And Congress cannot exercise any more authority over property of that description than it may constitutionally exercise over property of any other kind.” During the Civil War, members of Congress from the abolitionist “Radical” wing of the Republican Party looked for ways legislatively to abolish slavery nationwide, despite the Dred Scott decision, but most members of Congress believed that slavery only could be ended legally by constitutional amendment.

A constitutional amendment would take time, especially as the U.S. Constitution had not been amended since 1804, and by the time of the Civil War some Americans considered it sacrosanct. It would not be until late 1863 that Congress would begin to act on what became the 13th Amendment. But one matter of agreement in Congress by late 1861 was its absolute authority over the District of Columbia, including slavery there, even with the Dred Scott decision. So when Congress convened in December 1861, the Radicals judged the time was ripe for slavery to be abolished in Washington, D.C. Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, introduced a bill to do just that on December 4, 1861. From that date the bill worked its way through the congressional committee process receiving final passage in April 1862.

About the same time it passed the D.C. emancipation bill, Congress threw its support behind President Lincoln’s proposal to offer federal financial help to any slave state that enacted gradual compensated emancipation. The D.C. emancipation bill followed the spirit, if not all the particulars of Lincoln’s proposal. The main similarities were it compensated financially loyal slaveholders for their lost property and promoted the emigration of former slaves in Washington, D.C., by paying them $100 if they agreed to leave the United States. The main difference was that the “Compensated Emancipation Act,” as it later came to be known (since no other American slaveholders would receive compensation for emancipation), provided for the immediate instead of gradual emancipation of slaves in the District of Columbia.

While Abraham Lincoln in Spring 1862 preferred gradual to immediate emancipation, as he admitted in a letter to Horace Greeley dated March 24, 1862, seeing it as less socially disruptive (which was the same reason he preferred the emigration of ex-slaves), he could hardly veto the Compensated Emancipation Act since during his single term in Congress in the late 1840s, Lincoln had introduced a bill to end slavery in Washington, D.C. Lincoln did not explicitly address those concerns in a message to Congress and the American people on April 16, 1862, announcing his signature of the D.C. emancipation bill, opting instead to criticize the ninety-day time limit placed on compensation claims. His message read:

The act entitled “An act for the release of certain persons held to service or labor in the District of Columbia” has this day been approved and signed.

I have never doubted the constitutional authority of Congress to abolish slavery in this District, and I have ever desired to see the national capital freed from the institution in some satisfactory way. Hence there has never been in my mind any question upon the subject except the one of expediency, arising in view of all the circumstances. If there be matters within and about this act which might have taken a course or shape more satisfactory to my judgment, I do not attempt to specify them. I am gratified that the two principles of compensation and colonization are both recognized and practically applied in the act.

In the matter of compensation, it is provided that claims may be presented within ninety days from the passage of the act, “but not thereafter;” and there is no saving for minors, femes covert, insane or absent persons. I presume this is an omission by mere oversight, and I recommend that it be supplied by an amendatory or supplemental act.

There was more that both Lincoln and Congress could do to end slavery in the United States, but the Compensated Emancipation Act struck a major blow against the peculiar institution. It signaled both legislative and executive branches were serious about freeing the slaves, and that from then on any disagreements between them about emancipation would not be whether that aim was proper, but about the most efficacious means to achieve it.

Sources: 1) http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Dred_Scott_v._Sandford; 2) http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llcg&fileName=058/llcg058.db&recNum=75; 3) http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured_documents/dc_emancipation_act/transcription.html; 4) http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=lincoln;rgn=div1;view=text;idno=lincoln5;node=lincoln5%3A364http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=70146&st=&st1=#axzz1phpUC7yU.

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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