Selling Emancipation

Although many white Northerners increasingly warmed to the idea of emancipation in Spring 1862, others remained indifferent or opposed to the idea, Democrats in particular. So it is not surprising that The National Republican, the pro-administration newspaper in nation’s capital promoted freedom for the slaves in the District of Columbia, not only to convince the persuadable, but also to reassure supporters of emancipation there. The newspaper chose to do this by putting a human face on slaves in Washington, D.C., particularly the suffering of families torn apart by the peculiar institution. Civil War Emancipation already has dealt with a March 31, 1862 story from The National Republican dealing with a District slaveholder breaking up a family by sending a mother and daughter to a slave holding pen in Baltimore, Maryland, in March 1862 to thwart their emancipation, while keeping the youngest children who were too small to flee.

On April 22, 1862, The National Republican was back with another sad tale of an African-American family torn apart by slavery, reprinting a speech by Congressman John Hutchins of Ohio, made in the U.S. House of Representatives eleven days earlier in support of the D.C. emancipation bill. Hutchins’ speech made plain the great suffering slavery could cause even to free people of color, since inter-marriage was common between them and slaves in the mid-Atlantic region, where free blacks made up a large percentage of the African-American population.

The speech read:

“With slavery in the District will fall the barbarous code which upholds it. The cruelties and oppressions here practiced, in hearing and in sight of the nation’s representatives, are a burning disgrace to a nation claiming civilization or professing humanity or Christianity. I will refer to only to a few well authenticated cases.”

“Emanuel Mason and his wife were claimed as the property of Miss Forrest, formerly of Marlboro, Maryland, but in the year 1859 a resident of the District of Columbia. Some years since, Mason purchased his freedom for $300. Afterward, he hired the time of his wife by the month or year, and kept house in the District, and raised several children at his own expense; and as soon as they were large enough to be of value, being born of a slave mother, according to the law of slavery, were property of Miss Forrest, and were all taken from him by the alleged owner of his wife, except a little son called ‘Ben.’ About one year before March, 1859, Miss Forrest took the wife of Mason home, leaving only with the father, little Ben. Some time after, an officer of the District called on the father for his son Ben, that he, too, might be sold for the benefit of his pretended mistress. The officer could not find him, and requested Mason to go and look up the boy and bring him to the office. The father did not produce the son as directed. He was consequently arrested, tried, and convicted, and the following notice of his trial is contained in the National Intelligencer of May 17, 1859:”

“Emanuel Mason, (colored,) recently convicted of harboring his son, a slave, the property of Miss Forrest, was sentenced to pay a fine of $166.66, being $1.66 for every hour the slave was so harbored; one half of said amount to go to the use of the owner of the slave, and the other half to the United States. The defendant was placed in jail until till the fine be paid.”

WASHINGTON CITY, D.C., May 10, 1859

To Hon. Judge Crawford

We, the sub-scribers, neighbors, and acquaintances of Emanuel Mason, do most respectfully ask you honor to be as lenient as possible in said Mason’s case. We have for years known Mason to be an industrious, moral, temperate, poor, peaceable, honest man, and we have reason to believe that “little Ben,” (who is the last and youngest child of Mason,) left Mason’s residence without any direction of the father, the said Emanuel. And further, we do know that “little Ben” was raised from birth and infancy in the house and at the cost of said Emanuel, his father; and that he had never been out of the possession of Mason up to the time the officer came for the boy in September last. And, further, we do not believe that Emanuel knows anything of his (“Ben’s”) whereabouts. And further, please take into consideration the fact that Emanuel has been confined in jail a long time, to wit: more than forty days since his trial and conviction. And finally, think, oh! think of a father’s feelings.









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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