Emancipation Petitions: Historical Contexts

Since the creation of the District of Columbia, antislavery reformers had decried the presence of slavery as a contradiction of the nation's founding principles of freedom, equality, and justice. The nation's capital was a natural target for the early antislavery movement. Constitutionally, Congress controlled the District of Columbia through "exclusive jurisdiction" and could eliminate the slave trade and slavery itself within its borders at any time. When the federal government moved to Washington in 1800, Congress agreed to enforce Maryland's laws in the city, including both slavery and a "black code" that restricted the freedom of all African Americans, slave and free. As a southern city, Washington was a congenial place for slavery to take root. In 1800, thirty percent of the District of Columbia's residents were African Americans, fewer than one-fifth of them free. From its very beginning, visitors and government officials from the North and abroad condemned the capital for its open slave markets, economic reliance on slavery, exploitation of African Americans, and racial discrimination. Immediately after moving into the White House, for example, Abigail Adams wrote contemptuously that "The effects of slavery are visible everywhere." The institution continued to grow steadily until 1830, when the number of slaves in Washington reached its peak, representing twelve percent of the city's population. At the same time, Washington began supplanting Baltimore as a regional center of the slave trade. After 1830, slavery began to decline in Washington as the slave trade drained laborers from the faltering tobacco plantations of the Chesapeake region. Between 1830 and 1860, the slave population fell from its peak of twelve percent to just three percent of the District of Columbia's residents, about 3,300.

In the half century before the Civil War, there were perennial calls for the abolition of slavery in Washington, DC. During the 1830s, Joseph Sturge, the English Quaker who founded the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, visited Washington and called the city "the grand point of attack" against southern slavery. He predicted that the emancipation of the capital's slaves would lead eventually to the collapse of the institution throughout the South. The first abolitionists elected to Congress—John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, Joshua Giddings of Ohio, Seth Gates of New York, and William Slade of Vermont—initiated an extensive petition campaign, submitting hundreds of thousands of their constituents' signatures in protest against the continuation of slavery in the nation's capital. Southerners in Congress responded by adopting a "gag rule" that prohibited the discussion of antislavery petitions.

As a Congressman from Illinois in 1849, Abraham Lincoln himself presented a plan for ending slavery in Washington, DC, through gradual, voluntary, and compensated emancipation. Even this relatively mild attack on slavery provoked so much resistance that Lincoln never formally introduced his proposal. As long as the South remained in the Union, all hopes of ending slavery in the nation's capital remained futile. The greatest victory of the petition campaign was the abolition of the slave trade, but not of slavery itself, in the Compromise of 1850. Still, as slavery deteriorated in Washington, thousands of fugitives from Maryland and Virginia found refuge in the city and an underground railroad emerged to help them move farther northward. An antislavery newspaper, the Washington National Era, began advocating freedom, and several antislavery societies formed in the city. By 1860, Washington boasted the second-largest free African American population in the nation. African American leaders labored tirelessly through their alliance of two dozen churches to build an independent community and advance the goal of emancipation.

With the secession of eleven southern states and the outbreak of the Civil War, the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia became attainable at last. A group of Republican senators from the Northeast—Henry Wilson and Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, Lot Morrill of Maine, and William Pitt Fessenden of New Hampshire—began campaigning immediately for abolitionism as both a war aim and a strategy for defeating the Confederacy. In December 1861, Senator Wilson submitted a bill proposing the immediate and compulsory emancipation of the District of Columbia's 3,300 slaves through a program of federal compensation. The District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act, which President Lincoln signed on April 16, 1862, allotted an average of $300 per slave to all slaveowners who were loyal to the Union, for a total payment of $900,000. The act also allocated $100,000 to support the emigration of any African Americans who voluntarily chose to leave the country for Haiti, Liberia, or any other foreign destination, through a process known as "colonization." Almost no one chose to leave, so the colonization provision was largely symbolic, muting opposition to the emancipation act among even the most rigid defenders of slavery.

Under the Compensated Emancipation Act, all slaves in the District of Columbia were free immediately. Slaveowners had ninety days to submit a petition, which consisted of a preprinted form, requesting compensation for their slaves. The petitions, which were written by the slaveowners, identified each slave, provided a personal description, including the slave's "age, size, complexion, health and qualifications," and presented an estimated value of the slave for purposes of compensation. Many of the slaveowners provided additional information, including the slaves' family relationships, personal histories, and occupational skills. The petitions also included proof of ownership, such as bills of sale, deeds of trust, and wills, that reveal details about how the institution of slavery functioned before the Civil War, the slaveowners' attitudes toward their slaves, and above all the personal constraints on their freedom that the slaves were forced to endure and rise above. All of the petitioners were required to take an oath of allegiance to the United States and to provide two witnesses to verify their loyalty to the Union. Under the act, the president appointed a three-member commission to review the petitions, assess the claims of ownership and loyalty, and set the level of compensation for each slave.

The congressional appropriation represented only about one-third of the market value of the slaves, so the average compensation was almost always much less than the slaveowners hoped to receive. Because slave sales had been outlawed in the District of Columbia under the Compromise of 1850, the commissioners hired a slavedealer from Baltimore to appraise the slaves' value. During the three-month process, 966 slaveowners filed petitions and testified before the commission. They had to present their slaves for examination or, if the slaves were fugitives, produce witnesses who could testify to the personal characteristics of the slaves. The commissioners approved ninety-four percent of the petitions and provided compensation for 2,981 slaves. They considered 111 slaves too young, too aged, or too infirm to merit compensation, so their freedom was uncompensated. A relative handful of petitions were declined because the ownership of the slaves was questionable, the slaveowners were considered disloyal, or the slaves had run away more than two years earlier. All told, just under 3,100 slaves received their freedom. Most of the former slaves left their owners immediately and found work in Washington, where the wartime demand for labor was ample, moved to the North to join long-established African Americans communities, or went to work for the Union Army or, later, served as soldiers and sailors. By the end of the decade, 70 percent of them had left Washington.

More than 150 slaveowners did not request compensation for their slaves, typically because they were openly disloyal to the Union, they lived in Maryland while their slaves lived in the District of Columbia, or their slaves were fugitives living in Washington. At Lincoln's urging, on June 12, 1862, Congress approved a "supplemental act" that allowed all of those slaves to file petitions for their own freedom. Rather than filling out a form, the slaves wrote their own "supplemental" petitions consisting of their own requests for freedom and the testimony of witnesses who could verify their ownership, residence in the district, and other personal circumstances. The supplemental petitions are particularly valuable for providing insights into the experience of slavery and freedom as recorded by the slaves themselves rather than their white owners. They were also extraordinary in representing the first instance in which the federal government allowed African Americans to testify as both petitioners and witnesses in a formal judicial proceeding. The supplemental act therefore set a precedent that soon resulted in the admission of African Americans to federal courts as plaintiffs, witnesses testifying against whites, and jury members. When the slaves established their right to emancipation, they received freedom certificates or "free papers" from the federal government. The commission evaluated 166 supplemental petitions and granted 86 percent of them. They rejected the claims of slaves who could not establish that they were residents of the District of Columbia without their owners' permission. One of the profound legacies of the supplemental act of June 1862 was the granting of freedom for slaves without any provision for or expectation of compensation for their owners, a principle that infused the long overdue blanket emancipation of slaves embodied in the Emancipation Proclamation that Lincoln issued on January 1, 1863, and the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment on December 6, 1865.

The petitions were compiled under the auspices of the Department of the Treasury, which had the responsibility for disbursing compensation. As much as the idea of compensating slaveowners for freeing their slaves violates eternal sensibilities about the immanence of liberty as an inviolable human right, without this provision of the District of Columbia Emancipation Act, this immense and unique archive that contains so much information about the lives, families, personal histories, and ultimate emancipation of these 3,200 slaves who received their freedom in 1862 would never have been written.

All told, the slaves emancipated in the nation's capital represented about one-tenth of one percent of all of the slaves held in bondage in the American South during the Civil War. Beyond the positive impact of emancipation on their own lives and those of their family members, the greatest legacy of this "first emancipation" was to set an example of how the government could provide for the blanket freedom of an entire group of slaves as an "act of justice," as Lincoln put it in the Emancipation Proclamation that followed eight months later. Senator Charles Sumner called the District of Columbia "an example for all the land" that would occupy the vanguard of freedom, equality, and justice as the nation fought the Civil War and rededicated itself to those founding principles. From a practical perspective, the compensated emancipation of 1862 empowered, emboldened, and inspired the president, Congress, abolitionists, and the slaves themselves to pursue the unqualified freedom embodied in the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment that were yet to come.

Methodology and Procedures

The petitions have been manually transcribed by project staff and encoded according to the TEI Consortium's TEI P5: Guidelines for Electronic Text Encoding and Interchange. In preparing the petitions for presentation on Civil War Washington, the priority has been to provide users with clean, reliable transcriptions for reading, searching, and analyzing and with an appropriate level of mark-up for these purposes. Certainly, many additional features of the texts—structural, thematic, linguistic—could be encoded, but these features are currently outside the scope of Civil War Washington. We make the XML of all petitions available for download for users interested in additional or alternative encoding. The XML files—as is Civil War Washington as a whole—are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license. For more information on this license, see our About page.

Civil War Washington purchased microfilm copies of the petitions from the National Archives (Microcopy number 520) and digitally imaged the microfilm using equipment of the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities (CDRH) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.(1) The microfilm was scanned at 2700 dpi, and the images were saved as 8-bit, grayscale, uncompressed TIFF images. The brightness and contrast of the images were enhanced using Adobe Photoshop to increase the legibility of the text, much of which is difficult to read due to illegible handwriting, degradation of the original documents, and loss of quality in the preparation of microfilm copies. Project staff then used the TIFF images for the purposes of transcription and encoding. JPEG-derivatives of the TIFFs were prepared for web display.

In nearly every case, the TEI file of a petition has been worked on by at least four individuals. To prepare the encoded transcriptions of the petitions, project staff first created a standard template that included a TEI header as well as transcribed text from the pre-printed portions of the petitions. A student staff member of the project then completed the initial transcription and encoding of the document, according to project transcription and encoding guidelines and working from the template. Following this initial transcription and encoding, a second student staff member reviewed the file, making changes as appropriate and adding queries in the file as necessary to flag potential transcription or encoding dilemmas. A third student staff member performed a second round of review, resolving as many remaining issues as possible. Throughout this process, students worked in consultation with the project manager and with faculty and staff of the CDRH. Finally, before publication on Civil War Washington, each petition was reviewed by a project director, project manager, or senior faculty of the CDRH. In addition to this basic editorial workflow, files may have been further revised at other stages by members of the project team. The revision history of each document is tracked in its TEI header.

The encoding of the petitions conforms to a standard TEI P5 schema. We have encoded the documents on a basic structural level, marking the different sections of each petition, including the main body of the petition, a verification oath, and supplementary evidence, including bills of sale, deeds, and other testimony. Further, we have explicitly tagged handwritten text as such. Shorter segments of handwritten content that make up parts of larger text blocks (such as paragraphs), for example, are encoded within <seg type="handwritten"></seg>. In other cases, longer sections of handwritten text are signaled using the "type" or "rendition" attributes on divisions marked with <ab>, <div1>, <div2>, <table>, or <list>. Petitions that are wholly handwritten are encoded as such. In addition, we have made every effort to encode each instance of personal names and place names, using the <placeName> and <persName> elements. Currently, we have not included regularized versions of names in the encoding, but this work will be completed in the future, in order to enable linking between the petitions, to other documents on the site, and to the project database, as well as to facilitate deeper exploration of materials on Civil War Washington.

In cases where petitioners, or those completing the paperwork on their behalf, altered the printed text of the forms, we have marked these instances in the encoding. For example, petitioners regularly added an "s" to verbs in the form text to make the petition grammatically correct. We have added these characters as appropriate, and they are marked as handwritten. In other cases, petitioners struck through parts of the form text. We have encoded these instances as deletions. In the HTML display, such deletions appear as struck-through. We have not, however, transcribed deleted handwritten content (for example, deleting the handwritten "she" and replacing it with the handwritten "her"). Users interested in deletions of handwritten content have recourse to the digital images provided. These policies stem from our interest in identifying those instances where the legal form itself was modified.

We therefore regard our transcriptions as semi-diplomatic.(2) While we have not attempted to describe or replicate the layout of the documents, the forms of characters, or shifts in hand (other than between the printed and handwritten text), we have preserved incorrect and idiosyncratic spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. We have made no effort to normalize punctuation or capitalization, and this practice often required judgment calls based on surrounding textual evidence. Whether a character is a capital letter or a lower-case one, for example, is not always clear. And although we have not regularized punctuation, we often had to interpret whether an unconventional mark that clearly serves as punctuation functions most like a comma, period, semi-colon, or dash. In the case of misspelled or irregularly spelled words, we have preserved the spelling of the original (with the exception of the long s, which we have transcribed as "ss"), and we have also encoded corrected or regularized spellings. In the HTML display, these corrections and regularizations are signaled by a dashed line under a word. Hovering over such underlined text will present the reader with the corrected or regularized reading. To a lesser extent, we have also encoded expanded forms of abbreviations; we hope to more systematically encode abbreviations and their expanded forms in the future. For presentation on Civil War Washington, the XML of each petition is dynamically transformed into HTML for web display via XSLT (Extensible Stylesheet Language Transformations), using the web application framework Apache Cocoon.


1. The original 1,127 petitions are preserved in the National Archives in Washington, DC, as "Records of the Board of Commissioners for the Emancipation of Slaves in D.C.," National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 217.6.5, Records of the Accounting Officers of the Department of the Treasury, 1775-1978, as part of the "Settled Treasury Accounts" series. Within the National Archives' Archival Description Catalog, see ARC Identifier 4644616 / MLR Number A1 347 (http://arcweb.archives.gov). [back]

2. For more information on diplomatic, semi-diplomatic, and normalized transcription practices, see J. J. Driscoll, "Levels of Transcription," in Electronic Textual Editing, ed. John Unsworth, Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe, and Lou Burnard (New York: Modern Language Association, 2006). A pre-print version of this volume, including Driscoll's essay, is freely available from the TEI. See http://www.tei-c.org/About/Archive_new/ETE/Preview/driscoll.xml [back]

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