Emancipation in the District of Columbia

Slavery was deeply rooted in the history of the national capital. The Residence Act of 1790, which situated the District of Columbia between Maryland and Virginia, stipulated that the laws of those states would remain in force until the federal government moved in. When that happened in 1800, Congress simply agreed to maintain Maryland law in the city of Washington, including both slavery and a "Black Code" that restricted the lives of all African Americans, slave and free. The very creation of the capital depended on slave labor. Facing a scarcity of workers, federal commissioners used slaves to fell trees, fire bricks, quarry stone, and erect public buildings, including the Capitol. Washington's first slave auction took place in 1794, with the sale of a mother, son, and daughter, along with six other males and females ranging in age from ten to nineteen. From its very beginning, visitors and government officials from the North and abroad condemned the city for its open slave markets and its economic reliance on slavery. In 1800, when the federal government arrived, 30 percent of the district's residents were African Americans, but fewer than one-fifth of them were free. Soon after Abigail Adams moved into the White House, she wrote contemptuously that "the effects of slavery are visible everywhere."1

The institution flourished in the capital until 1830, when the number of slaves in Washington reached its peak, representing 12 percent of the city's 19,000 people. At the same time, Washington began supplanting Baltimore as the center of the slave trade in neighboring Maryland and Virginia. Plantation slavery entered a slow but permanent decline in the Chesapeake region as tobacco prices fell and planters shifted their land to wheat production, which was far less lucrative. Wheat farming was also more seasonal and less labor-intensive, so planters in Maryland and Virginia began selling many of their slaves westward to the fresh plantations opening up along the Gulf Coast, where an unprecedented cotton boom was under way. "The adjoining, and once fertile and beautiful States of Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina are now blasted with sterility, and ever-encroaching desolation," Joseph Sturge, the English Quaker who founded the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, reported after touring the area. Interregional slave dealers advertised for the planters' excess slaves and established slave pens in Washington to exploit this growing traffic. They sent thousands of slaves in a "coastwise" trade down the Potomac, into Chesapeake Bay, and on to New Orleans in a virtual fleet of slave ships. During the 1830s, Sturge labeled the District of Columbia "the chief seat of the American slave-trade" and observed that "Washington is one of the best supplied and most frequented slave marts in the world."2

As the slave trade drained laborers from the faltering tobacco plantations of the Chesapeake region, slavery began to decline in Washington itself. Between 1830 and 1860, the slave population fell to just 3 percent of the city's residents. Slave owners with only seasonal demands for labor, especially wheat farmers, found slavery increasingly less economical and developed an elaborate system of hiring out. Planters kept their slaves working in agriculture during the growing season and then hired or "rented" them out in Washington during the fall and winter, when Congress was in session and the urban economy flourished. Often they hired out their female slaves as domestic servants for a year at a time. Such "term slaves," who worked as hirelings for a fixed period, had the opportunity to retain some of their wages and thus could contemplate the possibility, however remote, of eventually buying their own freedom. Hiring out also benefited owners by discouraging their slaves from fleeing. A hireling who enjoyed a degree of autonomy and looked forward to achieving his freedom someday was much less likely to become a fugitive. Washington's free African American population continually absorbed these former slaves and grew threefold between 1830 and 1860. On the eve of the Civil War, Baltimore was the only American city with more free African Americans than Washington.3

The nation's capital emerged as a natural target for the rising antislavery movement. As slavery declined in Washington and the city moved toward a wage-labor system, antislavery reformers began to view the capital as the prime target for abolition efforts, representing a potential entering wedge in the otherwise solid southern defense of the institution. Under the Constitution, Congress controlled the District of Columbia through "exclusive jurisdiction" and could eliminate the slave trade and slavery itself within its borders at any time. "Being under the supreme local government of Congress," observed Sturge, "it presents almost the only tangible point for the political efforts of those hostile to slavery." Sturge considered the national capital "the grand point of attack" upon American slavery. The abolition movement arose as a political force in Washington when former president John Quincy Adams took his seat in the House of Representatives in 1831. As the most vocal and eloquent critic of slavery in the House, he spent his seventeen-year congressional career doing all that he could to propel the antislavery movement to the top of the national political agenda. His initial strategy was simply introducing into the House the numerous petitions he received from constituents advocating the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia.4

In 1835, the American Antislavery Society, headquartered in Philadelphia, aided this effort by mounting an aggressive "petition campaign" that sent a flood of antislavery petitions, resolutions, and memorials from every northern state pouring onto the floor of Congress, more than 400,000 of them during the first year alone. Southern congressmen from both parties closed ranks against this threat by imposing a "gag rule" on the House, under which antislavery petitions would be received (as required by the First Amendment) but immediately tabled, allowing "no further action whatever," effectively stifling congressional discussion of slavery. Adams and an expanding circle of antislavery Whigs fought the gag rule for the next eight years. As northern reformers, including a growing cadre of antislavery advocates in Congress, promoted emancipation in the capital, southerners grew all the more aggressive in defending it. In 1842, Charles Torrey, a northern abolitionist who moved to Washington to help undermine the already weakening system, observed that the South made "a point of honor" of defending slavery in the city, not so much for its own sake but as "a sort of symbol and proof of its control over the government of the country."5

Like most antebellum cities, Washington suffered a series of race riots and antiabolition mob actions beginning in the 1830s. In 1835, a weeklong riot erupted after a slave tried to murder the widow of William Thornton, the architect of the U.S. Capitol building. The primary target of the racial violence, a free African American restaurant owner, Beverly Snow, lent his name to the episode, which became known as the "Snow Riot" or "Snow Storm." This outbreak of racial violence, which required intervention from the federal government and the District of Columbia's militia, prompted enactment of a harsher Black Code and likely contributed to adoption of the congressional gag rule, silencing congressional debate over slavery, in the following year. In April 1848, an abortive escape attempt, in which seventy-seven slaves fled on a schooner, the Pearl, provoked three days of rioting that targeted Gamaliel Bailey's antislavery newspaper, the National Era. Abraham Lincoln was serving in Congress as a representative from Illinois during these infamous "Pearl riots." Nine months later, in January 1849, he devised a plan to end slavery in the District of Columbia through voluntary, gradual, and compensated emancipation. After attracting initial endorsement from local officials, Lincoln's plan failed to win even a shred of congressional support. Disappointed, he withdrew his proposal and focused instead on preventing slavery from spreading into the western territories.6

By eliminating the slave trade in the District of Columbia, but leaving slavery there intact, the Compromise of 1850 further undermined the institution in the capital. The impact of the compromise on Washington's African Americans, however, was dubious at best. While the bill was pending, the sale of slaves to cotton and sugar plantations along the Gulf Coast actually intensified. As Congress debated the fate of slavery in the District, an antislavery reformer reported that "scarcely a day passed that gangs of chained slaves did not pass through the city." Meanwhile, the accompanying Fugitive Slave Act, which put Washington's community of longtime fugitives at risk of recapture, impelled free African Americans to flee northward. During the succeeding decade, the arrival of European immigrants, which fueled the city's 50 percent population growth during the 1850s, heightened racial discrimination and constricted economic opportunities for African Americans. By 1860 Washington hosted nearly as many immigrants as free blacks. Nativism and anti-Catholicism, embodied in the election of a Know Nothing mayor in 1854, forced immigrants, primarily Irish and German in origin, into menial livelihoods, putting them into direct and often intense competition with African Americans for jobs and housing along the margins of Washington society.7

Residential segregation did not exist in its modern form in early Washington. In the prewar pedestrian or "walking" city, Americans preferred to live near their workplaces. All classes and races mingled together in every part of Washington but clustered around major centers of activity, including the Capitol, the White House, City Hall, and the Navy Yard. The Black Code required slaves to live with their masters as part of the city's regime of severe racial control and surveillance. Slave owners devised a unique arrangement to keep their slaves on their property, as the law required, yet physically separated from their homes. They built slave quarters—often no more than sheds, shacks, and even stables—behind their houses, where slaves could come and go through the city's alleyways, out of sight but always close at hand. A courtyard separated the slave quarters from the "front lots," which faced the street. Slaves worked in the courtyard and passed through it when necessary to the back entrance of their master's house. The back courtyard and slave quarters were fenced in together and called euphemistically "the area."8

Free blacks could not afford to rent houses in the core around Capitol Hill, so they lived farther out toward the edges of the city, walking greater distances to work and eventually hopping the city's segregated streetcars. Skilled workers and the narrow slice of the middle class could rent and even own houses that fronted on the streets, but many African Americans had to crowd into the shabby but proliferating alley housing. Eventually, African Americans—both slave and free—dominated the "black alleys," as they became known. Here they could congregate and avoid the nightly "pick up" after the 10 p.m. curfew that banned them from the streets under Washington's restrictive Black Code. Before the Civil War, there were forty-nine inhabited alleys in Washington, but that number more than doubled as the process of emancipation brought forty thousand former slaves crowding into the city. In this fashion, the city came to occupy two co-existing urban grids, the famous streets and squares of Pierre L'Enfant's imagination and the all too forbidding reality of the alleys, one-fourth of the city, overlaid geographically but socially and economically far distant.9 Rob Shepard's GIS mapping of Washington depicts in detail the impact of racial and economic segregation and the resulting complexity of residential patterns within the city.10

The U.S. Census of 1860 supports a reconstruction of Washington's slave community on the eve of the Civil War. (The 1860 census data from the city's First Ward, the area surrounding the White House, is available for download from Civil War Washington's Data section.) The White House sat in northwest Washington encircled by a racially and ethnically diverse neighborhood that contained the highest proportion of African Americans anywhere in the city. Slavery had slowly degenerated into a vestigial institution. The 255 slaves who continued to live and labor in the First Ward when Lincoln arrived were a small remnant of a once flourishing system of slavery that played a diminishing economic role in the city but remained symbolically important for its defenders. In 1860, 94 percent of the white families in the First Ward no longer owned slaves. Now a luxury rather than a perceived necessity, slaves served a small minority of the area's wealthiest families, about one in twelve. In addition to the conspicuous prosperity represented by their slaves, these masters were five times as wealthy as the average white resident, as measured by real property ownership. Signifying their elite economic standing, most of these ninety-four masters—60 percent of them—owned more than one slave and, in an extreme instance, as many as twelve. In keeping with the trend toward hiring out, one-quarter of the First Ward's slaves were not owned but "rented." Many of them were hired out by the Virginia and Maryland planters who were shifting from tobacco production to wheat and other grains. In an urban setting, hiring out facilitated freedom through self-purchase, further eroding an already beleaguered institution.11

By 1860 Washington's slaves were concentrated in the hands of a diminishing elite. One-fourth of all slaves in the District of Columbia belonged to a mere fifty residents who owned ten or more. The largest slave owner in the District claimed sixty-nine. In the First Ward, slave masters either owned or rented an average of 2.7 slaves as part of their household staffs. Symbolizing the concentration of the residual institution in the hands of this southern-born economic elite, seven lawyers and seven clerks together owned one-fifth of the First Ward's slaves. Generally youthful, the slaves ranged in age from ten months to eighty years but averaged age twenty-six, with one-quarter in their twenties, the peak age for physical labor. Two-thirds were female, evincing the city's prevailing demand for domestic servants. More cynically, one contemporary wrote, "A large proportion of the slaves here are females. The reason of this is obvious. They are the most profitable. They allow of an increase of numbers." Male slaves were therefore much more susceptible to sale in the lucrative slave markets of Baltimore and Alexandria for ultimate shipment to New Orleans and Natchez, where they were in high demand as field hands in the proliferating cotton fields of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas. (The Compromise of 1850 outlawed the sale of slaves within the District of Columbia but did not forbid their removal to Maryland or Virginia for eventual sale.) At age twenty-two, the typical male slave was six years younger than his female counterpart, suggesting that owners were seizing the opportunity to sell them southwestward at the peak of their physical condition and monetary value.12

Upon his election to the presidency in November 1860, Abraham Lincoln eschewed any effort to free Washington's slaves and, like the Republican Party itself, stood committed to preventing the westward expansion of slavery as the most practical and effective method of undermining slavery and achieving what he called its "ultimate extinction." Southern secession and the outbreak of war, however, presented Republicans and the Lincoln administration with an unexpected opportunity to assail slavery not only in the Confederacy but also in loyal regions, including the nation's capital. As an opening salvo, during the summer of 1861, Republicans from the Northeast—particularly Henry Wilson and Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and Lot Morrill and William Pitt Fessenden of Maine—began campaigning for abolition in the federal district in hopes of initiating its eventual demise across the South. Personally, Lincoln considered Delaware, which contained even fewer slaves, a more logical place to begin that process than the District of Columbia, where he had already tried to eliminate slavery and failed. In November 1861, he proposed a plan for federally funded, compensated emancipation in Delaware, which he later extended to the other three border states. Congress endorsed and funded his plan. Meanwhile, Republican radicals targeted the capital, where congressional power to end slavery was undisputed. In December 1861, Senator Wilson submitted a bill proposing the immediate and compulsory emancipation of the District of Columbia's 3,200 slaves. To win the support of Democrats and conservative Republicans, particularly representatives of the border states, Wilson's plan compensated slave owners and included a voluntary colonization program for the former slaves. The plan not only freed the slaves but abolished the institution of slavery itself in the District of Columbia, prohibiting the admission of any new slaves to take their place.13

Opponents raised objections. They denied congressional power to end slavery in the District of Columbia, argued that emancipation would generate support for the Confederacy in the loyal but slave-owning border states, portrayed slaves as unfit for freedom, predicted a race war, and decried the economic competition that free blacks would impose on white workers. Two members of the House Committee on the District of Columbia, a Unionist from Maryland and a Democrat from New York, filed a minority report opposing the compensated emancipation plan, distinguishing between Congress's local jurisdiction over the capital and its national jurisdiction. Adopting the very argument that abolitionists had offered for decades, they reasoned that abolition in the District would initiate a more general movement toward national emancipation. Calling the boundaries of the District "imaginary lines," they warned that "hosts of free blacks, fugitive slaves, and incendiaries would be assembled in the work of general abolitionism: and that from such a magazine of evil every conceivable mischief would be spread through the surrounding country with almost the rapidity of the movements of the atmosphere." Meanwhile, border state congressmen championed compulsory colonization for all of the emancipated slaves.14

Reminiscent of Lincoln's emancipation plan from twelve years earlier, Wilson's proposal compensated slave owners. His bill allotted an average of $300 per slave to all owners who were loyal to the Union, for a total payment of $900,000. Wilson allocated an additional $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, raising the total cost of the plan to $1,000,000. Lot Morrill submitted a revision of Wilson's bill that compensated only slave owners who could prove their allegiance to the Union by subscribing to an oath and procuring two witnesses who could testify to their loyalty. Morrill estimated that there were 3,200 slaves in the District and 200 or more disloyal owners. He characterized the bill as the natural consequence, if not the inevitable result, of the prohibition of the slave trade enacted in the Compromise of 1850. "The logic and morality of a law, applicable to any country or locality, providing that slaves are not to be regarded as subject to transfer and sale is "virtual abolition," he reasoned. The conservative National Intelligencer conceded the premise but challenged the conclusion. "As slavery has dwindled down to so inconsiderable a point in the District, it was doomed by the operation of the same causes to an early quiet extinction, which few among the people of the District would have regretted," the newspaper argued. "It is, therefore, only to this sudden, forcible, and total act of emancipation, and the instant turning loose upon society of two thousand liberated slaves, together with the alarm and apprehension with which the act will naturally inspire the border slave states, that will form the subject of regret." In other words, slavery was on the verge of disappearing, so any additional government action was unnecessary.15

Radical senator Samuel Pomeroy of Kansas opposed compensating slave owners and argued that Congress should indemnify the slaves themselves as the victims of an institution that the government had tolerated and even abetted for so long. Likening compensation to a "ransom," clearly unjust but necessary to win the slaves' freedom, Charles Sumner justified the payment as the only practical way to achieve majority support for the plan. Opponents of emancipation declared that the radical senators were "acting as legislators for the District" and called the plan "'the entering wedge' of projects destined to be more sweeping in their scope and radical in their application." They called for a referendum on the bill before passage and endorsed gradual rather than immediate emancipation.16

In March 1862, the conservative Evening Star published seven objections to abolition in the District and two days later expanded the list to twenty. The Star's primary argument was precedent, as embodied in the Compromise of 1850, Maryland law, which had governed the District for six decades, and Lincoln's campaign pledges not to disturb slavery in the nation's capital. Another cluster of objections portrayed congressional intervention as unwarranted, because abolition was a moral reform that no one outside of Congress, including the slaves themselves, had demanded. The Star portrayed the measure as counterproductive, certain to strengthen the resolve of the Confederacy and heighten sympathy in the border states and therefore undermine the war effort. The emancipation plan was unjust to slave owners, because the appropriation significantly undervalued the District's slaves. Finally, emancipation in Washington was "the beginning of a social and political revolution in our midst" that would lead ultimately to equal rights. "The same power that can liberate our negroes against our will," the Star declared, "can and perhaps will confer upon them equality in civil and political privileges with the whites, so, for instance, that negroes may vote for municipal or other officers; may hold such offices themselves; and sit as jurors, magistrates and judges in our courts." This, of course, was exactly what Republicans in Congress intended and soon achieved.17

The gravest threat to passage of the Compensated Emancipation Act was the opposition of Washington's city government itself. In February 1862 the board of police commissioners asked the city to rescind the portion of the Black Code that imposed a curfew on African Americans. The curfew was one of the principal methods for restricting their freedom and subjecting them to arbitrary arrest. The request provoked a heated debate over emancipation and legal equality that ended in a 6–4 negative vote and prompted city council members to pass a resolution denouncing the compensated emancipation plan. The aldermen declared that emancipation contradicted majority sentiment in the District, which opposed not simply "the unqualified abolition of slavery" but the influx of fugitives and free African Americans that seemed sure to follow. Their resolutions warned against "converting this city, located as it is between two Slaveholding States, into an asylum for free negroes, a population undesirable in every American community, and which it has been deemed necessary to exclude altogether from even some of the Non-slaveholding States." Every city council member who voted against emancipation, however, went down to defeat in the next election, prompting the National Republicanto crow triumphantly that "the days of pro-slavery domination in Washington are gone, never to return." Within ten days of the police commissioners' request for the repeal of the curfew, Senator Wilson submitted a bill in Congress revoking the District's entire Black Code.18

During the debate over emancipation and equal rights, Washington's abolitionists and radical members of Congress mounted a public campaign to influence public opinion, congressional dialogue, and Abraham Lincoln in particular. Creating the Washington Lecture Association during the summer of 1861, local reformers sponsored a lecture series at the Smithsonian Institution that hosted appearances by prominent northern antislavery advocates. Joseph Henry, America's most renowned scientist and the secretary of the Smithsonian, was a conservative New Yorker who had developed southern sympathies after his appointment in 1846 and even refused to fly the American flag over the Smithsonian Castle. Suspicious of the new lecture association's motives, he initially hesitated to allow political discussion within the Smithsonian's lecture hall. The organizers enlisted the aid of Illinois representative Owen Lovejoy, a Lincoln ally and friend, who considered Henry "an old traitor" and talked him into approving the lecture series while disavowing any endorsement of their content. Twenty of the twenty-two lecturers were abolitionists who seized this opportunity to prod both Lincoln and Congress toward a more aggressive prosecution of the war that would lead to the demise of slavery.19

Speaking in January 1862, with Lincoln, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase, and radical congressmen Henry Wilson, Owen Lovejoy, and Thaddeus Stevens sitting beside him on the stage, New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley delivered a combative attack on slavery as the underlying cause of the Civil War. Declaring that "the implacable enemy that is lifting the dagger to the heart of the nation is slavery, the most horrible legacy of evil that has ever fallen to a people," Greeley insisted that the war could only be won by attacking that institution. "And now, if the Union is to be restored, it is only on the basis of freedom or slavery—and the thing most to be dreaded in the settlement is compromise." With dramatic force, Greeley announced that "it is time to look the enemy in the eye. It has declared, 'I am slavery.'" Greeley's message was clear: "Compromise is impossible." The lecture received thunderous applause from the audience of one thousand.20

Following appearances by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Gerrit Smith, Boston abolitionist Wendell Phillips delivered the most anticipated lecture. Phillips was widely known and often reviled for rejecting any hint of compromise with slavery, even at the cost of disunion. The day before he spoke, however, Lincoln invited him to the White House, where they talked for an hour. When Phillips urged the president to mount a more decisive assault on slavery, Lincoln cited the imperative of keeping the border states, who "loved slavery," in the Union. He then surprised Phillips by confiding that "he hated it and meant it should die." The abolitionist left the White House feeling "rather encouraged," in fact willing to accept the president's determination to move deliberately, one step at a time. The next day, his lecture included a moving endorsement of Lincoln's strategy. He told the audience that he was "not acquainted with rail splitting, but understood that a small thin wedge was first applied." He then compared compensated emancipation to a wedge—"a small wedge, but still a wedge." It would create an opening in the bulwark of slavery that would continue to widen until abolitionists would eventually "drive right through."21

The District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act won decisive passage on April 16, 1862, in a vote of 29–14 in the Senate and 92–38 in the House. Lincoln signed the law six days later. "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," he told Congress. "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." He specifically commended inclusion of compensation and colonization, which were key components of his plan to induce the border states to voluntarily free their slaves. "I trust I am not dreaming," Frederick Douglass told Senator Charles Sumner, "but the events taking place seem like a dream."22

Under the Compensated Emancipation Act, all slaves in the District of Columbia were free immediately. Slave owners had ninety days to submit a petition, which consisted of a preprinted form, requesting compensation. The petitions, which were written by the owners, 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 owners 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 owners' 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.23

Under the act, the president nominated a three-member commission to review the petitions, assess the claims of ownership and loyalty, and set the level of compensation for each slave. Lincoln's nominations were designed to mute sectional and partisan opposition and inspire confidence in the emancipation process. To chair the commission, he chose North Carolinian Daniel R. Goodloe, a rare southern Republican, abolitionist, and advocate of compensated emancipation. To encourage bipartisan faith in the process, Lincoln appointed former Washington mayor James Berret, a Democrat, to the commission. Just nine months earlier, the Lincoln administration had arrested Berret for suspected disloyalty and released him on the condition that he resign his position as mayor. In his letter to Lincoln declining the appointment, Berret portrayed his imprisonment and removal as "wholly undeserved" and solicited Lincoln's assurance that he considered him loyal. Lincoln told him that he had confidence in his loyalty but that Berret had "made a mistake" that had prompted and justified his arrest. In his place, Lincoln appointed Horatio King, a longtime Democrat from Maine who was James Buchanan's postmaster general. The third member was Samuel Vinton, a lawyer, eleven-term member of the House of Representatives, and former Whig from Ohio. The commission appointed Ward Hill Lamon, marshal of the District of Columbia and one of Lincoln's most trusted friends, as their deputy, "to attend upon the commission, and to execute its processes." Lamon was, in effect, Lincoln's representative on the commission. As the commission began its work, the sixty-nine-year-old Vinton died of a stroke, and Lincoln appointed John M. Brodhead, a Washington physician and native of New Hampshire, to replace him.24

In an effort to free the greatest number of slaves while compensating the greatest number of slave owners, the commissioners were liberal in their interpretation of the emancipation act. Many slaves left the District immediately on the day that the act was passed—going to work for the army or moving northward—so their owners could take an oath testifying to their inability to produce them and their "due diligence" in trying to locate them. The commissioners also compensated owners whose slaves had fled no more than two years before the passage of the act and then stipulated that they could not use the Fugitive Slave Law to recapture them. In two instances, owners from Maryland asked the commission to rescind the free papers of slaves that they had hired out in the District. The commissioners ruled in favor of the slaves. Another owner worked a farm that straddled the boundary between the District and Maryland. A few days before the emancipation act took effect, he moved his slaves across the line into Maryland. The commission heard evidence indicating that the slaves frequently crossed the line back into the District, and they received their freedom. The commissioners spent the summer adjudicating inequities of this character. Few claimants were denied compensation on the grounds of disloyalty. The commission applied a rigid definition that required "an overt act of 'aid and comfort' to the rebellion," rather than mere evidence of sympathy with secession or even residence in the Confederacy. Thirteen petitions that were filed after the deadline, despite the best efforts of the claimants, were referred to Congress with a recommendation for approval. Overall, the commissioners applied the principle that when slaves were entitled to freedom, their owners should receive compensation.25

The congressional appropriation represented only about one-third of the market value of the slaves, so the average compensation was almost always far less than the owners requested. Because the Compromise of 1850 had outlawed slave sales in the District of Columbia, the commissioners hired Bernard M. Campbell, a slave dealer from Baltimore, to appraise the slaves' value. The commissioners recognized that Washington's slaves had lost considerable market value since the start of the war. Campbell himself had not bought a single slave since May 1861. They therefore asked him to appraise the relative value of the slaves according to prewar values. During the three-month process, 966 slave owners 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 ownership and personal characteristics of the slaves. The commissioners approved 94 percent of the petitions, providing compensation for 2,981 slaves. They considered 111 slaves too young, too aged, or too infirm to merit compensation, so their freedom was uncompensated. They rejected a relative handful of petitions because the ownership of the slaves was questionable, the owners were considered disloyal, or the slaves had run away more than two years earlier and were therefore considered unrecoverable.26

More than 150 slave owners 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 July 12, 1862, Congress approved a "supplemental act" that allowed all of those slaves to file petitions for their own freedom. In addition to filling out a form, the slaves provided evidence to support their claims, usually written and oral testimony from 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. One of the legacies of the supplemental act of July 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 eight months later, and ultimately the Thirteenth Amendment, ratified nearly three years later. The supplemental act was 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 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, promising not only freedom but eventually legal equality. During the commission's proceedings, the testimony of whites, free blacks, and slaves was afforded equal weight. When the slaves established their right to emancipation, they received freedom certificates or "free papers" from the federal government, which cost them 50 cents. The commission evaluated 166 supplemental petitions and approved 86 percent of them.27

While Congress was debating emancipation, rumors circulated that slave owners were removing or "running out" their slaves from the District, generally to Maryland. According to the National Republican, owners were removing their most valuable or "likely" slaves, leaving behind those for whom they considered $300 in compensation a fair price. A Washington owner denied that slaves were leaving the District simply because they were no longer a "marketable commodity" and the emancipation act therefore represented "the only hope we can reasonably indulge of ever getting anything whatever for our negroes." Another denial claimed that the reported "exodus" represented Maryland owners removing slaves that they had hired out in the District, fearing that they would lose their slaves under the act if they could not prove their loyalty to the Union. Blaming proslavery opponents of emancipation for spreading the rumors, the Republican insisted that "slaves are sent out of this District, not because $300 is not far beyond their average value, but principally by secessionists, to whom no compensation is to be paid." There were genuine instances of slaves who were forcibly removed or "kidnapped." One slave was seized when he came to the emancipation commission's office to pick up his "free papers." Gen. James S. Wadsworth, the commander of the Military District and himself an abolitionist, arrested the constable who committed the abduction. Despite exaggerated predictions that half or more of the District's slaves would end up in Maryland or even that "there will be no negroes to be freed by the bill when it shall have become an act," the number freed matched almost exactly Senator Morrill's original estimate of 3,200.28

All told, the slaves emancipated in the nation's capital represented about one-tenth of 1 percent of all of the slaves held in bondage in the American South during the Civil War. Yet opponents and supporters of slavery alike considered the Compensated Emancipation Act the beginning of the end of the institution, an experiment in freedom that would undermine slavery everywhere and point the way to a broader emancipation. Radical Republicans viewed the act as a "ransom" that would win immediate freedom for more than three thousand slaves. Conservatives feared it as the "entering wedge" of a broader campaign for abolition and equal rights. Senator John Sherman of Ohio, a moderate Republican, saw it as simply the right thing to do in the right place at the right time. "This is the best place to try the experiment of emancipation," he told the Senate. "I have always thought, since I could reason on this subject, that the law of God proclaimed emancipation as the ultimate end of this question. Here we have the power to try the experiment. Let us try it." 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 black communities, went to work for the Union army, or, later, served as soldiers and sailors. In 1866, the Freedmen's Bureau found only seventy-seven of the emancipated slaves still working for their former owners. By the end of the decade, 70 percent of them had left the District entirely.29 Beyond the long overdue impact of their emancipation on their own lives and those of their family members, the greatest legacy of this "first freedom" was to set an example of how the government could provide for the blanket emancipation of an entire group of slaves through an "act of justice," as Lincoln put it in the Emancipation Proclamation. Senator Sumner called the District of Columbia "an example for all the land" that could become the vanguard of freedom, equality, and justice as the nation fought the Civil War and rededicated itself to those founding principles. Despite its limitations and flaws, 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.30

  1. Bob Arnebeck, Through a Fiery Trial: Building Washington, 1790–1800 (Lanham: Madison Books, 1991), 57, 117, 205, 229, 597; Letitia Woods Brown, Free Negroes in the District of Columbia, 1790–1846 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), 10–11. [back]
  2. Joseph Sturge, A Visit to the United States in 1841 (London: Hamilton, Adams, 1842), 74–75; Allen Johnston, Surviving Freedom: The Black Community of Washington, D.C., 1860–1880 (New York: Garland, 1993), 91; Mary Beth Corrigan, "The Ties That Bind: The Pursuit of Community and Freedom among Slaves and Free Blacks in the District of Columbia, 1800–1860," in Southern City, National Ambition: The Growth of Early Washington, D.C., 1800–1860, ed. Howard Gillette Jr. (Washington: George Washington University Center for Washington Area Studies, 1995), 70–71; Stanley Harrold, Subversives: Antislavery Community in Washington, D.C., 1828–1865 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003), 2, 28. [back]
  3. Johnston, Surviving Freedom, 91; Brown, Free Negroes in the District of Columbia, 11–12, 14–15, 119; Corrigan, "Ties That Bind," 70–72; Harrold, Subversives, 5. [back]
  4. Sturge, Visit to the United States, 76; Louis Filler, The Crusade against Slavery, 1830–1860 (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), 96–100. [back]
  5. Filler, Crusade against Slavery, 99–100, 104; Ronald G. Walters, American Reformers, 1815–1860 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978), 80–85; Merton L. Dillon, The Abolitionists: The Growth of a Dissenting Minority (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1974), 100, 102. [back]
  6. Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1953) 2: 20–22; Constance McLaughlin Green, The Secret City: A History of Race Relations in the Nation's Capital (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), 36–37; Constance McLaughlin Green, Washington, Village and Capital, 1800–1878 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1962), 141–43; Harrold, Subversives, 33; Jefferson Morley, Snow-Storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835 (New York: Nan A. Talese, 2012); Leonard L. Richards, "Gentlemen of Property and Standing": Anti-Abolition Mobs in Jacksonian America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970). [back]
  7. David Potter, The Impending Crisis, 1848–1861 (New York: Harper, 1976), 90–120; William W. Freehling, The Road to Secession: Secessionists at Bay, 1776–1854 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 508–10; Harrold, Subversives, 164–67; Josephine F. Pacheco, The Pearl: A Failed Slave Escape on the Potomac (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 190, 200. [back]
  8. James Borchert, Alley Life in Washington: Family, Community, Religion, and Folklife in the City, 1850–1970 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980), 5, 23, 25, 28; James Borchert, "Alley Life in Washington: An Analysis of 600 Photographs," Records of the Columbia Historical Society 73–74 (1976): 244–45; James Borchert, "The Rise and Fall of Washington's Inhabited Alleys: 1852–1972," Records of the Columbia Historical Society 71–72 (1975): 271. [back]
  9. 37th Cong., 3rd sess., H. Exec. Doc. 1, pt. 2, 649; Borchert, "Alley Life in Washington," 5, 6–7, 12, 25, 26, 28; Borchert, "Alley Life in Washington," 245; Borchert, "Rise and Fall of Washington's Inhabited Alleys," 275; Worthington Garrettson Snethen, The Black Code of the District of Columbia, in Force Sept. 1st, 1848 (New York: American and Foreign Antislavery Society, 1848), 41. [back]
  10. For a discussion of the residential distribution of free blacks in the First Ward on the eve of the Civil War, see Rob Shepard's essay, "Historical Geography, GIS, and Civil War Washington." [back]
  11. U.S. Manuscript Census, Free and Slave Population Schedules, Washington DC, 1860; Joseph C. G. Kennedy, Population of the United States in 1860 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1864), 588; Green, Secret City, 33. [back]
  12. "Emancipation in the District of Columbia," 38th Cong., 1st sess., House Ex. Doc. No. 42, 17–71; U.S. Manuscript Census, Free and Slave Population Schedules, Washington DC, 1860;Washington National Republican, March 29, 1863. [back]
  13. Michael J. Kurtz, "Emancipation in the Federal City," Civil War History 24 (September 1978): 251–55; William C. Harris, Lincoln and the Border States: Preserving the Union (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 160–62, 173. [back]
  14. "Slavery in the District of Columbia," H.R. Report No. 58, 37th Cong., 2nd sess., 8, 9, 10. [back]
  15. Washington National Republican, February 15, 1862; Washington National Intelligencer, April 12, 1862. [back]
  16. Congressional Globe, 37th Cong., 2nd sess., 1338, 1449; Washington National Republican, March 1, 17, 19, 21, June 4, 1862; Washington National Intelligencer, March 27, April 2, 1862; Kurtz, "Emancipation in the Federal City," 255–56. [back]
  17. Washington Evening Star, March 19, 21, 1862. [back]
  18. Washington National Republican, March 5, 1862; Washington National Intelligencer, March 27, 1862; Washington Evening Star, March 1, 1862; Kurtz, "Emancipation in the Federal City," 257. [back]
  19. Washington Evening Star, December 11, 1861, January 4, 1862; Washington National Republican, January 4, 1862; Michael F. Conlin, "The Smithsonian Abolition Lecture Controversy: The Clash of Antislavery Politics with American Science in Wartime Washington," Civil War History 46 (December 2000): 301, 305, 307–10. [back]
  20. Washington Evening Star, January 4, 1862; Washington National Republican, January 4, 1862; Conlin, "Smithsonian Abolition Lecture Controversy," 312–13. [back]
  21. Washington Evening Star, March 15, 1862; Washington National Republican, January 30, March 1, 1862; James Brewer Stewart, Wendell Phillips: Liberty's Hero (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1986), 236. [back]
  22. U.S. Statutes at Large, XII, 37th Cong., 2nd sess., chap. 54, 376–78; "Message of the President of the United States," 37th Cong., 2nd sess., Senate Ex. Doc. No. 42; David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass' Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), 108; Kurtz, "Emancipation in the Federal City," 254. [back]
  23. U.S. Statutes at Large, XII, 37th Cong., 2nd sess., chap. 54, 376–78; "Emancipation in the District of Columbia," 2, 8. The resulting petitions are located in Records of the Board of Commissioners for the Emancipation of Slaves in the District of Columbia, 1861–1863, National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 217.6.5, Records of the General Accounting Office. All of the petitions are now available on this site. The petitions are analyzed as historical sources in "Mining the Compensated Emancipation Petitions." [back]
  24. Abraham Lincoln to James G. Berret, April 22, 1862, Abraham Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress; "Emancipation in the District of Columbia," 1–2; Washington National Intelligencer, April 17, 1862; Washington Evening Star, April 19, 1862; U.S. Manuscript Census, Free Population Schedule, Washington DC, 1860; Kurtz, "Emancipation in the Federal City," 259. [back]
  25. "Emancipation in the District of Columbia," 5, 8–9, 10–11, 74; Kurtz, "Emancipation in the Federal City," 262, 266. [back]
  26. "Emancipation in the District of Columbia," 2–3, 8, 17–70. [back]
  27. U.S. Statutes at Large, XII, 37th Cong., 2nd sess., chap. 45, 538–39; "Emancipation in the District of Columbia," 10; Brittany Jones, "Emancipation in Washington DC, during the Civil War," senior honors thesis, Department of History, University of Nebraska–Lincoln, 2012; Kurtz, "Emancipation in the Federal City," 264. The resulting petitions are located in Records of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Relating to Slaves, 1851–1863, Records of District Courts of the United States, Record Group 21, National Archives and Records Administration. They are now available in the petitions section of the Texts page. [back]
  28. Washington National Republican, March 24, 26, 31, April 2, 8, 17, September 15, 1862; Washington National Intelligencer, April 2, 7, 1862. [back]
  29. Congressional Globe, 37th Cong., 2nd sess., 1491; U.S. Manuscript Census, Population Schedule, Washington DC, 1870; Washington National Intelligencer, April 4, 1862; Johnston, Surviving Freedom, 158. [back]
  30. Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, ed., First Freed: Washington, D.C., in the Emancipation Era (Washington: Howard University Press, 2002); Kate Masur, An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle over Equality in Washington, D.C. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 1. [back]