Lincoln’s Compensated Emancipation Plan

March 6, 1862 – President Abraham Lincoln submitted a message asking Congress to consider a plan of gradual, compensated slave emancipation.

President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit:
President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit:

In his message, Lincoln called for a joint resolution declaring “that the United States ought to co-operate with any state which may adopt gradual abolishment of slavery, giving to such state pecuniary aid, to be used by such state in it’s (sic) discretion, to compensate for the inconveniences public and private, produced by such a change of system.” No U.S. president had ever submitted such an extraordinary legislative proposal to Congress before.

Lincoln asserted that the plan would help keep border slave states (i.e., Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri) from seceding. He wrote that “the leaders of the existing rebellion entertain the hope that this Government will ultimately be forced to acknowledge the independence of some part of the disaffected region, and that all the slave States north of such part will then say, ‘The Union for which we have struggled being already gone, we now choose to go with the Southern section.’ To deprive them of this hope substantially ends the rebellion, and the initiation of emancipation deprives them of it and of all the States initiating it.”

If the border states would “surrender on fair terms their own interest in Slavery rather than see the Union dissolved,” Lincoln believed it would hasten the war’s end. In this way, Lincoln argued for ending slavery not for moral reasons, but to preserve the Union and destroy the “proposed confederacy.”

To those concerned that such a plan would be too expensive, Lincoln argued that “less than one half-day’s cost of this war would pay for all the slaves in Delaware at four hundred dollars per head,” and 87 days’ worth of expenses would compensate for all the remaining slaves in Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri.

Lincoln maintained that such a plan was constitutional because it served the “general welfare,” with each state being able to decide for itself whether or not to take part. Opponents quickly countered that individual states could not enter into special relationships with the Federal government, such as one that would give the slave states a financial benefit that free states could not enjoy, even though they would be helping to fund said benefit.

The president urged the border state congressmen to support this measure because it was “impossible to foresee all the incidents, which may attend and all the ruin which may follow it.” This was an implied warning that if they rejected the plan, involuntary emancipation without compensation might someday be imposed.

In a meeting with Lincoln four days later, the border state congressmen questioned the constitutionality of the plan, inferred that Federal coercion toward emancipation would be resisted, and expressed fears that freeing slaves would harm race relations.

Lincoln countered that the plan “would not be half as onerous, as would be an equal sum, raised now, for the indefinite prossecution (sic) of the war.” In a letter to New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, Lincoln stated that “we should urge it persuasively, and not menacingly, upon the South.” Nevertheless, congressmen from the border slave states maintained strong opposition to any Federal interference with slavery.



Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 14906-32; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 7306-17; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 117; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 459-60; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 179, 184-85; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 498-99; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 270; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q162

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