The District Emancipation Act

April 16, 1862 – President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill into law abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia.

The seat of the Federal government, located between the two slaveholding states of Maryland and Virginia, had permitted slavery since its creation over half a century before. For a time, slaves had even been held in stockades and auctioned off near the U.S. Capitol. The 1850 ban on slave trading in the District ended that practice, but slavery remained legal there nonetheless.

Unlike the states, the District was under Federal jurisdiction, meaning that Congress could regulate its domestic affairs. Measures to free slaves in the District had been repeatedly introduced in Congress over the past generation; Lincoln himself had drafted an emancipation bill as a U.S. representative from Illinois in 1848. All these bills had been rejected, largely due to southern opposition to the Federal government infringing on property rights. But since the war began, most slaveholders had left the District, and the Republican-controlled Congress introduced the measure once again.

Sponsored by Republican Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, the original measure would appropriate $1 million to compensate slaveholders for their loss of labor if they could prove loyalty to the U.S. The 1860 census had counted 3,185 slaves in the District worth an estimated $2 million, but since many slaveholders had gone south and others may not be able to prove loyalty, the $1 million was a more reasonable figure to pay.

Most congressmen from the loyal slave states (i.e., Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri) opposed this measure because the payoff amount equated to just $300 per slave, far less than current market value. Washington city aldermen also resisted the idea out of fear that letting blacks live free in the city could spark racial violence. They lobbied Congress to add a provision expanding the capital’s police force. Congress responded with a provision earmarking $100,000 to deport freed slaves to other countries if they agreed to go.

The Senate approved the bill on April 3 by a vote of 29 to 14. The House of Representatives followed eight days later by a vote of 93 to 39. With both chambers approving the measure by over two-thirds, Lincoln signed it into law and submitted a message of approval to Congress:

“I have never doubted the constitutional authority of Congress to abolish slavery in the District, and I have ever desired to see the national capital freed from the institution in some satisfactory way. Hence there never has been in my mind any questions upon the subject, except those of expediency, arising in view of all the circumstances.”

Celebrating abolition in D.C. | Image Credit:
Celebrating abolition in D.C. | Image Credit:

A commission was created to attach value to each slave, with no slave worth more than $300. Slaveholders had 90 days to submit a list of their slaves’ names, ages, and descriptions for the commissioners to review and compensate accordingly. About 1,000 slaveholders submitted claims to the commission and received compensation. A small number were rejected, usually due to questionable ownership rights or suspected Confederate sympathies.

Freed slaves in the District received full civil rights except the right to vote or serve on juries. In neighboring Maryland and Virginia, slaveholders began selling their slaves to points farther south out of fear that they would try escaping to freedom in the nearby District. However, these slaves were still subject to be returned to their masters under the Fugitive Slave Act.

The District Emancipation Act was a partial victory for Lincoln, who had sought to impose a compensated emancipation program throughout the country. But freeing slaves in the District where the Federal government had jurisdiction was far different than trying to free them in states that had legal control over their own domestic institutions. This also marked the first step toward Lincoln’s supplemental plan of deporting freed slaves; Lincoln considered colonization to be the best way to address the issue of freed slaves competing with resentful whites for jobs.

Abolitionists hailed this measure as a first step toward full emancipation. Slaveholders in both North and South condemned the law for the same reason.



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