Moving Toward Emancipation: The Border State Conference

July 12, 1862 – President Abraham Lincoln held a conference with U.S. senators and representatives from the loyal slaveholding states to persuade them to accept a policy of compensating slaveholders for voluntarily freeing their slaves.

U.S. President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit:
U.S. President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit:

A group of 20 congressmen from Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri gathered in Lincoln’s White House office a week before Congress adjourned. Lincoln announced that “The unprecedentedly stern facts of our case” could no longer be denied. Despite the unpopularity of such a move, Lincoln urged the men to push their state legislatures to approve his plan for gradual, compensated slave emancipation.

Lincoln explained that when he revoked Major General David Hunter’s emancipation proclamation in May, “I gave dissatisfaction, if not offense, to many whose support the country cannot afford to lose. And this is not the end of it. The pressure, in this direction, is still upon me, and is increasing.”

Abolishing slavery benefited the border states because it would end southern attempts to bring those states into the Confederacy: “You and I know what the lever of their power is. Break that lever before their faces and they can shake you no more forever.”

Lincoln also warned them that slavery may soon be abolished anyway, and without compensation: “If the war continues long,” and if the congressmen did not make “a decision at once to emancipate gradually… the institution in your states will be extinguished by mere friction and abrasion–by the mere incidents of war… and you will have nothing valuable in lieu of it.”

Citing his long-favored policy of black deportation, Lincoln said, “I do not speak of emancipation at once, but of a decision at once to emancipate gradually. Room in South America for colonization can be obtained cheaply, and in abundance, and when numbers shall be large enough to be company and encouragement for one another, the freed people will not be so reluctant to go.”

He continued, “How much better for you and for your people to take the step which at once shortens the war and secures substantial compensation for that which is sure to be wholly lost in any other event. As you would perpetuate popular government for the best people in the world, I beseech you that you do in no wise omit this.”

Two days later, Lincoln submitted a message to Congress requesting legislation to compensate “any State which may abolish slavery within it’s (sic) limits.” This reiterated Lincoln’s request earlier in the year for state-controlled, gradually compensated slave emancipation. Under this bill, states would be paid in six-percent bonds for every slave within their borders according to the 1860 census. Payments would be distributed as the slaves were freed.

Meanwhile, seven border state congressmen expressed support for Lincoln’s request of July 12 while 20 “declined to comply.” Signing a manifesto urging Lincoln to “confine yourself to your constitutional authority,” the dissenting congressmen wrote:

“The right to hold slaves is a right appertaining to all the States of the Union. They have the right to cherish or abolish the institution, as their tastes or their interests may prompt, and no one is authorized to question the right, or limit its enjoyment. And no one has more clearly affirmed that right than you have. Your inaugural address does you great honor in this respect, and inspired the country with confidence in your fairness and respect for law.”

Contending that most southerners were fighting to preserve their individual rights, the congressmen stated, “Remove their apprehensions; satisfy them that no harm is intended to them and their institutions; that this Government is not making war on their rights of property, but is simply defending its legitimate authority, and they will gladly return to their allegiance.”

The congressmen argued that “emancipation in any form” would be a “radical change in our social system” that “would further consolidate the spirit of the rebellion in the seceded states and fan the spirit of secession among loyal slaveholders in the Border States.” Lincoln’s policy would unfairly punish loyal slaveholders by depriving them of slave labor while disloyal slaveholders in the South kept their slaves. And such a policy, the congressmen declared, violated states’ rights.

The men also noted that Congress could not afford such a program, which would cost nearly $500 million at a time when the Federal government was already spending millions a day to pay for the war. Moreover, the government bonds that would be used to compensate the states could lose value if the national credit fell. One congressman stated that Lincoln’s offer “was but the enunciation of a sentiment which could not or was not likely to be reduced to an actual tangible proposition.”

Rather than adopt Lincoln’s gradual abolition proposal, Congress approved a bill on July 16 appropriating $500,000 to colonize black people outside the U.S. While Lincoln had favored black deportation throughout much of his political career, he now began considering slave emancipation instead, despite opposition from loyal slaveholders.


References; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 14984-92; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 7646; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 537; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 181; 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. 239-40; 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. 502-04; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 351-52; 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), Q362

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