Introducing Compensated Emancipation

President Abraham Lincoln consulted with his cabinet on a special message to Congress. Lincoln wanted legislators to approve a program in which slaveholding states remaining loyal to the Union (i.e., Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware) would receive Federal compensation if they voluntarily adopted a plan of gradual slave emancipation. No U.S. president had ever proposed such an extraordinary legislative initiative before.

Lincoln’s message of March 6 read in part: “I recommend, ‘Resolved, 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 change of system.’” The president contended that the plan would help keep the border states from seceding.

According to Lincoln, “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 humanitarian reasons, but to preserve the Union and destroy the “proposed confederacy.”

To those concerned that such a plan would be too costly, Lincoln wrote that “any member of Congress, with the census tables and Treasury reports before him, can readily see for himself how very soon the current expenditures of this war would purchase, at fair valuation, all the slaves in any named State.” In fact, he asserted, “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.

Of course, a joint congressional resolution would not be an enforceable law, and the border states would still have the option of whether or not to accept Federal aid. But Lincoln argued that failing to adopt the program “would not soon lead to important practical results.” 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.

After three days passed, Lincoln wrote to Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, “Since I sent in my message, about the usual amount of calling by the Border State Congressmen has taken place, and although they have all been very friendly not one of them has yet said a word to me about it.” Lincoln worried that “the import of the message had been misunderstood,” and asked Blair, a Marylander, to persuade the congressmen to meet with Lincoln at the White House.

The meeting took place on the 10th. Lincoln “did not pretend to disguise his Anti-slavery feeling; that he thought it was wrong and should continue to think so.” But he understood that “emancipation was a subject exclusively under the control of the States, and must be adopted or rejected by each for itself,” and he did not claim any constitutional right to coerce any state into freeing its slaves. He acknowledged that the Constitution prohibited the Federal government from interfering with slavery where it already existed. He also gave assurances that his administration would do nothing “to injure the interests or wound the sensibilities of the slave states.”

But Lincoln worried that if slavery continued in the border states, it would strengthen “the hopes of the Confederates that at some day the Border States would unite with them, and thus tend to prolong the War.” By accepting an emancipation program, Lincoln believed, “more would be accomplished toward shortening the War than could be hoped from the greatest victory achieved by Union armies.” Thus, while the states had to decide for themselves whether or not to abolish slavery, national interests were also at stake in the matter. The president said, “Slavery existed, and that, too, as well by the act of the North as of the South, and in any scheme to get rid of it the North as well as the South was morally bound to do its full and equal share.”

The border state delegation did not react as Lincoln had hoped. John Crisfield of Maryland said that slaveowners in his state would abolish slavery “if provision was made to meet the loss, but they did not like to be coerced into Emancipation, either by the Direct action of the Government, or by indirection.” John Noell of Missouri argued that such a program was not needed because “natural causes were there in operation which would, at no distant day, extinguish it.”

Others questioned the constitutionality of the plan and expressed fears that emancipation would harm race relations. John J. Crittenden, the Kentuckian who had worked so hard to find a compromise between North and South before the war, finally ended the awkward meeting by stating that “whatever might be our final action, we all thought him solely moved by a high patriotism and sincere devotion to the happiness and glory of his Country.”

The House of Representatives opened debate on the matter the next day, and it quickly became contentious. Democrats and border state congressmen bitterly denounced the idea of the Federal government buying out slaveholders. Charles Wickliffe of Kentucky challenged Lincoln to cite the clause in the Constitution in which he “finds the power in Congress to appropriate the treasure of the United States to buy negroes, or to set them free.” William Saulsbury of Delaware called the proposal “extraordinary in its origin” and “mischievous in its tendency.”

Nehemiah Perry of New Jersey asserted, “Millions for the Union, but not one cent for abolition,” because it would embolden the Confederates and cause Federal soldiers to “rise and tell you that they never trusted their lives to your care to be thus sacrificed for the liberation of the ‘almighty nigger.’” Daniel Voorhees of Indiana announced that none of his constituents wanted their money spent on freeing slaves. William Richardson of Illinois maintained that his constituents would not “enter upon the proposed work of purchasing the slaves of other people, and turning them loose in their midst.”

But Republicans dominated the House, and as such, the resolution easily passed, 89 to 31. The Senate would take this matter up in April.

Lincoln tried to make his case once more, this time in a letter to Horace Greeley, influential editor of the New York Tribune. The president wrote that if “some one or other of the border-states would move fast, I should greatly prefer it.” But he also emphasized that “we should urge it persuasively, and not menacingly, upon the South.” Lincoln wanted a plan that could hold up in Federal courts, and to that end, it needed to have three “main features–gradual–compensation–and vote of the people.” Nevertheless, congressmen from the border slave states maintained strong opposition to any Federal interference with slavery.


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