August 6, 1861 – President Abraham Lincoln reluctantly signed a bill into the law authorizing Federal military commanders to seize property, including slaves, from people “aiding, abetting, or promoting” rebellion against the U.S.
Sponsored by Republican Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, the law decreed in carefully worded language that “all such property is hereby declared to be lawful subject of prize and capture wherever found; and it shall be the duty of the (president) to cause the same to be seized, confiscated, and condemned.” The confiscated property “shall be condemned in the district or circuit court of the United States having jurisdiction.”
District attorneys were empowered to “institute proceedings of condemnation,” and any revenue gained from the confiscated property would be given to the Federal government. If a citizen brought a case for confiscation to the district attorney, that citizen would be eligible to receive half the confiscated property’s value; this incentivized informers. Property subject to seizure included land, homes, livestock, farm equipment, businesses, cash, stocks, bonds, and most importantly, slaves (although they were not referred to by that term).
Every slave owner aiding the Confederate military “shall forfeit his claim to such labor.” While this empowered Federal authorities to seize slaves as prizes of war, the law provided no explanation of what would be done to care for the slaves once confiscated. The law also did not provide for freeing those slaves; it only provided for taking them from disloyal masters.
Since this law mostly applied to slaves working in the Confederate armies as laborers, many assumed that those confiscated would be put to work at the same jobs for the Federal armies. This seemed to indicate that they would stay slaves, except now working for the Federal government rather than the Confederacy. Nevertheless, this law adopted the policy initiated by Major General Benjamin F. Butler at Fort Monroe, where he considered fugitive slaves to be “contraband of war” and refused to return them to their masters.
In the Republican-dominated Congress, all but six Republicans approved this measure. Supporters argued that confiscating property was an appropriate action to take against traitors. Many Radical Republicans saw this is a first step toward abolishing slavery, and they pushed this bill through Congress partly as a way to express disapproval of Lincoln’s moderate stance on the issue.
All but three members of the non-Republican parties in Congress (Democrats, Whigs, Constitutional Unionists, etc.) opposed this measure. Opponents argued that the law contradicted Lincoln’s stated war aims and the Crittenden-Johnson Resolution declaring that the war was about preserving the Union without interfering with slavery. Congressman John J. Crittenden, who co-sponsored the resolution, argued that legal precedent established the Federal government had no right to interfere with slavery during peace, and thus it should be the same during war.
Critics also argued that the logic of seizing property from traitors had no merit because under the Constitution, property could not be seized until the owner was convicted in court. Thus, property would be confiscated without constitutionally guaranteed due process. This law could also pave the way towards Federal military forces waging war on civilians.
While signing several last-minute bills in the Senate Chamber, Lincoln hesitated before signing this one because it interfered with slavery, something Lincoln had pledged not to do in his inaugural address. The partisan nature in which the bill passed troubled many because it indicated that if the conflict became a war against slavery, Republicans could expect no support from any other political parties to fight it. Partly to keep up bipartisanship in the struggle, this law was never fully enforced.
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