Origins of the District Emancipation Act

President Lincoln strove to preserve the Union, and late in 1861 he realized that emancipation was one way to achieve that goal. Lincoln first introduced his version of emancipation to the Delaware state legislature. There were three main features of Lincoln’s version: gradual emancipation, compensation for loyal slaveholders, and the voluntary colonization of African Americans overseas. Lincoln believed he could easily persuade citizens of Delaware to pass his bill because of their relatively low slave population — 2% (1,800). Delaware’s emancipation of the state’s slaves was to be the first step in Lincoln’s Border State plan.

Lincoln believed slavery would eventually die out if not allowed to expand. As such, when the Civil War began he did not feel that emancipation was a necessity at the time nor that he had a right to personally alter slavery. However, Delaware’s state legislature failed to pass Lincoln’s emancipation bill. The Union was fighting over slavery, whether or not its citizens acknowledged that fact. Lincoln came to see the exigency of emancipation, even if only as a means to save the Union, and he thus decided to take emancipation to the nation’s capital.

One could argue the District Emancipation Act (passed April 16, 1862) resulted from years of past emancipation legislation, yet the American Civil War provided the catalyst necessary to transform the ideals of emancipation into a legal document. In 1805 the first bill advocating the emancipation of slaves in the District of Columbia was proposed and defeated in Congress. Congress rejected a dozen more emancipation bills over the next half century. On December 16, 1861, Congress heard the most anticipated bill of the century: Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts proposed “An Act for the Release of Certain Persons held to Service or Labor in the District of Columbia by Reason of African Descent.” Wilson’s act was debated by Congressmen and DC residents alike. After many modifications, Wilson’s proposal passed as the District Emancipation Act on April 16, 1862.

Lincoln’s support was crucial to passage of the bill. Wilson’s bill had two of Lincoln’s fundamental features, colonization and compensation. Wilson, however, did not believe emancipation could ever be gradual. Both sides were reflected in the city’s newspaper editorials, and the public was split on all three aspects of the District Emancipation Act. Gradual emancipation was essential for some citizens and abominable for others. Colonization was a must for many DC residents, while others saw it as an injustice to those who considered America their home. Compensation proved to be the most disputed feature of the bill. Slaveholders argued that the compensation that was offered—initially set at a maximum of $300 per slave—was insufficient, while abolitionists argued it was more than enough. After four months of debates in Congress and in editorials, a compromise was reached in which Lincoln gave up the gradual and voluntary features of his bill, while Congress kept the colonization and compensation measures intact. The resulting Act instituted immediate emancipation, voluntary colonization, and compensation. The original Act was  to be in effect for 90 days, in which slaveholders had the option of filing a petition for compensation for their slaves. A committee of three men was appointed by Lincoln to assess the petitions.

Ultimately the President supported the bill, and DC citizens also supported the bill. As written in many newspapers of the time, residents of DC saw the inevitability of emancipation in DC. They might not have agreed wholeheartedly on the District Emancipation Act and its implications, but they trusted the President and saw the immorality of slavery, especially regarding its degradation of the nation. Many saw the present rebellion as a consequence of the nation not definitively addressing the slavery question and not conclusively affirming the supremacy of the national government. The city rejoiced when the District Emancipation Act was signed into law. This Act provided a remedy of sorts to the moral degradation of slavery and finally put the nation’s capital in harmony with its declaration as a free nation for all. In this regard DC was an example for the nation. DC embraced emancipation, if not social change, and stood behind Lincoln and the nation.

Components of the District Emancipation Act can be found in the Emancipation Proclamation. For example, although the District Emancipation Act was not gradual, Lincoln and many citizens intended it to be. The Act initially only pertained to slaves working or living in DC at the time of its passage. On July 12, 1862, the Act was extended to include any slaves owned by DC residents and slaves from nearby Virginia and Maryland counties. Slaves in DC whose owners had neither filed for compensation nor emancipated them could also file for certificates of freedom.

The Emancipation Proclamation only applied to slaves in states in rebellion who were freed by the Union Army, which was gradual, as Lincoln had planned. President Lincoln also wanted the Proclamation to include compensation on a national scale, but freeing some 3 million slaves was not financially feasible. Lastly, just as slaves under the District Act had the option of immigrating to parts of South America and Africa, that also was the case for former slaves following the Proclamation. Although not an exact replica of the District Emancipation Act, the Emancipation Proclamation was essentially the Act on a national scale.

~Brittany Jones

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