The District Emancipation Act was a landmark event for many reasons, but it was never about equality for African Americans or even focused primarily on their freedom. Emancipation was meant to facilitate the “ultimate” destruction of slavery, but more immediately and importantly at the time the destruction of the South.[i] In the midst of the Civil War, either slavery or the nation would die, and the DC Act was a way to save the nation.[ii][iii] A compromise would not bring peace, and the government’s current policy of tolerating the continued existence of slavery was prolonging the war.[iv] The conditions embodied in the District Emancipation Act, Frederick Douglass argued, would also protract the war.[v]
Many Americans believed that emancipation would hurt blacks because they were not ready for, nor capable of, freedom. However, Chaplain C. W. Denison often wrote to The National Republican from various refugee camps about just how capable “contrabands” were proving to be. Whether at Fortress Monroe or in South Carolina or elsewhere, he saw contrabands eager to learn and improve their condition. They were more than willing to work hard in the fields to earn their living.[vi] Contrabands, especially adults, attended classes diligently to learn to read and write. The Chaplain wrote that rumors of contrabands being lazy and uneducated were only true when Union Generals would not employ them or only put them to work as servants.[vii] Denison argued that if fairly treated and paid, contrabands had a great advantage because they were willing to work hard to maintain their freedom, which many army officers would attest to.[viii] Denison also vehemently insisted that “negroes [could] do other things to promote the Constitution and liberty besides work,” although work was the most important.[ix] In the past, blacks had acted as citizens should. They took care of their sick, buried their dead, set up schools and improvement organizations for their own betterment, and more. African Americans would continue to act as citizens should to help their recently freed brethren upon passage of the District Emancipation Act.[x]
When asked what would happen to the contrabands if emancipated, Frederick Douglass advocated leaving the them to themselves. These freed persons would not be violent nor would they incite violence from pro-slavery fanatics and start a race war (ending in the genocide of all blacks). They would not overrun jails or cheapen labor. They would work just as they had before and would learn just as he had.[xi] He recommended that white citizens leave them alone to make their own decisions because it was their “doing with them [that was blacks’] greatest misfortune.”[xii] “As colored men … [they] only ask to be allowed to do with [them]selves,” a sentiment that resonated with all black Washingtonians.[xiii]
However capable African Americans seemed to be or believed they could be, many emancipationists did not foresee any major changes within society as a result of emancipation. They considered black inferiority a law of nature that could not be altered by the laws of men. Each race would remain separate – in schools, churches, and neighborhoods. New freedmen would remain in the same second class station that free blacks in DC already inhabited. Emancipation was purposely seen and presented to the community as a change in legal status. The only difference would be that these freed persons were no longer in bondage and were entitled to equality under the law. African Americans received legal rights – liberty, property, assembly. Legal equality did not confer social equality. The District Emancipation Act did not entitle African Americans to be treated differently by society. And because of that, many DC residents supported it.
[i] “Abolition of Slavery,” Douglass’s Monthly, March 1862, 619.
[ii] “A Way to Save the Country,” Douglass’s Monthly, April 1862, 632.
[iii] “Abolition of Slavery,” Douglass’s Monthly, March 1862, 619.
[iv] “The Policy of the Administration,” Douglass’s Monthly, August 1862, 638-639.
[vi] “How the Freed Slaves Behave,” The National Republican, January 11, 1862.
[vii] “Marshal Lamon,” The Evening Star, January 16, 1862.
[viii] “Will the Contrabands Work,” The National Republican, January 13, 1862.
[x] “Emancipation; as Regarded by the Colored People,” The National Republican, April 28, 1862.
[xi] “What Shall be done with the Slaves if Emancipated,” Douglass’s Monthly, January 1862, 573.
[xii] “What Shall be done with the Slaves if Emancipated,”Douglass’s Monthly, January 1862, 573.