1862 - The Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862
ith a stroke of his pen, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Compensated Emancipation Act on April 16, 1862, officially ending slavery in Washington, D.C. The Act reflected a new direction in the longstanding debate over slavery and emancipation in the nation’s capital. While a far cry from full emancipation, it was an important step towards the abolition of slavery.
The law ending slavery in the nation’s capital provided compensation for the owners of the roughly 3,185 slaves it freed. A three-person commission heard petitions of the former slave owners and made determinations on how much money they should receive for the loss of their human property. In the end, the total compensation amounted to nearly one million dollars. A second Compensation Act, which Lincoln signed into law on July 12, 1862, allowed former slaves to petition for reimbursement for their own value, so long as their former masters had not already been compensated. It also allowed former slaves who had purchased the freedom of family members to claim remuneration for the money they had spent to free loved ones. This corrected a flaw in the original Act. Under the original law, black claims were automatically discounted if challenged by a white petitioner. The revision required claims to be weighted equally, regardless of the petitioner’s race.
While a number of states had ended slavery well before it was outlawed in Washington, D.C., these particular acts of emancipation—especially the first one– carried a lot of symbolism. As the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. was a critical center of nineteenth-century struggles between northerners and southerners over slavery.
At first, few white Americans questioned the institution of slavery in Washington, D.C. The growth of the city after its establishment in 1792 had called for considerable skilled and unskilled labor, and slaves had built more than a few of its buildings. The city was also central to the domestic slave trade. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, slave pens and auctions were a common sight. Hotels rented out basements for holding slaves prior to their sale, and local taverns and hotels around the National Mall frequently hosted slave auctions. Robey’s slave pen (currently the cite of the Federal Aviation Administration building) was among the most well-known of the pens. It stood near William H. Williams’s Yellow House, which served as a private prison for slaves. Robey’s slave pen was made famous by English visitor E. S. Abdy, a Fellow of Jesuit College, Cambridge, who chronicled his impressions during a visit in 1835. Abdy spared no words, calling the pen “a wretched hovel,” and noting that the “inmates” were exposed to the extremes of winter and summer climates.
As D.C. grew, so did its population of free African-Americans, who found the city’s pro-slavery forces moving to place more and more restrictions on their movements, including strict curfews. Under these black codes, there were minimal distinctions between the treatment of free and enslaved African-Americans who violated curfews. And the black codes became even more restrictive as the nineteenth century went on. One 1821 black code required free African Americans to prove their free status by appearing before the mayor with documents signed by three white citizens of “good standing.” As with the enslaved, the mobility of free black Americans and even their very freedom was subject to the whims of white Washingtonians.
The appalling practice of slave sales in the nation’s capital horrified observers, and the closing net around free black Americans worried people who feared that the principle of freedom itself was coming under siege. In 1828, anti-slavery activists unsuccessfully pressed for DC to end slavery. But the city’s status as the seat of national government made the prospect of emancipation particularly contentious, as everyone recognized that the status of slavery there symbolized its status in the nation.
Washington, D.C. began to see more and more physical resistance to slavery. Slave ships regularly sailed along the Potomac, docking near the city’s slave pens. But those ships could be put to the opposite use, too. In 1848, 77 enslaved African-Americans escaped from their plantations and attempted to steal aboard and sail the Pearl up the Potomac to freedom. Slacking winds foiled their attempt, and the slaves and a handful of white collaborators were captured and put in the City Jail. The slaves were later sold south, but their attempt to escape inspired three days of anti-slavery riots, which prompted new congressional debates over slavery in the city. The crisis was not enough to end the institution there, but it did increase sentiments against human bondage. Only two years later, a provision of the Compromise of 1850 banned the slave trade in the city, though it was still legal to own slaves.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Washington, D.C. was on the front line, wedged between Maryland (a slave-owning border state) and Virginia. Tens of thousands of fugitive slaves flooded the city. Before the war, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 would have compelled government officials to return those slaves to their owners. But after 1861, they were refugees, their status dependent on the outcome of the war.
In Washington, these refugees were in the forefront of the fight over slavery. Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s military strategy was to invade Washington, D.C., and force U.S. government leaders to sign a truce that would accept the establishment of the slaveholding Confederacy as a neighboring nation. Abraham Lincoln’s decision to sign the Compensated Emancipation Act into law in 1862, amidst an advance into Maryland by Lee’s troops, was deliberately symbolic. While slavery remained legal at the national level, abolishing slavery in Washington meant that the capital of the United States stood in stark contrast to Richmond, Virginia, the seat of the Confederacy. This implied (particularly to African Americans) that the Civil War was about freedom.
Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address a year later confirmed the centrality of slavery as the cause of the Civil War. Reflecting back on the nation’s founding, Lincoln described the United States as “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” As he dedicated the Soldiers National Cemetery at Gettysburg, he tied the veneration of the dead to a renewed “devotion” that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” Both Compensated Emancipation Acts set the a pattern of his administration’s commitment to ending slavery, a pattern Lincoln continued with the January 1, 1863, Emancipation Proclamation and with his commitment to ending racial slavery in America once and for all with the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
African Americans, at least, saw April 16 as a key Emancipation Day, a celebration that included a parade that began in Franklin Square, looped through the city, and returned to Franklin Square. for speeches. When the war ended, African-American Washingtonians began to celebrate April 16 not only as the beginning of the end of slavery, but also as a sign of racial progress. In 1866, half the city’s African American population turned out to see the Emancipation Day parade, which included two regiments of black soldiers who had fought in the Civil War. It was a turn of affairs so unthinkable four years before that the hope for racial equality in their lifetimes must have seemed within reach. And even when that hope turned out to be premature, Emancipation Day remained an annual public celebration in Washington, D.C., up until 1901. Then the annual commemoration continued in churches until the larger, more public celebrations were revived in 1991.
The new festivities include a wreath-laying ceremony in Lincoln Park at the foot of a statue of Abraham Lincoln, built by donations from former slaves.