On April 16, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill emancipating enslaved people in Washington, the end of a long struggle. But to ease slaveowners’ pain, the District of Columbia Emancipation Act paid those loyal to the Union up to $300 for every enslaved person freed.
That’s right, slaveowners got reparations. Enslaved African-Americans got nothing for their generations of stolen bodies, snatched children and expropriated labor other than their mere release from legal bondage.
The compensation clause is not likely to be celebrated today. But as the debate about reparations for slavery intensifies, it is important to remember that slaveowners, far more than enslaved people, were always the primary beneficiaries of public largess.
The act is notable because it was the first time that the federal government authorized abolition of slavery, which hastened its demise in Virginia and Maryland as runaways from these states fled to Washington. It offered concrete proof to enslaved people and their allies that the federal government might facilitate the destruction of slavery everywhere. And it confirmed the worst fears of their foes about an interloping tyrannical president.
Abraham Lincoln, however, was anxious to preserve his fragile alliance with loyal slaveholders. He had advocated abolition of slavery in Washington in 1849 as a congressman, to no avail. As president, he encouraged the border states to voluntarily end slavery. He chose Delaware as an ideal place to take the lead in late 1861. But it became clear that Union slaveowners could not be so easily persuaded. This reinforced the need to make congressional emancipation conditioned on compensating them, which put abolitionists in a bind.They welcomed the end of slavery in the capital, but chafed at payments that validated the right to own property in the form of human beings. “If compensation is to be given at all,” the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison said at the National Anti-Slavery Convention in Philadelphia in 1833, “it should be given to the outraged and guiltless slaves, and not to those who have plundered and abused them.”
Moderate antislavery advocates like Lincoln did not agree. To the contrary, they believed that any manumission plan had to placate property rights that were buttressed by the Fifth Amendment, which required “just compensation” for government seizure of private assets.