Go to the homepage...

Contrabands // Fremont's Emancipation Order // Abolition in the District of Columbia Hunter's Emancipation Order // Abolition in the Territories

Slavery in the territories had periodically peaked as an important issue since the beginning of the American republic.  In 1787, Congress banned slavery in the newly created Northwest Territory (the area that later became the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin).  With slave and free states numerically even, the Missouri Compromise of 1820-1821 prohibited slavery in the Louisiana Territory above the latitude 36° 30' and allowed it below the line.  The War with Mexico (1846-1848) reopened the question of slavery in the territories because of the large amount of land ceded from Mexico to the United States by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.  The Compromise of 1850 temporarily settled the matter when under its terms California entered the Union as a free state and the new territories of Utah and New Mexico were opened to slavery on the basis of popular sovereignty—i.e., territorial voters were allowed to decide the issue.   

The situation changed dramatically in 1854 when the Kansas-Nebraska Act repealed the 1820 Missouri Compromise ban on slavery north of 36° 30' in the lands of the Louisiana Purchase.  Thereafter, the issue of slavery in the territories would be at the center of angry public debate.  The advocates of territories free from slavery suffered another setback in 1857 when the U. S. Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott case that neither territorial governments nor the federal government could ban slavery in the territories.  The issue of slavery in the territories so divided the Democratic Party that it split into two factions in 1860, allowing Republican Abraham Lincoln to win the presidential election. 

Having granted emancipation to slaves in the District of Columbia in April 1862, the Republican-controlled Congress banned slavery in the current or any future territories of the United States, and President Lincoln signed the bill on June 19, 1862.  The area included the future states of North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, and Alaska.

Emancipation in the territories was immediate and allocated no federal money either to former slaveowners as compensation for loss of their property or to former slaves for colonization abroad.  (Those three aspects—immediacy, no compensation, and no colonization funds—would be true of the later Thirteenth Amendment, as well).   

Harper’s Weekly columnist, George William Curtis, credited Republican Congressman Isaac Arnold of Illinois with drafting and introducing the legislation into Congress.  Curtis noted that the language of the 1862 act abolishing slavery in the territories reflected the slavery ban in the 1787 Northwest Ordinance (except the earlier document included a requirement to return fugitive slaves). 

Northwest Ordinance (Article 6), 1787

There shall be neither Slavery nor involuntary Servitude in the said territory otherwise than in the punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted; provided always that any person escaping into the same, from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any one of the original States, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labor or service as aforesaid. 

Territorial Abolition Act, 1862:

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That from and after the passage of this act there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of the Territories of the United States now existing, or which may at any time hereafter be formed or acquired by the United States, otherwise than in punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.

Although the Dred Scott decision of 1857 denied that Congress had the constitutional authority to abolish slavery in the territories, President Lincoln’s appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court protected the legislation from a potential legal challenge.  In 1862, the president filled three vacancies on the high court, winning Senate confirmation for Noah Swayne on January 24, Samuel Miller on July 16, and David Davis on December 8.  Lincoln subsequently won approval for Stephen J. Field (March 10, 1863) and Salmon P. Chase (December 6, 1864).

Harper's Weekly References
1)  October 4, 1862, p. 626, c. 4
“The Lounger” column, “Honors Easy”

Go to the homepage...

Contrabands // Fremont's Emancipation Order // Abolition in the District of Columbia Hunter's Emancipation Order // Abolition in the Territories





Website design © 2001-2008 HarpWeek, LLC
All Content © 1998-2008 HarpWeek, LLC
Please submit questions to