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

Through the first half of the nineteenth century, the nation’s capital of Washington, D. C., was an important center for the interstate slave trade.  The Compromise of 1850 abolished the slave trade in the nation’s capital, but slavery continued as a legal institution there into the Civil War.   

Near the end of his one term in Congress (1847-1849), Abraham Lincoln proposed a bill for a popular referendum in the District of Columbia on the question of slavery.  Under its terms, if a majority voted for emancipation, then slaveowners would be given the option of freeing their slaves for full market-value compensation from the federal government.  (The house servants of federal officials living in the District of Columbia were exempt.)  Furthermore, all children of slaves born after 1850 would be free.  When made public, the plan was attacked by all sides, so Lincoln did not officially introduce it for consideration by the U.S. House of Representatives.  Although unsuccessful, the incident reveals Lincoln’s commitment to compromise, gradualism, and compensation as appropriate methods to achieve the goal of emancipation.   

On April 6, 1862, the Senate passed a bill (29-14) abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia.  It was the first congressional legislation concerning emancipation that applied to the slaves of loyal as well as disloyal owners.  The bill provided compensation to the former owners who swore loyalty to the Union (up to $300 per slave), and it allocated money for the voluntary colonization of the former slaves  to Haiti, Liberia, or other foreign nations (up to $100 per person).  The bill passed the House on April 11 (93-39), and was signed into law by President Lincoln on April 16.  The more than 3000 ex-slaves living in the District of Columbia could testify in special emancipation hearings and receive certificates of freedom.  Compensation was awarded for the vast majority of the slaves, totaling nearly $1 million in federal funds.  It was the only time the federal government compensated former slaveowners for the loss of their slaves. 

The April 19, 1862 issue of Harper’s Weekly (published April 9) reported how the Senate had rejected a substitute version of the District Emancipation Bill that would have required a popular referendum and replaced immediate with gradual emancipation.  An amendment to the original bill was approved that required the former slaveowners to submit the names of the slaves for whom they were seeking compensation so that that ex-slaves could receive a certificate of freedom.  An amendment to the bill allotting federal funds for voluntary colonization was also approved before its passage. 

For years, the black community of Washington, D. C., celebrated the District Emancipation Act on or around its anniversary of April 16.  The May 12, 1866 issue of Harper’s Weekly illustrated and described that year’s celebration on Saturday, April 19.  It included a parade, music, a religious service, and addresses by President Andrew Johnson and others.

Harper's Weekly References

1)  April 19, 1862, p. 243, c. 2-3
“Domestic Intelligence” column

2)  May 12, 1866, p. 300
illustrated article, “The Negro Celebration in Washington,” anniversary of abolition of slavery in DC

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





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