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150 Years Ago: Freeing Mr. Lincoln’s Slaves

In the midst of war, he could free the 3,000 slaves in the nation’s capital with the stroke of a pen, but the politics were hard—and the risks to a fragile union great.

President Lincoln’s signing of the bill mandating “compensated emancipation” of DC’s slaves set off a celebration among the black population. Illustration Courtesy of The Library of Congress.

Few men in American history spoke against the evil of slavery as forcefully as Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. In 1856, he was clubbed near to death on the Senate floor after verbally attacking a South Carolina Democrat who defended the “peculiar institution.”

Six years later, in the midst of the Civil War, he was losing patience with his fellow Republican in the White House. Face to face with the President, Sumner demanded, “Do you know who at this moment is the largest slaveholder in the country? It is Abraham Lincoln, for he holds all of the 3,000 slaves of the District, which is more than any other person in the country holds.”

Sumner was right. As he spoke, a bill to liberate all the slaves in the nation’s capital lay on the President’s desk. All Lincoln had to do was sign his name to order compensated emancipation, by which the government would pay District of Columbia owners whose slaves were freed.

But Sumner left the White House frustrated. So did Bishop Daniel Payne of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, who came after him to plead with the President. Payne told Lincoln that “we the colored citizens of the republic” had been praying for him, and now it was time for him to answer their prayers. Lincoln heard the bishop but promised him nothing.

To sign the bill would be a simple act—but everything surrounding it was complicated.

Lincoln, who had grown up in the free state of Illinois, described himself as “naturally anti-slavery,” but his views on what to do about it had evolved in zigs and zags during his political career. His feelings had hardened during his one term as a congressman, from 1847 to 1849, when the slave trade flourished in Washington. He was appalled by what he saw at Franklin & Armfield, the biggest interstate dealer, seven blocks from the Capitol. It was “a sort of Negro livery-stable,” he wrote, “where droves of negroes were collected, temporarily kept, and finally taken to southern markets, precisely like droves of horses.”

Other dealers held slaves and conducted auctions in Georgetown and at scattered places including City Hall and Decatur House, across Lafayette Park from the White House. Some congressmen were offended by having to witness, as they came and went to do an allegedly free nation’s business, this commerce in humanity.

Robey’s, at Seventh Street and Maryland Avenue, Northeast, was surrounded by a high wooden fence. An English traveler was aghast at “this wretched hovel,” where “both sexes, and all ages, are confined, exposed indiscriminately to all the contamination which may be expected in such society.” He wrote that some had “actually frozen to death” in the city jail, nicknamed the Blue Jug, where transient slaves often were kept before being shipped south. Any free African-American without proper papers might be arrested and sent along with them.

Solomon Northup, a free black musician from New York state, told of traveling in 1841 to Washington, where he was kidnapped into slavery despite having papers documenting his status. He wrote that he was whipped for insisting that he was not a slave, then held in chains in Williams’s slave pen eight blocks east of the Capitol untill being taken to Louisiana by boat, train, stagecoach, and foot. There, he said, he worked as a field hand on a cotton plantation for 12 years before he met a Canadian who helped negotiate his freedom.

An 1830s abolition poster focusing on Washington demanded action:

“Slave factories, with chains and grated cells, are established at the Seat of Government… . The District of Columbia is one of the greatest and most cruel slave markets in the world! … When the American people declare in a voice of thunder that they will not endure to have their own metropolis profaned with slavery, then, and not till then, will the legislation of Congress be the echo of their voice. Speak then, fellow citizens!”

Lincoln and many other legislators in the 1840s did not believe slavery in the states was the national government’s business. But what happened in the nation’s capital was another matter. Lincoln was quiet during congressional debate on the issue, but in 1849 he drafted a bill that would have paid District of Columbia owners to set their slaves free. It was so full of tradeoffs that it got nowhere. Among other things, it called for approval by local voters, all of them white males.

With the Compromise of 1850, Congress postponed the national showdown over slavery for another decade, but it ended the slave trade in the nation’s capital. As a result, most of that commerce moved across the river to Alexandria. But while that grand compromise stopped slave-dealing in Washington, it left slavery itself untouched. Slaves and ex-slaves, whose labor had built the national capital, still lived in fear of violating the longstanding “black code” that restricted their daily lives, including how they could assemble, worship, drive carriages, swim in the Potomac, and be on the street after 10 pm. There things stood in 1861, when Lincoln arrived to become President.

He was fully conscious that in political terms he was moving into enemy territory. The 1860 census counted 75,080 persons in DC, including 11,131 free blacks and 3,185 slaves. Some 77 percent of the District’s population had been born in Virginia and Maryland or came from families there. Lincoln had won only a tiny fraction of voters in those slave states. As President-elect, he had literally sneaked into Washington ahead of schedule because of threats that he would be assassinated as he passed through Baltimore.

Shortly after Lincoln’s arrival in Washington, Mayor James Berret led a delegation of DC officials to meet him at Willard’s Hotel (now the Willard). Berret’s words of welcome were courteously noncommittal, but all present knew that he and the local establishment leaned southward. Lincoln responded by saying he believed that much of the ill feeling between North and South was just a misunderstanding, that they would like each other better as they got to know each other.

Then came the war.

Hundreds of Washingtonians left to join the Southern army. Confederate spies abounded in and around the government. When Congress ordered local officeholders to swear loyalty to the Union, Mayor Berret refused and was fired and arrested; after a month in jail at Fort Lafayette in New York harbor, he changed his mind and signed.

Lincoln suspended habeas corpus in nearby Maryland and ordered legislators arrested in order to block secession efforts there. While holding Maryland in the Union was essential to Washington’s existence as the nation’s capital, holding the other North-South border slave states—Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri—was a strategic necessity for winning the war.

Determined above all to save the Union, Lincoln also had to deal with rising Northern demands that he attack the root cause of the conflict. Francis W. Bird, another Massachusetts Republican, declared: “The key of the slave’s chain is now kept in the White House.”

During the first winter of the war, the President worked on several plans to test gradual, compensated emancipation in Delaware, which had fewer than 2,000 slaves. That trial balloon collapsed in the face of opposition there, but Lincoln persisted, and with support from Sumner and other leading abolitionists, on March 6, 1862, he sent a carefully drafted message to the Capitol.

He urged Congress to offer each state the “perfectly free choice” of accepting federal money to finance the gradual abolition of slavery. Change, he said, would come “gently as the dews of heaven.”

Northern reaction was broadly enthusiastic; the fiery abolitionist Wendell Phillips said the message was as surprising as “a thunderbolt in a clear sky.” But politicians from the border states, the only ones that would be immediately involved, said no. Out of the debate, however, emerged a bill to erase the stain from the nation’s capital.

Pushed in the Senate by future Vice President Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, it provided for immediate, compensated emancipation in the District. The bill ignored Lincoln’s wishes that it be gradual and require approval by local voters. It provided $1 million to pay owners who were loyal to the Union an average of about $300 for each slave freed by the act. A three-man commission would judge the loyalty of each owner and the value of individual slaves. The measure’s backers accepted an amendment that Lincoln strongly favored to provide a total of $100,000 for voluntary “colonization” of free African-Americans who chose to start new lives abroad.

By a vote of 29 to 14, the Senate approved the bill “for the release of certain persons held to service or labor in the District of Columbia.” Five days later, the House agreed, voting 93 to 39 in favor of it.

Lincoln promised that he would either sign or veto the bill promptly. He was concerned about popular reaction in the District because the bill would take effect immediately, without approval by local voters. The capital’s mayor and city aldermen opposed it; letters and petitions against it poured into the newspapers. The President worried over how freed slaves and their erstwhile owners would fare without each other’s service and protection. Maryland would remain a slave state until it adopted a new constitution in 1864—what would the city do with runaway slaves sure to flee into suddenly “free” Washington?

Meanwhile, he was slowly getting details from the great and costly battle at Shiloh, 700 miles away on the Tennessee River. In Virginia, General George McClellan’s army seemed bogged down around Yorktown, and Stonewall Jackson was bedeviling Union forces in the Shenandoah Valley. How would this sudden move against slavery affect the momentum of the war?

As Lincoln pondered, Senator Sumner and Bishop Payne came to the White House and spoke for all the abolitionists of the North, and for all the men and women held in bondage, when they insisted that this was a moral issue that should outweigh the political concerns that held Lincoln back.

In the end, Lincoln could not disagree. Finally, 150 years ago this April 16, he signed into law the bill that meant every resident of the District of Columbia was thenceforth and forever free.

In explaining why he did so, he was frank: “I have never doubted the constitutional authority of Congress to abolish Slavery in this District and I have ever desired to see the National Capital freed from the institution in some satisfactory way. Hence there has never been in my mind any question upon the subject except the one of expediency, arising in view of all the circumstances.” For a politician to say publicly that political expediency ever crossed his mind was not an everyday event in Washington.

However he explained it, the President’s signature set off a rousing celebration among the black population—especially the hundreds who had hidden in fear of being carried beyond the District line to prevent their being freed. In black neighborhoods, the streets rang with happy music. The following Sunday in DC’s 17 African-American churches, preachers sermonized in thanksgiving and stirred spontaneous shouts of joy.

At the Colored (later Fifteenth Street) Presbyterian Church, religious leaders resolved that “by our industry, energy, moral deportment and character, we will prove ourselves worthy of the confidence reposed in us in making us free men.”

So emancipation became the law. But carrying out the rest of the act was another delicate political exercise.

First Lincoln had to nominate the three commissioners who would consider claims by former owners of the capital’s slaves. Two of them stirred no fuss—former Ohio congressman Samuel F. Vinton and Daniel R. Goodloe, a North Carolinian who had lived in Washington for decades and once edited the abolitionist National Era. The third was James Berret, the former DC mayor who had been fired and spent time in jail for refusing to swear allegiance to the Union. Lincoln picked him as a conciliatory gesture—he had already offered to appoint him a colonel, which the ex-mayor declined.

Berret’s nomination to the Emancipation Commission proved provocative: The New York Times asserted that it was “received by many Senators as highly offensive… . Is it possible that among all the sound, unsuspected men in the District of Columbia, some of whom patroled the streets of Washington night after night with carbines, to preserve the peace and protect the President, one year ago, not one can be found worthy of performing the duties assigned to the man who was one of the parties watched, and believed at that time to be an enemy to this Government? There is little doubt that the Senate will reject Berret.”

The Senate never had to make that decision. Whether Berret was still resentful toward Lincoln or expected to be voted down, or both, he refused this offer. Two weeks after the commission held its first session on April 28, Vinton had a stroke and died. To fill his place and Berret’s, Lincoln nominated former postmaster general Horatio King and John Brodhead of the Treasury Department.

The commissioners realized that in deciding how much to pay former owners for each freed slave, they could not simply accept the owners’ valuation. They needed independent help in making those assessments, but because the trade had been outlawed in Washington for a dozen years, they had no way to estimate current market values. Thus they looked to Baltimore, where the business was still legal. As an outside expert, they brought in a Baltimore dealer named B.M. Campbell.

Then, with Georgetown lawyer William R. Woodward as clerk, they went to work at City Hall. (The old City Hall, the oldest municipal building in the District, still stands today at Fourth and E streets, Northwest, on Judiciary Square; it is now a courthouse annex.)

Under the law, former slave owners had three months from the day Lincoln signed the act to present their claims and prove their loyalty to the Union. (In July, Congress approved an extension.) The records of those claims recall the cold, hard business of judging human beings in dollar terms as well as familial bonds between many an owner and slave reaching back over generations.

Altogether, 966 claims were submitted for 3,100 slaves. Some were from elderly widows who were losing the single household servant they depended on. Others were from wealthy planters; the city line then ran along today’s Florida Avenue, and except for Georgetown and a sprawling military camp at Tenallytown (now Tenleytown), most of the rest of the District was farm and woodland.

The longest list was submitted by George Washington Young. On the morning after the President signed the law, Young had ridden out to his Giesboro plantation near the southeastern tip of the District and told his 69 slaves they were now free. It was an emotional scene; his friend John Carroll Brent, who rode with him, wrote:

“This sudden and radical revolution … is productive of more consequences than mere pecuniary loss & convenience. For the severing, so abruptly, of ties like these is accompanied in a case like this with pain & distress on the part of the humane & religious owner, which no language can describe.”

Just how the men, women, and children who had worked the plantation felt that day is not recorded.

Seventy-nine-year-old John Harry filed a claim for 27 freed slaves, including Grace Butler, “about 58 years, black, strong frame, complains of rheumatism,” whom he valued at only $100. For Grace’s two daughters and one son, he asked $600 to $800 each. He noted that “Grace was presented to me by Mrs. Martha Clagett of Georgetown DC, the mother of my first wife, when she, Grace, was a small girl and resided in my family until three or four years since, her three children above named were born in my house.”

After describing his former slaves, Harry estimated their total value at $16,100, an average of $575, and added a note about a few. He said that Lydia Meredith, “aged about 43 years, mulatto slave in good health,” and her family “are among the most respectable and moral of their class.” Perhaps he meant this endorsement as a recommendation to potential employers.

Six days a week, the commission worked through claims. Although the valuations by the Baltimore dealer often exceeded those asked by the owners, the eventual total had to fall within the $1 million allotted by Congress. Arriving at those figures finally came down to simple arithmetic, but confirming the loyalty of owners could involve witnesses pro and con. Some of the few claims that were turned down for disloyalty illustrated the strains that tore many families apart during the war.

Mary Throckmorton, whose son Charles was in the Union army, asked compensation for six slaves. But the commission learned that when the war started, her husband, John, born in Virginia, had crossed the Potomac to join the Confederates. She maintained that because he had departed, she controlled the slaves. The commissioners did not dispute her loyalty, but under District law of the time, a husband retained rights even to property brought to the marriage by his wife, so they turned her down.

Smith Minor, who had lived in Alexandria County, moved to Washington with his seven slaves after his farm was overrun by the war. Witnesses conceded that although he was known as a Union man, disloyal neighbors and relatives had persuaded him to vote for secession in the 1861 Virginia referendum. They said he had acted under threats, such as being “hung by the next day at 10 o’clock,” and afterward had “expressed his profound regret.” The commissioners ruled that such threats might excuse disloyal conduct during peace but not in time of war, so they unanimously denied his claim.

So it proceeded, each request examined. Meanwhile, little notice was given to the other major provision of the new law: the offer to fund “colonization” for ex-slaves who wanted to move abroad. This was an idea long championed by Lincoln, but with few exceptions the city’s African-Americans shrugged it off, pointing out that their families had been in America longer than most of the politicians who urged it on them.

What happened that spring and summer in Washington cleared the way in Lincoln’s mind for what followed in the fall—his announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation, to take effect January 1, 1863. Although it applied only to territory held by Confederates, by issuing it Lincoln committed the war and the nation to human liberty, and even Charles Sumner admitted he was happy about it.

This article appears in the April 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.

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