Senator Charles Sumner Argues That There is No Limit to the Confiscation Act Regarding Slavery
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The Massachusetts abolitionist senator argues that slaves are among the property that should be seized by the federal government. CHARLES SUMNER.
Autograph Letter Signed, to unnamed recipient. [Washington, D.C.], December 9, 1862. 3½ pages. 5 x 8 in.
Senate Chamber/9th Dec. ‘62
My dear sir:
All the property of public enemies, whether personal or real, should be proceeded against under the Jura Belli [wartime law]. There is no limitation in the Constitution; only in the principles of expediency & practice.
In a speech which I had the honor of sending you last spring I insisted that the limitations of the Constitution were not applicable to any proceedings under the Jura Belli.
Therefore I agree with you substantially; and I doubt if an informer, who has merely spied out the existence of certain p’pty, should be put on the same footing of Compensation with captors, who have exposed themselves to the perils of the seen [scene] & of battle.
I doubt also the expediency of a rule of evidence so striped as that you propose founded simply on residence in a rebel state.
The Presdt, you will remember, declined to adopt
the our view, that the land can be proceeded against without limitation in the Constitution.
Accept my thanks/& believe me dear sir,
Slavery offered the South an immediate advantage from the beginning of the Civil War. Southern forces used slave labor in ancillary roles, freeing the white population to fight. To combat that advantage, two Confiscation Acts passed Congress, one in 1861 and another the following year. The first Confiscation Act authorized the Union Army to take any Confederate property, including slaves, that would aid the Southern war effort. Given the North’s military situation at the beginning of the war, Lincoln considered it an ineffective gesture that ran the risk of being seen as unconstitutional or desperate. While the first Act allowed rebel property to be taken, it made no accommodation for the status of slaves once they had been confiscated. As a result, any slave taken, or who escaped to the Union Army was considered “contraband” and property of the federal government. The confusion led to the second Confiscation Act, which contained the first rumblings of emancipation. The act freed the slaves of any Confederate who failed to surrender within 60 days, and further declared that any slave escaping to Union-held territory would be free. It also allowed the freedmen to be recruited for logistical, construction, camp, or other support duties.
On June 27, 1862, Sumner delivered a speech to the Senate, the “War Powers of Congress...on the House Bills for the Confiscation of Property and the Liberation of Slaves Belonging to Rebels.” In it, he famously argued that Congress, not only the Executive, had the power to claim extraordinary powers in wartime and pressed the second confiscation act, which Lincoln would sign on July 27. The 1862 Confiscation Act failed to offer any guarantees of citizenship; quite the opposite, it included provisions for colonizing the freedmen out of the United States. It did, however, provide clear and consistent instruction to field commanders regarding the status of the slaves they encountered in the course of battle. However, despite powerful abolitionists in Congress demanding the confiscation of Confederate lands for the freed slaves, Lincoln refused to sign the act until it limited the length of time the federal government could hold the seized land. Always wary of the limits placed upon the executive, Lincoln “declined to adopt our view,” as Sumner wrote, “that the land can be proceeded against without limitation in the Constitution.” Nevertheless, Sumner remained certain no Constitutional limitation existed on taking any Confederate property for the sake of the war effort. Naturally, his strong abolitionist leanings pushed him even further than Lincoln towards immediate emancipation.
The halfway measure of the Confiscation Acts was a just precursor, and eventually led to the Emancipation Proclamation, issued January 1, 1863.
Charles Sumner (1811 – 1874) graduated from Harvard in 1833 and began campaigning against slavery. He helped found the Free Soil Party, dedicated to preventing the spread of slavery, in 1848. He was elected to the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts in 1851, and continued fighting slavery there. After giving a particularly powerful speech condemning pro-slavery actions in Kansas and ridiculing South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler, Preston Brooks, Butler’s nephew, bludgeoned Sumner with a cane, nearly killing him. Massachusetts voters reelected Sumner while he was convalescing. Upon his return to the Senate, he fought vigorously for civil rights for the rest of his career. endorsing partial black suffrage.
“Confiscation Acts,” Mr. Lincoln and Freedom.
“Confiscation Act of 1862,” Civil War Potpourri.