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The United States is the only nation in history to end slavery through Civil War. Nations as diverse as Russia, the British Empire, France, Brazil, and others around the world ended their reliance on slave labor through legislative means that included some form of compensation to slaveowners for their lost “assets.” Here, President Lincoln requests that Secretary of State William Seward summon a meeting of the Cabinet. The following day, the president presented a special message to Congress with his plan end slavery through compensation. There were no takers among the slaveholding border states. The brevity of Lincoln’s letter belies its far-reaching implications and the tantalizing possibilities of “what might have been.” ABRAHAM LINCOLN.
Autograph Letter Signed, as President, to Secretary of State William H. Seward, “Executive Mansion,”
Washington, D.C., March 5, 1862. Signed at bottom by “William H. Seward,”
with a note in an unidentified contemporary hand. 1 p. 4¾ x 7¼ in.
With: [ABRAHAM LINCOLN]. Newspaper. New York Semi-Weekly Tribune. New York, N.Y., March 7, 1862. 6 pp., 16 ¾ x 20 ½ in. With “Message from the President/ Highly Important Proposition/ The Gradual Abolition of Slavery./ A Vigorous Blow to the Hopes of the Rebels.” Printing Lincoln’s March 5 message to Congress. Inventory #30001.29
March 5, 1862
Hon. Sec. of State
My dear Sir
Please summon the Cabinet to meet me here at 7 o’clock this evening.
[Signature of recipient:] William H Seward
[Notation, in a third hand:] March 6th 1862 The Presidents Message to Congress, Recommending Compensated Emancipation. To preserve the Union”
Nearly a year into the Civil War, Lincoln had rightly concluded that the cost of continuing the war would far outreach the price tag of purchasing all the slaves in the loyal border states, terming his measure “one of the most efficient means of self-preservation” and stating “in my judgment, gradual, and not sudden emancipation, is better for all.”
To this end, Lincoln called for a Congressional resolution endorsing compensated emancipation and pledging federal support to states that adopted it. Paying to end slavery, he insisted, would ensure the border slave states would have nothing to gain by joining the Confederacy. Moreover, if compensated emancipation succeeded in the border states, it would serve as a model for utilizing gradual emancipation elsewhere to end the bloody conflict. Lincoln’s March 6 message to Congress, preserved in the Library of Congress, contains revisions likely decided upon with his Cabinet at the meeting referenced here.
A week later after this note, Lincoln wrote to California War Democratic Senator James A. McDougall, asking him to renounce his opposition to the proposal, explaining that $1,000,000 (less than one half-day’s cost of the war) would buy all the slaves in Delaware at $400 per head. Lincoln further estimated that buying the freedom of the 432,622 slaves in Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri and Washington, D.C. would amount to $173,048,800 — the cost of war for 87 days. “Do you doubt,” Lincoln wrote, “that taking [these] initiatory steps would shorten the war more than eighty-seven days, and thus be an actual saving of expense?” The president argued his plan’s costs were minimal by comparison. “The sum thus given,” he wrote to McDougall, “would not be half as onerous, as ... the indefinite prosecution of the war.”
The idea of compensated emancipation never took root. Lincoln’s plan (although not an actual law—merely a joint resolution declaring the policy) came before Congress and passed both House and Senate by large majorities on April 10, 1862. However, not one vote came from the border-state Democrats. In support of the spirit of the original resolution, Congress then passed a bill that provided for gradual, compensated emancipation in the District of Columbia. On April 16, the President signed a historic bill prohibiting slavery in the District of Columbia that entitled District slave owners to $300 per slave. Freed slaves who joined Lincoln’s overseas colonization plan were allocated up to $100 each. The District of Columbia Emancipation Act remains the only example of compensated emancipation ever put into practice in the United States.
The rejection of compensated emancipation demonstrates just how deeply slavery was entrenched in the Southern states—and how deeply abolitionist sentiments ran in the North. On June 19, 1862, Congress, acting on their constitutional authority to govern the territories, passed an act abolishing slavery there without compensation. Meanwhile, Lincoln continued his appeal for gradual emancipation, and to his frustration, the border states remained unmoved. Lincoln saw opportunity slipping away. With Congress about to adjourn, he addressed a July 12 special message to border state leaders. “If you all had voted for the resolution in the gradual emancipation message of last March,” he charged, “the war would now be substantially ended.” While giving the states another chance to reconsider, the president also hinted the opportunity would not last: “The incidents of the war can not be avoided. If the war continue long...if the object be not sooner attained, the institution in your states will be extinguished by mere friction and abrasion...It will be gone, and you will have nothing valuable in lieu of it.”
Indeed, as the war’s cost and the death toll rose, public opinion began shifting to more a more radical position on slavery, and Union politicians followed the lead. On July 17, Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act, emancipating all slaves belonging to “treasonous” persons assisting the rebellion. It also forbade the military to return fugitive slaves and authorized the president to employ “persons of African descent” in any capacity in order to suppress the rebellion. The Militia Act, passed by Congress the same day, specifically permitted “persons of African descent” to serve in the military and granted those escaped slaves serving their freedom.
On July 22, Lincoln took the next step in his personal evolution on the abolition of slavery and convened another Cabinet meeting to announce he was prepared to take the even more radical step of emancipation without compensation. His cabinet persuaded him to wait for a Union victory before issuing the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. The opportunity would come at Antietam in September, and on January 1, 1863, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, signaling the death knell for slavery in the United States. He proved himself correct; slavery had been “extinguished” and slaveholders had “nothing valuable in lieu of it.”
In the nine months leading up to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the federal government spent nearly one million dollars to gain the freedom of approximately 3,100 slaves in Washington, D.C. These were the only American slaveholders who received anything of value for their “property.”
Perc S. Brown Collection, Parke-Bernet January 19, 1966, lot 97; Philip D. Sang Collection, Part III, Sotheby Parke Bernet Auction, June 20, 1979, lot 759; Malcolm Forbes Collection, Christie’s, October 9, 2002, lot 110.
Published in Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 5:144.
According to Basler, the manuscript draft of Lincoln’s message to Congress is held in the Robert Todd Lincoln Collection of the Lincoln Papers in the Library of Congress, and the official document, signed by Lincoln, is held by the National Archives (Basler, 5:146, n. 1).