Gradual Emancipation Proposal
In 1848 when Representative Lincoln returned to Congress for the rump session, influenced perhaps, by his encounter with Seward, he drafted a proposal for the gradual emancipation of slaves in the nation’s capital, pending approval by the District’s voters. Similar proposals had been attempted before, but Lincoln now added several elements. He included provisions to compensate owners for the full value of the slaves with government funds and to allow government officials from slaveholding states to bring their servants while on government business. Finally, to mitigate the fears of Southern slaveholders in surrounding states, he added a provision requiring District authorities “to provide active and efficient means to arrest, and deliver up to their owners, all fugitive slaves escaping into said District.”
Lincoln never introduced his bill. “Finding that I was abandoned by my former backers and having little personal influence,” he said, “I dropped the matter knowing it was useless to prosecute the business at that time.”
Ref. Goodwin, Doris Kearns: Team of Rivals pg 128-129
Horace Greeley, the New York Tribune editor who served briefly with President Lincoln in the House, later recalled of Congressman Lincoln: “He was generally liked on our side of the House; he made two or three moderate and sensible speeches that attracted little attention; he voted generally to forbid the introduction of slavery into the still untainted territories; but he did not vote for Mr. Galt’s [Daniel Gott’s] resolve looking to the immediate abolition by a vote of the people [Douglas’ proposition in after years] — that is, by the whites of the District — which seemed to me much like submitting to the inmates of the penitentiary a proposition to double the lengths of their respective terms of imprisonment. In short, he was one of the very mildest type of Wilmot Proviso Whigs from the free states — not nearly so pronounced as many who long since found a congenial rest in the ranks of the pro-slavery Democracy.”19 According to Greeley: “Though a strong partisan he voted against the bulk of his party once or twice, when that course was dictated by his convictions. He was one of the most moderate, though firm, opponents of slavery extension, and notably of a buoyant, cheerful spirit.”20
Historian Olivier Frayssé wrote that Congressman Lincoln “favored compromise in the case of fugitive slaves imprisoned in Washington, whose cause was pleaded by Giddings in incidents that demonstrated how strong the feelings on opposing sides of the slavery question were. As early as April 18, 1848, Giddings had presented amid jeers, a resolution demanding an inquiry into the reasons for the jailing in the District of Columbia prison of eighty men, women, and children whose sole crime was ‘an attempt to enjoy that liberty for which our fathers encountered toil, suffering, and death itself, and for which the people of many European governments are now struggling.’ He was opposed by an amendment put forward, amid laughter, by Isaac E. Holmes (D.-S.C.) proposing to replace all of the text following the demand for an inquiry with the phrase ‘whether the scoundrels who caused the slaves to be there ought not to be hung.’ The situation only got tenser as time went on.”21
Although Mr. Lincoln’s support of the WIlmot Proviso was important, Mr. Lincoln’s real contribution to the anti-slavery cause came with his introduction of legislation to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. The proposal took the form of an amendment to legislation already on the floor during the second session of his single term in Congress. Slavery and the slavery trade in the nation’s capital were a clear embarrassment to much of the nation. Psychohistorian Charles Strozier wrote of slave trade in Washington: “There is no indication that Lincoln reacted in horror to the sight; indeed there is no indication at all of his feelings on the matter. The bill he tried to introduce on January 10, 1849, therefore, came as something of a surprise.”22 According to historian Charles Strozier, “Lincoln’s bill in 1848 drew essentially on his formulation of slavery reform in 1837. He moved slowly but seldom forgot the past.”23
It is for his proposal to eliminate slavery in the District of Columbia that Mr. Lincoln’s congressional career is best known. Contemporary biographer Josiah G. Holland wrote: “As the months passed, Lincoln sought ways to express more adequately his own view of slavery in the District of Columbia. He must have been uncomfortable with some of his votes. On December 13, 1858, [Massachusetts Whig Congressman] John Palfrey wanted to introduce, without previous mention, a bill repealing all acts relating to slavery and the slave trade in the District of Columbia. Lincoln voted against the introduction of the bill, and this privilege was denied, 68 to 89. On December 18 Joshua Giddings introduced a bill calling for a referendum by the people of the District of Columbia (including free Negroes) on the issue of Slavery. Lincoln voted to table the bill, and the resolution to table passed, 106 to 79.”24
Congressman Lincoln also voted against a resolution by Daniel Gott (Whig-N.Y.) to abolish the slave trade in the District. None of these measures satisfied him, because they were too radical. He himself prepared an amendment — in reality a substitution — to Gott’s resolution, which expressed the state of his thinking on the subject,” according to historian Olivier H. Frayssé.25
Lincoln biographer Josiah G. Holland wrote: “Early in the session, Mr. Gott of New York introduced a resolution instructing the Committee on the District of Columbia to report a bill prohibiting the slave trade in the District. The language of the preamble upon which the resolution was based was very strong, and doubtless seemed to Mr. Lincoln unnecessarily offensive; and we find him voting with the pro-slavery men of the House to lay it on the table, and subsequently voting against its adoption.”26
“Proslavery interests immediately made efforts to reconsider the vote. One such effort occurred on January 10. If successful, it would have enabled the House Members to reverse the favorable vote of December and rescind the instruction to the committee,” wrote Lincoln biographer Paul Findley. “Lincoln’s Illinois colleague, Democrat John Wentworth, got the floor to offer a motion that would table the motion to reconsider. He wanted the Gott resolution to stand. Nevertheless, before forcing a vote on the motion to table, as a courtesy, he yielded time to Lincoln.”27
Congressman Giddings wrote in his diary on January 8: “Mr. Dicky of Pa. and Mr. Lincoln of Illinois were busy preparing resolutions to abolish slavery in the D.C. this morning. I had a conversation with them and advised them that they [ought to] draw up a bill for that purpose and push it through. They hesitated and finally accepted my proposition….Mr. Lincoln called on me this evening, read his bill and asked my opinion which I freely gave.”28
Historian Josiah G. Holland wrote that Mr. Lincoln’s substitution “provided that no person not within the District, and no person thereafter born within the District, should be held to slavery within the District, or held to slavery without its limits, while it provided that those holding slaves in the slave states might bring them in and take them out again, when visiting the District on public business. It also provided for the emancipation of all the slaves legally held within the District, at the will of their masters, who could claim their full value at the hands of the government, and that the act itself should be subject to the approval of the voters of the District. The bill had also a provision, ‘that the municipal authorities of Washington and Georgetown, within their respective jurisdictional limits,’ should be ’empowered and required to provide active and efficient means to arrest and deliver up to their owners all fugitive slaves escaping into said District.'”29
Lincoln biographer John T. Morse, Jr.: “This was by no means a measure of abolitionist coloring, although Lincoln obtained for it the support of Joshua R. Giddings, who believed it ‘as good a bill as we could get at this time,’ and was ‘willing to pay for slaves in order to save them from the Southern market.’ It recognized the right of property in slaves, which the Abolitionists denied; also it might conceivably be practicable, a characteristic which rarely marked the measures of the Abolitionists, who professed to be pure moralists rather than practical politicians. From this first move to the latest which he made in this great business, Lincoln never once broke connection with practicability.”30
“In Congress, Lincoln was not part of the small group of Abolitionists. But when the chips were down on one of the most controversial matters before the House — abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia — it was Congressman A. Lincoln who introduced the resolution,” Lincoln chronicler Herbert Mitgang wrote.31 “In Washington, congressman Lincoln was appalled by what he saw of the domestic slave trade and the buying and selling of human flesh. He described the slaves in the District of Columbia, who were held in a ‘sort of Negro livery stable, where droves of Negroes were collected, temporarily kept, and finally taken to Southern markets, precisely like droves of horses.’ He considered slave traders ‘a small, odious and detested class…sneaking individuals…native tyrants…offensive in the nostrils of all good men, Southerners as well as Northerners.'”32
“The most important and significant act of Lincoln at this Congress, was the introduction by him into House, of a bill to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia,” wrote fellow Illinois politician Isaac N. Arnold. “The bill provided that no person from without the District should be held to slavery within it, and that no person born thereafter within the District should be held to slavery. It provided for the gradual emancipation of all the slaves in the District, with compensation to their masters, and that the act should be submitted to a vote of the people of the District. He prepared the bill with reference to the condition of public sentiment at that time, and what was possible to be accomplished. The bill represents what he hoped he could carry through Congress, and into a law, rather than his own abstract ideas of justice and right. He believed, as he had declared many times, and emphatically in his protest to the resolutions in the Illinois Legislature, that slavery was ‘unjust to the slave, impolitic to the nation,’ and he meant to do all in his power to restrict and get rid of it.”33
Lincoln Chronicler Herbert Mitgang wrote: “On January 10, 1849, in the second session of the Thirtieth Congress, Lincoln proposed ‘A bill for an Act to Abolish Slavery in the District of Columbia, by the Consent of the Free of the Free White People of Said District, and With Compensation to Owners.’ Its main sections said that no person should ever be held in slavery within Washington; that no person within the District or born there at any time later person within the District or born there at any time later should ever be held in slavery; that all children already born of slave mothers within Washington and Georgetown should be freed after 1850 and, furthermore, ‘reasonably supported and educated’ by the owners of their mothers, and that the U.S. Treasury should be empowered to pay owners for the full value of slaves, ‘upon which such slave shall be forthwith and forever free.'”34 The Congressional Globe reported:
Mr. Lincoln appealed to his colleague [Mr. Wentworth] to withdraw his motion, to enable him to read a proposition which he intended to submit, if the vote should be reconsidered.
Mr. Wentworth again withdrew his motion for that purpose.
Mr. Lincoln said, that by the courtesy of his colleague, he would say, that if the vote on the resolution was reconsidered, he should make an effort to introduce an amendment, which he should now read.
And Mr. L. read as follows:
Strike out all before and after the word ‘Resolved’ and insert the following, towit: That the Committee on the District of Columbia be instructed to report a bill in substance as follows, towit:
- Section 1. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled: That no person not now within the District of Columbia, nor now owned by any person or persons now resident within it, nor hereafter born within it, shall ever be held in slavery within said District.
- Section 2. That no person now within the District, or now owned by any person, or persons now resident within the same, or hereafter born within it, shall ever be held in slavery without the limits of said District: Provided that officers of the government of the United States, being citizens of the slaveholding states, coming into said District on public business, and remaining only so long as may be reasonably necessary for that object, may be attended into, and out of, said District, and while there, by the necessary servants of themselves and their families, without their right to hold such servants in service, being thereby impaired.
- Section 3. That all children born of slave mothers within the District on, or after the first day of January in the year of our Lord one thousand, eight hundred and fifty shall be free; but shall be reasonably supported and educated, by the respective owners of their mothers or by their heirs or representatives, and shall owe reasonable service, as apprentices, to such owners, heirs and representatives until they respectively arrive at the age of ___ years when they shall be entirely free; and the municipal authorities of Washington and Georgetown, within their respective jurisdictional limits, are hereby empowered and required to make all suitable and necessary. Provisions for enforcing obedience to this section, on the part of both masters and apprentices.
- Section 4. That all persons now within said District lawfully held as slaves, or now owned by any person or persons now resident within said District, shall remain such, at the will of their respective owners, their heirs and legal representatives: Provided that any such owner, or his legal representative, may at any time receive from the treasury of the United States the full value of his or her slave, of the class in this section mentioned, upon which such slave shall be forthwith and forever free; and provided further that the President, Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Treasury shall be a board for determining the value of such slaves as their owners may desire to emancipate under this section; and whose duty it shall be to hold a session for the purpose, on the first Monday of each calendar month; to receive all applications; and, on satisfactory evidence in each case, that the person presented for valuation, is a slave, and of the class in this section mentioned, and is owned by the applicant, shall value such slave at his or her full cash value, and give to the applicant an order on the treasury for the amount; and also to such slave a certificate of freedom.
- Section 5. That the municipal authorities of Washington and Georgetown within their respective jurisdictional limits, are hereby empowered and required to provide active and efficient means to arrest, and deliver up to their owners, all fugitive slaves escaping into said District.
- Section 6. That the election officers within said District of Columbia, are hereby empowered and required to open polls at all the usual places of holding elections, on the first Monday of April next, and receive the vote of every free white male citizen above the age of twentyone years, having resided within said District for the period of one year or more next preceding the time of such voting, for, or against this act,; to proceed, in take said votes, in all respects not herein specified, as at elections under the municipal laws; and, with as little delay as possible, to transmit correct statements of the votes so cast to the President of the United States. And it shall be the duty of the President to canvass said votes immediately, and if a majority of them be found to be for this act, to forthwith issue his proclamation giving notice of the fact, and this act shall only be in full force and effect on, and after the day of such proclamation.
- Section 7. That involuntary servitude for the punishment of crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted shall not in no wise be prohibited by this Act.
Sec. 8. That for all the purposes of this act, the jurisdictional limits of Washington are extended to all parts of the District of Columbia not now included within the present limits of Georgetown.
Mr. Lincoln then said that he was authorized to say, that of about fifteen of the leading citizens of the District of Columbia to whom this proposition had been submitted, there was not one but who approved of the adoption of such a proposition. He did not wish to be misunderstood. He did not know whether or not they would vote for this bill on the first of April; but he repeated, that out of fifteen persons to whom it had been submitted, he had authority to say that every one of them desired that some proposition like this pass.35
Congressional opponents of the proposals demanded to know the names of these 15 anonymous supporters. According to biographer Josiah Holland: “Mr. Lincoln did not bring his bill forward without consultation. Mr. [William] Seaton, of the National Intelligencer, is understood to have been most in his confidence; and Mr. Lincoln said, on presenting his bill to the House, that he was authorized to say that, of about fifteen of the leading citizens of the District to whom the proposition had been submitted, there was not one who did not give it his approval. A substitute for the bill was moved, and finally the whole subject was given up, and left to take its place among the unfinished business of the Congress. The reason for this is reported to have been Mr. Seaton’s withdrawal from the support of the plan; and Mr. Seaton’s withdrawal from the support of the plan is said to have been owing to the visits and expostulations of members of Congress from the slave states. Mr. Lincoln could hope to do nothing without the approval of the voters of the District, and to secure this approval he must secure the support of the National Intelligencer. That taken from his scheme, he took no further interest in pursuing it.”36
Findley wrote: “Debate time returned to Wentworth, whose motion to table was accepted, and Lincoln’s brief and ineffective venture into antislavery debate on the House floor ended. He had observed the rising controversy over the Gott resolution, the effective support against it by southerners, and the reluctance of northern Whigs to support it. On one motion two prominent northern Whigs, Caleb Smith and Truman Smith, were seated in the House chamber when the vote was taken but did not answer. When their silence was called to the attention of the chair, Speaker Winthrop said the rules required every Member present to vote but provided no means of enforcement.”37
Although Mr. Lincoln’s proposal had no legislative effect because it was never even formally placed in the “hopper,” it did have a political effect by focusing discussion on his proposal. Lincoln biographers John G. Nicolay and John Hay wrote that “the success of Mr. Lincoln in gaining the adhesion of the abolitionists in the House is more remarkable than that he should have induced the Washington Conservatives to approve it. But the usual result followed as soon as it was formally introduced to the notice of Congress. It was met by that violent and excited opposition which greeted any measure, however intrinsically moderate and reasonable, which was founded on the assumption that slavery was not in itself a good and desirable thing. The social influences of Washington were brought to bear against a proposition which Southerners contended would vulgarize society, and the genial and liberal mayor was forced to withdraw his approval as gracefully or as awkwardly as he might. The prospects of the bill were seen to be hopeless, as the session was to end on the 4th of March, and no further effort was made to carry it through.”38
On January 12 Lincoln told the House of Representatives that he intended to introduce the District emancipation bill — but he never followed through on that intent. In 1860, Mr. Lincoln told biographical researcher James Quay Howard: “Before giving notice to introduce a bill to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, I visited [the] Mayor, senators, and others whom I thought best acquainted with the sentiment of the people, to ascertain if a bill such as I proposed would be endorsed by them according to its provisions. Being informed that it would meet with their hearty approbation I gave notice in Congress that I should introduce a bill. Subsequently I learned that many leading southern members of Congress, had been to see the Mayor and the others who favored my bill and had drawn them over to their way of thinking. Finding that I was abandoned by my former backers and having little personal influence, I dropped the matter, knowing that it was useless to prosecute the business at that time. My mind has been in process of education since that time. [I] do not know that I would now approve of the bill, but in the main, think that I would.”39
According to Giddings biographer James Brewer Stewart, “This final setback bothered Giddings little, for he had approved Lincoln’s plan only grudgingly because of its strong tinge of gradualism.”40 Congressman Gidding. who stayed at the same Washington boarding house at Congressman Lincoln, wrote in his January 11 diary: “This evening our whole mess [at Mrs. Sprigg’s] remained in the dining room after tea and conversed upon the subject of Mr. Lincoln’s bill to abolish slavery. It was approved by all. I believed it as a good a bill as we could get at this time and was willing to pay for slaves in order to save them from the southern market as I suppose nearly every man…would sell his slaves if he saw that slavery was to be abolished.’ 41
Lincoln biographer James G. Randall wrote: “Thus the man who was later to become the emancipator was making an early tentative effort toward liberation. In doing so his approach was vastly different from that of radical abolitionists. It is true that he was seeking to deal with the question only on a very limited scale and at a time when slavery was strongly entrenched in the United States. He could hardly have gone father in the existing Congress, but the significant point is that he recognized the realities. The phrasing of the bill — which if passed would have made Lincoln somewhat famous for a legislative measure even if fame had given no greater rewards — revealed the character and point of view of Lincoln the statesman: his conservatism, his patience in letting a process work itself out over the years, his lack of antagonism toward the South, his regard for the rights of slaveholders, his attention to legal details, and his valuing of popular and democratic processes.”42
Findley wrote: “Shortly thereafter the conference of southern Senators and representatives, led by Senator John C. Calhoun and inspired in part by the consideration of the Gott resolution, issued the ‘Address of Southern Delegates in Congress, to their Constituents.’ In reality Calhoun’s personal declaration took note, ominously, of bills presented in Congress, including the Gott resolution and others such as that of ‘a Member from Illinois.'”43 Lincoln’s resolution had the effect of helping to mobilize the South to counter such anti-slavery proposals in Congress.
Olivier Frayssé wrote: “The firmness against the extension of slavery, which Lincoln demonstrated throughout his term, reflected the sincerity of his convictions and the depth of the movement taking shape in favor of Free Soil. Admittedly, the movement of history dragged him forward without his being aware of it very clearly, and he never made the decision to abandon his legalistic excess baggage before being forced to do so by events, but his evolution was clear.”44
Lincoln chronicler Paul Findley, wrote: “Looking back on Lincoln’s congressional career, it is evident that while he remained remarkably silent on slavery the events surrounding him had deep effect. Stirred by the turbulence provoked by slavery in the District of Columbia, and a thoughtful listener to the slavery debates that swirled around his seat in the House chamber, he began slowly to shift his position. The transformation in Lincoln’s view of slavery was gradual and moderate, never radical. He was never identified with the ardent abolitionists in the 30th Congress. He would be shocked if one of his colleagues had predicted that most slaves would be freed by executive order in less than twenty years and appalled at the thought that he might give the order.”45
21 Olivier Frayssé, Lincoln Land, and Labor: 1809-60, p. 124.
|22 Gabor S. Boritt, editor, The Historian’s Lincoln: Pseudohistory, Psychohistory, and History, p. 232.|
|23 Gabor S. Boritt, editor, The Historian’s Lincoln: Pseudohistory, Psychohistory, and History, p. 232.|
|24 Paul Findley, A. Lincoln, The Crucible of Congress: The Years Which Forged His Greatness, p. 137.|
|25 Olivier Frayssé, Lincoln Land, and Labor: 1809-60, p. 125.|
|26 Josiah G. Holland, Holland’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 120.|
|27 Paul Findley, A. Lincoln, The Crucible of Congress: The Years Which Forged His Greatness, p. 137.|
|28 Paul Findley, A. Lincoln, The Crucible of Congress: The Years Which Forged His Greatness, p. 138.|
|29 Josiah G. Holland, Holland’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 120.|
|30 John T. Morse, Jr., Abraham Lincoln, p. 79-80.|
|31 Herbert Mitgang, The Fiery Trial: A Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 116-117.|
|32 Herbert Mitgang, The Fiery Trial: A Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 115.|
|33 Isaac N. Arnold, Abraham Lincoln, p. 80.|
|34 Herbert Mitgang, The Fiery Trial: A Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 117.|
|35 Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 20-22 (Remarks and Resolution Introduced in Untied States House of Representatives Concerning Abolition of Slavery in the District of Columbia, January 10, 1849).|
|36 Josiah G. Holland, Holland’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 122.|
|37 Paul Findley, A. Lincoln, The Crucible of Congress: The Years Which Forged His Greatness, p. 139.|
|38 John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, p. 287-288.|
|39 Don E. and Virginia E. Fehrenbacher, editor, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 269.|
|40 James Brewer Stewart, Joshua R. Giddings and the Tactics of Radical Politics, p. 170.|
|41 Paul Findley, A. Lincoln, The Crucible of Congress: The Years Which Forged His Greatness, p. 139.|
|42 James G. Randall, Lincoln the President: Springfield to Gettysburg, Volume I, p. 17.|
|43 Paul Findley, A. Lincoln, The Crucible of Congress: The Years Which Forged His Greatness, p. 139.|
|44 Olivier Frayssé, Lincoln Land, and Labor: 1809-60, p. 122.|
|45 Paul Findley, A. Lincoln, The Crucible of Congress: The Years Which Forged His Greatness, p. 143.|