District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act

An Act for the Release of certain Persons [Black slaves] held to Service or Labor within the District of Columbia, 37th Cong., Sess. 2, ch. 54, 12 Stat. 376, known colloquially as the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act or simply Compensated Emancipation Act, was a law that ended slavery in the District of Columbia, providing slave owners partial compensation for releasing their slaves. Although not written by him,[1] the Act was signed by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln on April 16, 1862. April 16 is now celebrated in the city as Emancipation Day.

The act


Proposals to eliminate slavery in the District of Columbia date back at least to the gag rules of the later 1830s. In 1848, New York Representative Daniel Gott gave a passionate speech to the House of Representatives against the proposed emancipation of slaves in the District of Columbia.[2] Gott described the actions of abolitionists of the Northern states as "impertinent interference with the slaves" and "impertinently intruding themselves into the domestic and delicate concerns of the South, understanding neither the malady to be corrected nor the remedy to be applied."[2]

In 1849, when he was a Representative, Lincoln introduced a plan to eliminate slavery in Washington, D.C., by compensated emancipation; the bill failed.[3]

The sale and purchase of slaves in Washington D. C. was outlawed by the Compromise of 1850.[4] However, the ownership of slaves in the capitol was not effected, and Washington D. C.'s slave owners could still easily buy and sell slaves in the neighboring states of Virginia and Maryland.

Emancipation in the District of Columbia became possible in 1861, after the departure of the senators and representatives from the seceding states, who had blocked the ending of slavery in the District, not wanting emancipation to be legislated anywhere. In December 1861, a bill was introduced in Congress for the abolition of slavery in Washington, D.C.[5] Written by Thomas Marshall Key,[6] and sponsored by Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, the bill passed the Senate on April 3 by a vote of 29 in favor and 14 against.[7] It passed the House of Representatives on April 11.[8][9] Lincoln had wanted the bill to include a provision to make emancipation effective only after a favorable vote from the citizens of the District of Columbia.[10][11] He also wanted the bill to delay implementation until after a certain amount of time after the bill was signed.[10] Neither provision was included in the bill.[10][11] Lincoln signed the bill on April 16, 1862,[12] amid ongoing Congressional debate over an emancipation plan for the border states. Following the bill's passage, Lincoln proposed several changes to the act, which were approved by the legislature.[13]

The passage of the Compensated Emancipation Act came nearly nine months before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The act, which set aside $1 million,[3] immediately emancipated slaves in Washington, D.C., giving Union slaveholders up to $300 per freed slave.[14] An additional $100,000[15] allocated by the law was used to pay each newly freed slave $100 if he or she chose to leave the United States and colonize in places such as Haiti or Liberia.[16]

In Washington, D.C., April 16 has been celebrated as Emancipation Day since 1866. An annual parade was held to commemorate the signing of the act until 1901, when a lack of financial and organizational support forced the tradition to stop;[17] it restarted in 2002.[18] In 2000, the Council of the District of Columbia made April 16 a private holiday—or one on which city employees are not given a free day off—and on July 9, 2004, council member Vincent Orange proposed making the day a public holiday.[19] 2005 marked the first year that Emancipation Day was celebrated as an official city holiday in Washington, D.C.[20]


The emancipation plan relied on a three-person Emancipation Commission to distribute the allotted funding. In order to receive compensation, former slaveholders were required to provide written evidence of their ownership, as well as state their loyalty to the Union. Most of the petitioners were white, but some blacks also filed for compensation, having once bought their family members away from other owners. In the end, almost all of the $1 million appropriated in the act had been spent.[21]

As a result of the act's passage, 3,185 slaves were freed.[22] However, the older fugitive slave laws were still applied to slaves who had run from Maryland to Washington, D.C. The slaves were still subject to the laws, which supposedly applied only to states, until their 1864 repeal.[22]

Although the compensated emancipation model was never expanded beyond the District, the act signified the forthcoming demise of slavery in the United States.[14] The act was the only compensated emancipation plan enacted in the United States.[3]

Emancipation Day, April 16, is now an official city holiday in Washington. One highly visible effect of this observance is that the federal income tax due date is delayed to April 17 when it would otherwise be April 16.

Supplemental legislationEdit

Following Lincoln's concerns over the version of the bill that he signed, the U.S. Senate approved a supplement to the original Compensated Emancipation Act.[23] The amendment passed on July 12, 1862, allowing former slaves to petition for compensation if their masters had not done so. Under the supplemental act, claims made by blacks and whites were weighted equally, whereas previously, the testimonies of blacks—enslaved or free—were discarded if challenged by a white person.[24][25]


  • D.C. Emancipation Act, National Archives. Inside the vaults, U.S. National Archives, April 4, 2012

See alsoEdit



  1. ^ Guelzo 2009, p. 128
  2. ^ a b "The District of Columbia and Slavery". The Baltimore Sun. December 28, 1848. p. 1.
  3. ^ a b c Reiner 2006, p. 57
  4. ^ https://www.history.com/topics/abolitionist-movement/compromise-of-1850
  5. ^ Burgess 1901, p. 78
  6. ^ Wheeler, Linda. "The true author of D.C.’s Emancipation Act is uncovered", The Washington Post (April 14, 2014).
  7. ^ "Emancipation in the District". The New York Times. April 4, 1862. p. 4.
  8. ^ "Abolition in the District of Columbia". The New York Times. April 12, 1862. p. 4.
  9. ^ McQuirter 2009, pp. 12–13
  10. ^ a b c "Emancipation in the District—Mr. Lincoln's Opinions". The New York Times. April 15, 1862. p. 4.
  11. ^ a b "Mr. Lincoln's Views on Slavery—His Course Towards the South". The New York Times. November 5, 1860. p. 4.
  12. ^ "Thirty-Seventh Congress—First Session". The Baltimore Sun. April 17, 1862. p. 4.
  13. ^ Burgess 1901, pp. 79–82
  14. ^ a b "The District of Columbia Emancipation Act". Featured Documents. National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved July 5, 2011.
  15. ^ Rodriguez 2007, p. 275
  16. ^ Burgess 1901, p. 82
  17. ^ Gay 2007, p. 150
  18. ^ Gillespie, Lisa (April 5, 2011). "D.C. Statehood & Emancipation Day Linked". The Georgetowner. Georgetown Media Group. Retrieved July 8, 2011.
  19. ^ Aarons, Dakarai I. (July 10, 2004). "Emancipation Day May Go Public". The Washington Post. p. B02. Retrieved July 8, 2011.
  20. ^ Gay 2007, p. 149
  21. ^ McQuirter 2009, p. 13
  22. ^ a b Zavodnyik 2011, p. 15
  23. ^ Basler 1953, p. 192
  24. ^ "Supplemental Act of July 12, 1862". Featured Documents. National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved July 8, 2011.
  25. ^ McQuirter 2009, pp. 13–14