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The District of Columbia 1862 Emancipation Law

The following is a guest post by James Martin, Senior Legal Information Analyst at the Law Library of Congress.

This year most U.S. taxpayers have two additional days to file their Federal income tax returns.  This extension was granted because April 15 fell on a Sunday, a non-business day, and April 16, Emancipation Day, is a legal holiday in the District of Columbia.

Celebration of the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, by the colored people in Washington, April 19, 1866. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Today is the 150th anniversary of the enactment of the law that freed individuals held as slaves in the District.  Earlier attempts had been made to adopt such legislation.  In 1849, Representative Abraham Lincoln had attempted to introduce a bill on the subject. However, it was not until after the advent of the Civil War that such legislation was passed by the U.S. Congress.

On December 16, 1861, Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts introduced a bill to abolish slavery in the District and pay owners loyal to the national government compensation of up to three hundred dollars for each enslaved individual.  The awarding of compensation was to be administered by a commission composed of three residents of the District appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate.  The bill, S. 108, was referred to the Committee on the District of Columbia which reported it with amendments in February 1862.

In the House of Representatives a similar bill had also been introduced in December by Representative John Hutchins of Ohio.  This bill and a companion bill were referred to the House Committee on the District of Columbia.  The House bill when reported to the floor was accompanied by a hostile report and was not acted on.

In March 1862, the Senate took up consideration of the reported version of the Wilson bill.  The Senate approved the final version of the bill on April 3 by a vote of 29 to 14.  The bill was then quickly taken up in the House where it was adopted without amendment on April 11 by a vote of 92 to 38.  President Lincoln approved the law on April 16, 1862.

The law remained the only instance in which the Federal government provided compensation for the emancipation of slaves. Moreover, the law had no impact on the operation of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 inside the District. Under the Fugitive Slave Act, slaves owned by loyal slave owners who escaped to the District would be captured and returned to their owners until this law was repealed in 1864.  The impact of the District of Columbia’s Emancipation law on future events would ultimately be secondary to the Confiscation Act of 1862 and the Emancipation Proclamation.  These laws would make it official policy to free slaves in those areas which were actively resisting the Federal government.  Slavery would be abolished in the entire country by the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in December, 1865.

2 Comments

  1. Suhayla Chirdon
    January 4, 2013 at 5:13 pm

    Hi I noticed that you said Henry Wilson proposed the bill to abolish slavery in the district but i’d like to know who’s bill abolished slavery in the entire U.S. and other websites have given multiple names and they don’t have the same names at each website either. Please help me as soon as you can. Tahnk you

  2. Larry
    March 15, 2014 at 12:46 am

    “Under the Fugitive Slave Act, slaves owned by loyal slave owners who escaped to the District would be captured and returned to their owners until this law was repealed in 1864.”

    But it wasnt repealed. It was 3 votes shy. The vote was 69-38. It needed a 2 to 1 vote to be repealed. If 72 would have supported its repeal, it would have passed. The Fugitive Slave Act died when the 13th amendment was passed.

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