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April 16, 1862: District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act

It is sometimes asked why compensated emancipation wasn’t attempted instead of fighting a Civil War, as if that had been the choice.  Although Lincoln was in favor of compensated emancipation, neither the slave states nor the border states, in spite of Lincoln’s vigorous efforts, were interested.  There was one area, however, where Congress had the power to impose compensated emancipation, and that was in the District of Columbia which was under the direct control of Congress.  On April 16, 1862 President Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Compensated Emanipation Act.  Under the Act some 3,185 slaves were emancipated with the owners receiving approximately a million dollars in compensation.  The Civil War cost about two and a half million dollars a day for the Union.  In purchasing power a million Civil War era Union dollars has the spending power of about 27 million dollars today.

 

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.

7 Comments

  1. So, if the federal government used fair market value or some such analysis, each slave was worth about $8,477 in today’s money… $8,500 for a life…

    That kinda brings some perspective to American slavery.

  2. A prime field hand brought around $800.00 in 1860 dollars. A point of reference is that Union privates were paid $180.00 a year. Most Americans, North and South, could not afford to buy a slave if they lived five life times.

  3. My math is off somewhere.

    Above, you noted that a million dollars in US currency in 1860 is about 27 million now. This matches what i found as the inflation index (2765.5%) over the same period. So, a slave worth $800 in 1860 dollars would be worth about $22,123 in today’s dollars.

    From the information above, we have 3,185 slaves whose freedom was purchased for around a million 1860 dollars. That’s about $314 each in 1860 dollars or about $9,000 in 2018 dollars, quite a bit less than their value.

    Perhaps I am missing something in my calculations. It could also be that the federal government was able to pay considerably less than market value for their compensation because refusing the sale would lead to confiscation or something like that.

    (It matters because I am very curious as to what the value of a life was to the legislators who were willing to set slaves free. A curious question, to be sure.)

  4. “From the information above, we have 3,185 slaves whose freedom was purchased for around a million 1860 dollars. That’s about $314 each in 1860 dollars or about $9,000 in 2018 dollars, quite a bit less than their value.”

    The bottom fell out of the market for slaves in the border states during the War because it was obvious that slavery was on the way out in the border states, no matter who won the Civil War. Slaves sold for quite a bit more in the Confederacy, but in increasingly worthless Confederate currency.

  5. “[N]either the slave states nor the border states, in spite of Lincoln’s vigorous efforts, were interested.”

    For them, slavery was not an economic issue, but a police measure to control the black population.

    After emancipation in the British West Indies, the cost of sugar production went down, not up. The wages of a free labourer were about the same as the maintenance of a slave, especially as free labour could be hired when needed and laid off when it was not. Moreover, plantation owners no longer had large amounts of capital, most of it funded by bank borrowing, tied up in a wasting asset.

  6. Don

    If the slaves had been freed with compensation to owners, the cost would have ben much less that the financial cost of the civil war.
    Without he cost in blood!

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