So it went in Washington in the spring of 1862. It was a cold accounting, the search for the price of a person.
As the question of slavery in America was being tried on the battlefield, its future in the District was resolved in April 1862 through strange and pioneering legislation that freed 3,100 slaves but paid the masters for their “property.” The slaves received no money unless they agreed to leave the country.
The District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act became law on April 16 — 150 years ago Monday. It was the cause of jubilation among those whose chains it broke, and today it is celebrated in Washington on “Emancipation Day," a city holiday.
On Wednesday, the National Archives displayed some records that detailed how many slaves were freed, how many owners applied for compensation and how much each slave was deemed to be worth.
“It was the first time the government had officially liberated any group of slaves,” said David S. Ferriero, the archivist of the United States, and it anticipated the more famous Emancipation Proclamation by six months.
The documents offer a window into the bookkeeping of slavery and a rare glimpse into the lives of local slaves and their owners.
Assigning value was hard for the commission set up to administer the law, according to its final report. For years, slavery in Washington had been a matter of “trifling importance,” the report said, and an expert was needed.
So the commissioners brought in from Baltimore “an experienced dealer in slaves,” B.M. Campbell, to provide expert and independent opinion.
Campbell and his brother, Walter, appear to have had a prewar business trading slaves between Baltimore and New Orleans, Archives experts said, and were considered impartial judges of the value of slaves.
The new law stipulated that the government would pay masters as much as $300 for each freed slave, although, in the end, the owners were often paid much more.
The owners posted a claim and had to present their slaves for examination, Kenneth J. Winkle, a history professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, wrote on the university’s “Civil War Washington” Web site.
The Campbells — like Civil War insurance adjusters — issued their valuations. And the commission decreed what the government would pay.
Official ledger sheets detailed the accounting.
William Pressy, for example, claimed a value of $100 for James Thomas, one of his five slaves, but he was awarded $21.90. Thomas might well have been a child because $21.90 seems to be a valuation given for some slave youngsters.
Some slaves were deemed to be worth nothing. The records are dotted with notations that such and such a slave, often an infant or child, had “no val.”