The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lincoln tried to free the enslaved in D.C. years before he succeeded

Abraham Lincoln when he was a frontier lawyer in Illinois after his election to Congress. (Nicholas Shepherd/Library of Congress)
8 min

On Saturday, Washingtonians will celebrate the 160th anniversary of Emancipation Day, which commemorates President Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the law that freed enslaved people in the capital. But it wasn’t his first try at eradicating slavery here.

Thirteen years earlier, at the tail end of a largely unremarkable single term in the House, he drafted a similar bill. Although mostly forgotten today, his 1849 legislation turned out to be a dry run for the 1862 law that freed roughly 3,000 enslaved people in the District.

But as a freshman lawmaker, Lincoln didn’t have much clout in Washington, and he wound up dropping the effort when local support for it evaporated. Lincoln, 39, a member of the Whig Party from Illinois, as the Republican Party had still not yet come into existence, was not an outright abolitionist. But the sight of Black people being sold in the capital disgusted him.

“In Washington, Congressman Lincoln was appalled by what he saw of the domestic slave trade and the buying and selling of human flesh,” wrote Lincoln biographer and journalist Herbert Mitgang in a 1968 New York Times Magazine story.

“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 ‘an odious and detested class … sneaking individuals … native tyrants … offensive in the nostrils of all good men, Southerners as well as Northerners.”

Lincoln titled his 1849 legislation, “A bill for an act to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, by the consent of the free white people of said District, and with compensation to owners.”

Nearly 125 years before President Richard M. Nixon signed 1973 legislation granting home rule to the District, Lincoln’s bill would have given a nod to the concept, at least for some residents. Under a provision Lincoln included in his bill, even if it had been signed into law, the legislation would have gone into effect only if a majority of “free white male” citizens over 21 voted for it in a subsequent local election.

When Lincoln first proposed the bill on the House floor in January 1849, he told his fellow lawmakers that he had canvassed “15 of the leading citizens of the District of Columbia,” and all were in favor of it, according to an account in the Congressional Globe, the forerunner to the Congressional Record. Several voices challenged him: “Who are they?” “Give us their names!” Lincoln didn’t respond.

Like the law that would emancipate enslaved people in the District in 1862, his 1849 bill would have compensated enslavers. During the 1860 presidential campaign, Lincoln told biographer James Quay Howard that he had initially received assurances of local support for the legislation from the mayor, William Winston Seaton, “and others whom I thought best acquainted with the sentiments of the people.”

But, Lincoln said, “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.”

The brilliant letters Black people wrote to their former enslavers

Even though Lincoln ditched the legislation, his future vice president, Andrew Johnson, then a congressman from Tennessee, cited the bill in a speech a few months later as a recipe for Civil War.

“If this is done in the District of Columbia, it will be followed up in the states,” Johnson said, according to Chris DeRose in “Congressman Lincoln: The Making of America’s Greatest President.” “If Congress keeps up the agitation upon this momentous question, the friction will be so great … that this mighty union will melt in twain.”

The Whigs had chosen not to renominate Lincoln in 1848, and his term ended in March 1849, two months after he drafted his D.C. emancipation bill. Later that year, a reporter for the New York Tribune described him as “a strong but judicious enemy to slavery (whose) efforts are usually very practical, if not always successful.”

Ted Widmer, author of the 2020 book “Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington,” said Lincoln had a “quixotic” time as a congressman, not distinguished by great legislative achievement. But his D.C. emancipation bill reflected his antislavery outlook. “He’s seeing slaves as human beings, and feeling pity for them, which most politicians didn’t very much,” Widmer said.

Still, Lincoln was a gradualist who didn’t consider himself an abolitionist at the time. “As it was understood at the time, abolitionist meant a kind of fanatical person,” Widmer said. “It was almost like radical hippies in the 1960s. Where Lincoln was more an antislavery ‘normal’ person from the great American heartland, and not a crazy abolitionist.” Or as Lincoln biographer Mitgang wrote in 1968, “Lincoln in the 1850s was a moralist without being an abolitionist.

Michelle Krowl, a historian at the Library of Congress, said Lincoln worked within the realm of the practical in the House. “He had to be mindful of his audiences in Illinois,” she said in an interview, adding that abolitionists considered his D.C. antislavery bill a weak measure. The legislation included a provision that would have required local authorities to “arrest, and deliver up to their owners, all fugitive slaves escaping into said District.”

In his 2009 book “Abraham Lincoln: A Life,” Michael Burlingame wrote that Lincoln wasn’t very active on the slavery question in his first few months in office. But in the second session, which covered the last few months of his term, that changed. Lincoln boarded with a leading abolitionist congressman, Joshua Giddings, a Whig from Ohio, who helped shape Lincoln’s views.

While some Southerners condemned Lincoln as an abolitionist, Burlingame wrote, “at the opposite end of the political spectrum, the antislavery purist Wendell Phillips regarded Lincoln’s proposal to end slavery in the District as ‘one of the poorest and most confused specimens of proslavery compromise.’” When Lincoln ran for president in 1860, Phillips cited the fugitive slave provision in denouncing Lincoln as “the slave-hound of Illinois.” But Giddings, who helped draft the 1849 measure, praised it.

Lincoln reiterated his support for ending slavery in D.C. during his famous campaign debates of 1858, when he ran as a Republican in an unsuccessful challenge to Sen. Stephen Douglas (D-Ill.). But the future president said that the abolition should be gradual and subject to a vote of a majority of “qualified voters” in the city, and that enslavers should be compensated.

More than 1,800 members of Congress once enslaved Black people

“With these three conditions, I confess I would be exceedingly glad to see Congress abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, and, in the language of Henry Clay, ‘sweep from our capital that foul blot upon the nation,’” he said to loud applause, invoking the famed late Kentucky senator and secretary of state.

Four years later, President Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862, which freed 3,100 people, paid their former enslavers, and offered the newly freed people money to emigrate outside the country, also known as “voluntary colonization.” The idea of putting abolition to a vote of the White residents of the city was dropped.

Washington would be the only place in the United States where enslavers were compensated. “I have ever desired to see the national capital freed from the institution in some satisfactory way,” Lincoln said in a message to Congress on April 16, 1862. “I am gratified that the two principles of compensation and colonization are both recognized and practically applied in the act.”

Widmer said the 1849 bill can be viewed as a predecessor for the 1862 emancipation law. Historians view that law as a significant steppingstone toward the Emancipation Proclamation, which Lincoln issued in January 1863, freeing enslaved people in the states of the Confederacy.

“It’s only in the District,” Widmer said, “but it’s one of three or four things that he does before the full Emancipation Proclamation that shows it’s on his mind and he’s thinking about it.”