Emancipation Day, April 16th

    The abolishment of slavery in the United States has a long and complicated history. By 1860, there were approximately 4 million enslaved people in the US. Although most of us are familiar with Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, it is only part of the story. One pivotal moment happened nine months earlier.

    On April 16, 1862, President Lincoln signed the Compensated Emancipation Act. This legislation was the Union government’s first official act to liberate enslaved people, freeing over 3,000 slaves in the nation’s capital. It became law just one year into the Civil War and before the 13th Amendment banned slavery across the country. 

    It was unique in that it monetarily compensated the slave owners and any former slaves who would emigrate. Although “Emancipation Day” as it is now known, is not a federal holiday, Washingtonians celebrate it. It is duly recognized as a critical moment in our nation’s history.

    Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts sponsored the law. An outspoken abolitionist, Wilson vowed to “give all that I had to the cause of emancipation.” When the Compensated Emancipation Act passed, there was applause from fellow senators. Wilson would later go on to become Vice President under Ulysses S. Grant.

    The following year, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Although it didn’t end slavery immediately, it changed the Civil War. Approximately 200,000 black men served in the Union Army and Navy. While the war dragged on, the abolishment of slavery wouldn’t go into effect in areas under Confederate control. Finally, in 1865, the Union troops arrived in the westernmost Confederate state of Texas and announced that enslaved people were free. This day would be known as “Juneteenth” and become a federal holiday. 

    This progress came after Lincoln’s famous “House Divided” speech a few years earlier. During his rise to the US Senate in 1958, Lincoln condemned the US Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, which established enslaved people as property and not citizens. This famous case took place in St. Louis, Missouri, and after appeals all the way to the SCOTUS, ultimately allowed Scott to live in a free state while remaining a slave.  

    Lincoln feared the legalization of slavery in all states. He said, “What Dred Scott’s master might lawfully do with Dred Scott, in the free state of Illinois, every other master may lawfully do with any other one, or one thousand slaves, in Illinois, or in any other free state.”

    Tragically, it was Lincoln’s beliefs on abolishing slavery that led to his death. His assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was a white supremacist who thought Lincoln’s ideas were grounds for murder. Booth killed Lincoln on April 15, 1865 – almost three years to the day that President Lincoln signed the Compensated Emancipation Act.