Lois Leveen

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April 16, 2012

Abraham Lincoln Pays Off Slaveholders

150 years ago today, Abraham Lincoln paid slaveowners $1million. Yes, that Abraham Lincoln.

The slaves in Washington D.C. were freed through "compensated emancipation." That means slaveowners were paid $300 for each of their slaves, who then became permanently free. The U.S. government picked up the tab, allocating a million dollars to buy the freedom of three thousand slaves living in D.C.

This was not the first time Lincoln advocated for compensated emancipation. Earlier in 1862, he proposed paying $400 per slave to emancipate all the slaves in "the border states"--states that had not seceded but still allowed slavery. Why? Here's how I explain it in The Secrets of Mary Bowser, by putting words into the mouth of Confederate cabinet member Judah Benjamin:

Four hundred dollars for every slave in Delaware is but half the cost of one day of war for the Union. Four hundred dollars for every slave in Maryland, Missouri, the District of Columbia, and Mrs. Lincoln’s own Kentucky would be the cost of eighty-seven days of war. Lincoln gambles that compensated emancipation will shorten the war by that many days or more, by ensuring the loyalty of the border states.”

The larger compensated emancipation was never passed--and the slaves in the border states were the last to be emancipated, legally. They were not freed until *after* the Civil War, because the Emancipation Proclamation applied only to slaves in states that had seceded.

Tomorrow, I'll write about the other $100 Lincoln was willing to pay per slave in Washington, D.C.
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