Lincoln and the Slaves in the District of Columbia


Abraham Lincoln served in the National Legislature, the U.S. Congress, from March 4, 1847 until March 3, 1849 as a Whig from Illinois. His one congressional term came at one of the most turbulent times in American history. Representative Lincoln witnessed the outbreak of the Mexican War, Polk’s determination to fulfill his promise of hyper-expansionism, and the aftermath of the war that made the expansion of American slavery the most heated topics of congressional debate. On January 10, 1849, Lincoln offered his own Resolution addressing slavery in the District of Columbia.

The Constitutional Protection of Slavery and the Institution in the District

Although Northern political leaders like Lincoln opposed the expansion of slavery into the new territories obtained from Mexico, they accepted the constitutional legality of the institution where it already existed. Lincoln said as much in his First Inaugural Address. But slavery in the District of Columbia presented a unique argument: the District had been created after the Constitution and was not part of any state.

Slavery in the nation’s capital, particularly the slave auctions and the sight of manacled slaves led through the DC streets, was offensive to many in the North and seemed inimical to a democratic society. On December 16, 1835, the question of abolishing slavery in Washington was firmly addressed by Southern congressmen rankled by the increasing petitions to Congress submitted by Northern representatives.

After Maine Representative John Fairfield presented a petition signed by 172 ladies proposing the abolition of slavery in DC, the House Speaker entertained a Southern motion to table the petition. This became procedure until Southern representatives took their actions further by refusing to even accept petitions that addressed abolition, ultimately leading to a “gag order.”

Lincoln’s Resolution to Abolish DC Slavery by Referendum

A December 1848 Resolution, sponsored by the Northern “Conscience Whigs” to abolish slavery in the District, failed. Lincoln’s January 10, 1849 Resolution, a compromise effort, left the decision to the voters within the District, all white males 21-years old or older that had resided in the District for one year. Lincoln believed that the question of Washington slavery should be decided by the people.

Significantly, Lincoln’s Resolution also called for the education of all children born of slave mothers as of January 1, 1850, the date the Resolution would take effect if approved by the voters. According to his Resolution, these children would be, “…supported and educated, by the respective owners of their mothers…” These children would go through an apprenticeship program which, when completed, would lead to full emancipation.

Slave owners would be compensated by the federal government for the value of their slaves, that valuation determined by a board comprised of the President, the Secretary of State, and the Treasury Secretary. Those exempted from the Resolution included Southern officials working in Washington, DC that brought their slaves as “servants.”

Other Caveats in Lincoln’s Abolition Resolution

Section 5 of Lincoln’s Resolution addresses fugitive slaves. The District bordered slave states and the abolition of slavery in Washington would serve as an added inducement for slaves to flee from their bondage. In the years before the Civil War, Border States were losing slaves in increasing numbers. This prompted Maryland Senator Pratt, during the Compromise of 1850 Senate debates, to offer the Pratt Amendment that called for federal compensation for all fugitive slaves.

Section 5 is very short – only one sentence, reiterating former Fugitive Slave laws and not enough to mollify Southern political leaders or planters. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act was far more comprehensive, making it the most odious part of the 1850 Compromise in the eyes of many Northerners.

Lincoln also exempted involuntary servitude in conjunction with “punishment for a crime” after a legal conviction. This same language later appeared in the 13th Amendment that gave Constitutional legality to slave emancipation.

Failure of Lincoln’s Resolution to Abolish Slavery in Washington, DC

Lincoln’s Resolution may have failed, but his ideas were a template for future discussion, debate, and legislation. The Resolution also highlights Lincoln’s views that slave emancipation must involve education. It is also noteworthy that Lincoln had confidence in the decision-making capacity of voters. In his November 19, 1863 Gettysburg Address, Lincoln defined American government as, “…of the people, by the people, for the people…”

Henry Clay’s 1850 Compromise, ultimately passed through the efforts of Stephen A. Douglas, ended slave auctions in the District, although permitting slavery to exist in the shadow of the Capitol and the White House. It took a bloody Civil War to end that. Lincoln’s January 1849 Resolution was a harbinger of those future events.