Happy Compensated Emancipation Day

The reason why you don’t have to file your income taxes until tomorrow, April 18 this year is that today is a holiday in the District of Columbia (which means DC IRS workers get the day off) to celebrate the passage of the Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862. Under this law, Congress appropriated a million dollars to buy DC slaves for $300 each, thus freeing 3,185 slaves.

Britain had freed slaves without violence in 1834 through compensated emancipation. Abraham Lincoln had long supported the idea of compensated emancipation, having introduced a bill for it during his time in Congress in 1847-1848. Robert E. Lee and many other Virginians also supported the idea.

The objections came from abolitionists, who felt slavery was immoral and slaveholders shouldn’t be compensated, and from slaveowners in the deep South, where cotton was a primary crop and cotton picking was such an undesirable job that they feared they could only produce it with slavery. Someone patented a mechanical cotton picker in 1850, but apparently it didn’t work very well for mechanical pickers didn’t replace humans for another hundred years.

The real problem with compensated emancipation was that the cost of buying all of the slaves was more than anyone could contemplate. One estimate is that combined value of the slaves in 1860 was about $2.7 billion. Since the entire federal budget before the war was about $75 million a year, that just seemed to be too much money to pay.

My Cato colleague Tom Firey has shown, however, that compensated emancipation would have been a lot less expensive than the Civil War, which directly cost the North $2.3 billion and indirectly cost $5.6 billion plus 350,000 dead and 275,000 wounded. The costs to the South were similar. So, if there wasn’t enough money to buy the slaves, how is it that several times that amount of money was available to fight a war?

Lincoln was aware of the trade-off. “I suggested compensated emancipation,” Lincoln once wrote to a supporter, “to which you replied that you wished not to be taxes to buy negroes. But I have not asked you to be taxes to buy negroes, except in such way to save you from greater taxation, to save the Union by other means.”

By the time Lincoln took office in 1861, it was too late for him to prevent the secession of southern states by proposing compensated emancipation because seven states had already seceded: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas, all cotton-growing states. However, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia only seceded when Lincoln made it clear that he would not accept the secession of the first seven states.

Hindsight is 20:20 vision, but knowing what we know today it is clear that Lincoln and the abolitionists in Congress could have saved the nation and the slaves a lot of agony by seeking a more peaceful solution. First, they could have allowed those seven states to secede. They could have offered compensated emancipation to slaveowners in the remaining slave states that did not secede. A small expenditure of funds on a crash research program could have perfected a mechanical cotton picker. Using that picker, they could have bought plantations and otherwise encouraged plantation owners in the Confederate states to grow cotton without slaves. Finally, they could have encouraged people in the United States and Europe to boycott cotton grown with slave labor. Together, the mechanical picker and the boycott would have brought down the value of slaves, thus enabling compensated emancipation to take place at a much lower cost.

As one writer suggests, “As Americans, we need to ask ourselves why we allowed the terrible injustice of slavery to lead to such a destructive war when every other nation except Haiti managed to resolve this issue without horrendous violence.” We celebrate the Civil War today as the war that ended slavery, but we never really consider the true cost of that war. One of the biggest costs was the backlash against freed slaves that took place with passage of Jim Crow laws after Reconstruction, a backlash that probably could have been avoided if the slaves had been freed peacefully.

I think about this when I deal with property rights today and with people who want to take away other people’s property rights because it would be too expensive to compensate them. One of the leading supporter of Oregon’s land-use laws once said that Oregon couldn’t compensate landowners because it would be too expensive to do so. But if the state doesn’t pay the landowners, then the landowners have to pay the cost, so it isn’t like society is saving any money.

Similarly, one of the responses to my recent op-ed on the Endangered Species Act was to ask if I have ever “calculated what it would cost the taxpayers to create a fund adequate to compensate property owners for conserving the habitat necessary to recover the 2000 listed species and prevent any further listings?” The implication was that it would be too expensive and so it was better to simply take away people’s property rights. But if those who want to save endangered species have to compensate landowners, they will find the most cost-effective way of saving species instead of just blanketing the land with severe restrictions.

The significance of Compensated Emancipation Day for me is that it legitimizes the policy that some saw as immoral. Now that this holiday is being celebrated again, I hope we can learn this lesson and apply it to other fields.


4 thoughts on “Happy Compensated Emancipation Day

  1. Sandy Teal

    One huge thing I learned in life is that when people “get away” with something they know is really wrong, they will fight ten times as hard to keep it than if they never had it. Slave owners is a great example, as are abortion on demand advocates in the USA where every other country has found a much more reasonable and balanced approach. Extreme gun rights too. Homeless people squatting in parks. Etc.

    In the micro level you can see it daily. The guy who violates parking rules, or HOA rules, or has loud parties, or who takes extra sauces from the restaurant — they would apologize if they were confronted the first few times, but after they get away with it for a long time they will fight to the end to protect what they got away with for so long.

    International law is actually built around the principle that if a country gets away with something for a long time, then it becomes the rule. If the USA didn’t send military ships through many straights and bays around the world, then eventually those seas would become de facto, and then lawfully, national waters.

  2. Sandy Teal

    Let me raise a few more related points to consider without drawing out all the implications.

    1. The US Constitution spent a huge amount of time and effort on slavery and actually made huge steps to eliminate it by eliminating importation of slaves (i.e. all “new” slaves except those born) in only 20 years. But the anti-slavery effort must have lost power for a while because that led the South to get away with for a while, and then even press hard for laws to return escaped slaves that they wouldn’t care about if they could import new slaves. The more they got away with having slaves without importing them, the more they invested and defended that system instead of phasing it out.

    2. The Endangered Species Act and wetland protection laws are terribly unfair. Boston, NYC, DC, and so many eastern cities are built on former wetlands and great wildlife habitat. Even older but not eastern cities like SF, Detroit, Chicago, Seattle, and Portland also got to ruin all their wildlife habitat and fill in their wetlands too. After getting all that economic benefit and not having any more good wildlife habitat, these people enacted laws to prevent other people from gaining the environmental benefit and even going so far as to push development into great upland habitat and away from poor marshy land.

    Surely new cities could develop half the wetlands around them and be far better for the environment and the economy than the old and privileged cities.

  3. OFP2003

    Wow! What a post!
    The introduction of morality/religion surely drove the “No-compromise” political pressure against slavery as it does with anti abortion movement today. I also imagine there are strong moral feelings behind the anti-tobacco movement, although I don’t think they are “no-compromise” as they seem to support legalization of smoking cannabis. I certainly need to study it more, but how many people truly benefited from the US Civil War? How many other nations ended slavery out of fear that a war like the US Civil war was inevitable? And finally, how sure are we that once the slaves were no longer commercially useful they would be simply set free instead of slaughtered or introduced to other fields of servitude? Taking property rights doesn’t quite have the same visual as slavery so it doesn’t easily produce the same moral outrage.

  4. Frank

    Let’s be clear: The Civil War was NOT about slavery. Secession was about slavery as well as “state’s rights” and perceived violations of the Constitution. The Crittenden–Johnson Resolution, passed shortly after the start of the war, stated the goal was to preserve the Union and made no mention of slavery.

    Lincoln himself was a racist, not an abolitionist, who stated in the Lincoln-Douglas debates that blacks were inferior to whites and should never be allowed to hold office or marry whites. His main plan was to send blacks to Africa. He made no mention of freeing them in America prior to the Civil War.

    Lincoln only “cared” about ending slavery when the war was going badly. He only CLAIMED to have suggested compensated emaciation AFTER signing the Emancipation Proclamation. His claim should be met with great skepticism.

    Lincoln was a tyrant who destroyed the Republic to create a heavily centralized federal government. He suspended the writ of habeas corpus, orchestrated the unconstitutional creation of West Virginia, imprisoned thousands of anti-war protesters and news paper editors in the North; his Secretary of State created a secret police force that arrested thousands suspected of disloyalty.

    Lincoln made slaves out of us all by forcing involuntary association. The evil of his legacy cannot be overstated.

Leave a Reply