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.