Were US Slave Owners Really Paid $300 Per Slave?
In the latest reminder of why you shouldn’t get your history from twitter, a series of tweets claiming that slave owners were compensated $300 per slave began making the rounds on social media last month.
When taken collectively, the purpose of these tweets was to make a case for reparations. Yet, we can’t make sound political arguments based on bad history. To get the full story, I reached out to Jon Booth, a PhD student in history at Harvard working on race and criminalization after emancipation.
First, Jon, why are you interested in this topic?
I believe that the way emancipation occurred and the way in which Reconstruction was defeated provide many important lessons for political action. This history shows the possibility of revolutionary social change, but also the very real possibility of defeat and reaction.
Did slave owners really receive $300 per slave?
Yes, but very few. In 1862 the federal government abolished slavery in Washington DC, but set up a commission to compensate slaveholders who did not join the Confederacy. In the end the government paid out an average of $300 per slave to the 979 owners of 2,989 slaves. (See the complete list here) Those 2,989 slaves represent approximately 0.075% of the 4 million slaves in the country at the time. Though many abolitionists objected on principle to any action which implied that human beings could be bought or sold, the abolition of slavery in Washington, DC created an island of freedom in between the slave states of Maryland and Virginia and became a magnet for runaways from the region. What is more, the Emancipation Act forbade slave owners from evading the act by removing slaves from the District and successfully enforced this prohibition.
The Lincoln administration attempted to pursue a compensated emancipation policy in the Border States, but gave up after the Delaware legislature bluntly rejected his offer. Thus, no other American slave owner was ever compensated.
Why is it important to remember uncompensated abolition?
The uncompensated abolition of slavery was by far the most radical thing the federal government has ever done. At the time black men and women were the most valuable single form of property in the United States. The American economy was built by the enslaved and the cotton that they grew before Civil War was the most country’s most important export. Yet by 1865 almost every single of them ended up gaining their freedom without the government compensating their former owners. And it was not only the slaveholders of the Confederacy who were not compensated: the 13th Amendment abolished slavery without compensation in the slave states of Maryland, Delaware, Missouri, and Kentucky that had remained within the union. This map provides a powerful visualization of how slavery ended across the United States.
But it’s also very important to remember that this revolutionary state of affairs didn’t just happen because Lincoln was a good guy or something. A powerful coalition of abolitionists, free blacks, and the enslaved had forced the slavery to the center of national debate, at a time when most politicians would have rather ignored it. Just to take one example, the runaway slaves who reached the North were assisted by white and black abolitionists. These men and women were willing to violate the Fugitive Slave Act—at great personal risk, especially for free blacks—and refused to allow slave catchers to take runaways back to their former plantations. This, of course, enraged slave owners and heightened the contradictions inherent in American slavery. The mass movement which formed in the 1850s propelled Lincoln to the presidency and led to secession, but Lincoln’s election is inconceivable without the preceeding decades of political work.
After the Civil War, this same coalition (except now with no more slaves) created Reconstruction that guaranteed blacks civil and voting rights. Though Reconstruction was eventually violently overthrown by reactionaries, one of the biggest tragedies of this was the 1865-67 period after Lincoln’s assassination where other, even more revolutionary policies, like land redistribution were quashed.
Why does it matter that people are misrepresenting how slavery ended in the U.S.?
Well first of all there’s a purely practical element: I don’t think we should base our political arguments on false history because it makes them much easier to attack. The US government has done many, many awful things to people of color in the United States and around the world, we don’t need to make up more. The case for reparations is not strengthened by the assertion that the federal government compensated slaveholders. The case is based on hundreds of years of brutal racist exploitation which allowed the United States to rise to world dominance, the brief window in which slavery was abolished and Reconstruction gives us a hint of how things could have gone differently.
And in that lies the second, more significant, reason: The story of slave emancipation in the United States demonstrates more than anything else in our history the power of a mass movement working both inside and outside of the political system. Emancipation also shows us the speed with which fundamental institutions can be completely overthrown. In the years before the Civil War even Frederick Douglass had begun to give up hope of abolition. Slaveowners were making more money than ever before, the internal slave trade to the Deep South was expanding every year. Things looked as bad as they had ever been. Yet just 15 years later the world was turned upside down. Not only was slavery eliminated, but black Americans had also gained full citizenship rights.
The National Archives provides a brief, yet detailed, review of the DC Emancipation Act and its impact. Surprisingly, in addition to this legislation, Congress also passed a supplemental act that allowed slaves to come to DC and petition for their own freedom. History is complex.
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