District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act

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The act

The District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act, or simply Compensated Emancipation Act, was a law that ended slavery in Washington, D.C. by paying slave owners for releasing their slaves. Although not written by him,[1] the act was signed by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln on April 16, 1862. April 16 is now celebrated in the city as Emancipation Day.


In 1849, when he was still a congressman, Lincoln introduced a plan to eliminate slavery in Washington, D.C. through compensated emancipation; the bill failed.[2]

In December 1861, a bill was introduced in Congress for the abolition of slavery in Washington, D.C.[3] Sponsored by Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, the bill passed the Senate on April 3 and the House of Representatives on April 12.[4] Lincoln signed the bill on April 16, 1862 amid ongoing Congressional debate over an emancipation plan for the border states. Following the bill's passage, Lincoln proposed several changes to the act, which were approved by the legislature.[5]

The passage of the Compensated Emancipation Act came nearly nine months before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The act, which set aside $1 million,[2] immediately emancipated slaves in Washington, D.C., giving Union slaveholders up to $300 per freed slave.[6] An additional $100,000[7] allocated by the law was used to pay each newly freed slave $100 if he or she chose to leave the United States and colonize in places such as Haiti or Liberia.[8]

In Washington, D.C., April 16 has been celebrated as Emancipation Day since 1866. An annual parade was held to commemorate the signing of the act until 1901, when a lack of financial and organizational support forced the tradition to stop;[9] it restarted in 2002.[10] In 2000, the Council of the District of Columbia made April 16 a private holiday—or one on which city employees are not given a free day off—and on July 9, 2004, council member Vincent Orange proposed making the day a public holiday.[11] 2005 marked the first year that Emancipation Day was celebrated as an official city holiday in Washington, D.C.[12] As such, because April 16 is a public holiday, and the District of Columbia is a Federal jurisdiction, whenever April 15 falls on Sunday, the deadline to file Federal Income tax is moved to April 17. If April 15 falls on a Saturday, then April 16 falls on Sunday, which means the Emancipation Day holiday moves to Monday the 17th, making that day the observed holiday, causing the Federal Income Tax filing deadline to be delayed until April 18.


The emancipation plan relied on a three-person Emancipation Commission to distribute the allotted funding. In order to receive compensation, former slaveholders were required to provide written evidence of their ownership, as well as state their loyalty to the Union. Most of the petitioners were white, but some blacks also filed for compensation, having once bought their family members away from other owners. In the end, almost all of the $1 million appropriated in the act had been spent.[13]

As a result of the act's passage, 3,185 slaves were freed.[14] However, the older fugitive slave laws, were still applied to slaves who had run from Maryland to Washington, D.C. The slaves were still subject to the laws, which supposedly applied only to states, until their 1864 repeal.[14]

Although the compensated emancipation model was not later adapted by the U.S. government, the act signified the forthcoming demise of slavery in the United States.[6] The act was the only compensated emancipation plan enacted in the United States.[2]

Supplemental legislation[edit]

Following Lincoln's concerns over the version of the bill that he signed, the U.S. Senate approved a supplement to the original Compensated Emancipation Act.[15] The amendment passed on July 12, 1862, allowing former slaves to petition for compensation if their masters had not done so. Under the supplemental act, claims made by blacks and whites were weighted equally, whereas previously, the testimonies of blacks—enslaved or free—were discarded if challenged by a white person.[16][17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Guelzo 2009, p. 128
  2. ^ a b c Reiner 2006, p. 57
  3. ^ Burgess 1901, p. 78
  4. ^ McQuirter 2009, pp. 12–13
  5. ^ Burgess 1901, pp. 79–82
  6. ^ a b "The District of Columbia Emancipation Act". Featured Documents. National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved July 5, 2011. 
  7. ^ Rodriguez 2007, p. 275
  8. ^ Burgess 1901, p. 82
  9. ^ Gay 2007, p. 150
  10. ^ Gillespie, Lisa (April 5, 2011). "D.C. Statehood & Emancipation Day Linked". The Georgetowner (Georgetown Media Group). Retrieved July 8, 2011. 
  11. ^ Aarons, Dakarai I. (July 10, 2004). "Emancipation Day May Go Public". The Washington Post (The Washington Post Company). p. B02. Retrieved July 8, 2011. 
  12. ^ Gay 2007, p. 149
  13. ^ McQuirter 2009, p. 13
  14. ^ a b Zavodnyik 2011, p. 15
  15. ^ Basler 1953, p. 192
  16. ^ "Supplemental Act of July 12, 1862". Featured Documents. National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved July 8, 2011. 
  17. ^ McQuirter 2009, pp. 13–14