Editor’s note: on April 12, 2012 Harold Holzer joined Drew Gilpin Faust, President of Harvard University and the Lincoln Professor of History in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, in a conversation about the Civil War and its enormous human toll on 19th-century America. This essay was first published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on April 8, 2012.
Americans are enjoying a brief tax holiday this year–filings are not due until April 17–and credit for the postponement goes to an unexpected hero: none other than Abraham Lincoln. (Of course, Lincoln was also responsible for introducing federal income taxes in the first place, but that is another story.)
The explanation for the reprieve has nothing to do with the burdens of taxation, and everything to do with the blessings of liberty. A hundred and fifty years ago, Lincoln became the first American president to sign a law–any law–restricting slavery. On April 16, 1862, he approved a measure freeing (technically buying–then the biggest government bailout in history) all slaves in Washington, D.C. The capital now marks the 16th as a holiday, with government offices shut down, the IRS included.
That the event that inspired this commemoration has been largely forgotten is in a way understandable. Five months later, Lincoln issued his more famous and far-reaching Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. That document promised freedom to slaves in all rebel territory unless Confederate states returned to the Union. When, to no one’s surprise, the states refused, Lincoln issued his final proclamation on New Year’s Day 1863, declaring all slaves in rebellious states “then, thenceforward, and forever free.” These two landmark orders understandably overshadowed D.C. emancipation in historic importance. By 1865, the newly approved 13th Amendment to the Constitution finished the job by outlawing slavery wherever it still existed.
By any analysis, the April 1862 statute whose sesquicentennial we mark this month was limited and ill-advisedly delayed. It freed Washington’s slaves immediately but also compensated their owners in the amount of $300 per person. Lincoln, who would have preferred compensated emancipation to any other approach to ending slavery–he reasoned it was cheaper for the government to buy back slaves than to wage war–also preferred that D.C. emancipation be gradual. He argued that immediate freedom would place sickly and elderly slaves in jeopardy should masters evict them from their homes.
So the future “Great Emancipator” kept the D.C. freedom bill on his desk, unsigned, for two long days–delaying, he confided, until one Kentucky congressman could spirit his own aged servants back to his home state, where slavery remained lawful. This very newspaper reported “turbulence and disorder” throughout Washington, with “slave-hunters chasing up their dark-skinned chattels, to remove them, into Maryland and Virginia” before emancipation could be approved. Yet when Lincoln finally did sign the bill, but asked Congress to consider an addendum to exclude “minors and lunatics” from its requirement that claims be filed within 90 days, The Inquirer praised this further caveat as “manifestly just.”
For all its faults, delays, and stipulations, however, the D.C. bill earned prompt and almost universal praise. Whatever its proscriptions and morally repugnant (to modern sensibilities) offer of cash rewards for slave-owners–and despite Lincoln’s hesitancy in approving it, and unreasonable fears about the imagined consequences of immediate liberty–D.C. emancipation became one of the most lavishly praised acts of his presidency. Lincoln received more unbridled editorial kudos for signing this narrow piece of legislation than he did for the Emancipation itself. The more famous measure provoked some critics to complain of Lincoln’s unbridled use of executive power and others to complain it applied only to rebel states, leaving slavery in loyal border states like Kentucky unmolested.
Yet the mere fact that a Congress and a president had worked together to end generations of pro-slavery tradition somewhere resonated with breathtaking power in April 1862. No doubt the excitement owed much to the venue: the national capital. It did not seem to matter that only 3,000 were liberated in Washington while millions remained in chains nationwide. As Frederick Douglass predicted: “Kill slavery at the heart of the nation, and it will certainly die at the extremities. This looks small, but it is not so. It is a giant stride toward the grand result.”
The “grand result” would take three more years, and cost hundreds of thousands of lives on the battlefield. But that spring day, the tide for freedom turned irrevocably.
So on Monday, April 16, when most Americans use their unexpected tax holiday merely to take one last look at their 1040 forms, it might be appropriate also to remember D.C. Emancipation–the milestone that gets too little credit for redirecting the arc of American history toward freedom.
Harold Holzer is senior vice president, external affairs, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and chairman of the Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation.