February 5, 1865: Lincoln Proposes Compensated Emancipation

Lincoln, February 5, 1865


Throughout the War Lincoln had made several attempts to propose compensated emancipation to end the War.  All such initiatives were still-born, killed by the twin facts that Congress was uninterested in providing the funding and that the slaveholders were uninterested in ending slavery, even with compensation.  On February 5, 1865, Lincoln proposed this plan to his cabinet:

Fellow citizens of the Senate, and [February 5, 1865]

House of Representatives.

I respectfully recommend that a Joint Resolution, substantially as follows, be adopted so soon as practicable, by your honorable bodies.

“Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives, of the United States of America in congress assembled: That the President of the United States is hereby empowered, in his discretion, to pay four hundred millions of dollars to the States of Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West-Virginia, in the manner, and on the conditions following, towit: The payment to be made in six per cent government bonds, and to be distributed among said States pro rata on their respective slave populations, as shown by the census of 1860; and no part of said sum to be paid unless all resistance to the national authority shall be abandoned and cease, on or before the first day of April next; and upon such abandonment and ceasing of resistance, one half of said sum to be paid in manner aforesaid, and the remaining half to be paid only upon the amendment of the national constitution recently proposed byPage  261congress, becoming valid law, on or before the first day of July next, by the action thereon of the requisite number of States”

The adoption of such resolution is sought with a view to embody it, with other propositions, in a proclamation looking to peace and re-union.

Whereas a Joint Resolution has been adopted by congress in the words following, towit

Now therefore I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, do proclaim, declare, and make known, that on the conditions therein stated, the power conferred on the Executive in and by said Joint Resolution, will be fully exercised; that war will cease, and armies be reduced to a basis of peace; that all political offences will be pardoned; that all property, except slaves, liable to confiscation or forfeiture, will be released therefrom, except in cases of intervening interests of third parties; and that liberality will be recommended to congress upon all points not lying within executive control.

The proposal was unanimously rejected by Lincoln’s cabinet and Lincoln shelved the proposal.  Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, made this entry:

There was a Cabinet-meeting last evening. The President had matured a scheme which he hoped would be successful in promoting peace. It was a proposition for paying the expenses of the war for two hundred days, or four hundred millions, to the Rebel States, to be for the extinguishment of slavery, or for such purpose as the States were disposed. . . . It did not meet with favor. . . . The earnest desire of the President to conciliate and effect peace was manifest, but there may be such a thing as so overdoing as to cause a distrust or adverse feeling. In the present temper of Congress the proposed measure, if a wise one, could not be carried through successfully. . . .”

In this case the cabinet was wiser than the President.  With victory in sight, the Congress manifestly was not going to pay for the ending of slavery when it was going to end with military victory in the coming campaign season.  Additionally, even at this late date, there was not the slightest indication that the Confederates would lay down their arms in exchange for compensated emancipation.  The War would settle the problems of slavery and the preservation of the Union, the same hard reality that had confronted Lincoln since his first day in office.

Published in: on February 5, 2023 at 5:30 am  Comments (3)  
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  1. I’m sure he was considering the approaching ratification fight over the 13th amendment.

    • Quite right. Lincoln always would have preferred compensated emancipation to a continuation of the War. However, although the War started over slavery, most Confederates were fighting for independence and not for slavery, and that Lincoln could not and would not concede.

      • Most confederate soldiers were fighting for some semblance of autonomy- the ruling class was all about continuing slavery.

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