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ABOLITION OF SLAVERY IN THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA.
Location of the national capital a slaveholding triumph. - Early petitions for the abolition of slavery in the District. — Unsuccessful. — Mr. Wilson's resolu tion. Committee. - His bills for the abolition of slavery and the repeal of the slave laws. — Debate. - New departure. - Purpose simple and immediate, and not ulterior. - Speeches of Wilmot, Wilkinson, Sumner, Fessenden, and Wilson in favor. - Opposed in violent speeches by Davis, Saulsbury, Powell, and Bayard. - Factious amendments. Coupled with colonization. — Insisted on by Davis and Saulsbury. - Able speech from Mr. Hale. — Consti tutionality defended by Mr. Fessenden. · Passed. Opposed in the House by Crittenden, Wickliffe, and Vallandigham, and defended by Bingham, Fessenden, Van Horn, Ashley, Hutchins, Blake, and Rollins. Amendments proposed and lost. President's objections. — Met by a new bill.
- Passed and approved.
AMONG the earlier victories of the Slave Power was the location of the national capital on the banks of the Potomac. Next to the slaveholding triumph in the convention for framing the Constitution, it was probably one of the most important ever achieved, and inured most decisively to the growing potency of slavery as an elementary influence in the govern ment. A victory, it carried with itself the moral and natural advantages of triumph; by it the government was located in a community averse to freedom, and the public men of the country were surrounded by an atmosphere tainted with the breath of the slave, and by the blinding and perverting influences of slaveholding society; and, more significant and disastrous still, the fact that the District of Columbia was placed under the special jurisdiction of Congress, compromised the government and committed the nation to the existence and maintenance of slavery, giving it a prestige, if not respectability, it never could have gained as a State institution. So sorely was
this felt by the friends of freedom, that petitions to Congress and motions for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia were for thirty years among the prominent and persistent measures of the antislavery movement. But the tyrannical oligarchy, appreciating the vast value of such a standing testimony by the general government in behalf of slavery, always made it a condition precedent of allegiance to a national party that slavery should not be interfered with in the District. It was 66 so nominated in the bond"; it was "the pound of flesh" to be insisted on at all hazards. Deaf to all entreaties, impervious to all appeals, with inexorable pertinacity, it used its political power to protect it, and to shield it from every assault.
Among the early fruits of the secession of the propagandists from their seats in Congress were efforts by the friends of freedom in that body to remove this great offence, and wipe away the stain that had so long disgraced the nation. On the 4th of December, 1861, immediately after the announcement of the standing committees, Mr. Wilson introduced into the Senate a resolution, that all laws in force relating to the arrest of fugitives from service, and all laws concerning persons of color within the District, be referred to the Committee on the District of Columbia; and that the committee be instructed to consider the expediency of abolishing slavery in the District, with compensation to loyal holders of slaves. The committee to which this resolution was referred consisted of Grimes, Dixon, Morrill, Wade, and Anthony, Republicans; Kennedy and Powell, Southern Democrats. Of these, Grimes, Morrill, and Wade were pronounced antislavery men; Dixon and Anthony were regarded as conservative Republicans; Kennedy was a representative of the respectable Whigism of a Southern border State, but was soon borne into the ranks of the Democracy; and Powell, an earnest and able advocate of the slaveholding school, was soon to become identified with the Rebel cause. On the 16th Mr. Wilson introduced a bill for the immediate emancipation of the slaves of the District; for the payment to their loyal owners of an average sum of three hundred dollars; for the appointment of a commission to
assess the sum to be paid; and the appropriation of one million of dollars. This bill was reported back on the 13th of February, 1862, with amendments. On the 24th he introduced a bill which, he said, was supplementary to that already before the Senate, to repeal the act extending the laws of Maryland over the District, and to annul all those statutes which gave the cities of Washington and Georgetown authority to pass ordinances discriminating against persons on account of color. On the 12th of March it came up for debate in committee of the whole.
The debate on these resolutions, the bill, and other cognate measures exhibit elements of interest hardly found in any other session of the American Congress on record. It was emphatically a new departure. New facts, new arguments, new modes of speech, and, above all, a manifest emancipation of the Northern mind and tongue from the painful thraldom in which they had always been held, give it a character pecul iarly its own. While it is difficult to prevent feelings of sympathy for those called to confront the grim realities of the occasion, the war assuming every day more and more gigantic proportions, the fearful questions its continuance and prosecu tion were forcing upon them, and the increasing difficulty of giving those questions practical and satisfactory answers,these feelings are largely mingled with those of gratulation that its members were really ignorant of the extreme gravity and pregnant issues of the hour. A blindness, no doubt kindly given, hid from their view what, clearly seen, would have appalled; and their ignorance relieved them from a pressure they could have hardly borne, had they fully comprehended the momentous issues involved in the questions discussed, and the consequences dependent upon the conclusions reached. No longer hampered by the compromises of the Constitution and their acknowledged allegiance to their "Southern wing," rid of the hateful espionage of their Southern "brethren," whose prejudices and fancied interests must be consulted at all haz ards and at almost every sacrifice, Northern members snuffed the air of freedom from coming events, though profoundly ignorant of those events, and spoke, as never before, with un
bated breath and unwonted self-assertion. And yet they spoke with no double meaning, nor did they cloak ulterior purposes under pretences of local and immediate results. Though accused by Southern men of making it an entering wedge of something more comprehensive and radical, in the language of Mr. Willey of Virginia, “ a part of a series of measures already initiated, all looking to the same ultimate result, the universal abolition of slavery by Congress," they meant only the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, ridding the Federal capital of its guilt and odium, and absolving the nation. of its past complicity therein. In the advocacy of this particular measure they indeed enunciated principles of wider application, principles that would logically lead to general emancipation, and no doubt many hoped to see such a result in due time; but then their immediate object was the simple removal of slavery from Washington and its environs. In the debate, too, was witnessed, with much that was earnest and impassioned, the absence, already noted, of any definite and comprehensive policy. If not groping, they were feeling their way in the new and untried circumstances in which they were placed. The friends of freedom spoke for the bill, and enunciated many grand and pregnant principles; the advocates of slavery, still remaining in Congress, opposed it, and with illconcealed dread of the future, deprecated everything that threatened harm to their cherished system; while the larger number between these extremes revealed their state of incertitude and doubt by the tentative and ill-digested suggestions that fell from their lips.
In favor of the bill, Mr. Wilmot spoke of the great importance of improving the opportune moment, saying, “We should be the most derelict in our duty of any body that ever sat in the seats of power, if we adjourn this Congress without the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia." Mr. Wilkinson of Minnesota spoke of the existence of slavery in "the capital of this free Republic" as "an insult to the enlightened public sentiment of the age." He spoke of "the contumely and contempt" with which "the representatives of the loyal and free North were treated for the performance of
their duty through "the slaveholding influence of this District." Mr. Sumner hailed "with unspeakable delight the measure, and the prospect of its speedy adoption." "It is the first instalment," he said, "of the great debt which we all owe to an enslaved race, and will be recognized as one of the victories of humanity." Saying that when slavery gives way to freedom at the national capital, "the good will not stop here, it must proceed," he added: "What God and nature decree, rebellion cannot arrest. And as the whole wide-spread tyranny begins to tumble, then above the din of battle, sounding from the sea and echoing along the land, above even the exultation of victory on well-fought fields, will ascend voices of gladness and benediction, swelling from generous hearts wherever civilization bears sway." "This question of the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia," said Mr. Fessenden of Maine, " has been one that has always been near my heart. What claim have the owners of slaves in the District upon us? They have, in my judgment, been holding slaves here without law since the foundation of the government; and they have been able to do it because it has been in their power to secure a majority always in Congress, which was invincible and could not be overcome."
Mr. Wilson spoke at length in advocacy of the bill. "This bill, to give liberty to the bondman," he said, "deals justly, ay, generously, with the master. The American people, whose moral sense has been outraged by slavery and the black codes enacted in the interests of slavery in the District of Columbia, whose fame is soiled and dimmed by the deeds of cruelty perpetrated in their national capital, would stand justified in the forum of nations if they should smite the fetter from the bondman, regardless of the desires or interests of the master. With generous magnanimity, this bill tenders compensation to the master out of the hard earnings of the toiling freemen of America. . . . . These colonial statutes of Maryland, reaffirmed by Congress in 1801; these ordinances of Washington and Georgetown, sanctioned in advance by the Federal government, stand this day unrepealed. . . . . Bid slavery disappear from the District, and it will take along with it the