[Marxism] When Slaveowners Got Reparations

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Apr 16 15:30:31 MDT 2019

NY Times Op-Ed, April 16, 2019
When Slaveowners Got Reparations
By Tera W. Hunter

On April 16, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill emancipating 
enslaved people in Washington, the end of a long struggle. But to ease 
slaveowners’ pain, the District of Columbia Emancipation Act paid those 
loyal to the Union up to $300 for every enslaved person freed.

That’s right, slaveowners got reparations. Enslaved African-Americans 
got nothing for their generations of stolen bodies, snatched children 
and expropriated labor other than their mere release from legal bondage.

The compensation clause is not likely to be celebrated today. But as the 
debate about reparations for slavery intensifies, it is important to 
remember that slaveowners, far more than enslaved people, were always 
the primary beneficiaries of public largess.

The act is notable because it was the first time that the federal 
government authorized abolition of slavery, which hastened its demise in 
Virginia and Maryland as runaways from these states fled to Washington. 
It offered concrete proof to enslaved people and their allies that the 
federal government might facilitate the destruction of slavery 
everywhere. And it confirmed the worst fears of their foes about an 
interloping tyrannical president.

Abraham Lincoln, however, was anxious to preserve his fragile alliance 
with loyal slaveholders. He had advocated abolition of slavery in 
Washington in 1849 as a congressman, to no avail. As president, he 
encouraged the border states to voluntarily end slavery. He chose 
Delaware as an ideal place to take the lead in late 1861. But it became 
clear that Union slaveowners could not be so easily persuaded. This 
reinforced the need to make congressional emancipation conditioned on 
compensating them, which put abolitionists in a bind.

They welcomed the end of slavery in the capital, but chafed at payments 
that validated the right to own property in the form of human beings. 
“If compensation is to be given at all,” the abolitionist William Lloyd 
Garrison said at the National Anti-Slavery Convention in Philadelphia in 
1833, “it should be given to the outraged and guiltless slaves, and not 
to those who have plundered and abused them.”

Moderate antislavery advocates like Lincoln did not agree. To the 
contrary, they believed that any manumission plan had to placate 
property rights that were buttressed by the Fifth Amendment, which 
required “just compensation” for government seizure of private assets.

Lincoln appointed a board of commissioners to oversee the process of 
compensation, headed by the North Carolina abolitionist and New York 
Times reporter Daniel Reaves Goodloe. The board reviewed more than 1,000 
slaveholders’ petitions to claim more than 3,000 enslaved people, close 
to the entirety of the dwindling population. Most of the petitioners 
received the full amount allowed. The largest individual payout was 
$18,000 for 69 slaves.

Although the District of Columbia Emancipation Act marked the only time 
the federal government would compensate slaveowners, there is a longer 
history of slaveowners requesting and receiving indemnification for the 
loss of their chattel.

Slaveowners felt entitled to and often received compensation from local, 
colonial and state legislatures, especially in times of crisis — when 
enslaved women and men ran away, participated in rebellions or were 
executed for crimes. During the American Revolution, owners asked to be 
compensated when bondspeople had died while working in lead mines in 
Virginia, for example, and when they sided with the British and ran away.

After the revolution, as Northern states carried out 
gradual-emancipation plans, compensation was attractive to slaveowners 
seeking to ease their financial burdens. The 1804 Gradual Abolition Act 
in New Jersey, for example, did not free anyone immediately. It allowed 
children of enslaved women to be treated as “apprentices” (slavery by 
another name) until they reached a certain age and would be freed. The 
law included a clause that allowed slaveowners to gain compensation by 
letting their bondspeople go free and then reclaiming them as “bound out 
labor,” which gave them access to state funds for their troubles.

In a break from tradition in the 1850s, the abolitionist Elihu Burritt 
organized the National Compensated Emancipation Convention in Cleveland 
to advocate payments to slaveowners, as well as smaller sums to be paid 
to the people they had enslaved. Nothing came of his dual proposal, however.

To be sure, the major benefactors of slaveowner reparations within the 
Atlantic slave system were Europeans. When England abolished slavery in 
its Caribbean colonies, it offered compensation to 46,000 slaveowners at 
the cost of around $26.2 million.

France went further by penalizing Haiti for the revolution that 
abolished slavery in its former colony St. Domingue. It levied a huge 
sum on the island, which crippled it in decades of debt. Former slaves 
were forced to pay indemnities to former slaveowners in exchange for 
official recognition as the first black independent nation-state in the 
Western Hemisphere.

The long and insistent coupling of compensation for slaveowners with 
emancipation is useful for consideration in current debates about 
reparations for the descendants of the enslaved. Critics and skeptics 
are fond of saying that enslaved people should have asked for recompense 
back then. African-Americans did precisely that, going back to the 
colonial era. They petitioned for “freedom dues,” they sued the estates 
of former masters for their unrequited toil, and they asked for land to 
restart their lives as free men and women. Relatively few of those 
efforts were successful.

An overwhelming majority of white people believed that slaveowners, not 
enslaved African-Americans, deserved recompense for the benevolence of 
manumission. The only “reward” that was widely supported was 
colonization: a trip “back to Africa.” The act allocated $100,000 for 
the voluntary removal of the newly freed people (at $100 per person) to 
go to Liberia or Haiti, which rarely happened.

Preserving sacred property rights and moving the Negro problem offshore 
meant that there was no justice for enslaved African-Americans. All of 
the candidates running for president must support the federal 
government’s issuing of reparations to African-Americans who were 
economically affected by slavery. Justice requires this.

Tera W. Hunter (@TeraWHunter) is a professor of history and 
African-American studies at Princeton and the author of “Bound in 
Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century.”

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