Compensated Emancipation Was Tried — But Didn’t Work

J.L. Wall

J.L. Wall is a native Kentuckian in self-imposed exile to the Midwest, where he teaches writing to college students and over-analyzes Leonard Cohen lyrics.

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57 Responses

  1. greginak says:

    Of course compensated emancipation would not have worked. What too many people nowadays try to avoid is the pure belief in racial superiority and dominance that underpinned the Southern way of life. It was economics and also far more than that. It was a core belief of whites in the South that they were destined to be the top dog. You can’t pay people to give up a way of life and an entire cultural system.

    Racism was of course rampant in the north and west, but there were Free Soil/ Free Labor types and the anti-slavery crusaders.Report

  2. Stillwater says:

    The idea of compensated emancipation implies that short term economic interests were the sole reason for slavery. Maybe it’s all-too obvious after the fact, but why anyone would have thought that is a bit of a mystery.Report

  3. Chris says:

    If I remember correctly, what Foner says is that the failure in Deleware taught him that he needed to have a plan for what to do with freed slaves, since this was one of Deleware’s big worries, and renewed or sparked (I don’t remember which) his interest in colonization in Haiti or Liberia, or some new place that Congress would acquire and designate for the purpose. This was all after the war had started, though, so there was little time to continue political experiments, and I think Foner says that he started bandying about the idea of a federal law or Constitutional amendment.Report

  4. I’m not sure we can extrapolate from the Delaware example to say that compensated emancipated was always and would always be impossible. It might have been more possible c. 1800 before the cotton economy really took off. It might later have been more possible c. 1900 when the second industrial revolution was in full bloom.

    Obviously, these are counterfactuals, and as Wall points out, slavery wasn’t vital to Delaware’s economy, and as Greg and Still point out, other issues besides drove support for slavery. I would add to those very well-taken points, that a US post compensated emancipation would not be the free(er) place we’re familiar with now, with the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments.Report

  5. J@m3z Aitch says:

    They should have tried eminent domain.Report

  6. George Turner says:

    Another factor is that many people in Delaware probably didn’t want the government to tacitly recognize the morality of slavery by involving itself in the slave market, essentially. It would be like fighting sex slavery by having the government buy girls from the pimps. Combine that with other reasons people might be against it, whether from setting a precedent for a dangerous intrusion into private business to worries about what the government would do with those it freed, and it would be quite hard to get a majority of the public behind the idea because most everyone would have a reason for mistrusting the policy.Report

    • Stillwater in reply to George Turner says:

      Yet another damn fine comment George.Report

    • BlaiseP in reply to George Turner says:

      Buying the girls, thus saving them from a life of prostitution, was exactly the approach taken by St Nicholas of Smyrna, later to be transmogrified into Santa Claus. He bought three such girls, which also led to the symbol of the three gold balls on pawnshops.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to BlaiseP says:

        (I’ll be back in a bit. Right now I’m writing a letter to Santa telling him what I want for Christmas.)Report

      • George Turner in reply to BlaiseP says:

        So “Saint Nick” was buying sex slaves and making all sorts of toys for little kids. He gets more suspicious by the day, doesn’t he? ^_^Report

        • BlaiseP in reply to George Turner says:

          Heh. St Nicholas of Smyrna/Mrya/Bari was a fascinating character. All sorts of odd myths surround him. In one horrible little tale, a Sweeney Todd-esque butcher cut up several children, pickled their flesh in barrels and put them out for sale in his shop. St Nicholas resurrected the children who woke and had no memories of their murders.

          St. Nicholas also liberated an Ethiopian slave boy, Pitar, who followed him thereafter. He became Zwarte Piet, who appears alongside St. Nicholas in his parade, scaring the children. All that business about Santa’s list, who’s been naughty and who’s been nice, lumps of coal in stockings and such? That’s Zwarte Piet.Report

    • greginak in reply to George Turner says:

      Slave holders were completely for the government recognizing slavery and supporting the policy. During the crisis of 1850 many southerners wanted a guarantee of always holding one house of congress so they could stop any attempt at ending slavery.They said so all the time. What they didn’t want is anything that might lead to an end to slavery. They said that all the time.They were paranoid about every potential action leading to an end to slavery. They feared the north was trying to slowly kill slavery and saw that in every policy. They wouldn’t really have to work to hard to see compensated emaciation as moving towards an end to slavery.Report

    • Barry in reply to George Turner says:

      “Another factor is that many people in Delaware probably didn’t want the government to tacitly recognize the morality of slavery by involving itself in the slave market, essentially”

      It was invilved – the Fugitive was a major Federal involvement in law enforcement. Also, slavery was a public thing. It was recorngized publicly and supported by many elites.Report

      • Barry in reply to Barry says:

        Sorry – involved.

        George, after the Civil War, people made up a bunch of lies, but at the time they were for slavery, quite publicly.Report

      • George Turner in reply to Barry says:

        But we’re talking about Delaware, not Alabama. There weren’t very many slave holders and the state didn’t secede, yet the public there still didn’t back the buyout plan.Report

  7. Pub Editor says:

    Compensated emancipation did work in some of the British colonies in the 1830s, like Jamaica and Trinidad, but there, I gather, the number of slave-owners was much less than in any of the Southern states.Report

    • Don Zeko in reply to Pub Editor says:

      Presumably this is a matter of scale mattering. It’s one thing to enact compensated emancipation; it’s an entirely different matter to enact a compensated emancipation scheme that also requires the sort of financial mobilization that the war itself required.Report

    • George Turner in reply to Pub Editor says:

      I wonder if elements of the British class system played a role in the successful outcome? Much of polite British society was intent on climbing the social ladder, so if the “betters” are wagging their fingers at slave ownership and offering compensation, a proper British response is to say “Thank you, your lordship! I was never comfortable with this whole situation anyway, you see. Too beneath us.”

      Whereas society in the American South was flipped over from that. The Northerners were largely made up of Roundhead stock and the Southerners came from the honor-based Cavaliers. The Southerners didn’t regard Yankees as even their social equals, much less people whose opinions should be respected, much less anyone to pay obedience or homage to. They were just a bunch of damn Yankees with little culture and no breeding, a bunch of shop owners, merchants, and scrabble farmers. A buyout may have worked had the social positions been reversed, and had we maintained a simpler, more hierarchical class system.Report

      • greginak in reply to George Turner says:

        The slave owners in the islands were royally pissed off about slavery being ended. They fought to keep slavery and felt sporked over by slavery being snuffed.Report

      • George Turner in reply to George Turner says:

        Maybe so, but they weren’t fool enough to fight the crown, whether due to a lack of social status or military might, and they were getting compensated by the really rich people back in England who could buy them off or promote them back into London social circles.

        Englishmen abroad still regarded themselves as Englishmen out in the boonies, or at least many of their wives did. American Southerners had stopped looking back to Europe for status and figured they were better than Yankees in breeding and character, and were willing to prove it over tea or at war. They thought they had more than a good chance at either staring the Northerners down or beating them back through force of arms, confirming their station and might and preserving their superior way of life, in which they were quite properly attended by servants.

        There’s no way an Englishman outcast to a Caribbean island could suffer such illusions, being dependent on the protection of the Royal Navy and well aware that tens of thousands of crack British troops led by a top general could show up in port with the slightest excuse. For them, the only conceivable option would be to take the money because there was no other viable future. They couldn’t possibly swing important opinion to their side, with all of English society being opposed, and they were outnumbered and out gunned by a ridiculous margin.

        There are parallels to California farm families facing the power and might of LA, San Francisco, and Sacramento. None of them could conceive of fighting and winning, so mad as they are, it will never come to defiance, much less a revolt.Report

        • Kimmi in reply to George Turner says:

          American southerners were worse than landed English in Ireland, dude. Seriously, these were Cavaliers, the hierarchy went up to the Queen of England… and down to MissouriReport

      • James K in reply to George Turner says:

        I think military power was probably a big factor. The British Empire was the predominant naval power of the time by a wide margin, which is a big deal if you’re an island which makes money through trade. If the Royal Navy had blockaded those island, they would have been forced to keep on feeding slaves that could no longer earn their owners income.

        By contrast the military capabilities of North and South were much closer together, close enough that the North had to actually win a war to force the South into line.Report

      • Chris in reply to George Turner says:

        Keep in mind that Lincoln put this plan forward after secession, and in fact after hostilities had begun, so we’re not talking about a plan for the entire South. It was just a plan for the border states, Deleware, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, in order to make them non-slaves states, and therefore less likely to be poached by the Confederacy. So the failure is less explainable by scale or military balance than it would be if he was trying to buy all of the slaves in the entire South.

        I think the issue really was a combination of aversion to federal intervention and a real fear among slave owners and non-slave owners about what the freed slaves would do to their society.

        By the way, according to the 1860 census, in those 4 states, there were 429,401 slaves (1798 in Delware), or a bit more than 10% of the total slave population in the pre-secession United States.Report

  8. Barry says:

    BTW, Ta-nesi has done a great series of posts both on slavery, and on institutional racism and economics.Report

  9. BlaiseP says:

    The Confederacy had a population of around nine million. Four million of them were slaves. Merely purchasing the slaves was understood to be wildly impractical: a good slave in prime condition cost as much as two or three good horses.

    In some senses, America did attempt to do right by the newly emancipated slaves. The Freedmen’s Bureau was one such attempt. And what were the slaves to do? Most had no education. Family structures were weak at best. They weren’t integrated into a larger society, few of them understood the rudiments of business. Hundreds of thousands of ex-slaves wandered around, creating huge problems. They were vagrants, to put it plainly. All those Jim Crow era laws on vagrancy, used to such ill effect later — that’s when those laws were passed and approved by the Freedmen’s Bureau.

    My old man did his master’s thesis in journalism on the spread of the news of Lincoln’s death. Though they hated him, the South knew Lincoln was a far better bargain than the rest of the Republicans. The North grieved for Lincoln. The defeated South was utterly terrified. They sensed what was coming: a harsh Reconstruction.

    The gods answer the prayers of the stupid, immediately and literally. The vengeful Union had destroyed the economic infrastructure of the Confederacy with no thought of what was to follow. The Civil War was only half-fought. Thereafter, in every war America fought, we tried to stick around to deal with the fallout. Wilson’s Fourteen Points, all the Displaced Persons camps after WW2, our occupation of South Korea, all the infrastructure work we did in Vietnam, we learned from Reconstruction. Winning the war is only half a victory. We learned we needed to win the peace as well — a lesson we haven’t always remembered.Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to BlaiseP says:

      Thereafter, in every war America fought, we tried to stick around to deal with the fallout.

      Though when it came to Iraq, you could get fired for saying there would be any fallout.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        The USA certainly spent enough money on reconstruction in Iraq. If Iraq degenerated into a civil war, we never understood how to provide security, enable local authorities to manage the situation, enforce the writ of a military occupation, as we had done before.

        After the Vietnam War, the USSR began to use the fine deep water port we’d constructed at Cam Ranh. The disgusted Vietnamese took to calling the Soviet sailors Americans Without Money.Report

        • Mike Schilling in reply to BlaiseP says:

          As James Fallows has documented, the Bush administration refused to believe that there would be an aftermath, and so failed to do any planning for it. Hence the failures you list a direct result of not even thinking about what problems might arise and denying that they even existed until they were out of hand.Report

          • J@m3z Aitch in reply to Mike Schilling says:

            “We’ll be out in 6 months.” Was it Cheney or Rumsfeld who said that? I never believed they believed it, though. But Cheney predicted we’d be greeted as liberators, and that was sufficient for the moment.Report

        • George Turner in reply to BlaiseP says:

          Iraqis didn’t think there would be an aftermath, either, and didn’t plan for one. Then many months later it all exploded. I read an interview with on of the Iraqis who explained that his countrymen were crazy, illogical, and would do horribly destructive things to themselves when it didn’t make any sense at all. He was correct.

          If Iraq had merely been a monolithic country oppressed by a brutal socialist tyrant, there wouldn’t have been much of an aftermath to speak of. But instead it was fundamentally more like Syria, Lebanon, or Yugoslavia in terms of simmering ethnic hatreds and suspicions. But there was nothing to indicate that any spark was about to set it all off. Lebanon’s civil war hadn’t restarted in decades, nor had Syria’s battle between Haffez al Assad and the Muslim Brotherhood (essentially an Alawite/Shia vs. Sunni Islamist conflict). Yugoslavia’s brutal civil war had been ended by US intervention.

          So if the aftermath wasn’t highly predictable, and if the form it took was essentially unknowable beforehand, even to Iraqis, exactly what kind of specific planning was the administration supposed to do? The most likely troublemakers were former Baathists who were highly placed in Saddam’s regime, so we purged them. The Kurds would likely demand independence, but we probably correctly figured that partition would cause much more trouble than it solved. There would probably be some looting and celebrations and a bit of retribution, which happened as they usually do when an unpopular regime gets toppled, even in Western Europe. The Shiites would certainly relish getting out from under the thumb of the Baathists. All of that happened, and things were calm from spring till fall, and then the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr stirred up and led a hornet nest of crazy people, and the place exploded into sectarian civil war, tribal vendettas, and jihad central.

          Yet even the worst year of the fighting, 1997, produced fewer US casualties than the Battle of Savo island, which only lasted two days. None of the four intense years of fighting produced much more than half the casualties of the naval Battle of Guadalcanal, which lasted for three days, and not to be confused the with Battle of Guadalcanal which killed half again as many US servicemen as the entire Iraq War. The low loss rate makes comparison to other wars difficult, so the nine year Iraq war has to be compared to minor battles lasting a couple of days, such as the Battle of Attu, the Battle of Sidi Bu Zid, or the Battle of Leyte.Report

          • BlaiseP in reply to George Turner says:

            Sorry, George. I was shouting at the top of my lungs in the run-up to Bush43’s Iraq War, saying “You morons are about to open a Pandora’s Box of ethnic and religious warfare! The Shiites burned Baghdad to the ground five times in recorded history and they’re going to do it again!”

            To say we couldn’t have known, that flies in the face of even the most cursory analysis of the history of the region. When America invaded, ol’ Baghdad Bob, remember him? — brought out a message from Saddam Hussein, which reduces to this summary:

            You Americans will repeat everything I have done in Iraq. You think I’m a monster? You try running this country. You try living next door to Iran. You’ll see.

            And damned if the old monster wasn’t right. We did everything he did, and often in the same places. Abu Ghraib was Saddam’s torture central, too.Report

          • J@m3z Aitch in reply to George Turner says:

            So if the aftermath wasn’t highly predictable

            This is very wrong. The people with actual Middle Eastern experience were almost unanimous in predicting huge sectarian conflict as the aftermath. It was evident, given long-standing Sunni/Shi’a conflict, Hussein’s (Sunni affiliated, though primarily secular) mistreatment of the Shi’a “Marsh” Arabs in the South, and the independentist-minded Kurds in the north.

            I opposed the war (publicly, and was publicly called un-American and a coward) because I was listening to the folks who knew the Middle East, not the deeply ignorant folks in the Bush administration (I had a good friend, a life-long Republican, who worked in the Ford White House, and knew Cheney and Rumsfeld first-hand–after the 2000 election he told me straight out, “they are bad people, who understand nothing.”).

            This whole “nobody saw this coming” line just isn’t true. It was widely predicted. But nobody in a position of authority listened, because they were deeply embedded in a classic case of groupthink, in which conflicting or problematic arguments are rejected without consideration.Report

            • zic in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:


              My mother’s brother would have been a general with his next promotion. He took early retirement rather then stay in the Pentagon working for Rummy. I think, from what he tells me, he had a lot of company.

              Which leads me to wonder if the best and brightest abandoned ship when it was obvious the captain was incompetent.Report

              • Kimmi in reply to zic says:

                Oh, yeah. If they didn’t leave, they were fired. The ranks of competent, patriotic Republicans got hit the hardest. Cia, Military especially…Report

              • J@m3z Aitch in reply to zic says:

                Just like the abandonment of ship that happened at CIA when Bush appointed Porter Goss as director.Report

            • Mike Schilling in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

              Among the people who saw it coming was George H. W. Bush, who chose not to overthrow Saddam in 1991 for exactly that reason. But how many kids listen when their Dad tells them something fun is too dangerous?Report

            • Jim Heffman in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

              “I had a good friend, a life-long Republican, who worked in the Ford White House, and knew Cheney and Rumsfeld first-hand–after the 2000 election he told me straight out, “they are bad people, who understand nothing.” ”

              That’s because your good friend, like most life-long Republicans, is a racist who thinks that brown people are basically violent children who need a firm, strong hand to keep them from running amuck.Report

              • Shazbot5 in reply to Jim Heffman says:

                Yeah, anyone who opposed the war in Iraq on the grounds that it would destabilize the country are Islamaphobic racists.

                Including the many millions of Muslim Arabs who opposed the war here amd abroad and, most importantly, in Iraq.

                Oh wait, that is crazy.Report

              • Johanna in reply to Jim Heffman says:


                Was that meant as a joke?Report

              • Jim Heffman in reply to Johanna says:

                Maybe I don’t understand, because I thought that hating on Muslims and non-Americans was something only racist people did.Report

              • J@m3z Aitch in reply to Jim Heffman says:

                Thanks for being purposely obscurantist. I don’t appreciate my dear friend being called a racist by somebody who knows nothing about him, whatever the hell your purpose is. I asked to give the benefit of the doubt that you weren’t just being a douche, rather than flame you. But it appears you’re intent on being a douche in some way or another, although to what point I don’t know. There was, of course, nothing in my comment suggesting my friend hated on Muslims–it was Cheney/Rumsfeld he was criticizing. Maybe you missed that. Either way, you’re welcome to go fuck yourself.Report

          • Kimmi in reply to George Turner says:

            If Iraq had merely been a monolithic country oppressed by a brutal socialist tyrant
            … there really aren’t many of them around, ya know?Report

  10. Citizen says:

    In the telling of bastards the peace is never won. Compensated Emancipation would have never worked as it was just another telling. “white America it is fashionable to remain embittered.” totally misses the mark. There exists a live and let live criteria, for the slaves and for the south.
    I once asked what would happen if the south were allowed to leave the union. All the replies were gloom and doom.
    Only Blaise hit upon the same logical conclusion I was looking for. The rebel flag of the south may have looked very different today. That supremacy inclination taken to task. So in the end the slaves didn’t have their great rebellion and there will be embittered told bastards waving their flag for another hundred years.Report

  11. DRS says:

    Isn’t the phrase “compensated emancipation” a contradiction in terms? It’s not really emancipation if you’re getting paid for it, is it? Being bribed to do what’s right – interesting concept.Report

  12. Jim Heffman says:

    Compensated takings have never gotten much traction in American governance, because most large-scale takings are more about moral issues than about economic ones. If you pay for taken slaves, that means it was okay to own them in the first place.Report