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DC Emancipation Day

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Abolition in the District of Columbia

The opposition to slavery was evident in the American fabric as early as the 1700s as some people believed that slavery was inconsistent with morality, justice, and the spirit of the American Revolution. Many Americans believed that the ideals of the American Revolution represented the principles of liberty, freedom, and justice for all as insured by a democratic form of government; and, not a government of tyranny that confined a segment of its population to the condemnation of slavery. Slave trade in the nation’s capital was so especially abhorrent to some that it created considerable discussion on the policy of the federal government toward slavery in the seat of government.

The Portraiture of Domestic Slavery by Jesse Torrey illustrated how slaves were manacled and chained as they proceeded by the front of the Capitol, and it demonstrated the repugnance of slavery. This illustration was published as an effort to create a dialogue to oppose slavery and to influence Congress to abolish slavery in the nation’s capital.  

While there was opposition to slavery in the nation’s capital, the greater forces against slavery came from the outside through newspapers and petitions.  Many petitioned Congress to end slavery in the nation’s capital. The organizing efforts around the abolition of slavery in the District included the Washington Abolition Society which was organized in 1827. Abolition newspapers such as The Genius of Universal Emancipation protested slavery in the nation’s capital. There was consensus among abolitionists that Congress could use its constitutional authority, if it had the will to end slavery and the slave trade in the District. 

The opposition to ending slavery and the slave trade in the District was such a contested issue that the gag rule of 1836 prohibited a discussion of slavery on the floor of Congress.  Abolitionists such as John Quincy Adams vehemently opposed the gag rule. However, standard-bearers of slavery in the District fought tirelessly for the gag rule.  Gamaliel Bailey, editor of the antislavery newspaper, the National Era, founded in 1847, used the publication as an organ to advocate the abolition of the slave trade in the District.

The Underground Railroad was an important vehicle in the abolition movement that provided a safe haven for the passage of those escaping slavery. Abolitionists provided assistance to fugitive slaves in their flight to the North. Anthony Bowen, a free black, was an active conductor in the Underground Railroad in the District. Bowen was the founder of Wesley Zion Sunday School and his house in Southwest was an active stop on the Underground Railroad.

Nat Turner’s insurrection of 1831, the Snow Riot of 1835, the Pearl Affair and Riot of 1848, and the 1850 Compromise were all contributing forces that had an impact on slavery in the District.  In 1848, the House of Representative passed a resolution to prohibit the slave trade in the District of Columbia.  Although the resolution did not gain enough traction to end the slave trade in the District, it played an influential role in the congressional debates over slavery and the slave trade. The Compromise of 1850 admitted California in the Union as a free state; the former Mexican territories were admitted as part slaveholding states and part free soilers states; and the slave trade in the District of Columbia was abolished. The 1850 Compromise provided the necessary momentum for the enactment of the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act of April 16, 1862 that abolished slavery in the Nation’s Capital.