Thomas Fleming’s First Dead End: Compensated Emancipation

Thomas Fleming, a historian and novelist, has produced a remarkable essay. Therein, he presents two ways to rid the nation of slavery without a war: compensated emancipation and diffusion of slaveholding. We can’t rerun history and do things differently to know that for sure, but Fleming points to real historical circumstances where both solutions put an end to slavery. The essay covers several topics that each deserve their own post for full consideration, as they reference common pro-Confederate tropes and for reasons of length and clarity. Kansas coverage will resume in a few days.

LincolnAccording to Fleming:

The first solution came from Abraham Lincoln. It was the solution that the British used to free a million slaves in the West Indies in the 1830s – compensated emancipation. Not once but twice Lincoln offered the South millions of dollars if they would agree to gradually free their slaves over the next 40 or 50 years.


Why not just buy all the slaves? It worked for the British. Surely it could work for the United States. On the face of it, this seems like a perfectly reasonable argument. When examined in more detail, it proves far less plausible. The millions of slaves living in the United states amounted to not millions of dollars invested in human property, but billions:

In 1805 there were just over one million slaves worth about $300 million; fifty-five years later there were four million slaves worth close to $3 billion.

The British had eight hundred thousand slaves to free and did so, ultimately, at the cost of twenty million pounds sterling. The United states had nearly four million who, together, beat the combined value of all the nation’s railroads and factories. Only the land itself, all the American portion of the continent, might have held greater cash value. The money to pay for the nation’s slaves at anything like fair market value would have taken appropriations on par with the cost of waging the war itself, something that no Congress confronted with anything less than an insurrection on the scale of the Civil War would have contemplated. Furthermore, the cooperation of the South would be essential to any compensation scheme. The Southern caucus would have to both allow its loyalists in the North to defect on the issue and then come over themselves, at least in significant numbers, to pass any bill that would buy up the nation’s slaves. This would almost surely mean forcing enslavers to sell their human property at a loss, as well as foreclosing the major avenue for economic and social advancement for the section’s poorer whites.

The white South proved unwilling to do any such thing both in the 1860s and every other time the subject came under serious consideration, whether the nation could raise the cash or not. When Ohio proposed compensation and colonization in 1824 with the eventual concurrence of eight other states, including Delaware in a rare departure from slaveholder solidarity, six of the slave states rejected the proposal emphatically. South Carolina’s legislature declared

the people of this state will adhere to a system, descended to them from their ancestors, and now inseparably connected with their social and political existence.

Georgia, Missouri, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama concurred, so this amounts to more than an episode of South Carolina extremism. States so committed would hardly dispatch senators or elect representatives who would happily comply with any emancipation scheme, even the most gradual and mild. Nor could one expect their constituents to cooperate happily with it if they did. That commitment proved no less weaker in 1862. In Delaware’s case, it had actually deepened. Only the tremendous strains put on marginal slavery regimes by the war itself induced Missouri and Maryland to accept emancipation, and without compensation, prior to the Thirteenth Amendment.

The British managed compensated emancipation, but the United States did not manage a slavery regime under the same circumstances as the British Empire did. People of both nations enjoyed reaping the profits of slavery, but Britain kept slavery at arm’s length. One could not legally hold slaves within the United Kingdom, only in its colonies. A slave who set foot in Britain became that moment free, a fact long understood by the English courts. Those colonies, as Americans ought to know very well, did not enjoy full, equal rights, representation, or sovereignty with the mother country. Parliament had the full power to legislate on a colony’s behalf, regardless of the objections of any local assembly that might exist. Whites in Jamaica or Barbados might oppose emancipation, even with compensation, but their presence didn’t come with built-in senators and representatives to fight on their behalf. A proslavery lobby did exist, and delayed the progress of freedom significantly, but it had to operate in a free Britain and compete against industrial interests significantly more developed than those in the United States.

Politically, emancipation thus came more easily to Britain. It did so socially and intellectually as well. Proslavery writing stresses the intimacy of the American way of bondage. They called slavery a domestic institution and meant it not just in a general sense that they practiced it locally, but also much more intimately. Enslaved women received cruel tutelage on that point. The enslaved lived with the enslaver. Well-off southern whites grew up with enslaved companions. The enslaved cooked their meals. They slept in the enslavers’ rooms to remain available to the their every whim, no matter the hour and without delay. An enslaver might harbor fears for the institution’s future, but it permeated every moment of his or her life. By contrast, most British enslavers came to the colonies to establish a slave labor camp and get rich enough to hand management over permanently to an overseer. He would then go home, never intending to remain in perpetuity among the enslaved.

Parliamentary debates over emancipation conspicuously lack the kind of arguments about black inferiority which pervaded American discussion of slavery. Though Britain certainly had its share of white supremacists, their ideas did not lay the bedrock upon which one could launch a defense of slavery like proslavery writers did to a unique extent in the United States. Living among the enslaved, seeing them tortured, torturing them yourself, and yet also pretending that you governed them in a kind and fatherly manner required both a level of ideological commitment and personal delusion probably only sustainable to a large scale in the exceptional milieu of eighteenth and nineteenth century America.

This leaves us at the end of a road not taken. For compensated emancipation to have worked in the United States would have required a very different United States. To arrive at such a polity would have required transformations that one must expect the white South to fight bitterly, just as it fought bitterly against the different transformations that finally did end American slavery. Even should those cultural changes have taken place, the nation would then have confronted the still formidable practical obstacles to emancipation.

I departed from Fleming’s text to consider a common claim in neo-Confederate circles, but fairness demands that I also acknowledge he knows full well that the South refused compensation. The usual suspects don’t even get that far, instead preferring the notion that Lincoln and the Republicans really didn’t care about slavery. The few who do just barely better will insist that the antislavery movement instead refused to even consider compensation. That the South rejected it doesn’t enter into things, as that would admit that the South understood slavery as its paramount concern and waged a war on its behalf. Once one admits that, one must either don the white hood proudly or find a different cause.


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