week I spoke to a very smart class of high school seniors in
Washington DC. They knew more and had better questions for me than
your average group at any age. But when I asked them to think of a
war that was possibly justifiable, the first one somebody said was
the U.S. Civil War. It later came out of course that at least some of
them also thought Ukraine was justified in waging war right now. Yet,
when I asked how slavery had been ended in Washington DC, not a
single person in the room had any idea.
struck me afterwards how odd that is. I think it’s typical of
many people in DC, old and young, highly educated and less so.
Nothing in this moment is considered more relevant to good
progressive political education than the history of slavery and
racism. Washington DC ended slavery in an admirable and creative
manner. Yet many people in DC have never even heard of it. It’s
hard not to reach the conclusion that this is an intentional choice
made by our culture. But why? Why would it be important to not know
how DC ended slavery? One possible explanation is that it is a story
that does not fit well with the glorification of the U.S. Civil War.
don’t want to overstate the case. It’s not actually kept
secret. There’s an official holiday in DC explained thus on the
DC government website:
is Emancipation Day?
DC Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862 ended slavery in Washington,
DC, freed 3,100 individuals, reimbursed those who had legally owned
them and offered the newly freed women and men money to emigrate. It
is this legislation, and the courage and struggle of those who fought
to make it a reality, that we commemorate every April 16, DC
U.S. Capitol has an online lesson
on the topic. But these and other resources are fairly bare-bones.
They don’t mention that dozens of nations used compensated
emancipation. They don’t mention that people for years
advocated for its general use to end slavery in the United States.
They neither raise the moral question of compensating the people who
had been committing the outrage, nor propose any comparison between
the downsides of compensated emancipation and the downsides of
slaughtering three-quarters of a million people, burning cities, and
leaving behind apartheid and unending bitter resentment.
exception is the June 20, 2013, issue of the Atlantic
which published an article
called “No, Lincoln Could Not Have ‘Bought the Slaves’.”
Why not? Well, one reason given is that the slave owners didn’t
want to sell. That’s both obviously true and too easy in a
country where everything is believed to have a price. In fact the
main focus of the Atlantic
article is the claim that the price was too high for Lincoln to
afford. That of course suggests that perhaps the enslavers would have
been willing to sell had the right price been offered.
the price would have been $3 billion in 1860s money. That’s
obviously not based on any grand proposal offered and accepted.
Rather it’s based on the market rate of enslaved people who
were being bought and sold all the time.
article goes on to explain how virtually impossible it would have
been to find that much money — even while mentioning a
calculation that the war cost $6.6 billion. What if the slave owners
had been offered $4 billion or $5 billion or $6 billion? Are we
really to suppose that they had no price at all, that their state
governments could never possibly have agreed to a price of twice the
going rate? The economic thought experiment of the Atlantic
in which the price keeps going up with the purchases ignores a couple
of important points: (1) compensated emancipation is imposed by
governments, not a marketplace, and (2) the United States is not the
entirety of the Earth — dozens of other places figured this out
in practice, so the intentional inability of a U.S. academic to make
it work in theory is not persuasive.
the wisdom of hindsight, don’t we know that figuring out how to
end slavery without a war would have been wiser and the outcome very
likely better in many ways? Isn’t it the case that if we were
to end mass incarceration right now, doing it with a bill that
compensated prison-profiting towns would be preferable to finding
some fields in which to slaughter huge numbers of people, burning a
bunch of cities, and then — after all those horrors —
passing a bill?
belief in the justice and glory of past wars is absolutely critical
to the acceptance of current wars, such as the Ukraine war. And the
gargantuan price tags of wars is highly relevant to imagining
creative alternatives to escalating a war that’s placed us
closer to nuclear apocalypse than ever before. For the price of the
machinery of war, Ukraine could be made a paradise and a model
carbon-neutral clean-energy society, rather than a battleground
between oil-obsessed empires.