The United States Congress abolished the slave trade in the District of Columbia on September 20, 1850, as part of the legislative package called the Compromise of 1850. Since the founding of the District of Columbia in 1800, enslaved people had lived and worked in the nation’s capital. By the mid-nineteenth century, laws regulating slavery in the District were considerably more lenient than slave codes in the rest of the South, but slavery continued to exist in Washington until April 16, 1862. On that day, President Lincoln signed legislation freeing the 3,000 African Americans bound by the District’s slave code.
Antebellum Washington was home to a thriving community of free blacks. The laws of Southern states commonly prohibited manumitted persons from remaining within state boundaries. Forced to seek a new life far from friends and family, many former enslaved persons migrated to Washington. By 1860, free blacks outnumbered the enslaved by nearly four to one in the city.
Many Northern states abolished slavery and slave trading during the early national period. However, section 9 of the United States Constitution specified, “The migration or importation of such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight. Urging New Yorkers to ratify the Constitution, revolutionary patriot and Federalist John Jay noted:
What is proposed to be done by England is already done in Virginia, Delaware, and Rhode-Island, and it is likely to take place in all the States of America. It will be an honour to this country, and the most glorious event in the present reign, if the example should be followed here.
“Extract from an Address to the People of the State of New-York, on the Subject of the Constitution.” [New York: 1788]. Documents from the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention, 1774 to 1789. Rare Book & Special Collections Division
The United States banned further slave importation in 1808, as soon as the Constitution allowed. Essentially a dead letter by the end of the Civil War, the institution of slavery was permanently dismantled by passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.
- African American Perspectives: Materials Selected from the Rare Book Collection contains several documents chronicling this disturbing chapter in American history. Read “What Became of the Slaves on a Georgia Plantation?,” a firsthand account of an 1859 auction sale of 436 enslaved peoples in Savannah, Georgia. “The Foulahs of Central Africa” is a Georgia man’s perceptions of the slave trade in Africa and of the Fulani people.
- Search on the term District of Columbia in Slaves and the Courts, 1740 to 1860 to find material related to slavery in the District. Read, for example, part of a speech pronounced by Francis Scott Key, Esq. on the trial of Reuben Crandall, M.D. who was “indicted for publishing libels with intent to excite sedition and insurrection among the enslaved and free coloured people of said district.”
- Learn more about the Compromise of 1850. Read Today in History features on Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and Stephen A. Douglas. To learn about the nineteenth century-movement to end slavery, read Today in History features on abolitionists Elijah Lovejoy, Lucretia Mott, and John Brown.
- The Library of Congress online exhibition The African-American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship explores Black Americans’ quest for equality from the early national period through the twentieth century.
- The African-American Mosaic: A Library of Congress Guide for the Study of Black History & Culture includes special sections on the movement to colonize African Americans in Africa and the movement to abolish slavery in the United States.
- To find additional resources related to the history of Washington, D.C., consult Washington, D.C.: Resource Guide.