Letters Suggest Lincoln Wanted to Buy Slaves for $400 Apiece in ‘Gradual Emancipation’

Ben Dobbin, AP, March 5, 2008

ROCHESTER, N.Y.— Barely a year into the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln suggested buying slaves for $400 apiece under a “gradual emancipation” plan that would bring peace at less cost than several months of hostilities.

The proposal was outlined in one of 72 letters penned by Lincoln that ended up in the University of Rochester’s archives. The correspondence was digitally scanned and posted online along with easier-to-read transcriptions.

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War Cost $2 Million a Day

In a letter to Illinois Sen. James A. McDougall dated March 14, 1862, Lincoln laid out the estimated cost to the nation’s coffers of his “emancipation with compensation” proposal.

Paying slaveholders $400 for each of the 1,798 slaves in Delaware listed in the 1860 census, he wrote, would come to $719,200 at a time when the war was soaking up $2 million a day.

Proposal Didn’t fly

Buying the freedom of an estimated 432,622 slaves in Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri and Washington, D.C., would cost $173,048,800—nearly equal to the estimated $174 million needed to wage war for 87 days, he said.

Lincoln suggested that each of the states, in return for payment, might set something like a 20-year deadline for abolishing slavery.

The payout “would not be half as onerous as would be an equal sum, raised now, for the indefinite prosecution of the war,” he told McDougall.

The idea never took root. Six months later, Lincoln issued the first of two executive orders known as the Emancipation Proclamation that declared an end to slavery. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified after the collapse of the Confederacy, ending two centuries of bondage in North America.

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Seward Had Letters

The Lincoln letters addressing the war, slavery and other affairs of state are part of a collection of papers once belonging to his secretary of state, William H. Seward Sr.

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The digitally scanned letters appear on the school library’s Web site—Library.rochester.edu—along with transcriptions, contextual essays written by graduate students and lesson plans designed to help teachers.

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