Ending Slavery in Washington DC and War in Ukraine

Last 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.

It 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.

I 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:

“What is Emancipation Day?
“The 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 Emancipation Day.”

The U.S. Capitol has an online lesson plan 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.

An exception is the June 20, 2013, issue of the Atlantic Magazine 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.

According to the Atlantic 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.

The 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 article 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.

With 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?

The 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.

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