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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

The Complexities of Slavery in the Nation's Capital

This article is part of the Slavery in the President’s Neighborhood initiative. Explore the Timeline

For the first seventy-two years of its existence, the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., harbored one of America’s most difficult historical truths and greatest contradictions: slavery. The city’s placement along the Potomac River, in between the slave states of Maryland and Virginia, ensured that slavery was ingrained into every aspect of life, including the buildings, institutions, and social fabric of Washington, D.C. Enslaved workers contributed to public building projects, were bought and sold within the boundaries of the city, and served many of the men who founded the nation. Slavery was alive and well in the President’s Neighborhood.

In June 1790, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson sat down to dinner with Virginia Congressman James Madison and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. By the end of the evening, these men had agreed upon a new location for the United States capital. Prior to this dinner, a debate on its location divided members of the fledgling government. Hamilton and his supporters believed the capital should be in New York City, while others preferred Philadelphia or a location along the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. Southerners like Jefferson and Madison favored a location along the Potomac River, fearing that a northern capital would diminish southern power, undermine slavery, and encourage corruption among bankers, merchants, and creditors. That night, according to Jefferson’s recollections, the three agreed to place the capital along the Potomac in exchange for the federal assumption of states’ war debts from the American Revolution.1 On July 16, 1790, Congress passed the Residence Act, moving the capital from New York to Philadelphia for ten years’ time and then permanently to the “river Potomack.”2 Click here to learn more about the enslaved households of President Thomas Jefferson. Click here to learn about the enslaved households of President James Madison.

By placing the seat of government firmly in the South, this legislation allowed slavery to flourish in the new capital. After President George Washington signed the Residence Act into law, he took an active role overseeing the construction of the Federal City. Working with French-born engineer Pierre (Peter) Charles L’Enfant, he selected a building site near his Mount Vernon estate at the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers.3 To establish this new Federal City, Maryland ceded about seventy square miles, while Virginia contributed around twenty.4 President Washington also appointed three commissioners in January 1791 to manage city construction: Thomas Johnson, David Stuart, and Daniel Carroll.5 All three men owned enslaved people.

This 1792 facsimile engraving depicts Andrew Ellicott's rendition of L'Enfant's plan for the City of Washington in the Territory of Columbia.

Library of Congress

In order to minimize labor costs as much as possible, the commissioners chose to utilize enslaved labor for the Federal City’s construction, resolving in 1792, “to hire good labouring negroes by the year, the masters clothing them well and finding each a blanket, the commissioners finding them provisions and paying twenty-one pounds a year.”6 This course of action was not a new one, as many local slave owners had been hiring out their enslaved laborers to neighbors and businesses for some time. Owners collected a wage while continuing to provide clothing and some medical care. The commissioners typically provided workers with housing, two meals per day, and basic medical care. This arrangement allowed the nascent capital to reap the benefits of labor without bearing total responsibility for the workers’ general wellbeing. If an enslaved worker did not show up to work, the overseer simply docked the pay given to the owner.7 These enslaved laborers worked alongside white wage laborers and craftsmen on two of the largest construction projects, the U.S. Capitol Building and the White House.

As the major building projects progressed and the federal government prepared to vacate Philadelphia, the population of the District grew rapidly. Prior to the creation of the Federal City, the area was largely agricultural and rural. By the time President John Adams moved into the White House on November 1, 1800, the District of Columbia population had reached 8,144. Around 25% of those residents were enslaved.8 Carved out of two slave states, the city quickly became a hub for the domestic slave trade. As the tobacco industry in the Upper South fell into decline, so did the need for large numbers of agricultural laborers. Many slave owners decided to sell their enslaved workers to dealers based in Washington, D.C. These dealers imprisoned enslaved people in crowded pens for weeks or months before selling them to the Deep South, where the cotton industry had expanded exponentially. Some of these slave pens were within view of the U.S. Capitol Building, and the enslaved, shackled together in coffles, frequently trudged past the Capitol.9 Click here to learn more about the households of President John Adams.

Enslaved people also toiled in the White House. At least eight of the first twelve presidents brought enslaved people with them to the White House. Others may have hired out enslaved people to work in the President’s House. These enslaved workers performed many duties, serving as cooks, valets, footmen, coachmen, maids, stable hands, gardeners, and more. All of the enslaved people at the White House worked for little to no pay. Although some presidents, like Thomas Jefferson, provided their enslaved workers with a small “gratuity,” this did not change the fact that they were legal property, owned by some of the most powerful men in American history.10

In this drawing from around 1815, the enslaved pass the United States Capitol wearing shackles and chains.

Library of Congress

Slavery was also prevalent in the president’s immediate neighborhood. Across from the White House in Lafayette Park, an enslaved woman named Alethia “Lethe” Tanner sold vegetables with her owner’s permission. On July 16, 1810, Tanner received her manumission papers after purchasing her own freedom for $275 with money saved from her vegetable stand.11 She worked hard to free other members of her family as well, joining a growing and thriving free black community. As nearby states increased restrictions on their free black populations, the capital became an attractive destination. The free black community founded its own churches, businesses, and civic societies. Members of the community also bought property; Browning Tanner, for example, purchased a home located just two blocks away from the White House.12 By 1830, more than half of the city’s 9,109 black residents were free.13

The decline of slavery in Washington, D.C. can be attributed to several factors. First, as Washington developed into an urban center, there was less demand for enslaved labor due to the decline of agriculture in the region. As a result, many owners found it more profitable to sell their enslaved workers rather than continue to clothe, feed, and house them. Second, the increased efforts of abolitionists in Washington publicly challenged the immorality of the institution and condemned those who participated in and profited from it. Enslaved people remained highly visible in the capital, living and working in the city while serving members of Congress and other Washington elites. Abolitionists argued that the capital was built to represent freedom and democracy, foundational values to the American people. In order to generate antislavery sentiment, they produced newspapers, pamphlets, and books that highlighted the hypocrisy of slave coffles marching past the Capitol Building.14

While some Americans acknowledged that slavery in the nation’s capital was immoral, there was little agreement over how to address the issue of slavery. Some believed that it should be abolished altogether, while others favored gradual or compensated emancipation. Under gradual emancipation, slave owners would slowly emancipate their enslaved people, allowing time to make adjustments and prepare themselves to conduct their business without the aid of enslaved labor. Under compensated emancipation, slave owners would grant freedom to enslaved people in exchange for a payment totaling the value of their slaves.

In addition to freeing the enslaved, a debate arose over the nation’s growing free black population and whether or not African Americans were capable of assimilating into American society. Many citizens believed that African Americans were inferior to whites; however, they also feared that free African Americans could agitate race and labor relations, organize massive slave uprisings, and topple society in its entirety. As a result, the American Colonization Society was formed in 1817, advocating for the return of free African Americans to Africa. In 1822, the society established a colony on the West Coast of Africa which later became the independent nation of Liberia in 1847. Several presidents, including Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe, supported the society’s mission. Former President James Madison even served as the society’s president in the early 1830s.15 Click here to learn more about the enslaved households of President James Monroe.

This broadside pamphlet was issued during the 1835-1836 petition campaign to have Congress abolish slavery in the capital. The text argues for abolition and details atrocities of the slavery system. At the top are two contrasting scenes: a view of the reading of the Declaration of Independence, captioned “The Land of the Free,” with a scene of enslaved people being led past the Capitol by an overseer, titled “The Home of the Oppressed.” Between them is a plan of Washington with insets of a suppliant and a fleeing enslaved person with the legend “$200 Reward” and implements of slavery. On the next line are view of the jail in Alexandria, the jail in Washington, and an interior of the Washington jail with imprisoned enslaved mother Fanny Jackson and her children. On the bottom level, enslaved people in chains emerge from the slave house of J.W. Neal & Co. (left), a view of the Alexandria waterfront with a ship loading enslaved people (center), and a view of the slave establishment of Franklin & Armfield in Alexandria.

Library of Congress

The struggle between slavery and democracy also found its way to the Congress floor soon after the federal government moved to Washington. In January 1805, New Jersey Representative William Sloan introduced a bill to emancipate the District’s enslaved people. Although the bill was soundly defeated, seventy-seven to thirty-one, it helped launch a movement to ban slavery in Washington, D.C.16 Twenty-three years later, in 1828, a petition appeared in an article of the Freedom’s Journal, the first African American-owned newspaper in the United States, directly challenging Congress to address this issue:

While the laws of the United States denounce the Foreign Slave Trade as piracy, and punish with death, those who are found engaged in its perpetration; there exists, in the district, the seal of the National Government, a domestic slave trade scarcely less disgraceful in its character and even more demoralizing in its influence…We behold these scenes continually taking place among us and lament our inability to prevent them. The people of this district have within themselves no means of legislative redress; and we, therefore appeal to your honourable body, as the only one invested by the American Constitution, with the power to relieve us.17

This petition highlighted one of the biggest obstacles to eliminating slavery in the capital—the lack of “legislative redress.” The country was founded on democratic principles, but residents of Washington, D.C., lacked representation in the federal government and could only exercise limited political rights. During the 1820s, voting rights for white men had expanded across the country. However, these rights were not granted to Washington, D.C. citizens and they could not hold their government accountable. Instead, Congress could exert political influence over the city without having to take stock of the city’s residents. Therefore, the 1828 petition, signed by over 1,000 District residents calling on Congress to end slavery in the city through gradual emancipation, fell on deaf ears. Congress was not interested and due to lack of representation, had no reason to be.18

In 1848, residents of Washington, D.C. witnessed the largest attempted slave escape in American history. In the early morning on April 15, seventy-seven enslaved people climbed aboard the Pearl, a schooner owned by Daniel Drayton, a Philadelphia ship captain. One of the likely conspirators in the escape was none other than Paul Jennings, President James Madison’s former enslaved footman. Due to unfavorable wind conditions, the Pearl failed to gain an adequate head start, sailing down the Potomac River for 100 miles before reaching Maryland’s Point Lookout at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Here, the vessel was intercepted by a posse of thirty men after a local African-American man named Judson Diggs tipped them off. After the vessel was towed back to Washington, the escapees were paraded through the city in chains as onlookers jeered. Most were immediately sold to traders and sent further south.19

This drawing depicts a satire on enforcement of the "gag-rule" in the House of Representatives, prohibiting discussion of the question of slavery. The print may relate to John Quincy Adams's opposition to passage of the resolution in 1838, or (more likely) to his continued frustration in attempting to force the slavery issue through presentation of northern constituents' petitions in 1839. Here Adams cowers on a pile composed of petitions, a copy of the abolitionist newspaper the "Emancipator," and a resolution to recognize Haiti. He says "I cannot stand Thomson's [sic] frown." South Carolina representative Waddy Thompson, Jr., a Whig defender of slavery, glowers at him from behind a sack and two casks, saying "Sir the South loses caste whenever she suffers this subject to be discussed here; it must be indignantly frowned down." Two African Americans crouch behind Thompson, one saying "de dem Bobolishn is down flat!" .

Library of Congress

The incident exacerbated the already contentious relationship between the North and the South. Many slave owners feared further mass escapes so they sold their enslaved people, leading to increased sales. Meanwhile, abolitionists used the incident as a rallying cry for their cause. In Congress, tensions over slavery became increasingly volatile. On May 26, 1836, the House of Representatives passed the Pinckney Resolutions, a series of legislative measures infamously known as the “gag rule,” barring discussions of slavery in that chamber. The gag rule went into effect despite emphatic resistance from former president and Massachusetts Representative John Quincy Adams. As the roll call vote was taken to pass the legislation, Adams shouted, “I hold the resolution to be a direct violation of the Constitution of the United States.” Adams continued to resist until the gag rule was repealed on December 3,1844.20 Representative Joshua Giddings of Ohio failed to introduce a referendum on slavery in the District in 1848. Illinois representative Abraham Lincoln crafted a bill for gradual emancipation in the District the following year, allowing congressmen to keep their enslaved workers while serving in office. Receiving no support from District mayor William Seaton, Lincoln dropped the issue and never introduced the bill.21 Click here to learn more about the enslaved households of President John Quincy Adams. Click here to learn more about the household of President Abraham Lincoln.

The Compromise of 1850 temporarily resolved the issue of slavery in the District. In an effort to avoid sectional warfare, the compromise admitted California into the Union as a free state and banned the slave trade in Washington, D.C. In exchange, a strengthened Fugitive Slave Law went into effect. According to the law, any individual found harboring an enslaved person faced criminal prosecution, and slave owners were given the authority to forcibly apprehend and return runaways.22 Abolishing the slave trade allowed Congress to use Washington, D.C. as a testing ground for national policy. Legislators were able to assess the impact and response within the nation’s capital firsthand.23

This drawing by A. Lumley, published on December 28, 1861 in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, depicts the Washington, D.C. jail which imprisoned enslaved individuals given fugitive status.

Library of Congress

Unfortunately, the slave trade persisted. Traders simply crossed the Potomac River and continued to sell enslaved people in Alexandria, Virginia. Alexandria was originally part of the District of Columbia but had been ceded back to Virginia in 1846.24 Furthermore, the law only prohibited the importation of enslaved individuals into the city. As a result, the residents of the city could continue to purchase and sell individuals enslaved locally. While the practice of selling enslaved individuals continued in Virginia, Maryland, and locally, the number of enslaved people in the District declined dramatically.25 According to the 1850 census, of the city’s 13,746 black residents, just 3,185 were identified as enslaved.26

The onset of the Civil War offered President Lincoln a new opportunity to abolish slavery. Initially, he focused on preserving the Union. As the war progressed, the president and his political allies sought to weaken slavery as a necessary wartime measure, recognizing that the Confederacy depended on enslaved labor to survive. On August 6, 1861, Congress passed the Emancipation Act, authorizing the Union army to seize any enslaved persons employed by the Confederate army. However, this law did not apply to those held in slave states loyal to the Union, like Maryland, or the District of Columbia. However, because of Washington’s established free black community and its role as the nation’s capital, many enslaved people entered Washington in droves anyway, seeking sanctuary and legal protection. Some found refuge in the homes of free black residents, while others were captured and crowded into the Blue Jug, the city’s jail. The conditions in the Blue Jug were publicized by abolitionists, further fueling efforts to eliminate slavery in the capital.27

This drawing by F. Dielman depicts a large crowd of African Americans celebrating the abolition of slavery in Washington, D.C. on May 12, 1866.

Library of Congress

Slavery ended for good in the District on April 16, 1862, when President Lincoln signed “An Act for the Release of Certain Persons Held to Service or Labor in the District of Columbia.” Without so much as using the words “slave,” “slavery,” or “emancipation,” the bill emancipated the District’s enslaved people and allowed slave owners to receive compensation for their formerly enslaved.28 A huge victory for the enslaved persons of the nation’s capital, the act served as another test policy for the federal government to gauge reaction on a national scale. It would be another nine months until President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, declaring “that all persons held as slaves…are, and henceforward shall be free.”29 Residents of the District still celebrate Emancipation Day on April 16, marking the day when the formerly enslaved residents of the nation’s capital experienced freedom for the first time in a nation which had long claimed to support the charge that “all men are created equal.”