"To Enjoy the Blessings of Freedom": Slavery, Manumission, and Colonization in the District of Columbia (1790-1862)

Lynn Price

Advisor: Rosemarie Zagarri, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Randolph Scully, Jane Censer

July 23, 2018, 01:00 PM to 03:00 PM


This dissertation examines the tension between slavery for African Americans and freedom for white people in the nation’s new capital at Washington, D.C., focusing on the period from the capital’s creation in 1790 until 1862, when Abraham Lincoln emancipated D.C.’s slaves. Comprised of parts of two states, Washington, D.C., struggled from the beginning to reconcile the laws, customs, and practices of Maryland and Virginia in order to create a consistent environment for slavery in the city. These jurisdictions co-existed uneasily, creating complexity that sometimes worked in favor of African Americans and sometimes worked to their disadvantage. Yet as the national capital, slavery in the federal district was always under scrutiny, becoming the focus of southern anxiety as well as abolitionist fury over the fate of slavery in the United States. The presence of a substantial population of both free and enslaved African Americans further complicated the issue. Black people themselves sought to weigh in on the debate and determine their own fate.

The antebellum experience of African Americans in Washington, D.C., is a surprisingly understudied topic. Although much has been written about the period after the Civil War, the antebellum period is less well known. This dissertation explores the controversies over slavery and freedom in the federal district by focusing on the lives and experiences of African Americans as they built the new capital; navigated its social, legal, and economic complexities; and responded to the country’s changing political environment with respect to slavery. In particular, this study traces the emergence of the American Colonization Society in Washington, D.C. Abandoning the hope of a multi-racial society, the ACS sought to transport free blacks to a new homeland in Africa. By examining the emigration of Washington blacks to Liberia, it is possible to recover the black agency and the white racism that underpinned the colonization movement.

The continuing existence of slavery in the nation's capital became a powerful symbol of the deep contradictions in American values. The nation and the world looked to Washington as a reflection of the nation’s highest ideals—its commitment to freedom and equality for all people. Yet freedom was a fluid concept, exploited as a tool by white society, and embraced by African Americans as a means of leveraging their opportunities. Unfortunately, however, even after blacks attained freedom, many whites concluded that the two races could not enjoy the same freedoms on the same continent; they could not co-exist in a multi-racial society.  The contradiction of freedom for whites and unfreedom for blacks persisted.