Compensated Emancipation at the Hampton Roads Conference of 1865

Though long a domain of Civil War specialists, the Hampton Roads Peace Conference of February 3, 1865 largely avoided popular attention until it was recently thrust into the cinematic spotlight as a climactic turning point in Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln. This event, held aboard a steamship off of Fort Monroe, Virginia brought together Abraham Lincoln and his Secretary of State William H. Seward with three commissioners representing the Confederacy: Vice President Alexander Stephens, Virginia Senator Robert M.T. Hunter, and John A. Campbell, a former justice of the U.S. Supreme Court who was then serving in the Confederate War Department.

Despite the high rank of its participants on both sides, the course of the conversation at Hampton Roads has been somewhat difficult to pin down owing to limited exploration of the source material (and Spielberg’s depiction is, for the record, almost entirely fictional, not to mention factually wrong. See William Harris’ more accurate account here). By far the best known account is that written by Stephens and published some 5 years after the event as an appendage to his book A Constitutional View of the Late War between the States. And Stephens’ version, as Mark Neely has noted, enjoys a problematic reputation owing to an inflated claim that Lincoln offered to allow the South to prospectively ratify the 13th amendment, extending the life of slavery by another 5 years after the war should the Confederates accept.

Less controversial though also frequently overlooked is the claim in Stephens’ account that Lincoln offered to compensate the South for its slaves to the tune of some $400,000,000 in exchange for surrender and reunification. The offer was declined on account that the Confederates (with perhaps the exception of Campbell) were as of yet unwilling to abandon independence, effectively rendering the slavery question moot for the negotiations. In fact, Jefferson Davis had practically indicated as much the previous August when he told two informal Union emissaries “you may ’emancipate’ every negro in the Confederacy, but we will be free! We will govern ourselves.”

There can be little doubt however that Lincoln placed compensated emancipation on the table at Hampton Roads, even at its late date in the war and with the adoption of the 13th Amendment secure. Stephens’ generally well-known account finds extensive corroboration on this point, although very little of it has received a close examination. The compensation offer was actually first made public on the heel of the war’s conclusion. On June 7, 1865 the Augusta Chronicle published an account of the conference as relayed to the paper by Stephens. The passage is vague as to the matter of prospective ratification of the 13th amendment except for suggesting an extended implementation period. It reads, in part:

“[Lincoln] stated it would be desirable to have the institution of slavery abolished by the consent of the people as soon as possible – he hoped within six years. He also stated that four hundred million dollars might be offered as compensation to the owners, and remarked, ‘you would be surprised were I to give you the names of those who favor that.’”

Stephens was not the only participant to leave an account though. Both Campbell and Hunter committed their recollections to paper, each adding detail of Lincoln’s compensation offer. Campbell seems to have first mentioned it publicly in a brief interview that appeared in the New York Herald on December 9, 1872, the full extent of which follows:

“Mr. Campbell gave some interesting reminiscences of his visit to Hampton Roads to hold an armistice with Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Seward near the close of the war. Mr. Campbell said that in a conversation at this time he asked Mr. Lincoln whether, if the South laid down its arms and accepted the Union again, the people there would have any chance to receive compensation for their slaves. To this Mr. Lincoln replied that he could not promise what the attitude of the government might be on the subject, but for himself he would heartily favor a compensation on the ground that the North was as responsible for slavery as the South, and had abetted in it, traded in it, and defended it until slavery became a vast public question and invited war.”

Campbell also published an account of the Peace Conference in 1887, apparently utilizing a memorandum he drafted shortly after the event in 1865. It probably ranks a distant second behind Stephens’ Constitutional View in historical familiarity, though this admittedly says little for a neglected subject.  Campbell’s 1887 “memorandum” contains this significantly shorter treatment of compensated emancipation: “Mr. Lincoln stated that he regarded the North to be as much responsible for slavery as the South, and that he would be rejoiced to be taxed on his little property for indemnities to the masters of slaves.”

Hunter also left behind a couple of accounts of Lincoln’s offer. The first in a speech delivered at Winchester, Virginia in which Hunter suggested reviving the compensation proposal. Its text appeared in the Alexandria Gazette on October 14, 1873:

“In the interview at Old Point Comfort between Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Seward and the Commissioners of the Confederate States (of whom I was one) this subject of compensation for emancipated slaves was introduced by Mr. Lincoln himself. He said that a prominent citizen of the North, whose name if given would probably surprise us, had written to him to say that if the slaves were emancipated $400,000,000 ought to be distributed among their former owners. The money, as well as I remember, was proposed to be given to the State in proportion to the number of negroes freed within their borders, and by them to be distributed among the individual owners.”

A similar account by Hunter appeared in Vol. 3 of the Southern Historical Society Papers, published in 1877:

“Mr. Lincoln, it is true, said that a politician on his side had declared that $400,000,000 ought to be given by way of compensation to the slaveholders, and in this opinion he expressed his concurrence. Upon this Mr. Seward exhibited some impatience and got up to walk across the floor, exclaiming, as he moved, that in his opinion the United States had done enough in expending so much money on the war for the abolition of slavery, and had suffered enough in enduring the losses necessary to carry on the war. “Ah, Mr. Seward,” said Mr. Lincoln, “you may talk so about slavery, if you will; but if it was wrong in the South to hold slaves, it was wrong in the North to carry on the slave trade and sell them to the South (as it is notorious that they did, he might have added), and to have held on to the money thus procured without compensation, if the slaves were to be taken by them again.” Mr. Lincoln said, however, that he was not authorized to make such a proposition, nor did he make it. It was evident that both the President and Secretary were afraid of the extreme men of their party.”

It is of note that Hunter, on at least this final point, underestimated Lincoln’s seriousness about the offer. Upon his return from the failed negotiations Lincoln prepared a draft bill to submit to Congress providing for “four hundred millions of dollars” in compensation “to be distributed among said States pro rata on their respective slave populations, as shown by the Census of 1860.” Lincoln justified his position to the cabinet on February 5th by comparing the proposed amount to the daily cost of the army, suggesting it would be exceeded in military expenses alone if the war persisted another hundred days. Both Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, and John P. Usher, Secretary of the Interior, recorded unanimous opposition from the cabinet, particularly upon the failure of the peace conference. Finding the Confederates as of yet unwilling to yield on independence and his cabinet voting down the measure, Lincoln reluctantly decided against submitting compensated emancipation to Congress.