The Balance of Freedom: Abolishing Property Rights in Slaves after Emancipation

Amanda Laury Kleintop
April 13, 2020

Most historians have overlooked the fact that Americans continued to debate how to resolve the legal and financial systems of enslavement after U.S. victory in the Civil War and the Thirteenth Amendment. Amanda Laury Kleintop, who is at Yale as a research scholar with the Gilder Lehrman Center for Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition (GLC), takes a fresh look at this compensation question in her manuscript project, The Balance of Freedom: Abolishing Property Rights in Slaves after Emancipation. In the following interview with the MacMillan Center, she talks about some of her findings.

How did you become interested in this topic?

I’ve been interested in the Civil War and emancipation ever since I was young, but I knew that I wanted to pursue this research when I was an undergraduate at the University of Richmond, which is in the former Confederate capital. The city’s history continues to affect its modern politics and economics. When I lived there, activists were (and have since succeeded in) preserving sites of the market in the city and interpreting them for the public. I also worked for the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission, which commemorated the 150th anniversary of the war and emancipation. Watching and participating in this public history made me want to contribute to our historical knowledge as well, and I was interested in learning more about the slave market and emancipation in Richmond during the Civil War. Somewhat ironically, I ended up leaving Richmond to attend graduate school at Northwestern University, outside of Chicago. 

In your manuscript project, you argue that while slavery in the South may have ended by force during the U.S. Civil war, slave owners did not accept the immediate, uncompensated abolition of slavery with Confederate defeat as most historians have concluded. What led you to that realization?

What I had learned in Richmond about slave markets and emancipation led me to my current research topic. We know that slaveowners in Virginia and throughout the South were still buying and selling enslaved people up to the end of the Civil War. So, I wanted to know: if slave buyers were purchasing enslaved people up to the very end, what did they expect to happen? We also know that other countries or regions that abolished slavery before the U.S. reimbursed slaveowners directly or indirectly, including states in the U.S. North. So, I wondered: did any of those slave buyers who bought an enslaved person in March 1865, right before Confederate surrender, want reimbursement? It would be conceivable that white southerners expected that, too, especially since they had invested so much in a property system based on human lives.

After doing some preliminary research in secondary sources, I learned that, since the early 1900s, many historians argued that white southerners accepted, or even welcomed, the end of slavery with the end of the war, and that they never asked for compensation for freed slaves. At the same time, I found plenty of evidence of white southerners asking for reimbursement for freed slaves from the federal government, often in the same sources that those historians 100 years ago had reviewed to come to their own conclusions. I embarked on this research project to understand how the process of emancipation played out after the war and why past historians said white southerners simply accepted the immediate, uncompensated emancipation as it happened. 

How are you doing the research for the book?

I completed a lot of the research while I wrote my dissertation at Northwestern, and the GLC has given me the time and support to edit the dissertation into a book manuscript. I’m also researching a new chapter that asks why most historians and Americans have never heard about white southerners’ efforts to recoup the value of freed people or get relief from debts for the value of slaves. My research plan has changed quite a bit thanks to COVID-19, but I’m able to utilize Yale’s extensive newspaper databases for that research, and I’m hoping to get back to the Bienecke when it’s safe for everyone! In this uncertain time, folks have been really kind and supportive.

I’m grateful to the GLC not only for access to archival materials, but also to be able to participate in the scholarly community there and at Yale. I have met other fellows at the GLC and participated in conferences and talks at Yale that are related to my work, like the Race and Slavery in the Atlantic World Working Group and the Law School’s Critical Race Theory conference in February on reparations and prison abolition.

How did slavery influence the South’s economy and how did abolition effect it?

Great question. There’s been a lot of public debate about this topic in recent months, and Americans are becoming more and more aware of how important slavery was to the southern and national economies thanks to efforts like The New York Times’ 1619 Project. Today, we often learn about slave markets as physical spaces or auction blocks, where slave buyers and sellers subjected enslaved people to inhumane treatment and emotional and physical violence. Another aspect of the market was more abstract—it was also a credit system. Many slaveowners bought and sold enslaved people in everyday business transactions with family members or neighbors. They regularly borrowed money from these social connections or businesses called factorage firms, which were financial agents or private bankers. By purchasing property in humans on credit or mortgaging enslaved people, slaveowners quickly financed their plantation enterprises. They could pay off the value of an enslaved person gradually, while reaping the profits from their coerced labor. By the Civil War, the South had invested about thirteen trillion dollars in today’s value in enslaved people using these financial practices. 

Immediate, uncompensated emancipation as it happened during and immediately after the war threatened to destroy this complex system of credit and debt, based on property in humans. Many white southerners insisted that they should not be penalized for participating in a legal property system. The southern economy spiraled when it lost the value of property in slaves, and emancipation also created a bunch of new legal and financial questions. Anyone who still owed money for the value of a person would no longer be able to use the profits from their labor to pay off their debts, and they couldn’t sell that person to another master in order to recoup their value because slavery was now illegal. So, southern politicians petitioned the federal government to reimburse former slaveowners, and people who still owed debts for the value of slaves went to court and asked for assistance from their state representatives to invalidate those debts. 

What were some of the arguments around who should bear the financial burden of emancipation? 

When white southerners protested immediate, uncompensated emancipation as it happened, they instigated debates about who should bear the financial burden emancipation. In these debates, Americans hashed out, after the fact, who was responsible for four years of bloodshed and generations of enslavement. By the end of the Civil War, the majority of northerners believed that slaveowners did not deserve any compensation. Slaveowners had started and then lost a war over slavery, an immoral institution, that had killed hundreds of thousands of people. But white northerners hadn’t always believed that. Some, along with politicians and slaveowners in the border states, or slave states that remained in the Union, thought slaveowners who lived in slave states that remained in the Union should be reimbursed for freed slaves (and that did happen in Washington, D.C., and possibly, some of my research-in-progress suggests, for a small number of slaveowners in Maryland and Delaware). Here is where the legal arguments come in: Americans in favor of reimbursing slaveowners in the U.S. thought that, in order for emancipation to be legal, the federal government had to respect the Fifth Amendment’s takings clause, which prevented the federal government from taking individuals’ property without “just compensation.” Politicians in former Confederate states made this same argument on behalf of slaveowners from seceded states immediately after the war in 1865 and some continued to do so for years after the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery passed. White southerners focused on their interpretation of the law and historical precedent to distract from the post-war context they were in. They had lost the Civil War, but insisted that the Constitution was still on their side. What’s also interesting to me about these arguments is that the most vocal politicians in favor of compensation often had not been slaveowners at the end of the war, and they didn’t stand to benefit directly from such a policy. Securing compensation for former slaveowners was about regaining political power for white southerners as much as it was about economics or the law.  

Another big issue was those outstanding contracts for slave sales: should debtors have to pay back creditors the value of a person whom the law no longer considered property? These conversations moved away from property law and into contract law, and they were complicated by the cash-poor southern economy. Former Confederate state legislatures were concerned about widespread indebtedness and sought ways to relieve debtors from all sorts of debt, and some states invalidated outstanding contracts for slave sales. In these states, some southerners and politicians, including newly-elected black politicians, thought that invalidating otherwise legal contracts would punish slave-sellers who made a living by selling humans and retroactively “erase” the history of slavery from the law. Others, black and white, were skeptical, and they pointed out that invalidating contracts would simply let a debtor off the hook, even though that person had also participated in the slave economy. The U.S. Supreme Court ended up ruling that outstanding contracts for slave sales were legal when they were made and were still lawful after emancipation, meaning that debtors had to pay back their creditors. Some contemporaries (and some scholars today) were disappointed by the decision because they believed the Court was, essentially, validating the purchase of a human. Yet, the Court pointed out that nullifying contracts would simply deny, but could not erase, the history and immorality of the slave economy. These debates reveal the limits of the legal arguments that all sides made: the courts could not “erase” property rights in slaves from U.S. law or contend with the immorality of slavery in U.S. history by addressing slave buyers’ or sellers’ losses from emancipation. 

In all of these debates, someone, though perhaps not as many people as we’d like to see today, asked why slaveowners, debtors, or creditors, all people who participated trafficked in property in humans, should get financial relief when freed people did not receive any indemnities for generations of enslavement.

What were some of the controversies you found around the Fourteenth Amendment before and after it was passed?

The Fourteenth Amendment has generated so much controversy in its 150-year history, mostly regarding the first two sections of the amendment and their implications for citizenship. My research yielded a controversy surrounding the fourth section of the amendment, which invalidated all claims for state and federal reimbursements for freed slaves, among other things. This section inspired much of my research. After all, if, as historians said, white southerners never asked for compensation, why would that clause be enshrined in the Constitution?

My research revealed that white southerners’ resistance to emancipation was so widespread that Congress decided to invalidate any appeals they might make for reimbursements for freed slaves. Most Republicans, who controlled Congress when the amendment was drafted in 1866, believed that their political opponents and former Confederates would try to pay former slaveowners or slave states for slaves, and that the clause was necessary to prevent that from happening in the future. Some accused them of “punishing” former Confederates, or “waving the bloody shirt,” which Democrats accused Republicans of doing when they made emotional appeals to vote Republican to avenge those who died during the Civil War. While the accusation was a political ploy, their fears were real. Many white southern politicians fully planned to do exactly that in 1865. Some Democratic newspapers suggested nullifying the Fourteenth Amendment and securing compensation into the 1870s, well after the amendment was ratified in 1868.

How have historians played a role in obscuring white southerners’ resistance to uncompensated emancipation?

Starting in the early 1900s, historical interpretations of the Civil War and Reconstruction acquitted white Americans of responsibility for enslaving and commodifying millions of Africans and their descendants. For the first half of the twentieth century, historians led by the Dunning School of the Civil War and Reconstruction ignored or trivialized white southerners’ efforts to recoup the value of their freed slaves after emancipation; they insisted, instead, that slavery was a weak and unprofitable economic system that would have died from market forces. You may have heard of this group of historians. They are known for their pro-Confederate sympathies and for legitimizing the “Lost Cause” myth that led white Americans to install over 1,700 Confederate monuments in the early 20th century that have caused so much controversy in recent years. For the purpose of my research, it’s important to know that the Dunning School denied that white southerners wanted or needed compensation for freed slaves. 

In the past 50 years, historians have confirmed that slavery was America’s first profitable “big business” and overturned many of the Dunning School’s arguments. Still, many contended that white southerners accepted, or even welcomed, uncompensated emancipation, and that no slaveowner would receive remunerations after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. These narratives stem from historians’ focus on the Lincoln administration’s centrality in emancipation, which other historians have been pushing back against for 30 years or so by emphasizing African Americans’ roles in securing their freedom.

What have we missed by ignoring white southerners’ resistance?

By remembering this hidden story, we find that it took multiple constitutional amendments, court cases, and political incentive to convince pro-slavery apologists that the federal government would not protect their supposed rights to profit in property in humans. These debates also show us how people used their understandings of the law to justify their positions on emancipation. Even after slave labor ended, white southerners insisted that they retained property rights in slaves. In so doing, they revealed the underlying white supremacist ideology that had enabled white Americans and southerners, specifically, to craft state laws and federal policies to own and profit from property in humans. It took exceptional circumstances in war and peace to abolish slavery and white southerners’ claims that they should be able to profit from the value of people. White southerners ceased their claims well after the war ended to reestablish political power by crafting a new historical narrative that absolved themselves and white Americans generally of four years of bloodshed and generations of enslavement.

Amanda Laury Kleintop is an assistant professor U.S. History at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA), in North Adams, MA. She received her PhD in History from Northwestern University in 2018, specializing in the U.S. Civil War and Reconstruction, slavery and emancipation in the Atlantic World, and historical methods like public history.  Kleintop is also an active public and digital historian, and has worked with organizations like the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab, the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission in Richmond, Virginia, and developed the North Adams Archives site in collaboration with Historic North Adams.

Interview originally feature here: