The District of Columbia Emancipation Act

Contributor: Ryann Maginn. Lesson ID: 12402

You're probably aware that slavery was a terrible part of US history. You may know that President Lincoln freed the slaves. But it was a long, painful, but necessary process that impacts many today!


United States

learning style
personality style
Grade Level
Intermediate (3-5)
Lesson Type
Skill Sharpener

Lesson Plan - Get It!


On April 16, 1862, what historical and monumental act did President Lincoln sign?

In 1862, President Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Emancipation Act.

This act was very important for that time because it abolished slavery in the District of Columbia and led the way for full abolishment of slavery in the United States.

Abolish means to formally put an end to something.

For hundreds of years, slavery was a common practice among many Americans. Before 1850, Washington, D.C., was a popular slave trade location. It was common to see slave pens, slave jails, and auction blocks in the city. In the southern states, slaves were sold at higher prices to cotton, rice, and indigo plantation owners.

This image shows the inside of a slave pen from Alexandria, Virginia, ca. 1921:

1921 Virginia slave pen

Image, via Wikimedia Commons, is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the National Archives Identifier (NAID) 530504 and is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code.

Below is a picture of a cotton field where many slaves worked:

cotton field

The Emancipation Act was the first of its kind that freed slaves. Countless people were opposed to the idea. Before Lincoln took office, abolitionists — people who wanted to end slavery — tried persuading Congress to end slavery but with no success. President Lincoln believed slavery to be morally wrong and, being president, was able to take action and implement the act.

Freedom to the Slaves

Image, via Wikimedia Commons, is a photograph, released to the public domain under Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication, of a Currier & Ives exhibit in the Museum of Fine Arts in Springfield, MA, also in the public domain.

The act required all slave owners in Washington, D.C., to provide documentation of all their slaves and provide an estimated value for each. In addition, based on the slave’s said value, owners were compensated for each of the slaves they freed. Despite this particular practice of freeing the slaves being morally incorrect, Lincoln knew it was the first step in total abolishment of slavery.

Move on to the Get It? section, where you will dive deeper into the subject by watching a short video from the United States Archives.

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