Final Report of the Board of Commissioners
January 14, 1863
Office of the Commissioners under the Act of April 16, 1862, entitled “An Act for the release of certain persons held to service or labor in the District of Columbia”
City Hall, Washington City, D. C. January 14th, 1862
The Commissioners appointed in pursuance of “An Act for the release of certain persons held to service or labor in the District of Columbia,” approved April 16th, 1862, hereby in conformity with its provisions, present their
The Commission, as originally constituted, met at the City Hall on the 28th day of April, by direction of the President, and proceeded to organize by the selection of William R. Woodward, Esq., for the office of the clerk. The Marshal of the District of Columbia was sent for, and promptly appointed a deputy to attend upon the Commission, and to execute its processes. A messenger was appointed from the necessity of the case, though not specially provided for by the Act, at a salary of sixty dollars per month. Public notice was given through the newspapers of the City of Washington that the Commission would meet daily, except Saturdays, in the City Hall for the reception and examination of Petitions for compensation, in which specific directions for drawing the same were given, as well as of the schedule required by the Act, to be filed with the Clerk of the Circuit Court. To facilitate the investigations under the Act, and as a matter of public convenience, a blank form for the Petitions was prepared by the Commissioners which was printed and sold by a publisher.
IN these preliminary arrangements for entering upon their labors, the Commissioners had the benefit of the legal learning and experience of the Hon. Samuel F. Vinton; but hardly were they completed when the relentless hand of death by a sudden stroke severed a connection which promised to be as useful to the public as it was agreeable to his colleagues. He died on Sunday, the eleventh day of May, after a brief illness. The vacancy this created in the Board was filled by the appointment of John M. Brodhead, who entered upon the discharge of his duties on the fourteenth day of June.
By the terms of the Act the claimants for compensation were required to file their Petitions within three months from the date of its approval. This period expired on the fifteenth day of July. The whole number of Petitions presented during this time was nine hundred and sixty six; and the number of “persons held to service or labor” embraced in the Petitions, for whom compensation was claimed, is three thousand one hundred. In order to secure the Government against imposition, a complete list of the names of the Petitioners together with those of the servants claimed by them, was made out by order of the Commissioners and published in all the newspapers of the City, as a means of eliciting evidence to rebut claims founded in fraud, or emanating from persons whom the law designed to exclude on the ground of disloyalty. After a careful investigation they have reported favorably upon nine hundred and nine (909) entire petitions; they have rejected entirely thirty six Petitions and in part twenty one Petitions, for the reasons which will be found stated in their order. The whole number of servants for which compensation has been awarded is two thousand nine hundred and eighty nine; and the whole number of servants for whom compensation has been withheld is one hundred and eleven — making a total of three thousand one hundred included in the nine hundred and sixty six Petitions.
At the threshold of their labors the Commissioners were impressed with the importance of having full information as to the value of slaves independently of that to be derived from the claimants and their witnesses. The law fixes the maximum average of value, within which limitation the Commissioners are required to “approve and apportion” the value in money of the several claims. There are a few persons, especially in a community like Washington, where slavery has been for many years an interest of comparatively trifling importance, who posses the knowledge and discrimination as to the value of slaves, which is necessary to a fast apportionment of compensation under the law. None of the Commissioners could lay claim to this species of information; and to supply it, they determined to summon to their aid an experienced dealer in slaves from Baltimore, Mr. B. M. Campbell, who was at the same time ignorant, in almost every instance, of the individuals upon whose claims he was called to pass judgement. His testimony accorded with that of others whose information in the premises was entitled to weight, that in the disturbed state of the Country, since the commencement of the war it would be difficult to assign value to slaves. The sales have been few, and generally under circumstances of pecuniary pressure which left no discretion with the seller. Slaves in fact, cannot be said to have had a current saleable value since the commencement of the war while their intrinsic value on the sixteenth day of April, as determined by the undiminished value of the products of the sale, and the undiminished wages of labor, was not less than formerly. Indeed, in both these respects it was greater; since there has been a constant rise of prices, both of labor and of products. The minutes of evidence taken by the Commissioners furnish sufficient data to establish an actual value of slaves in many cases far greater than the allowance of compensation made by the law. Many families derived their chief, if not their sole support from the hire of their servants, while the others were saved a large annual expense by employing their servants at home. Yet, to make an actual appraisement of three thousand slaves, upon data such as these facts furnish, and in the absence of a current saleable value, would have been an almost interminable labor; and the Commissioners felt that they could not fulfil the duty assigned to them within the time limited by law, by adopting that mode of valuation. Every appraisement, whether of real or personal property, has reference, as well to current sales as to intrinsic value, the current sales furnishing a convenient standard by which to apportion the value of each object. But in the cases before them the Commissioners had no such standard; and therefore, as a means of arriving at a fair classification of the slaves, according to their intrinsic utility to their owners, and with a view to the completion of their labors within the time limited by law, they adopted the plan of fast classifying the slaves according to their value before the commencement of the war, when sales were frequent, and then of reducing these classifications to the average compensation allowed by law.
To prevent all misunderstanding it is stated distinctly, that the values assigned by the expert, Mr. Campbell, were by him referred back to the years 1859, 1860. It was not pretended by him, that slaves on the sixteenth day of April last were worth the prices named by him. On the contrary, when interrogated upon oath, he declared that there had been no sales, and that no saleable value existed since the early part of 1861. His books, exhibited to the Commissioners, show that from February 2d to May 18, 1861 his purchases amounted to thirty seven slaves, at an average cost of six hundred and thirty six dollars and seventy five cents. Of these four are described as children, but perhaps the greater portion of them were in the prime of life. Since May 1861 he had ceased to purchase as all communication with the South was then cut off.
Other witnesses who from time to time were called upon for their opinions, concurred entirely with Mr. Campell, as to the former and present value of slaves.
The classification thus made was necessary to a fair apportionment of compensation among the claimants, and the Commissioners are happy to state that nearly universal satisfaction has been given in this particular. But it must be apparent that the actual amount awarded is not dependent upon this classification. The law has given the Commissioners the discretion of fixing the average compensation at any sum not exceeding three hundred dollars. It became their duty to determine what average should be allowed; and upon the grounds stated above, that is to say, the enhanced, rather than diminished prices of labor and products, they decided upon the maximum named in the law. The classification would have answered equally well for any lower rate of compensation.
The table marked “A,” herewith presented, embraces a complete list of the Petitions filed within the time limited by law, with the names of the claimants and their slaves, together with the compensation allowed for each slave and the aggregate to each claimant. In the table will be found also the claims which have been in whole or in part rejected for the reasons set opposite to them respectively, together with the names of the contestants where conflicting claims have been presented. There are four or five cases in which the Petitioners have assigned their claims, in part, the amount so assigned being awarded accordingly.
In a few instances the slaves were held for a term of years, or for the life of the owner. In such cases the allowances for compensation have been made in proportion to the length of the time and value of the servant. In like manner where agreements had been entered into with servants to emancipate them on the payment of a stipulated sum, the amount actually paid has been deducted from the compensation awarded. In several instances claimants held slaves as security for the payment of a specific sum of money. In such cases if the holder of the reversionary title also claims, the compensation has been apportioned between them. If the latter omitted to claim, the specific claimant above has been compensated to the extent of his debt. Where slaves have been left by Will or otherwise to a person for life, with remainder to children, the award has been made to the owner of the life estate, leaving it to the Orphan’s Court to secure the interests of the children.
No. 686 is the case of Mrs. Mary Throckmorton, who claims compensation for six slaves under the following circumstances as stated in her petition:
“That your Petitioner, the said Mary, acquired claim to the aforesaid service or labor of said slaves in manner following, viz., the said slaves were the property of her husband, John A. Throckmorton, late a citizen of the said District; that said John in May 1861 went to the state of Virginia, and engaged in the Military Service of the so called Confederate States, where he still remains, leaving said slaves under the care, and for the support of said Mary, and of Charles Throckmorton, the only child of said Mary and said John.” And further, “that on the 1st of April 1860, the said John conveyed to Edward C. Carrington five of said slaves just named above, in trust to secure one Charles Miller the payment of a certain promissory note of that date for the sum of four hundred and forty dollars ($440) which said note has since by payments at different times made by said Mary to said Miller, been fully satisfied, and the same with said trust deed been assigned by said Miller to Josiah Dent in trust for the sale and separate use of the said Mary.”
Filed with the Petition are an assignment of the Deed of Trust by Miller to Mr. Dent for the benefit of Mrs. Throckmorton, together with the note for four hundred and forty dollars, with an acknowledgement of payment in full upon the back of it, and a deed of release from Mr. Carrington to Mrs. Throckmorton. There can therefore be no doubt about the facts involved. After hearing Counsel for the claimant, the Commissioners unanimously agree in the decision, that as regards the claim set up by Mrs. Throckmorton, as the wife and in sight of a man whom she acknowledges to be in the Rebel Military service, it has no foundation under the law; as the legal assignee of a loyal citizen, Mr. Charles Miller, the Commissioners decided that she is entitled to be paid out of the value set upon the slaves, the sum of four hundred and forty dollars, the amount of the note, together with interest from its date to the present time.
It is due to Mrs. Throckmorton to state that highly respectable witnesses testify to her loyalty, as well as to that of her only son, who is an officer in the Military Service of the Government. There are circumstances which may commend her claim to the liberality of Congress, but they confer no discretion upon the Commissioners to set aside the letter of the law in her behalf.
No. 179 is the Petition of Mrs. Sarah A. Abbott for compensation for one slave. She sets forth her title as follows:
“The said Leah Dorman was born in the service of my father, Dr. John Austin, who presented me with the said Leah Dorman who was in my service for seventeen years.” The Commissioners in this case have evidence, and the fact is not denied by the Petitioner, that her husband Charles Abbott, abandoned his home in this District soon after the commencement of the Rebellion, and went to Richmond, or elsewhere within the Country occupied by the Rebels, in order to join his fortunes with theirs, and that he is now believed to be in the civil service of the ——– Rebel Government. It is not alleged by the Petitioner that the servant was secured to her separate use and benefit by an ante nuptial contract or otherwise; and it follows of course, that as a part of her personal property, the slave became her husbands at the moment of marriage. It is maintained by Mrs. Abbott’s counsel that the servant was only loaned to the daughter by her father, and that no bill of sale or other conveyance was made; so that the title is still really in the father to whom the award might be equitably made. This assumption is rebutted by the Petition itself, which asserts a gift from the father; and apart from that assertion, seventeen years of undisputed possession would of itself give the title to the husband. The father has made no claim, and the Commissioners have decided that no compensation be allowed.
No. 912 is the Petition of Mrs. Susan W. Harris claiming compensation for four slaves. She states her title in the following words:
“The mother of these persons was purchased about the month of October in the year 1840 by Mr. Arnold Harris, the husband of your Petitioner. These persons were all born since their mother came into the possession of your Petitioner.”
The witnesses called by the Petitioner stated in reply to a question by the Commissioners that Arnold Harris, the real owner of the slaves, “sympathises with the South, and now is in the South.” It is also a matter of public notoriety that Mr. Harris went South sometime after the commencement of the Rebellion and took part in the same. The Commissioners therefore decide that there is no ground for this claim under the law.
No. 589 is the claim of Jacob Smoot for compensation for eight slaves. Mr. Smoot resided in Fairfax County, Virginia prior to the Rebellion, and in the fall of 1861 was induced to remove to the District of Columbia in consequence of the occupancy of his farm by the United States Troops, bringing his slaves with him. There is no question as to title but evidence was elicited on the investigation of the case, that Mr. Smoot voted for the Ordinance of Secession in May 1861 and being interrogated on oath, as the slaw specially authorizes, he admitted the fact! He makes the following statement in relation to his vote:
“I felt that I owed allegiance where I and my property were. There was a small majority I think for Secession as Lewinsville. I think so. All voted as they pleased there, and I was under no apprehension. There was no restraint, and no armed men there. I voted for Secession because I thought it would lead to a settlement. I had no idea of breaking up the Union and Government.” Mr. Richard P. Jackson of Georgetown, a witness called by Mr. Smoot, testified: “I do not know that he voted for Secession. I advised him some time last Winter to take the Oath of Allegiance, that he was in the power of the Government, and if ever the Southern Confederacy gained supremacy his title to his property would not be effected. He then consented to take the Oath of Allegiance. He said he was between two fires. I told him it would do him no harm to take the oath. He thought it was best as the Army was on both sides of him, if he could preserve his property by remaining neutral. I could not discover any feeling either way.” It seemed, however, that Mr. Smoot subsequently took the Oath of Allegiance before the Military Authorities of the Government prior to his removal to the District of Columbia.
The vote given by Mr. Smoot deliberately, and free from constraint, for secession, or the dissolution of the Government, the Commissioners cannot fail to regard as an overt act of “aid and comfort” to the Rebellion. It is therefore decided that he is not entitled to compensation under the law.
No. 386 is the case of Mr. Smith Minor, who claims compensation for seven slaves. His title to the slaves was satisfactorily established. At the commencement of the Rebellion he resided in Alexandria County, Virginia, and was induced to come to the District of Columbia with his slaves in September 1861, in consequence of the active hostilities which raged in his immediate neighborhood, and the waste of his farm, and entry to his house by the Rebel armies. Several highly respectable witnesses testify that Mr. Minor, prior to the day on which the vote was taken upon the Secession Ordinance, had been thoroughly in sympathy with the Union party; that he was prevailed on by some of his disloyal neighbors and relatives to cast his suffrage for that treasonable measure; and that immediately afterwards he expressed his profound regret for the act, and has ever since continued in faithful allegiance to, and sympathy with the cause of the Union. This is the testimony of his loyal neighbors who voted against the secession ordinance at the same time and place. In his affidavit which will accompany this report, Mr. Minor explains his conduct as follows:
“That at the election in Virginia in the month of May 1861, he gave his vote for the “Ordinance of Secession, so called under the following circumstances. That he was in favor of the Union of the States as they were, and at all times contended that no change ought to be made, and was and still is in favor thereof. But that without fully comprehending the actual condition of the case, and the effect and bearing of the vote, he was induced suddenly, on the day of the election, and while at the polls in said Alexandria County by representatives from persons and friends in whom he had been in the habit of putting trust to believe that said Ordinance had been passed by the Convention at Richmond, and that it was the duty of the people to affirm its acts; and the impression having obtained that the State was out of the Union by the act of the Convention, it was made to appear to him that said vote was to determine the friends and enemies of the state, and not the friends and enemies of Secession; that all who voted against the Ordinance were to be run out of the State, and made to forfeit their property, and be outcast from home, together with such other threats as induced fears of personal safety.” Mr. Minor makes other averments in apology for his conduct, going to show that “he reluctantly yielded his convictions for the time being.” The Counsel for the claimant, who was heard at length by the Commissioners, contended that the facts above stated taken in connection with the advanced age of the Petitioner, should excuse him from the operation of the letter of the law.
It seems to be a well stated principle of law that “threats and menaces which induce a fear of death or bodily harm” take away for that reason the guilt of many crimes and misdemeanors, at least before the human tribunal.” Blackstones Com. vol. 4 page 30. “But then that fear which compels a man to do an unwarrantable action ought to be just and well grounded. Therefore in time of war or rebellion, a man may be justified in doing many treasonable acts by compulsion of the enemy or rebels which would admit of no excuse in time of peace.” Ib. In a note to this passage Mr. Christian adds: “the fear of having houses burnt or goods spoiled is no excuse in the eye of the law for joining or marching with the rebels. The only force that doth excuse is a force upon the person, and a present fear of death; and this force and fear must continue all the time the party remains with the rebels. It is incumbent upon men, who make force their defence, to show an actual force, and that they joined for fear of death and withdrew as soon as they were able.”
In the case of Mr. Minor it is not shown that he was in danger of personal harm. On the contrary, he admits that he was influenced by “friends in whom he had been in the habit of putting trust.” His fears were remote, and contingent, and related rather to the preservation of his property, than to the safety of his person. The fact is proven by the witnesses summoned on the part of Mr. Minor, that at the election precinct where he gave his suffrage, about two thirds of the votes were cast against secession. Mr. George O. Wunder makes affidavit that there were armed men at the polls where Minor voted, and that he (Wunder) voted against the Ordinance “under apprehensions for his personal safety arising from threats made against himself and others that they should be hung by the next day at 10 O’clock.” He also states “there was posted at the polls a squad of rebel cavalry who by threats endeavored to intimidate and influence the voters.” The affidavit of Edward Ball states “that at the election in May 1861 at which the Ordinance of Secession was submitted, he gave his vote against said Ordinance under apprehensions for his personal safety. Threats of confiscation of property, of ejection from the state &c were made by citizens and soldiers. He felt as he has before expressed it, that he was about to sign his own death warrant — nor did these apprehensions subside until the County was the day after the election occupied by the United States Troops.” The affidavit of Mr. Henry Bailey is to the same effect with the above by Mr. Wunder and Mr. Ball. They present a much stronger case of compulsory threats than those referred to in the affidavit of Mr. Minor. Yet the affiants all voted against the Ordinance. Mr. Minor admits that he was persuaded to vote for it by his friends. It is to be observed also, the threats were directed at those who should vote against the Ordinance; so that the electors if terrified by them, had still the alternative of absenting themselves, without voting on either side. But being in the majority, they felt that though there was danger, they could not shrink from meeting it without justly incurring the charge of timidity, not to say cowardice.
In view of these facts and considerations the Commissioners after some hesitation and reluctance decide that they cannot award compensation to Mr. Minor under the Act of April 16th. The overt act of giving “aid and comfort” to the rebellion, though committed in a moment of weakness and apprehension of evil and against his uniform sentiments of loyalty before and since, lacks the essential ingredient of being the effect of compulsory threats of immediate personal violence, which alone can take it out of the general rule of law, which makes every rational being responsible for his actions. The Commissioners nevertheless feel that they cannot discharge their whole duty in the premises, without recommending the case of Mr. Minor to the charitable judgement of Congress, the tribunal which may without transcending its authority, investigate the rigor of the Emancipation Act in his behalf.
No. 523 is the Petition of Edward Owen “for himself and as trustee for Dr. J. Owen” claiming compensation for three slaves. The witness, John H. Peters, testified that “he knew the servants to be Petitioner’s; that they were owned by Dr. Owen who sold them to Petitioner.” The Petitioner being called and examined on oath admitted that he had no title nor trusteeship; that the Negroes belonged to Dr. J. Owen, who resides near Winchester, and who wrote to Petitioner that he might do as he pleased with them. It is clear therefore that the Petitioner has no shadow of claim for compensation under the law and none is allowed.
No. 600 is the Petition of Anna Cecil for compensation for nine slaves. It was filed by J. H. Peters, now deceased. The claimant failing to come forward to establish the same, notice was sent through the mail to her and to the witnesses, E. W. Cecil and J. Cornell, whose names are endorsed upon the Petition but no response has been made and the claim must therefore be regarded as abandoned, if it ever had any foundation in fact.
No. 601 is the Petition of Ann Blake for compensation for one slave. It was filed by J. H. Peters deceased. The Commissioners in this, as in other cases, endeavored to notify the claimant and her witness John Campbell through the mail, that her claim must be promptly attended to, but she has failed to come forward, and nothing has been heard from her. And of course nothing has been allowed.
There are a few other cases in which the claimants have failed to appear, or to produce the slaves for whom compensation is claimed. They are indicated under the head of “remarks” in the table.
As it regards the question of loyalty there are but few instances in which the evidence was of a nature to warrant the Commissioners in withholding compensation. There are several cases in which there is strong evidence that the Petitioners entertained sympathies inconsistent with the idea of a true loyalty. But in the absence of proof that they have “borne arms against the government of the United States in the present Rebellion or in any way given aid or comfort thereto,” the Commissioners have not felt warranted in withholding compensation where the law has in other respects been complied with. The words here cited from the Act are contained in the Proviso in the third section, the object of which is to declare who shall not receive compensation. They must therefore be regarded as intended to explain and define the merely descriptive words contained in the second section. These latter words are as follows: “that all persons loyal to the United States holding claims to service or labor against persons discharged there from by this Act, may &c.”
The words of the Proviso to the third section are almost identical with those of the Constitution which define treason. The third section of the third article declares that “Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act or on confession in Open Court.” It is also true that the “forfeiture” provided for in the Constitution as one of the punishments of treason is similar in its effects to the exclusion from compensation provided for by the Act of Emancipation. Under such circumstances the Commissioners have felt bound to be governed by the general principles of construction applied by the Courts of this Country to the third section of the third article of the Constitution, and by the English Courts to the Statute of Treason. It is to be remarked, also, that this rule for the interpretation of the Emancipation Act, is entirely consistent with the Constitution itself, while a different one which should entirely confiscate the property of a citizen as a punishment for his unpatriotic sentiments would be inconsistent with it.
The three cases of this kind in which the evidence of unpatriotic or disloyal sympathies is most manifest, are those of ladies advanced in years. They were required like all other Petitioners to take the Oath of Allegiance, and to produce two witnesses to attest their loyalty. The law being thus complied with, and in the absence of any evidence that they had given “aid and comfort” to the Rebellion, the Commissioners have had no alternative but to make them their proportionate allowance of compensation.
By the terms of the Act of Emancipation every slave held to service in the District of Columbia was set free on the 16th day of April, and ceased to be under the control of his former master. Most of them immediately left their homes, and sought employment from others; many of them left the District of Columbia to join the service of Officers of the Army or to go North. Under such circumstances it would be manifestly unjust to withhold compensation on account of the inability of the claimant to produce the servant before the Commissioners. They have therefore just required an oath from the claimant as to his inability to produce his servants and that he had used due diligence in his efforts to find them, and then received the testimony of competent witnesses as to the age, size, complexion, health and qualifications of such absent servants, and have appraised them upon the description thus furnished, always however, as a security against imposition, and as an incitement to the claimants to use due diligence, abated something from the appraisement which would be just, if the servants were present and corresponded with the description. The same rule has been applied to the cases of slaves who have died since the passage of the Act.
Several claims have been put in for slaves who absconded prior to the 16th of April 1862. In these cases both the claimants and the slaves were interested in favor of a construction of the Act which would entitle the owner to compensation. In some instances the fugitives came back in order to avail themselves of the benefit of the Act. But in others this was not the case. The Commissioners after a careful investigation, have decided that where the owner of the fugitive could give evidence that he had used ordinary diligence to recover his slave, and where the lapse of time has raised no presumption of death of abandonment, compensation may be allowed.
It is a well settled principle of law in the slave holding states that a slave cannot acquire a residence without the consent of the owner, actual or implied. The home of a fugitive slave therefore is in contemplation of the laws recognizing slavery, the home of his master, or that in which his master had placed him. The decisions on this point in the Courts of the slave states are numerous, and are paralleled to those of the English and American Courts as to the domicile of the wife, which is that of the husband, even although her actual residence is different from his. It would seem to follow from this state of things, that in point of law the fugitives from the District of Columbia whose legal domicile is here, were set free by the Emancipation Act of April 16th, and that the owners have no longer any right to recover them under the law for the return of fugitives from labor. The Commissioners will not cumber their report by the citation of authorities on these points, and content themselves with stating the principles on which they have acted.
But if the fugitives were made free by the Emancipation Act, it would seem to result, as a matter of course, that the owners are entitled to compensation; and on this ground compensation has been awarded in several instances, for fugitives under the limitations above stated.
The allowance of compensation for fugitive slaves whose actual residence and existence is not known as a fact, is based on the legal presumption familiar to the courts of this county and of England that when the existence of a person, a personal relation, or a state of things is once established by proof, the law presumes that the person, relation or state of things continues to exist as before, till the contrary is shown or till a different presumption is raised from the nature of the subject in question. Thus, where the issue is, upon the life or death of a person, once shown to have been living, the burden of proof lies upon the party who asserts the death. But after the lapse of seven years, without intelligence concerning the person, the presumption of life ceases, and the burden of proof is devolved on the other party. Greenleafs evidence vol. I page 48.
On this rule of evidence the most sacred rights of men are made to turn everyday in the Courts of law; and the Commissioners feel that they have no right to exclude it in the adjudication of claims under the Emancipation Act. They have however allowed no claim where the slave had been absent longer than two years or where had not been heard from longer than within a few months.
The effect of a liberal construction of the Act in this and the other respects referred to above, has been to extend its benefits to several slaves and their owners who though within its equity, would be excluded by a narrow adherence to the letter. The Commissioners are warranted in acting upon this equitable rule by the highest legal authority; but one citation from Chancellor Kent will suffice:; — “statutes” he says, “that are remedial, and not penal, are to receive an equitable interpretation, by which the letter of the act is sometimes restrained and sometimes enlarged, so as more effectually to meet the beneficent and in view, and prevent a failure of the object.” So say all the Authorities.