Final Compromise Bans Slave Trade in District of Columbia

The fifth law, enacted on September 20, 1850 prohibited the slave trade (but not slavery itself) in the District of Columbia.

Significantly, before this particular measure could be passed, the extent of the District of Columbia was drastically reduced. The original District of Columbia was 10-miles square and consisted of the City of Washington, derived from the State of Maryland and the City of Alexandria, derived from the State of Virginia. Alexandria was a major center for the slave trade. Many freedmen settled in the District of Columbia. One of the major interim planks of the Abolitionist Movement was to abolish slavery, and especially the slave trade, in the national capital. A political compromise that made at least the abolition of the slave trade from the national capital was to accomplish the retrocession of the City of Alexandria from the federal District of Columbia back to the State of Virginia, thus diminishing the territorial extent of the District of Columbia and preserving the thriving slave market economy of Alexandria.

On this day in 1850, Congress abolished the slave trade in the District of Columbia as part of a legislative package known as the Compromise of 1850.

Since the founding of the District of Columbia in 1800, enslaved people had lived and worked in the nation’s capital. They were held to be property, usually along similar terms as those applied to real estate. They could not own property themselves or be a party to a contract. Slave codes also regulated free blacks, who were subject to limits on their movements and employment.