Created from land ceded by the slave states of Maryland and Virginia, the District of Columbia allowed the practice of slavery. For decades, the slave trade flourished in the same city where lawmakers gathered to discuss the controversial issue. Abolitionists repeatedly petitioned the government to end slavery in the nation’s capital, but struggled to have their arguments heard. The “gag rule,” first passed by the House of Representatives in 1836, largely blocked floor discussion about slavery. It remained in place until 1844, when the House rescinded it on a motion by John Quincy Adams.
Signed by 50 men and 59 women from Brooklyn, Connecticut, this 1838 petition urged Members of Congress to “immediately abolish slavery in the District of Columbia and in the Territory of Florida, and to prohibit the traffic of human beings between the several States.” Sent during the tenure of the gag rule, this petition was never considered by the House or referred to a committee.
The District of Columbia Emancipation Act ended slavery in the capital on April 16, 1862, just over eight months before the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in the rebelling Southern states.