It’s true. Some slave owners demanded reimbursement for their lost “property” after emancipation, and by 1876 the demand—and its overwhelming associated cost—had become useful as a threat. The above article in the New York Times, dated October 21, 1876, i.e., just before the big presidential election, contains the claim that Democrats planned on demanding slave owner compensation if they won the election. It’s tough to believe that such a project would have been feasible, but either way, the Republicans prevailed.
Even in defeat, however, the Democrats made their point by working to stop all federal compensation to southern Unionists for their losses during the Civil War. These payments were made by the Southern Claims Commission, an entry about which we’ll be publishing soon. The commission was established in 1871 to compensate southern Unionists only for certain kinds of property appropriated by the Union army during the war. About $4.5 million in claims was paid between 1871 and 1880.
So how much compensation would we be talking for slave owners? Try—according to these calculations—$5.8 billion (this is not adjusted to current dollars). As a point of comparison, the entire federal government only spent $304 million in 1880.