Confiscation Acts

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CONFISCATION ACTS. On 6 August 1861, early in the Civil War, Congress passed the First Confiscation Act, which was designed to confiscate property used to aid the Confederacy—primarily slaves—and there by weaken the insurrection. Proposed by Senator Lyman Trumbull, a Republican from Illinois, the act reflected concern over the fugitive slaves entering Union lines, anger at a Confederate law to confiscate Northerners' debts, and a desire to punish Confederates. However, the act failed to free any slaves or confiscate much property.

Interest in a stronger confiscation measure increased by late 1861. Many in the North wanted a more vigorous attack upon the Confederacy, its leaders, and slavery. In December Trumbull proposed the Second Confiscation Act, which became law in July 1862 following lengthy debates, many compromises, and the lack of military success. This act authorized the president to confiscate and sell the property of six classes of Confederate supporters. Advocates claimed it would help finance the Union's war effort, punish the leading traitors, abolish slavery, and begin the reconstruction of the South. Opponents, including Lincoln, believed the law was too punitive. Fearing a presidential veto, Congress agreed to a resolution prohibiting the confiscation of property beyond the life of the owner. Lincoln said this prevented the law from being a bill of attainder, which is prohibited in the Constitution's first article. Many supporters believed this compromise was unwarranted and predicted that it would obstruct the distribution of confiscated property to ex-slaves and poor whites, there by preventing a real reconstruction of the South.

Lincoln and Attorney General Bates of Missouri implemented the Second Confiscation Act conservatively. It too was a complicated, difficult law to administer because prosecutions could occur only in areas secure enough for the courts to function. In the end, the Second Confiscation Act realized little revenue for the North and had very little impact upon the South, despite the fears of many. Radicals, who had lost enthusiasm for confiscation as the war progressed, bore much of the responsibility for its failure. Lincoln and Johnson also pardoned many under the act's authority, which allowed former rebels to regain their confiscated land soon after the war ended.


Belz, Herman. Abraham Lincoln, Constitutionalism, and Equal Rights in the Civil War Era. New York: Fordham University Press, 1998.

Belz, Herman. A New Birth of Freedom: The Republican Party and Freedmen's Rights, 1861–1866. New York: Fordham University Press, 2000.

Lucie, Patricia Allan. Freedom and Federalism: Congress and the Courts 1861–1866. New York: Garland Publishing, 1986.

Randall, James G. Constitutional Problems Under Lincoln. Revised Edition. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1964.


See alsoCivil War ; Reconstruction ; Slavery .