US public slaves

Mar 2015
Did any of the United States, or the Federal Government, ever own any slaves on long term basis?

They came to own slaves by escheat and confiscation. This did not release the slaves. The public authority (Federal or State) might sell slaves as slaves by auction and keep the proceeds as public revenue.
The Governments did rely on slave labour. Capitol is built by slaves. But apparently private slaves: the Federal government contracted with free (and apparently natural person white?) contractors to build Capitol by labour of slaves owned privately.

So were there ever any Federal or State slaves otherwise than for prompt sale?
Did any municipal corporations own slaves?

How many slaves were owned, not by natural persons but by business partnership corporations, incorporated charities, churches et cetera?


Forum Staff
Aug 2016
One of the issues that came up early in the Civil War, before the Emancipation Proclamation, had to do with the Federal government's right to own slaves. As the Union armies started invading the South, they would confiscate property that was helping the Confederate war effort. Some generals, of an abolitionist inclination such as John C. Fremont, took it upon themselves to confiscate slaves. The slang term 'contraband' came into use meaning a slave. Once the armies started siezing slaves, they confronted the fact that there was no provision in American law for the army or the federal government to own slaves. The usual solution was for the army to then free the slaves. In 1861, Lincoln had to clamp down on the practice because the political situation required him to maintain the fiction that the war was not about slavery but seccession. With the Emanicipation Proclamation the government clearly established that it was in the business of freeing slaves, not owning them. Prior to the EP, the government was neutral on the slavery question which effectively meant that the government could not own slaves.

I have no knowledge of states, counties, or cities owning slaves. I'm sure many plantations were incorporated.


Ad Honorem
Jul 2011
As far as I can tell no. The federal government and state governments paid owners for the labor of slaves, but did not own slaves.
Sep 2012
Tarkington, Texas
In Louisiana the local Levee Board would hire local Slaves from the owner to build and repair levees.

The Spanish hired Slaves from the owner to build homes for Spanish immigrants.