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The Emancipation Proclamation, formally issued on January 1, 1863, by President Abraham Lincoln is often mistakenly praised as the legal instrument that ended slavery—actually, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in December 1865, outlawed Slavery. But the proclamation is justifiably celebrated as a significant step toward the goal of ending slavery and making African Americans equal citizens of the United States. Coming as it did in the midst of the Civil War (1861–65), the proclamation announced to the Confederacy and the world that the Abolition of slavery had become an important goal of the North in its fight against the rebellious states of the South. The document also marked a shift in Lincoln's mind toward support for emancipation. Just before signing the final document in 1863, Lincoln said, "I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper."
In the text of the proclamation—which is almost entirely the work of Lincoln himself—Lincoln characterizes his order as "an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution upon military necessity." These words capture the essential character of Lincoln's work in the document. On the one hand, he perceived the proclamation as a kind of military tactic that would aid the Union in its difficult struggle against the Confederacy. As such, it was an extraordinary measure that carried the force of law under the powers granted by the Constitution to the president as commander in chief of the U.S. military forces. But on the other hand, Lincoln saw the proclamation as "an act of justice" that announced the intention of the North to free the slaves. In this respect, it became an important statement of the intent to abolish slavery in the United States once and for all, as well as a vital symbol of human freedom to later generations.
Lincoln had not always regarded emancipation as a goal of the Civil War. In fact, he actively resisted emancipation efforts early in the war, as when he voided earlier emancipation proclamations issued by the Union generals John C. Frémont and David Hunter in their military districts. Lincoln also failed to enforce provisions passed by Congress in 1861 and 1862 that called for the confiscation and emancipation of slaves owned by persons supporting the rebellion.
Antislavery sentiment in the North, however, grew in intensity during the course of the Civil War. By the summer of 1862, with the Union faring poorly in the conflict, Lincoln had begun to formulate the ideas he would eventually express in the proclamation. In particular, he reasoned that emancipation would work to the military advantage of the North by creating a labor shortage for the Confederacy and providing additional troops for the Union. While Lincoln was increasingly sympathetic to abolitionists who wished to end slavery, he was reluctant to proclaim emancipation on a wider scale, out of fear that it would alienate the border slave states of Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri, which had remained part of the Union. Already stung by military setbacks, Lincoln did not want to do anything to jeopardize the ultimate goal of victory in the war. Even if he had wished to proclaim emancipation on a wider scale, such an act probably would not have been constitutionally legitimate for the presidency.
Lincoln's cabinet was nervous about the effect of issuing the proclamation, and it advised him to wait until the Union had won a major victory before releasing it. As a result, the president announced the preliminary proclamation on September 22, 1862, five days after the Union victory at the Battle of Antietam. In language that would be retained in the final version of the proclamation, this preliminary order declared that on January 1, 1863, all the slaves in the parts of the country still in rebellion "shall be … thenceforward and forever, free." It also pledged that "the executive government of the United States, including the military … will recognize and maintain the freedom" of ex-slaves. But this preliminary proclamation also contained language that was not included in the final document. For example, it recommended that slave owners who had remained loyal to the Union be compensated for the loss of their slaves.
The final version of the proclamation specified the regions still held by the Confederacy in which emancipation would apply: all parts of Arkansas, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, and parts of Louisiana and Virginia. It also asked that freed slaves "abstain from all violence" and announced that those "of suitable condition will be received into the armed service of the United States." This last provision led to a significant practical effect of the proclamation: by 1865, over 190,000 African Americans had joined the U.S. Armed Services in the fight against the Confederacy.
News and copies of the proclamation quickly spread through the country, causing many people, especially African Americans, to celebrate. At one gathering, the African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass made a speech in which he pronounced the proclamation the first step on the part of the nation in its departure from the servitude of the ages. In following years, many African Americans would continue to celebrate the anniversary of the signing of the proclamation.
However, many abolitionists were disappointed with the limited nature of the proclamation. They called for complete and immediate emancipation throughout the entire country, and they criticized the proclamation as the product of military necessity rather than moral idealism.
Although the practical effects of the proclamation were quite limited, it did serve as an important symbol that the North now intended not only to preserve the Union but also to abolish the practice of slavery. For Lincoln, the proclamation marked an important step in his eventual support of complete emancipation. Later, he would propose that the Republican Party include in its 1864 platform a plank calling for the abolition of slavery by constitutional amendment, and he would sign the Thirteenth Amendment in early 1865.
The copy of the proclamation that Lincoln wrote by hand and signed on January 1, 1863, was destroyed in a fire in 1871. Early drafts and copies of the original, including the official government copy derived from Lincoln's own, are held at the National Archives, in Washington, D.C.
Franklin, John Hope. 1995. The Emancipation Proclamation. Davidson.
——. 1993. The Emancipation Proclamation: Milestone Documents in the National Archives. National Archives.
Guelzo, Allen C. 2004. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Klingaman, William K. 2001. Abraham Lincoln and the Road to Emancipation, 1861–1865. New York: Viking.
Levinson, Sanford. 2001. "Was the Emancipation Proclamation Constitutional? Do We/Should We Care What the Answer Was?" University of Illinois Law Review (October): 1135–58.
By the President of the United States of America
President Abraham Lincoln supported the U.S. Civil War to preserve the Union, not to end Slavery. Though he was personally opposed to slavery, he had been elected on a platform that pledged the continuation of slavery in states where it already existed. Wartime pressures, however, drove Lincoln toward emancipation of the slaves. Military leaders argued that an enslaved labor force in the South allowed the Confederate states to place more soldiers on the front lines. By the summer of 1862, Lincoln had prepared an Emancipation Proclamation,but he did not want to issue it until Union armies had had greater success on the battlefield. He feared that otherwise the proclamation might be seen as a sign of weakness.
The Union army's victory at the Battle of Antietam encouraged the president to issue a preliminary proclamation on September 22, 1862, that announced the abolition of slavery in areas occupied by the Confederacy effective January 1, 1863. The wording of the Emancipation Proclamation on that date made clear that slavery would still be tolerated in the border states and areas occupied by Union troops, so as not to jeopardize the war effort. Lincoln was uncertain that the Supreme Court would uphold the constitutionality of his action, so he lobbied Congress to adopt the Thirteenth Amendment, which totally abol ished slavery.
Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the president of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:
"That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any state or designated part of a state, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward and forever, free; and the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.
Source: Statutes at Large, vol. 12 (1864), pp. 1268–1269.
"That the executive will, on the first day of January aforesaid, by proclamation, designate the states and parts of states, if any, in which the people thereof, respectively, shall then be in rebellion against the United States; and the fact that any state, or the people thereof, shall on that day be in good faith represented in the Congress of the United States, by members chosen thereto at elections wherein a majority of the qualified voters of such states shall have participated, shall, in the absence of strong countervailing testimony, be deemed conclusive evidence that such state, and the people thereof, are not then in rebellion against the United States."
Now, therefore, I, Abraham Lincoln, president of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as commander in chief of the army and navy of the United States, in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion, do, on this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and in accordance with my purpose so to do, publicly proclaimed for the full period of one hundred days from the day first above mentioned, order and designate as the states and parts of states wherein the people thereof, respectively, are this day in rebellion against the United States, the following, to wit:
Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana (except the parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James, Ascension, Assumption, Terre Bonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the city of New Orleans), Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia (except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkeley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth), and which excepted parts are for the present left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.
And by virtue of the power and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated states and parts of states are, and henceforward shall be, free; and that the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.
And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defense; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.
And I further declare and make known that such persons, of suitable condition will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.
And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind and the gracious favor of Almighty God.
In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done at the city of Washington this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the independence of the United States of America the eighty-seventh.
By the President:
William H. Seward, Secretary of State.