Lincoln, Abraham and United States Constitution eText - Primary Source

Primary Source

Abraham Lincoln (third from the left) at the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. Courtesy of The Library of Congress. Abraham Lincoln (third from the left) at the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. Published by Gale Cengage Courtesy of The Library of Congress.

Abraham Lincoln

Emancipation Proclamation

Reprinted in The American Revolution—an .HTML project, 1997

United States Constitution

Amendments 13 to 15

Reprinted in Discovering World History, 2000

By the 1860 presidential elections, tensions in America had reached a boiling point. The Democratic Party had divided into proslavery and antislavery factions while the Republican Party, united in its opposition to slavery, nominated Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) for president. Lincoln, who opposed both the spread of slavery and efforts by government to forcibly end it, won the November presidential elections.

Lincoln's victory sparked enormous hostility in the South, where slaveholders feared that the federal government would take their "property"; therefore, a group of Southern leaders met to form a breakaway government, the Confederate States of America. South Carolina was the first state to secede, or separate itself, from the United States, and ten others followed: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. The Confederacy also claimed two other states, Missouri and Kentucky, for a total of thirteen, a number intended to reflect that of America's thirteen original colonies. However, Missouri and Kentucky never actually seceded, and though both allowed slavery, they were actually part of the Union.

Armed hostilities began on April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces opened fire on the federal installation at Fort Sumter, which was located in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. Initially the war seemed to favor the Confederacy, which had superior generals, and the South gained a number of victories in the first year of the war.

Lincoln had long insisted that the purpose of the war was to preserve the Union, but pressure from a number of sides, most notably from abolitionist leaders, forced him to place a greater emphasis on freeing the slaves. In July 1862 he drafted a preliminary version of the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves in the Confederate states as of January 1, 1863. His cabinet, or the presidential advisors, suggested that he not make the proclamation public until the Union had secured a major victory in battle; otherwise, it might appear like a desperate ploy to gain support from antislavery elements.

This major victory came in September, at the Battle of Antietam in Maryland. Soon afterward, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. This document only freed the slaves in the Confederate states, however, and it became increasingly clear that after a Union victory, all the slaves in the United States would have to be freed. To do so, and to ensure that slavery would never again be legal in the United States, required a constitutional amendment. Congress passed three significant amendments after the war: the Thirteenth, which ended slavery; the Fourteenth, which granted slaves citizenship; and the Fifteenth, which made them eligible to vote.

Things to remember while reading

  • The Emancipation Proclamation was an order from the executive branch of the United States government and, therefore, did not need the approval of Congress. By contrast, a constitutional amendment, that is, a change to the Constitution, the central document guiding the government, requires a vote of Congress, or the legislative branch. The judicial branch of the government would be the testing ground for the amendments as participants in lawsuits brought legal challenges (particularly ones concerning the Fourteenth Amendment) before the Supreme Court.
  • It should be stressed that the Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in the South. Thus, for the remainder of the war, slavery continued in Kentucky, Missouri, and other non-Confederate states where slavery was still legal. The document's greatest significance was that it legally freed Southern slaves to leave their masters and enlist in the Union army.
  • The Civil War Amendments, as the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments are called, strongly reflect the time in which they were written. Today people refer to "the United States" as a single entity, but this was not customary until after the Civil War. Thus, the Thirteenth Amendment, drafted just after the war, still uses their rather than its as a possessive pronoun referring to the United States.
  • By the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Confederacy as a whole remained defiant. Five years later, when the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted, quite a different situation prevailed: the war was over, the Confederacy destroyed, and former opponents of the United States wanted to return to the rights they had previously enjoyed under the federal government. The Union did not make this easy, however. States had to apply for read-mission to the Union; and many individuals never regained the rights they had enjoyed before the war. In fact, much of the Fourteenth Amendment concerns persons who had served the Confederacy: as punishment for their part in the rebellion, most of these individuals would not enjoy full civil rights under the restored Union.

The Emancipation Proclamation

By the President of the United States of America:


Whereas on the 22nd day of September, A.D. 1862, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:

"That on the 1st day of January, A.D. 1863, 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.

"That the executive will on the 1st 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-ln-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 1st day of January, A.D. 1863, and in accordance with my purpose so to do, publicly proclaim for the full period of one hundred days from the first day 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, Palquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James, Ascension, Assumption, Terrebone, 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, Northhampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Anne, 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-defence; and I recommend to them that, in all case 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.

United States Constitution

Amendment XIII
December 18, 1865
Section 1

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2

Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Amendment XIV
July 28, 1868
Section 1

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Section 2

Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bearto the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.

Section 3

No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.

Section 4

The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.

Section 5

The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Amendment XV
March 30, 1870

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Section 2

The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

What happened next...

Along with the victory at Antietam, and those at Vicksburg and Gettysburg that followed, the Emancipation Proclamation marked a turning point in the Civil War. No longer was the war simply about the preservation of the Union; with the document, it became a fight for freedom. Awareness of this moral purpose gave renewed energy to the Union's military effort, and the proclamation opened the floodgates for enlistment by former slaves. By war's end, some 180,000 African American men had served in the Union forces.

The Civil War Amendments officially ended slavery and, in theory, secured the civil rights of African Americans. The Fifth Amendment, adopted long before, had guaranteed citizens' right to "due process of law"—for example, a fair trial—but the Fourteenth Amendment took the crucial step of applying this federal provision to the states. In future years, many segments of society would invoke the Fourteenth Amendment to guarantee their constitutional rights.

Unfortunately, laws could only do so much to change conditions. In many cases, African Americans found that they were only slightly better off after slavery than they had been under it. Much of this was due to the inept manner in which the federal government handled the difficult period after the war known as Reconstruction (1865-77), its effort to enforce rapid change in the South. By eliminating the civil rights of Southerners and virtually guaranteeing the election of black legislators, the government embittered the white power structure of the South. With the removal of federal troops in 1877, Southerners were free to treat the black people in their states as they pleased, and this led to an erosion of the rights established in the Civil War Amendments. Only with the gains made by the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s would blacks begin to enjoy the full rights of U.S. citizenship.

Did you know...

  • The stars on the Confederate battle flag, or "stars and bars," stood for the thirteen states of the Confederacy. Nearly a century later, during the civil rights struggles of the 1950s, the flag gained new meaning as white opponents of racial integration adopted it as a symbol. By the 1990s, numerous civil rights groups opposed display of the flag, which they equated with slavery and white supremacy.
  • If the Constitution had a list of "greatest hits," the Fourteenth Amendment would be on it. The U.S. Supreme Court has reviewed few cases concerning the Third Amendment, for instance, which protects citizens from being forced to provide lodging for troops in peacetime. By contrast, the Fourteenth Amendment's provision concerning "due process of law" is one of the most invoked phrases in constitutional law.
  • One of American history's great ironies concerns Confederate General Robert E. Lee and Union General Ulysses S. Grant, respectively the commanders of the Confederate and Union forces in the Civil War. A Virginian loyal to his state, Lee sided with the Confederacy, yet freed his slaves as soon as the war began, to show that he was not fighting for personal gain. By contrast, Grant (who later served two terms as U.S. president) owned four slaves.

For more information


Burchard, Peter. Lincoln and Slavery. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1999.

Carey, Charles W., Jr. The Emancipation Proclamation. Chanhassen, Minn.: Child's World, 2000.

Henry, Christopher E. Forever Free: From the Emancipation Proclamation to the Civil Rights Bill of 1875, 1863-1875. New York: Chelsea House, 1995.

Schleichert, Elizabeth. The Thirteenth Amendment: Ending Slavery. Springfield, N.J.: Enslow Publishers, 1998.

Wade, Linda R. Reconstruction: The Years Following the Civil War. Edina, Minn.: Abdo & Daughters, 1998.


The Civil War (documentary; nine episodes). Warner Home Video, 1990.

"Civil War Resources on the Internet: Abolitionism to Reconstruction." Rutgers University Library. (accessed on May 12, 2000).