Emancipation Proclamation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1343

Article abstract: In an effort to preserve the Union, President Lincoln declares all slaves in rebel states to be free.

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Summary of Event

The cabinet met at noon on September 22, 1862. President Abraham Lincoln sought to put the members at ease by reading to them from a book of humorous stories, but soon he came to the business at hand. The president announced that he intended to issue that day an emancipation proclamation. Lincoln stated that, since he had consulted the cabinet on the subject before, he desired no comments from them on this occasion. Then he read the proclamation. As of January 1, 1863, all slaves held in states “in rebellion against the United States” would be forever free.

Lincoln had not reached his decision to proclaim emancipation without much thinking and soul-searching. From his youth, he had opposed slavery on both moral and economic grounds. Yet Lincoln was a practical politician and a pragmatic man. He negotiated the secession crisis always inspired by a desire to preserve the Union. It is fair to say that Lincoln wished to abolish slavery but would translate his wish into action only if abolition would enhance his efforts to attain peace. Because he was a practical man, Lincoln realized that emancipation was only part of the solution to the problem of race relations in the United States. He foresaw the plight of the freed slaves and favored compensated emancipation (emancipation accompanied by compensation for former slave owners) and voluntary colonization for African Americans to soften racial adjustment. Because of the priority Lincoln gave to union, until 1862 he subordinated his convictions and tentative solutions about slavery to the struggle for union. In part, Lincoln hedged on the idea of emancipation so as not to risk the secession of the loyal slave states—Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri—to the Confederacy.

The president did not find it easy to divorce the ideals of union and emancipation. Both abolitionist ideologists and practical men pressed him to expand his administration’s war aims to include emancipation and had done so since the Civil War began in 1861. Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts carried on a one-man campaign to move Lincoln to action on the question of slavery. Horace Greeley’s influential New York Tribune criticized the Lincoln Administration for its lack of concern for the moral issue. Delegations of citizens petitioned Lincoln to act against human bondage. Lincoln heard these and other pleas but made no commitment to official action.

Sometime in the late spring of 1862, the president made his decision. The war was not going as well as he wished; emancipation would not hinder the effort and might help. He determined to emancipate the slaves by presidential proclamation. Lincoln still pondered the timing of his momentous step, and so he told no one of his decision. He retreated often from the White House to the telegraph room of the War Department, in search of privacy. Early in June, the president began drafting his proclamation in the telegraph room. He worked slowly and kept his own counsel. Between mid-June and mid-July, Lincoln spoke with a few members of his administration about the step he contemplated.

On July 22, 1862, Lincoln read a draft proclamation to the entire cabinet and asked for comment. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton applauded the document and expressed the opinion that emancipation would assist the war effort. Salmon P. Chase, secretary of the Treasury, thought the move too sudden and sweeping. Chase favored emancipation by the military, as areas of the South were occupied by federal troops. Postmaster General Montgomery Blair feared political repercussions in the fall congressional elections and predicted doom for the Republicans should the president carry out his intentions. Secretary of State William H. Seward’s comments impressed Lincoln most of all. Seward favored the issuance of an emancipation proclamation but questioned the president’s timing. Union troops were then in retreat from Richmond, and George B. McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign had proved to be abortive. Emancipation must not seem to be the desperate act of a defeated Union. Lincoln concurred with Seward and waited for a victory.

Victory seemed to be a long time in coming. The Confederates assumed the offensive in the summer of 1862, defeated the federal troops in the Second Battle of Bull Run, and marched into Maryland. On September 17, the Union Army fought the Battle of Antietam, and the Confederates withdrew back across the Potomac River into Virginia. Lincoln decided that this withdrawal of the enemy was success enough, and called in the cabinet on September 22. Northern newspapers announced the proclamation the next day.

The document the president presented to his cabinet and the same day made public was the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Although this was intended to affect millions of Southern slaves, plantation owners paid the announcement little heed, declaring that it was a “Yankee trick” that freed slaves outside Northern borders while keeping others enslaved. While Southerners worried that the proclamation might create an atmosphere of rebellion among the slaves, the announcement also strengthened their resolve to defeat the Union armies.

The preliminary proclamation differed in minor respects from the Emancipation Proclamation issued on January 1, 1863, which actually effected emancipation. Perhaps the most significant feature of the document was that it limited emancipation to those states—and portions of states, in the final draft—that were in rebellion. Lincoln limited emancipation in this manner because he based his authority to free the slaves on acts of Congress that provided for the confiscation of rebel property and forbade the military from returning slaves of rebels to their owners. Such authority did not encompass a general emancipation. Also, Lincoln hoped to persuade Congress to act upon the principles of compensation and voluntary colonization in dealing with slaves and slave owners in loyal areas.

Many African American leaders who lived in the North, Frederick Douglass among them, rallied to the cause, urging African Americans to join the Union Army. The Confederacy did not recognize Lincoln’s proclamation, and its four million slaves remained in bondage until Union armies were victorious. However, many Southern blacks heeded the call and threw down their tools to escape over Northern borders, and many joined the Union forces. Those slaves already held within Union lines in Tennessee, Louisiana, and Virginia were freed. As the Northern troops marched southward, they liberated African Americans in the towns they defeated.

Doctrinaire abolitionists in the North criticized the president’s moderation. Yet on September 22, 1862, Lincoln had taken his stand. The war for union widened into a crusade against slavery. Foreign governments paused in their consideration of aiding the South, but the consensus, as Seward had predicted, was dismissal of the proclamation. Generally, European leaders tried to find fault with it. Nevertheless, Lincoln had ensured the survival of the union and given the slaves hope. In the end, slavery was doomed.

Further Reading:

Franklin, John Hope. The Emancipation Proclamation. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1963. Analyzes Lincoln’s stand on slavery and the political issues of the day.

Lincoln, Abraham. Lincoln on Democracy. Edited and introduced by Mario M. Cuomo and Harold Holzer. New York: HarperCollins, 1990. A collection of speeches, letters, notes, and diary entries on the subjects of equality and freedom, written by Lincoln throughout his lifetime.

McPherson, James M. Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Essays by a renowned historian on the changes wrought by the Civil War.

McPherson, James M. The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1964. This thoughtful book proposes that the abolitionists were influential in securing emancipation by goading the president to action.

Neely, Mark E., Jr. The Last Best Hope of Earth: Abraham Lincoln and the Promise of America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993. A carefully researched analysis of Lincoln as a national leader, emphasizing Lincoln’s contributions to preserving the Union.

Quarles, Benjamin. Lincoln and the Negro. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962. Treating the Emancipation Proclamation broadly, argues that it was a definite blow for freedom, as Lincoln himself realized.

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