The Emancipation Proclamation
Issued January 1, 1863
The president frees the slaves
"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. . . ."
By the time President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) issued his final Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, he had been considering the idea of freeing the slaves for some time. Lincoln had believed that slavery was wrong when he was elected president in 1860. He felt that black people were entitled to the same legal rights as white people. When the Civil War began in 1861, he knew that freeing the slaves would hurt the Confederate war effort and aid the Union. But he still wanted to proceed carefully, because he knew that emancipation (the act of freeing people from slavery or oppression) had many opponents, even in the North. The president was particularly concerned about the reaction of the four slave-holding "border" states that had remained loyal to the Union—Maryland, Delaware, Missouri, and Kentucky. He worried that if he suddenly outlawed slavery, these states would leave the Union and join the Confederacy.
The U.S. Congress took the first step toward freeing the slaves in August 1861. At that time, it passed a law that allowed the Union Army to seize enemy property that was used in the war effort. Slaves were considered property in the South and were often used as laborers in Confederate Army camps. In effect, the Confiscation Act enabled Union troops to take any slaves they found away from their owners. Such slaves became known as "contrabands." Another law passed in March 1862 forbade Union Army officers from returning fugitive slaves to their owners in the South. In July 1862, Congress passed an even stronger Confiscation Act that granted freedom to any slaves who came under the control of Union troops. They also gave the president power to use these freed slaves as laborers or even soldiers in the Union Army.
Also in July 1862, President Lincoln read the first draft of his Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet (a group of trusted advisors who supervised various government departments). His secretary of state, William H. Seward (1801–1872), suggested that he wait to issue it until the Union Army achieved a victory on the battlefield. Seward argued that if the president issued his proclamation at a time when the Union's chances of winning the Civil War seemed slim, it would be dismissed as a desperate attempt to avoid defeat. But if he waited until events went in the Union's favor, then the proclamation would seem more like a statement of moral principle. The proclamation would make it clear that the North was fighting not only to restore the Union, but also on behalf of basic American values of freedom and liberty for all men and women.
The Union Army managed to win a brutal battle at Antietam in Maryland in September 1862. Lincoln took this opportunity to issue a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22. This document warned the Confederate states that the president planned to free the slaves as of January 1, 1863, unless those states voluntarily rejoined the Union before that time. Since Lincoln was issuing the Emancipation Proclamation as a war measure, it would only apply to enemy territory—those states that were in rebellion against the United States. It would not apply to areas in the South that had been captured and occupied by Union troops, or to the slave-holding border states that were still part of the Union. This meant that 830,000 black men and women would remain slaves out of a total of 4 million slaves in the South.
Many people found it strange that Lincoln granted freedom to the slaves in Confederate states. Since those states had seceded from (left) the United States at the beginning of the Civil War, the American government had no power to enforce such an order there. The slaves might be emancipated according to a piece of paper, but in reality they would not be free until Union troops arrived. Some Northern abolitionists were disappointed that the Emancipation Proclamation would not apply to the border states or to occupied areas. As a writer for the London Spectator noted, the proclamation did not say "that a human being cannot justly own another, but that he cannot own him unless he is loyal to the United States." Some people doubted whether the president's proclamation was even legal. Lincoln issued the order under the broad powers that the Constitution gives the president in times of war as commander-in-chief of the U.S. Army. But the Constitution allowed slavery, and only Congress holds the power to propose changes to the Constitution.
Despite these criticisms, Lincoln issued his final Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. It was "one of the strangest and most important state papers ever issued by an American President," according to Bruce Catton in The Civil War.
Things to remember while reading Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation:
- President Lincoln's proclamation did not free all the slaves in the United States. In fact, it only freed the slaves in the Confederate states that had left the Union. It did not apply to the four slave-holding border states that remained part of the Union. It also did not apply to the areas of Southern states that were under control of the Union Army at the time it was issued. Lincoln outlines which states he means in the second paragraph of the document. The exceptions he mentions are areas that were loyal to the Union or were under Union control. He explains that these areas will be "left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued," meaning that slavery would continue to exist there, at least "for the present."
- Upon hearing about the Emancipation Proclamation, some Southerners accused the president of trying to help the Union's war effort by causing slave uprisings across the Confederacy. Lincoln addresses this issue in the fourth paragraph of the document. He expressly asks freed slaves not to engage in violence, unless they are forced to defend themselves.
- In the fifth paragraph of the document, Lincoln declares his intention to use freed slaves in the Union Army. This was a relatively new idea at the time the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. Discrimination had prevented black men from serving in the Union Army until late 1862.
Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation
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 1st day of January, A.D. 1863, and in accordance with my purpose so to do, publicly proclaimed 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, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James, Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the city of New Orleans), Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia (except for 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-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.
What happened next . . .
Reactions to Lincoln's announcement were divided along predictable lines in the South. White Southerners criticized the Emancipation Proclamation, while slaves and free blacks in the South supported it. The Confederate government said that Lincoln had no authority to make such a statement and encouraged people to disregard it. Many whites claimed that the president issued the document in hopes of creating widespread slave rebellions across the South.
As slaves in the South heard about the Emancipation Proclamation, they began to recognize what the Civil War meant for their future. If the North won, slavery would be abolished (completely eliminated) throughout the land. As a result, some slaves began to rebel against their masters and to help the Union cause. Some simply refused to work, while others started fires to destroy property belonging to whites. Thousands of slaves decided to flee the South for freedom in the North. This movement deprived the Confederacy of a valuable labor force and helped increase the size of Union forces. Although most slaves were thrilled to learn that they were free, some also recognized that freedom brought uncertainty and new responsibilities. Since many slaves had not received basic education and were not trained in any special skills, they were concerned about how they would make a living and take care of their families.
In the North, early reactions to the Emancipation Proclamation were mixed. Abolitionists and free blacks were thrilled by the news. They recognized the president's reasons for proceeding cautiously, and they knew that the document was still a revolutionary one even if it did not immediately free all of the nation's slaves. After all, the proclamation said that any slaves who were freed during the war would remain "forever free." It also promised that the U.S. government would "recognize and maintain" their freedom. So they felt that the document would have some positive effects regardless of the final outcome of the war. At the same time, some Northerners opposed the idea of freeing the slaves. Some working-class whites worried that former slaves would come to the North and take their jobs. Other Northerners felt that emancipation would prolong the war and cost more lives.
Reaction was mixed among soldiers in the Union Army as well. Many Northern soldiers did not feel strongly about outlawing slavery prior to the war. Instead, they fought in order to preserve the Union. Other soldiers, particularly those who came from slave-holding border states, actually supported slavery. By the middle of 1863, however, most Union soldiers had accepted the idea of emancipation. For one thing, they recognized that freeing the slaves hurt the Confederate war effort by taking away valuable property as "contraband of war." For another thing, black soldiers began contributing to Union victories in battle. As white soldiers saw the courage of their black counterparts, many came to believe that emancipation would help the Union win the war.
As Northern support for emancipation increased in the months following Lincoln's announcement, it changed the way many people viewed the Civil War. The Emancipation Proclamation made it clear that the North was fighting for a broader cause than simply restoring the Union. They were also fighting for the cause of human freedom. "The Emancipation Proclamation announced a new war aim," James M. McPherson wrote in Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. "The Union army became officially an army of liberation. The North was now fighting to create a new Union, not to restore the old one."
Did you know . . .
- The process of ending slavery that began with the Emancipation Proclamation was completed with the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This amendment, which permanently outlawed slavery in the United States, was passed by Congress in January 1865 and ratified (approved) by the states in the fall of that year.
- Martin Luther King, Jr.—one of the leaders of the American civil rights movement of the 1960s—made his famous "I Have a Dream" speech on January 1, 1963, at a ceremony to honor the one hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. King acknowledged that black people still faced discrimination in American society, but expressed his hope that they would soon achieve true equality. At one point in the speech, King said: "I have a dream that one day, on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood."
For Further Reading
Berlin, Ira. Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Cox, LaWanda. Lincoln and Black Freedom: A Study in Presidential Leadership. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1981.
Franklin, John Hope. The Emancipation Proclamation. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1963. Reprint, Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, 1995.
McPherson, James M. The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1964, 1995.
Trefousse, Hans L. Lincoln's Decision for Emancipation. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1975.
Wood, Forrest G. Black Scare: The Racist Response to Emancipation and Reconstruction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.