Emancipation Proclamation

The Emancipation Proclamation is the name given to an executive order signed by United States President Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War and which took effect on January 1, 1863. The order decreed that all slaves in the ten rebel Confederate states would be considered free now and forever, although the freed slaves did not receive citizenship. This marked the point at which the goals of the war for the North widened from simply remaking the Union to also proclaiming the end of slavery as an explicit aim.


At the outbreak of the war in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln took care to present it as a fight to maintain the unity of the Union, rather than a struggle aimed at abolishing slavery. Despite his personal opposition to the institution, he was aware that he could not win support for abolition as an objective of war, especially from slave states along the North-South border. By the middle of 1862, however, with slaves rushing by the thousand to the North, Lincoln had been persuaded that supporting abolition had become a necessity from a military perspective.

Lincoln had made strong speeches against slavery before he had even become President: in the 1850s, he had called it “an unqualified evil.” However, on his inauguration in 1861, he was clear that he had “no purpose, directly or indirectly” to suppress slavery in the slave states. This was still his message several months into the Civil War itself. These seemingly conflicting statements can be reconciled by considering Lincoln’s position under the U.S. Constitution. Although as a man and as a Republican, he detested slavery, his presidential status required him to uphold the Constitution – and that document guaranteed the future of slavery under the doctrine of popular sovereignty.

The President was also Commander in Chief of the U.S. armed forces. As such, he was concerned about holding on to support from Democrats in the North as well as the four crucial border states which still practiced slavery. Lincoln felt that the risk of them turning against him if he came out strongly against slavery was too great. However, his role as Commander in Chief had another, opposing, aspect. His Constitutional role also gave him the ability to seize any property used to make war by an enemy of the United States – and that property included slaves, who through their labors in fields and factories were crucial to the Confederacy’s war effort.

The Confiscation Acts

The Union forces at the crucial Virginia stronghold of Fort Monroe were commanded by General Benjamin Butler, who in May 1861 declared three slaves who had escaped to his lines to be contraband of war because they had worked to help construct fortifications for the rebels. Butler was therefore unwilling to send them back to their owner in the South. This precedent was noted by many hundreds more slaves, who themselves then escaped in the same fashion, until by 1862 the numbers crossing to the North in the hope of being declared contraband – and therefore safe from return – had become enormous.

Not all slaves who escaped in this way were protected by Union commanders; instead, some were sent back to their masters, providing that those masters could demonstrate that they were loyal to the United States. As early as August 1861, Congress had approved a Confiscation Act under which all slaves who had directly contributed to the Southern war effort were automatically declared contraband. In March of the following year, Congress approved a new article of war which forbade officers from returning fugitives. At this point, with the war under a year old, the conflict had taken on the shape of a fight for freedom.

Toward Emancipation

By 1862, the majority of Republicans believed that the war would have to become, explicitly, a war to end slavery, and they pushed Lincoln to proclaim this. Although he held out for a while, thinking of his Constitutional commitments, it was clear by the middle of 1862 that he was in danger of losing his Republican support if he did nothing. At this point, too, the Union was undergoing its worst period of the war, with several defeats during July and August. This strengthened the hand of those who argued that emancipation was vital from a military standpoint, in that it would drain away part of the Confederate labor force and add it to that of the Union. In July, further acts freed rebels’ slaves and allowed those freed slaves to serve in the Union army.

The President had by now set his sights on an outright emancipation of slaves in any state fighting against the United States. Although his cabinet was persuaded by the strategic arguments in favor of the plan, William H. Seward, the Secretary of State, convinced Lincoln to hold back until it could be announced in the wake of a significant military victory. This moment would come with the highly significant – though costly – Union victory at Antietam. In the meantime, Lincoln tried to convince conservatives of what needed to be done in order to save the Union. He also met with Washington’s black population, warning them of the prejudice they might encounter and suggesting they consider emigrating to avoid this.

The Proclamation

In September, Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. This stated in clear terms that, from the beginning of 1863, all slaves in those states which had rebelled would be considered “forever free.” The final proclamation was issued on New Year’s Day, 1863, and described liberation of Southern slaves as both militarily necessary and “an act of justice.” It did not cover the border states: the President had failed in his attempt to persuade them to accept even a gradual process of emancipation. Nor were those parts of the Confederacy where Union forces were in control included – since they were no longer rebelling against the United States.

Other provisions of the Emancipation Proclamation allowed free black men and freed slaves to serve in the Union army, including as soldiers. Almost 200,000 black men were recruited to the army and navy of the Union, giving them not only personal freedom but a significant part in the Union’s eventual triumph in the war. From this point onward, the war was described as being a battle for the “birth of freedom,” a phrase Lincoln would later use in the Gettysburg Address. It also revolutionized the society of the South, as the foundation of its economy had been ripped away.

The Thirteenth Amendment

Republicans, including Lincoln, were concerned about what would happen once the war had ended. Since the Emancipation Proclamation had been passed as a war measure, it might have no power in time of peaces. The decision was therefore taken to press for a Constitutional Amendment which would ban slavery outright across the United States. What would become the Thirteenth Amendment sailed through the Senate in April 1864, but was pushed through the more strongly Democratic House only with great difficulty. It only passed into law in December 1865, once three-quarters of the states had ratified it. Continue to the Full Text ยป

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