Emancipation Proclamation

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This article describes to the 1862 United States proclamation freeing slaves in some parts of the U.S. For the 1834 act banning slavery in the colonies of the British Empire, see British emancipation.
The Emancipation Proclamation
The Emancipation Proclamation

The Emancipation Proclamation was a declaration by United States President Abraham Lincoln announcing that all slaves in Confederate territory still in rebellion were freed. The Proclamation exempted slaveholding border states which had not seceded from the Union, and those states already under Union control. While it immediately freed only a small number of slaves (see below), it did authorize their freedom as Union forces took control of former Confederate territory — and it set the stage for slavery's ultimate abolition in the United States.


How the proclamation was issued

The Proclamation was issued in two parts. The first part, issued on September 22, 1862, was a preliminary announcement outlining the intent of the second part, which officially went into effect January 1, 1863, during the second year of the American Civil War. It was Abraham Lincoln's declaration that all slaves in all states which had seceded from the Union and which had not returned to federal control by January 1, 1863 would be emancipated. The ten affected states were individually named on January 1, 1863. Intentionally omitted were Maryland and Delaware (which had never seceded), Tennessee (already under Union control), and Missouri and Kentucky (with factional governments that had been accepted to the Confederacy, but had not officially seceded). Specific exemptions were stated for 48 counties designated to become the state of West Virginia, along with several other named counties of Virginia; and also New Orleans and several named parishes in Louisiana already under Union control.

Immediate historical impact

First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation - Lincoln meets with his Cabinet.
First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation - Lincoln meets with his Cabinet.

Despite the limited immediate effect on the slaves, the proclamation represented a shift in the war objectives of the North—merely reuniting the nation would no longer become the sole outcome. It represented a major step toward the ultimate abolition of slavery in the United States.

However, there were a limited number of slaves who were freed immediately by the proclamation. Runaway slaves who made it to Union lines had been held by the Union army as "contraband of war" in contraband camps; when the proclamation took effect they were told at midnight that they were free to leave. Also, the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia had been occupied by the Union navy earlier in the war. The whites had fled to the mainland while the blacks stayed, largely running their own lives. Naval officers read the proclamation to them and told them they were free.

In the military, the reaction to this proclamation varied widely, with some units coming to near mutiny in protest, and desertions were reported because of it. On the other hand, other units were inspired with the adoption of a cause that seemed to them to ennoble their efforts, such that at least one unit took up the motto "For Union and Liberty".

Slaves were part of the "engine of war" for the Confederacy. They produced and prepared food; sewed uniforms; repaired railways; worked on farms and in factories, shipping yards, and mines; built fortifications; and served as hospital workers and common laborers. To encourage discontent among slaves in the Confederacy, a million copies of the Emancipation Proclamation were distributed in the Union-occupied South and, as hoped, news of it spread rapidly by word of mouth, arousing hopes of freedom, creating general confusion, and encouraging many to escape.

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Historical impact

After the outbreak of the Civil War, numerous slaves volunteered to fight for their freedom on the Union side, and there were also conflicting viewpoints about what to do with slaves in conquered territories. A strict application of existing policy could have required return of fugitive slaves to their Confederate masters, but on March 13, 1862, the federal government forbade all Union army officers from returning fugitive slaves, thus effectively annulling the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. On April 10, 1862, Congress declared that the federal government would compensate slave owners who freed their slaves. All slaves in the District of Columbia were freed in this way on April 16, 1862. On June 19, 1862, Congress prohibited slavery in United States territories, thus nullifying the 1857 decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in the Dred Scott Case, which had ruled that Congress was powerless to regulate slavery in the territories.

The Emancipation Proclamation itself had limited immediate effect upon slavery, except as territory in Confederate states came under Union control. Slaves in the border states (Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri and West Virginia) which remained loyal to the Union were not affected. Secretary of State William Seward commented on this by remarking, "We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free." Had any seceding state rejoined the Union (or simply returned its congressmen to Washington) before it took effect, it would have been in the same position as the border states and could have kept slavery, at least temporarily (although Maryland, Missouri, Tennessee, and West Virginia all went on to abolish slavery by their own internal political processes even before the ratification in 1865 of the Constitution's 13th amendment which outlawed slavery uniformly throughout the entire nation).


However, Lincoln believed he had no constitutional authority to free the slaves except in those states where it was deemed a military necessity in order to suppress the rebellion. In addition, freeing slaves was still a risky political act, since there were still slave states loyal to the Union and the initial war aims were centered on preserving the Union rather than freeing slaves. As such, the proclamation was a military order issued by Lincoln in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief, rather than the equivalent of a statute enacted by Congress, or a constitutional amendment. There is also some argument that the Emancipation Proclamation itself was unconstitutional, as the Commander-in-Chief power extends to directing the activities of the armed forces, not making new laws (see Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U.S. 579 (1952) (holding that the president lacked power as commander-in-chief to seize steel mills for Korean War effort). The Emancipation Proclamation also allowed for the admittance of freed slaves into the United States military (though the military was segregated), an unusual opportunity taken advantage of by nearly 200,000 black men, many of them former slaves. This gave the North an additional manpower resource that the South would not emulate until the final days before its defeat.

Lincoln first discussed the proclamation with his cabinet in July 1862, but because of the political implications of this act (including the presence of slave states within the Union), he felt that he needed a Union victory in the Civil War before he could issue it. After the Battle of Antietam, in which Union troops turned back a Confederate invasion of Maryland, he issued a preliminary proclamation on September 22, 1862. The final proclamation was then issued in January of the following year.

International impact

Abroad, as Lincoln hoped, the Proclamation turned foreign popular opinion in favor of the Union for its new commitment to end slavery. That shift ended any hope the Confederacy might have had of gaining official recognition, particularly with the United Kingdom. As Henry Adams noted, "The Emancipation Proclamation has done more for us than all our former victories and all our diplomacy."


Near the end of the war, Republican abolitionists were concerned that the Emancipation Proclamation would be construed solely as a war act and thus unconstitutional once fighting ended. They were also increasingly anxious to secure the freedom of all slaves, not just those freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. Thus pressed, Lincoln staked a large part of his 1864 presidential campaign on a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery uniformly throughout the United States. Lincoln's campaign was bolstered by separate votes in both Maryland and Missouri to abolish slavery in those states. Maryland's new constitution abolishing slavery took effect November 1, 1864. Winning re-election, Lincoln pressed the lame-duck 38th Congress to pass the proposed amendment immediately rather than wait for the incoming 39th Congress to convene. On January 31, 1865, Congress sent to the state legislatures for ratification what became the 13th Amendment, banning slavery in all U.S. states and territories. The amendment was ratified by the legislatures of enough states by December 6, 1865. As a practical matter, by the time that the amendment was ratified, Kentucky was the only remaining state in America where there were still significant numbers of slaves who had not already been freed by other means.

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