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What is the Emancipation Proclamation?

Updated on April 2, 2011

The emancipation proclamation was a military edict issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, proclaiming the emancipation of all slaves in those regions still under Confederate control in the Civil War. Such action had been promised in a preliminary proclamation dated September 22, 1862.


Background of the Emancipation Proclamation

The secession crisis of 1860-1861 and the ensuing war had followed a long sectional controversy in which the ostensible issue was not the future of slavery in the entire Union but merely its status in the Western territories. Lincoln and other Republican leaders had repeatedly disavowed any intention of interfering with the institution in states where it was already established, and this disclaimer had been formally reaffirmed by Congress in July 1861. Thus, the sole official purpose of the war in its early stages was to suppress rebellion. Any attempt to convert it into a crusade against slavery would alienate many Northern Democrats and perhaps drive the remaining border slave states out of the Union.

Yet the pressure for emancipation began to mount soon after the outbreak of hostilities. Abolitionists and radical Republicans, arguing that secession had erased the constitutional protection claimed for slavery, urged prompt seizure of the wartime opportunity to destroy the institution completely. It also seemed likely that emancipation would strengthen the Union cause abroad and discourage foreign intervention. Furthermore, as the war continued and casualty lists lengthened, there was a growing conviction that mere restoration of the status quo ante bellum would not be enough to show for so much effort and sacrifice.

Congress whittled away at the institution of slavery in a series of laws passed during the first year of warfare. Slaves engaged in Confederate military activities were declared forfeit. Slavery was abolished in the District of Columbia and in the federal territories, an open defiance of the Dred Scott decision. Then, in July 1862, the Second Confiscation Act provided that slaves of all persons thereafter supporting the rebellion should be forever free. This was intended to inaugurate emancipation on a broad scale, but the provision would have been difficult to administer, and Lincoln, preferring to keep the initiative in his own hands, left it unenforced.

Meanwhile, two overzealous Union generals, John C. Fremont and David Hunter, had issued proclamations freeing the slaves in their own military districts. To the dismay of ardent anti-slavery elements, the President overruled both orders, declaring that decisions of such magnitude could not be left to commanders in the field. Lincoln himself first dealt with the subject in terms consistent with his prewar attitude. He strongly recommended federal assistance to any state that would adopt a program of gradual, compensated emancipation. This proposal, endorsed by Congress in April 1862, was aimed primarily at the problem of slavery in the loyal border states, and their failure to implement it left Lincoln bitterly disappointed.

Planning the Proclamation

By the summer of 1862, Lincoln had begun to consider the advantages of proclaiming the abolition of slavery throughout the Confederacy. The authority to do so, he believed, could be inferred from his broad powers as commander in chief. If emancipation were treated as a strictly military effort to cripple Southern manpower, it would be on firmer constitutional ground and perhaps more acceptable to Northern conservatives. On July 22 the President informed his cabinet that he intended to issue a proclamation freeing Confederate slaves. He was persuaded, however, to wait for a more favorable military situation in order to avoid the appearance of acting from desperation. To an importunate open letter from Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, in August, Lincoln replied that his "paramount object was to save the Union, with slavery or without it. By this stratagem, he publicly reserved the decision to himself, while dropping the hint that emancipation might become a military necessity. Further delay resulted from the Union defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run, but when Lee's invasion of Maryland was turned back at Antietam, Lincoln promptly issued his preliminary proclamation on September 22. Essentially an ultimatum, it announced that on January 1, 1863, slaves within all areas still in rebellion would be declared free "thenceforward and forever."

Proclamation Issued

During the intervening hundred days, Republican reverses in the autumn elections, followed by another military disaster at Fredericksburg, inspired the fear in some quarters and the hope in others that Lincoln would not carry out his promise. But on New Year's Day he issued the final Proclamation. It was curiously prosaic for a document of such importance. Only in a closing passage did Lincoln go beyond his narrowly military justification of the edict and label it also "an act of justice." For obvious constitutional reasons, the border states were not included in the proclamation.

Neither was Tennessee, and parts of Virginia and Louisiana were likewise excepted, because it would have been difficult to claim "military necessity" in areas already under federal control. In response to charges that he hoped to incite uprisings in the Confederacy, Lincoln also enjoined slaves to «abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defense." At the same time, he announced that "such persons of suitable condition" would be received into the anned service of the United States.

In its immediate practical effect, cynics noted, the Proclamation freed no one at all, but this ceased to be true as Union forces conquered additional territory and as slaves in growing numbers fled to their protection. Army commanders were left to improvise care for these refugees.

Lincoln paid little attention to the problem, and Congress dallied until March 1865, when it created a Freedmen's Bureau. It was rather as a dramatic expression of national commitment that the Proclamation changed the nature of the war and virtually ensured the complete extinction of slavery later confirmed in the 13th Amendment.


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      boo 5 years ago

      very informative i guess