Emancipation of Slaves: Definition, Law & Proclamation Summary

Instructor: Lucia Reyes
The Emancipation Proclamation set the path toward the eradication of slavery in the United States. Complete this lesson to learn more about this monumental decision and its impact on history.


Emancipation is defined by Webster's dictionary as the act of being freed from restraint, control, or the power of another; especially: to free from bondage.

In the context of the history of the United States, emancipation refers to the abolishment of slavery. Emancipating slaves wasn't an easy process, however. The monumental decisions that ended slavery were made during the most tumultuous and violent period in the history of the United States- the American Civil War.

Background Information

The American Civil War (1861-1865) is often referred to as 'the bloodiest war in American history', with the loss of lives totaling over 600,000. Although slavery was not the sole cause of the Civil War, it did play a major factor. The economic dependency on the plantation system in the 'South' made this region distinctly different from the industrial- based 'North'. In addition, pro-slavery legislators in Congress constantly came into conflict with their anti-slavery opponents.

Photograph of a Southern Cotton Plantation
Cotton Plantation

After years of conflict over growing regional differences, state vs. federal power, and arguments over the balance of slave vs. free states, the country broke apart. Seven southern states seceded, following the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, with four more joining shortly after. The Confederate States of America had formed, still holding tightly to their slaves. However, not every slave state departed. Four states referred to as the Border States still maintained slavery, but remained within the Union.

Civil War Map, Red=Confederacy, Dark Blue=Union, Light Blue=Border States
Civil War Map

Leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation

Prior to the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was opposed to the spread of slavery, but his intention was not to eradicate it completely. Lincoln stated in his 1st Inaugural Address, 'I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery where it exists.' Once war erupted, Lincoln's priority became reuniting the country. He wrote in a letter to his secretary of state 'If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.'

Abraham Lincoln was torn over the issue of slavery
Abraham Lincoln

As the war raged on, though, Lincoln was increasingly pressured to take a definitive stand on slavery. When the South ignored his threat to free their slaves if they didn't surrender, Lincoln waited for an opportune moment to act. Finally, following the Union victory at the Battle of Antietam, Lincoln issued a monumental decree known as the Emancipation Proclamation.

Emancipation Proclamation
Emancipation Proclamation

Meaning of the Emancipation Proclamation

On January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The declaration reads: 'all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.' In other words, slaves in the Confederate states were pronounced free by the Emancipation Proclamation .

Why didn't Lincoln free ALL the slaves?

Lincoln's Proclamation only freed slaves in the following states: 'Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana… Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia…' Slaves were not declared free in the slave- holding Border States or in the state of Tennessee.

The reason why Lincoln didn't free all slaves is because it wasn't within his power as President to do so. The total eradication of slavery would take time to pass through Congress. So since the Border States and most of Tennessee at this point were under Union control, Lincoln couldn't abolish slavery here. In addition, Lincoln couldn't risk losing support from these states.

However, as Commander in Chief of the military, Lincoln did have power to declare slaves free in rebelling states as an act of war. He viewed this act as a necessary means to squashing the rebellion. He also promised that the military would ' recognize and maintain the freedom of... ' freed slaves.

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