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The Emancipation Proclamation: Creation, Context and Legacy

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  • 0:07 What Was the…
  • 2:48 Controversy
  • 6:41 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. More than three million slaves in the South were freed, but the move was not without its critics, both then and now.

What Was the Emancipation Proclamation?

President Lincoln meeting with his advisors
Lincoln and Advisors

When I ask students what the American Civil War was about, many of them say it was about slavery. Hopefully, you've learned that the war was also about the preservation of the Union and fundamental differences of opinion about the locus of political power. But let me ask you a related question: Do you know what the Emancipation Proclamation was? Many people believe that it abolished slavery in the United States, but that's not true. Let's spend this lesson looking at what historian, Allen Guelzo, called 'the single most far-reaching, even revolutionary, act of any American president.'

For most of his political career on record, Abraham Lincoln had deep misgivings about emancipation. He later told one of his generals that he had struggled to avoid the issue of slavery throughout the Civil War. But as the war approached its third devastating year with no end in sight, he began to consider all of his options. At least twice in 1862, he had broached the subject with his political and military advisors and with Congress. Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Roger Taney, advised the president that he had no such Constitutional authority. Lincoln disagreed; he believed the Constitution clearly empowered the nation's leaders to defend and preserve the Union, and he felt that setting the South's slaves free would help accomplish that goal. On July 22, 1862, he read a preliminary draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet. According to one historian, he even told them he had made a covenant with God to release it. They suggested he wait until after an important military victory to go public.

Photo of newly freed slaves in the streets
Newly Free Slaves Walking

Congress had recently passed a law allowing troops to confiscate property, including slaves. So, the president knew there was public and political support for the measure. Then, the Battle of Antietam gave him the opportunity he needed. On September 22, President Lincoln issued an ultimatum to the states in rebellion: lay down your arms, or I will free all of your slaves on New Year's Day. As you might have expected, no one took him up on the offer. So, the Emancipation Proclamation was published, declaring, '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.' The Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863, freeing three million African American slaves in the Confederacy.

Controversy over the Emancipation Proclamation

Cynics like to suggest that the Emancipation Proclamation was meaningless propaganda that never freed a single slave, and that Union leadership was racist and had ulterior motives. These cynics are both correct and incorrect. Most notably, the Proclamation did not free any slaves in the loyal border states or in areas of the South already under Union control, such as New Orleans. Lincoln's secretary of war endorsed it solely because it would both reduce the manpower of the South while increasing the manpower of the North. At least it would have those effects if slaves knew about it and acted upon it, and southern civilians didn't take up arms against them. Truthfully, Lincoln didn't have the manpower to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation if masses of slaves hadn't simply walked out, but they did.

President Lincoln meeting with General McClellan of the Union Army
Lincoln General McClellan

After the Proclamation's publication in September, Union troops began reading it everywhere they went, and there are eyewitness accounts and even photographs of former slaves now walking free on New Year's Day in different parts of the South. Clearly, people were freed. Two years later, a young boy recalled how a Union officer had read the Proclamation to the slaves on his plantation, which they didn't understand. He said, 'After the reading we were told that we were all free, and could go when and where we pleased. My mother, who was standing by my side, leaned over and kissed her children, while tears of joy ran down her cheeks.' The more territory the Army and Navy entered, the more slaves that were emancipated.

Of course, there were Americans who opposed the measure, both civilian and military. President Lincoln's Republican Party lost seats in that year's Congressional election, and many feared he would be thrown out of office. Some considered it an abuse of executive power. But far more Americans embraced the new war effort, and by tying the conflict directly to slavery, England and France (both of which had abolished slavery) finally abandoned their possible interest in recognizing the Confederacy. There are reports of desertion in the Army and troop protests. Even General McClellan opposed it, but many more soldiers welcomed this new purpose to their efforts. The word spread, and emancipation took place largely without violence by either former slaves or former owners.

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