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Primary Source: The Emancipation Proclamation

Instructor: David Wilson

David has taught college history and holds an MA in history.

One of the most famous laws in American history, the Emancipation Proclamation declared that all slaves in the Confederacy would be freed. It did not actually free many slaves, as the Confederacy ignored it and it did not apply to slaves living in Union border states where slavery was still legal.

The Emancipation Proclamation

On January 1st, 1863 Abraham Lincoln issued a presidential notice that applied to millions of black slaves in the United States. These slaves had provided the labor that powered the Southern states' economies, which were primarily built around cash crops like rice, tobacco, indigo, and, above all, cotton. The question of slavery's legality had so divided the American people that it led to the Civil War itself.

Even so, among many of the Union and Confederate soldiers fighting the Civil War, slavery was not really believed to be the core issue of the war. Southerners often believed their rights, including the right of a state to secede, was paramount, while Union soldiers believed that the Southerners did not have the right to raise rebellion. In fact, many Northerners believed blacks were not worth fighting for, as demonstrated by the anti-draft riots of New York City in 1863 where the mob lynched free blacks.

The Emancipation Proclamation, the first mass emancipation law instituted by any American politician, proved a crucial moment in the racial history of the United States. It provided the first legal framework for the comprehensive abolition of slavery, and, in turn, a step towards the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution that formally outlawed slavery throughout the United States.

If you'd like more practice in how to analyze and interpret speeches as primary sources, please check out our lesson Practice Analyzing and Interpreting a Speech.

Text of the Emancipation Proclamation

January 1, 1863

By the President of the United States of America:

A Proclamation.

Whereas on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:

''That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, 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; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

That the Executive will on the first day of January aforesaid, by proclamation, designate the States and parts of States, if any, in which the people thereof, respectively, shall then be in rebellion against the United States; and the fact that any State, or the people thereof, shall on that day be, in good faith, represented in the Congress of the United States by members chosen thereto at elections wherein a majority of the qualified voters of such States shall have participated, shall, in the absence of strong countervailing testimony, be deemed conclusive evidence that such State and the people thereof are not then in rebellion against the United States.''

Now, therefore I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-In-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion, do, on this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and in accordance with my purpose so to do, publicly proclaimed for the full period of one hundred days, from the first day above mentioned, order and designate as the States and parts of States wherein the people thereof respectively, are this day in rebellion against the United States, the following, to wit:

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