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The Emancipation Proclamation

What was the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation? 

Slavery and the Civil War

Washington DC, summer 1862. The Civil War had been going on for over a year, and it was not going well for Abraham Lincoln. 11 of the 15 southern states where slavery was legal had formed the Confederate States of America (CSA) and were waging a war to break free from the United States. Lincoln was determined that the nation was not going to fall apart on his watch.
When war broke out a year earlier, general opinion was that it would only take the United States a few weeks to suppress the rebellion. Instead, during the first year of the conflict, the Confederate Army had won the majority of important battles. It was becoming more and more apparent that the Civil War was going to be a long and bloody conflict.
Ironically, when Lincoln became president, he had had no intention of abolishing slavery. Though he personally despised slavery, and had won the presidency on an anti-slavery platform, he would gladly have given up any chance of ending slavery in the South if it meant that the Confederate states would rejoin the United States.
In Lincoln's first inaugural address in 1861, he told the Confederates that "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so."1 But Lincoln's reassurances fell on deaf ears. The states of the CSA were not going to backtrack on their bid for independence.

Lincoln's dilemma

With no hope of bringing the South back into the United States by protecting slavery, Lincoln had a new dilemma. His own political party, the Republicans, had formed around their opposition to slavery. Many of the more radical politicians in the party saw the secession of the South as the best opportunity to abolish slavery once and for all. As the US war dead piled up, more and more Northerners began to push Lincoln to punish the states that had seceded by making abolition a major goal of the war.
The problem with abolishing slavery, however, was that there were still four slave states that had not seceded from the United States: Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware. Lincoln feared that if he advocated emancipation he would provoke those states into joining the Confederacy, making the war even more difficult to win. Of the border states, Maryland was particularly worrisome, because the US capital at Washington D.C. sat on its border with Virginia. If Maryland decided to join the Confederacy, Washington D.C. would be completely surrounded by enemy territory.
Map of the United States in 1862, with the states of the Confederacy in the south highlighted in red, and the states that remained in the Union highlighted in dark blue. The Border States of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware and highlighted in light blue. These slaveholding states were located in between the states of the North and the South. Washington, D.C., on the border of Maryland and Virginia, is in between a border state and the South. Abraham Lincoln was determined not to let any of the Border States join the Confederacy.
The United States in 1862. The states in light blue were "border states," on the border of the North (dark blue) and the South (red). Border states allowed slavery but did not secede along with the rest of the slave states.

Towards emancipation

Even though Lincoln did not intend to abolish slavery when the war began, circumstances changed rapidly. Enslaved people in the South, whose owners were waging war to make sure slavery endured, immediately interpreted the conflict as a war to end slavery. When Northern forces invaded the South, black men and women escaped from bondage and ran to US army lines, seeing the soldiers as liberators.
At first, the army had no idea what to do with this massive influx of formerly enslaved people, referring to them as "contrabands" since they were still technically considered pieces of property. Some commanders found them irritating, since it was difficult to feed and move so many extra civilians, and treated them abominably. Others saw the exodus as a double bonus: losing enslaved people not only demoralized white Southerners, it also deprived them of their labor force, meaning the South would soon run out of food and supplies.
By mid-1862, over a year into the fighting, it had become clear that slavery was a major war issue. Lincoln, like several of his generals, began to see that committing the United States to abolishing slavery would only help its cause. In the summer of 1862, he began to hash out the details of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The Emancipation Proclamation

Lincoln wrote the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation while staying with his family at the Soldier's Home, a cottage on the outskirts of Washington D.C. where they could get away from the heat of the city in summer. He presented the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet on July 22, 1862 and asked for their opinions.
They approved, but Lincoln's secretary of war Edwin Stanton suggested that they wait for a big military victory to issue the proclamation so that it wouldn't seem like a desperate measure. The summer went poorly for the US army. Not until September 17, 1862, did they win a decisive victory at the Battle of Antietam in Maryland.
Photograph from 1862 showing many dead soldiers laying along a wooden fence next to a road.
Confederate dead by a fence on the Hagerstown road (Antietam battlefield). Alexander Gardner (photographer), 1862. Image courtesy Library of Congress.

Interpreting the proclamation

Lincoln is known for his unmatched eloquence as a writer and orator. The year after he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln would pen the Gettysburg Address, perhaps the most beautiful and well-known speech in American history. The Emancipation Proclamation, with its whereofs, thenceforwards, and hereuntos is anything but elegant. One historian famously joked that the proclamation had "all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading."2
So why is the Emancipation Proclamation such a dense, inelegant piece of writing? Lincoln was a lawyer by trade, and he knew the importance of making sure contracts had no loopholes. Unlike the Gettysburg Address, which was a short speech delivered at the dedication of a cemetery, the Emancipation Proclamation was not intended to be eloquent or touching. It was intended to be an iron-clad legal document.
Though the term proclamation seems to imply that Lincoln stood up and "proclaimed" it somewhere, the Emancipation Proclamation was not a speech given by Lincoln. In essence, it was more like a decree. Lincoln wrote and signed it, and then copies of it were distributed for public notice. In many cases, US army officers read the document aloud to the formerly enslaved people who were accompanying the army in the South, letting them know that from that point forward they were officially free. Newspapers also reprinted the text of the proclamation.
It's important to note that Lincoln specified that enslaved people would only be freed in states which were "then in rebellion against the United States"—the states of the Confederacy. He even gave those states the opportunity to rejoin the Union before January 1, 1863 to prevent the proclamation from going into effect (they declined).
The Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to enslaved people in the border states of Missouri, Kentucky, Delaware, and Maryland, which had not joined the Confederacy. Lincoln exempted the border states from the proclamation because he didn't want to tempt them into joining the Confederacy.
Because the proclamation was a temporary war measure, it later had to be codified into law with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Congress officially outlawed slavery when it passed the Thirteenth Amendment in January, 1865.

Significance of the proclamation

The Emancipation Proclamation made emancipation an official part of the United States's military strategy. As the US army made its way across the South, it truly became an army of liberation. As enslaved people learned about the proclamation, they took an active role in freeing themselves from bondage, knowing that the army would defend them. Black men were accepted into the army to play their own part in ending slavery.
What's more, the Emancipation Proclamation made a promise: it promised that the United States was committed to ending slavery once and for all. It promised African Americans in the South that under no circumstances would they be returned to slavery if the United States won the war. Finally, it promised the Confederacy that there was no turning back the clock to before the war. The Emancipation Proclamation made the promise that the Civil War would change the United States forever.

Want to join the conversation?

  • hopper happy style avatar for user slowmantha2413
    Why is their still slavery in parts of the world today?
    (17 votes)
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    • primosaur seed style avatar for user noahpaul
      There is still slavery in this world due to the high profitability that unpaid workers produce as well as sex slavery is on the rise due to the high profits owners receive, none of these make it right in any fashion but the pull of fast cash and lack of morals has allowed slavery to be a continued practice.
      (24 votes)
  • hopper jumping style avatar for user Aryan
    What would have happened if the south won the civil war?
    (20 votes)
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    • piceratops seed style avatar for user Jarum
      1.) The Confederacy (South) would have likely become a recognized, independent country.
      2.) Increased likelihood for the Union (the north) or Confederacy being vulnerable to European attack/invasion/annexation
      3.) Further splintering. A big piece of the South's argument that came before the slavery issue was this thing called "Nullification" which basically meant that any state that didn't like what the overall country (federal government) was doing, could just "nullify" it, or make it not apply to that state.
      Basically it'd be more difficult to have a strong centralized government with that type of situation--and the South was very much the proponent (fans) of Nullification.
      4.) Slavery would have continued (although most likely that would have eventually died out)
      5.) Fight for the West. The two countries would have both felt they "deserved" the rest of the US that was either a territory or owned by others.
      6.) Just for fun--American Football would be a truly international game.
      (59 votes)
  • male robot hal style avatar for user KEVIN
    In the former slaves states in the south, when certain members of society are asked about the causes of the Civil War, they reply "states rights." Are there any moral, legal or academic reasons why the concept of "states rights" had validity for the south seceding, or is it just a convenient meme used by southerners to justify their ancestor's practice of slavery?
    (18 votes)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Andre.Bouchard
      Federal states such as the United States and Canada, wherein the constituent states or provinces have surrendered some of their independence to a federal authority (but not all of it), have often found the issue of states rights to be a prevailing issue throughout their history. Look to the example of the Quebec independence referendums of the late 20th century to understand that this is still a problem today. The freedom of the slaves is often cited as a reason for the civil war, but it is important to remember that although the abolitionists played a part in the descent into armed conflict, the promise to free slaves was not made until long after hostilities had begun. The issue of slavery was just the proverbial straw breaking the back of the everlasting states rights issue.
      (9 votes)
  • male robot johnny style avatar for user Rodrigo Contreras
    Where can I find my answer to this question, How was the North able to replenish its military in the face of staggering loses on the battlefield?
    I tried looking on here but i need some ones help please.
    (7 votes)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Kim Kutz Elliott
      Terrific question. One reason that the North was able to replenish its military was immigration -- a large influx of European immigrants were entering the United States during this time period, and a significant proportion of the soldiers (something like 20%, I believe) were actually born outside of the United States. Similarly, the North just had a much larger population than the South (about four times as many white men, who would have been considered eligible for military service) and therefore could afford to lose a lot more men. One of the factors that made Ulysses S. Grant a successful general was his understanding that (terrible as it sounds) the United States could afford to wage a war of attrition while the Confederacy could not. His willingness to lose a lot of soldiers (compared to earlier US generals like McClellan) was key to the final victory of the United States.
      (23 votes)
  • leaf green style avatar for user brian chandler
    How did the northern military anticipate the amount of food needed to feed the slaves that joined them?
    (12 votes)
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    • female robot grace style avatar for user anjana
      Terrific question about the effects of the Civil War!! As said in earlier videos, Mclellan _was always trying to persuade Lincoln to give him more food and supplies. As more and more black soldiers join the cause, Lincoln would have to give him more food and supplies, succombing to _Mclellan's wishes.
      (6 votes)
  • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user Kutili
    Why were parts of Louisiana (namely except the Parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the City of New Orleans) and Virginia (Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth) exempt from the proclamation?
    (7 votes)
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    • mr pants teal style avatar for user Anthony Natoli
      Short answer: they were under Federal/Union control at the time. As the author indicated, the Emancipation Proclamation is weird in that it "proclaimed" the emancipation of slaves only in rebellious states and areas, and not in the Northern States where slavery was already abolished, and not in the border states (Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, and Delaware) so as to not alienate the border states to join the Confederacy. The parishes in Louisiana were under Union control since the Union, with its navy, capture New Orleans and some of the adjoining parishes/counties. The counties in Virginia that were mentioned were forming a new state called West Virginia, and Tennessee was under Union control. See the section of Coverage in the article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emancipation_Proclamation
      (11 votes)
  • aqualine sapling style avatar for user cmah
    why are thay called the border states?
    (6 votes)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Kim Kutz Elliott
      Great question! They're called the Border States because they were along the border between the states that seceded from the Union (the South, or Confederacy) and those that did not (the North, or USA). These states were in between the two combatants. In most cases, the border states allowed slavery, but slavery was not such a major part of their economies that they would go to war to defend it. The North was eager to keep these states in the USA, and the Confederacy hoped to induce them to secede.
      (11 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user achampy
    who won the civil war at the end.
    (4 votes)
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    • male robot hal style avatar for user Stephen White
      I might suggest that nobody every "wins" a war. Both North and South had vast amounts of blood shed, and the fact that war was entered into means that there were multiplied failures upon failures in diplomacy, government, and efforts at peace.

      Now, having said that, the history books will tell you that the North won. The Confederacy surrendered, so that leaves the Union as the "winner." But the scars created last to this day.
      (11 votes)
  • hopper happy style avatar for user Charred Watermelon
    What is the difference between anti-slavery and abolition?
    (4 votes)
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  • stelly blue style avatar for user Jorge Daniel Garcia
    What where the political parties in the US before the institution of the republican party and Lincoln?
    (3 votes)
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