The Emancipation Proclamation, formally issued on January 1, 1863, by President ABRAHAM LINCOLN is often mistakenly praised as the legal instrument that ended slavery—actually, the THIRTEENTH AMENDMENT to the Constitution, ratified in December 1865, outlawed SLAVERY. But the proclamation is justifiably celebrated as a significant step toward the goal of ending slavery and making African Americans equal citizens of the United States. Coming as it did in the midst of the Civil War (1861–65), the proclamation announced to the Confederacy and the world that the ABOLITION of slavery had become an important goal of the North in its fight against the rebellious states of the South. The document also marked a shift in Lincoln's mind toward support for emancipation. Just before signing the final document in 1863, Lincoln said, "I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper."
In the text of the proclamation—which is almost entirely the work of Lincoln himself—Lincoln characterizes his order as "an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution upon military necessity." These words capture the essential character of Lincoln's work in the document. On the one hand, he perceived the proclamation as a kind of military tactic that would aid the Union in its difficult struggle against the Confederacy. As such, it was an extraordinary measure that carried the force of law under the powers granted by the Constitution to the president as commander in chief of the U.S. military forces. But on the other hand, Lincoln saw the proclamation as "an act of justice" that announced the intention of the North to free the slaves. In this respect, it became an important statement of the intent to abolish slavery in the United States once and for all, as well as a vital symbol of human freedom to later generations.
Lincoln had not always regarded emancipation as a goal of the Civil War. In fact, he actively resisted emancipation efforts early in the war, as when he voided earlier emancipation proclamations issued by the Union generals John C. Frémont and David Hunter in their military districts. Lincoln also failed to enforce provisions passed by Congress in 1861 and 1862 that called for the confiscation and emancipation of slaves owned by persons supporting the rebellion.
Antislavery sentiment in the North, however, grew in intensity during the course of the Civil War. By the summer of 1862, with the Union faring poorly in the conflict, Lincoln had begun to formulate the ideas he would eventually express in the proclamation. In particular, he reasoned that emancipation would work to the military advantage of the North by creating a labor shortage for the Confederacy and providing additional troops for the Union. While Lincoln was increasingly sympathetic to abolitionists who wished to end slavery, he was reluctant to proclaim emancipation on a wider scale, out of fear that it would alienate the border slave states of Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri, which had remained part of the Union. Already stung by military setbacks, Lincoln did not want to do anything to jeopardize the ultimate goal of victory in the war. Even if he had wished to proclaim emancipation on a wider scale, such an act probably would not have been constitutionally legitimate for the presidency.
Lincoln's cabinet was nervous about the effect of issuing the proclamation, and it advised him to wait until the Union had won a major victory before releasing it. As a result, the president announced the preliminary proclamation on September 22, 1862, five days after the Union victory at the Battle of Antietam. In language that would be retained in the final version of the proclamation, this preliminary order declared that on January 1, 1863, all the slaves in the parts of the country still in rebellion "shall be … thenceforward and forever, free." It also pledged that "the executive government of the United States, including the military … will recognize and maintain the freedom" of ex-slaves. But this preliminary proclamation also contained language that was not included in the final document.
For example, it recommended that slave owners who had remained loyal to the Union be compensated for the loss of their slaves.
The final version of the proclamation specified the regions still held by the Confederacy in which emancipation would apply: all parts of Arkansas, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, and parts of Louisiana and Virginia. It also asked that freed slaves "abstain from all violence" and announced that those "of suitable condition will be received into the armed service of the United States." This last provision led to a significant practical effect of the proclamation: by 1865, over 190,000 African Americans had joined the U.S. ARMED SERVICES in the fight against the Confederacy.
News and copies of the proclamation quickly spread through the country, causing many people, especially African Americans, to celebrate. At one gathering, the African American abolitionist FREDERICK DOUGLASS made a speech in which he pronounced the proclamation the first step on the part of the nation in its departure from the servitude of the ages. In following years, many African Americans would continue to celebrate the anniversary of the signing of the proclamation.
However, many abolitionists were disappointed with the limited nature of the proclamation. They called for complete and immediate emancipation throughout the entire country, and they criticized the proclamation as the product of military necessity rather than moral idealism.
Although the practical effects of the proclamation were quite limited, it did serve as an important symbol that the North now intended not only to preserve the Union but also to abolish the practice of slavery. For Lincoln, the proclamation marked an important step in his eventual support of complete emancipation. Later, he would propose that the REPUBLICAN PARTY include in its 1864 platform a plank calling for the abolition of slavery by constitutional amendment, and he would sign the Thirteenth Amendment in early 1865.
The copy of the proclamation that Lincoln wrote by hand and signed on January 1, 1863, was destroyed in a fire in 1871. Early drafts and copies of the original, including the official government copy derived from Lincoln's own, are held at the National Archives, in Washington, D.C.