27 pages 54 minutes read

Abraham Lincoln

Emancipation Proclamation

Nonfiction | Essay / Speech | Adult | Published in 1863

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “The Emancipation Proclamation”

Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863, during the US Civil War. The order declared all enslaved people inside the Confederacy to be free, effective immediately. It promised them protection by the US military, and it invited them to join the Union Army in the fight against the Confederacy. The Emancipation Proclamation was widely celebrated as a major turning point in the movement for abolition, though the Union had no means of enforcing it inside the Confederate states where it applied. Upon its release, the document was published in newspapers and, later, often read aloud by Union soldiers to enslaved people when they were freed. It paved the way for the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, and for decades after its release, the Emancipation Proclamation was celebrated each January 1 in towns across the nation. This study guide refers to the transcript of the proclamation at the website of the US National Archives.

Content Warning: This guide discusses the enslavement of Black people and the US Civil War.

Lincoln was initially reluctant to make emancipation or abolition an important part of his wartime agenda. Although he personally abhorred slavery and campaigned on an anti-slavery platform, he recognized that he had no constitutional authority to abolish it. In his first inaugural address in March 1861, shortly before the outbreak of the war, he said, “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” (“Lincoln’s First Inaugural.” Dickinson.edu). When the Confederate States seceded anyway, Lincoln gradually incorporated emancipation as an important war aim in addition to restoring the Union.

This change occurred across 1861 and 1862. There were the voices of abolitionists who loudly called on the president to emancipate enslaved people, but there was also the practical and legal matter of enslaved people escaping to the Union side—something that began almost immediately and set in motion the legal responses that culminated in the Emancipation Proclamation. Such formerly enslaved people were declared free by the Confiscation Acts of 1861 and 1862, and these acts raised the profile of the emancipation idea. After the passage of the Second Confiscation Act of 1862, for example, Horace Greeley published a strongly worded editorial “The Prayer of Twenty Millions,” calling on the president to use his war powers to emancipate those individuals bound by slavery.

The Emancipation Proclamation gives two reasons for emancipation: it is an “act of justice warranted by the Constitution,” and it is a “military necessity.” The justice of emancipating enslaved people is clear. The strategic value of emancipation requires some explanation. First, it was understood that it would create economic and social instability in rebel states, and second, it would allow Black soldiers to join Union forces to defeat the South. By the end of the war, over 180,000 Black soldiers did join the Union Army—about 10% of its troops—and more than half of them were escaped and emancipated people.

The Emancipation Proclamation did not free all enslaved people. In fact, its practical effect was limited. It only applied to the enslaved people in the Confederate States of America, where (as has already been mentioned) it was not possible to enforce the proclamation. There were also five border states that maintained slavery but had not joined the Confederacy: Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, and West Virginia. The Emancipation Proclamation is carefully worded to leave them alone. In a way, then, the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free any enslaved people at all, since previous provisions such as the Confiscation Acts had already guaranteed freedom to formerly enslaved people who escaped the Confederacy or came under the control of Union troops or belonged to rebel enslavers.

However, the symbolic value of the proclamation was extraordinary. It conveyed a promise of freedom that touched a chord. Lincoln declared, just before signing it, “I have never in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper” (“Emancipation Proclamation.” Archives.gov). The Emancipation Proclamation put abolition on the fast track; abolition was codified in the 13th Amendment, which was introduced in Congress a little over a year after the proclamation was issued. The proclamation also galvanized Black Americans, especially in the South, many of whom heard in it the president calling on them to take up arms—arms that he would supply—in the fight for their liberty.