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The Emancipation Proclamation consists of two executive orders issued by United States President Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War. The first one, issued September 22, 1862, declared the freedom of all slaves in any state of the Confederate States of America that did not return to Union control by January 1, 1863. The second order, issued January 1, 1863, named the specific states where it applied.
The Emancipation Proclamation was widely attacked at the time as freeing only the slaves over which the Union had no power, but in practice, it committed the Union to ending slavery, which was controversial in the North. It was not a law passed by Congress, but a presidential order empowered, as Lincoln wrote, by his position as “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy” under Article II, section 2 of the United States Constitution.
The proclamation did not free any slaves of the border states (Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, Delaware, and West Virginia), or any southern state (or part of a state) already under Union control. It first directly affected only those slaves that had already escaped to the Union side, but as the Union armies conquered the Confederacy, thousands of slaves were freed each day until nearly all (approximately 4 million, according to the 1860 census) were freed by July of 1865.
After the war there was concern that the proclamation, as a war measure, had not made the elimination of slavery permanent. Several former slave states had prohibited slavery; however, some slavery continued to exist until the entire institution was finally wiped out by the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment on December 18, 1865.
An application of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 would have required the return of fugitive slaves to their owners. Initially this did not occur because some Union generals declared slaves in re-occupied areas were contraband of war. This was controversial because it could imply some recognition of the Confederacy as a separate nation under international law, a notion that Lincoln steadfastly denied; as a result, he never promoted the contraband designation. Some generals also declared the slaves to be free and were replaced when they refused to rescind such declarations. On March 13, 1862, Lincoln forbade all Union Army officers from returning fugitive slaves. On April 10, 1862, Congress declared that the federal government would compensate slave owners who freed their slaves. All slaves in the District of Columbia were freed in this way on April 16, 1862. On June 19, 1862, Congress prohibited slavery in United States territories, thus opposing the 1857 opinion of the Supreme Court of the United States in the Dred Scott Case that Congress was powerless to regulate slavery in U.S. territories.
In January 1862, Thaddeus Stevens, the Republican leader in the House, called for total war against the rebellion, arguing that emancipation would ruin the rebel economy. In July 1862, Congress passed and Lincoln signed the “Second Confiscation Act.” It liberated the slaves held by “rebels”. It provided:
SEC. 2. And be it further enacted, That if any person shall hereafter incite, set on foot, assist, or engage in any rebellion or insurrection against the authority of the United States, or the laws thereof, or shall give aid or comfort thereto, or shall engage in, or give aid and comfort to, any such existing rebellion or insurrection, and be convicted thereof, such person shall be punished by imprisonment for a period not exceeding ten years, or by a fine not exceeding ten thousand dollars, and by the liberation of all his slaves, if any he have; or by both of said punishments, at the discretion of the court.
SEC. 9. And be it further enacted, That all slaves of persons who shall hereafter be engaged in rebellion against the government of the United States, or who shall in any way give aid or comfort thereto, escaping from such persons and taking refuge within the lines of the army; and all slaves captured from such persons or deserted by them and coming under the control of the government of the United States; and all slaves of such person found or being within any place occupied by rebel forces and afterwards occupied by the forces of the United States, shall be deemed captives of war, and shall be forever free of their servitude, and not again held as slaves.
Abolitionists had long been urging Lincoln to free all slaves. A mass rally in Chicago on September 7, 1862, demanded an immediate and universal emancipation of slaves. A delegation headed by William W. Patton met the President at the White House on September 13. Lincoln had declared in peacetime that he had no constitutional authority to free the slaves. Even used as a war power, emancipation was a risky political act. Public opinion as a whole was against it. There would be strong opposition among Copperhead Democrats and an uncertain reaction from loyal border states.
Lincoln first discussed the proclamation with his cabinet in July 1862, but he felt that he needed a Union victory on the battlefield so it would not look like an act of desperation. The Battle of Antietam, in which Union troops turned back a Confederate invasion of Maryland, gave him the opportunity to issue a preliminary proclamation on September 22, 1862. The final proclamation was then issued in January of the following year, 100 days later. Although implicitly granted authority by Congress, Lincoln used his powers as Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, “as a necessary war measure” as the basis of the proclamation, rather than the equivalent of a statute enacted by Congress or a constitutional amendment.
The Emancipation Proclamation did not immediately free many slaves. Secretary of State William H. Seward commented, “We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.” Had any seceding state rejoined the Union before January 1, 1863, it could have kept slavery, at least temporarily. The Proclamation only gave Lincoln the legal basis to free the slaves in the areas of the South that were still in rebellion. Thus, it initially freed only some slaves already behind Union lines. However, it also took effect as the Union armies advanced into the Confederacy.
The Emancipation Proclamation also allowed for the enrollment of freed slaves into the United States military. Nearly 200,000 blacks did join, most of them ex-slaves. This gave the North an additional manpower resource that the Confederacy would not emulate until the final months before its defeat.
Though the counties of Virginia that were soon to form West Virginia were specifically exempted from the Proclamation, a condition of its admittance to the Union was that the new state’s constitution at least gradually abolish slavery. Slaves in the border states of Maryland, Missouri were also emancipated by separate state action before the Civil War ended. In early 1865, Tennessee adopted an amendment to its constitution prohibiting slavery. Slaves in Kentucky and Delaware were not emancipated until the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified.
The Proclamation was issued in two parts. The first part, issued on September 22, 1862, was a preliminary announcement outlining the intent of the second part, which officially went into effect 100 days later on January 1, 1863, during the second year of the Civil War. It was Abraham Lincoln’s declaration that all slaves would be permanently freed in all areas of the Confederacy that had not already returned to federal control by January 1863.
The ten affected states were individually named in the second part. Not included were the Union slave states of Maryland, Delaware, Missouri and Kentucky. Also not named was the state of Tennessee, which Union armies already controlled. Specific exemptions were stated for areas also under Union control on January 1, 1863, namely 48 counties that would soon become West Virginia, seven other named counties of Virginia, New Orleans and 13 named parishes nearby.
Booker T. Washington, as a boy of 9, remembered the day in early 1865:
As the great day drew nearer, there was more singing in the slave quarters than usual. It was bolder, had more ring, and lasted later into the night. Most of the verses of the plantation songs had some reference to freedom…. Some man who seemed to be a stranger (a United States officer, I presume) made a little speech and then read a rather long paper-the Emancipation Proclamation, I think. 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. She explained to us what it all meant, that this was the day for which she had been so long praying, but fearing that she would never live to see.
The Emancipation took place without violence by masters or ex-slaves. The proclamation represented a shift in the war objectives of the North-reuniting the nation would no longer become the sole outcome. It represented a major step toward the ultimate abolition of slavery in the United States and a “new birth of freedom”.
Some slaves were freed immediately by the proclamation. Runaway slaves who had escaped to Union lines were being held by the Union Army as “contraband of war” in contraband camps; when the proclamation took effect, they were told at midnight that they were free to leave. The Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia had been occupied by the Union Navy earlier in the war. The whites had fled to the mainland while the blacks stayed, and an early program of Reconstruction was set up for them. Naval officers read the proclamation to them and told them they were free.
In the military, the reaction to this proclamation varied widely, with some units nearly ready to mutiny in protest, and desertions were attributed to it. Other units were inspired with the adoption of a cause that seemed to them to ennoble their efforts, such that at least one unit took up the motto “For Union and Liberty”.
Slaves had been part of the “engine of war” for the Confederacy. They produced and prepared food; sewed uniforms; repaired railways; worked on farms and in factories, shipping yards, and mines; built fortifications; and served as hospital workers and common laborers. News of the Proclamation spread rapidly by word of mouth, arousing hopes of freedom, creating general confusion, and encouraging many to escape.
The Proclamation was immediately denounced by Copperhead Democrats who opposed the war and tolerated both secession and slavery. It became a campaign issue in the 1862 elections, in which the Democrats gained 28 seats in the House as well as the governorship of New York. Many War Democrats who had supported Lincoln’s goal of saving the Union, balked at supporting emancipation. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in November of 1863 made indirect reference to the Proclamation and the ending of slavery as a war goal with the phrase “new birth of freedom”. The Proclamation solidified Lincoln’s support among the rapidly growing abolitionist element of the Republican Party, and ensured they would not block his re-nomination in 1864.
Abroad, as Lincoln hoped, the Proclamation turned foreign popular opinion in favor of the Union for its new commitment to end slavery. That shift ended any hope the Confederacy might have had of gaining official recognition, particularly from the United Kingdom. If Britain or France, both of which had abolished slavery, continued to consider supporting the Confederacy, it would seem as though they were supporting slavery. Prior to Lincoln’s decree, Britain’s actions had favored the Confederacy, especially in its construction of warships such as the CSS Alabama and CSS Florida. As Henry Adams noted, “The Emancipation Proclamation has done more for us than all our former victories and all our diplomacy.” Giuseppe Garibaldi hailed Lincoln as “the heir of the aspirations of John Brown”. Alan Van Dyke, a representative for workers from Manchester, England, wrote to Lincoln saying, “We joyfully honor you for many decisive steps toward practically exemplifying your belief in the words of your great founders: ‘All men are created free and equal.'” This eased tensions with Europe that had been caused by the North’s determination to defeat the South at all costs, even if it meant upsetting Europe, as in the Trent Affair.
Near the end of the war, abolitionists were concerned that the Emancipation Proclamation would be construed solely as a war act and thus no longer apply once fighting ended. They were also increasingly anxious to secure the freedom of all slaves, not just those freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. Thus pressed, Lincoln staked a large part of his 1864 presidential campaign on a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery uniformly throughout the United States. Lincoln’s campaign was bolstered by separate votes in both Maryland and Missouri to abolish slavery in those states. Maryland’s new constitution abolishing slavery took effect in November 1864. Slavery in Missouri was ended by executive proclamation of its governor, Thomas C. Fletcher, on January 11, 1865.
Winning re-election, Lincoln pressed the lame duck 38th Congress to pass the proposed amendment immediately rather than wait for the incoming 39th Congress to convene. In January 1865, Congress sent to the state legislatures for ratification what became the Thirteenth Amendment, banning slavery in all U.S. states and territories. The amendment was ratified by the legislatures of enough states by December 6, 1865. There were about 40,000 slaves in Kentucky and 1,000 in Delaware who were then also liberated.
The proclamation was lauded in the years after Lincoln’s death. The anniversary of its issue was celebrated as a black holiday for more than 50 years; the holiday of Juneteenth was created to honor it. In 1913, the fiftieth anniversary of the Proclamation, there were particularly large celebrations. As the years went on and American life continued to be deeply unfair towards blacks, cynicism towards Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation increased.
Some 20th century black intellectuals, including W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin and Julius Lester, have described the proclamation as essentially worthless. Perhaps the strongest attack was Lerone Bennett’s Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream, which claimed that Lincoln was a white supremacist who issued the Emancipation Proclamation in lieu of the real racial reforms that radical abolitionists were pushing for.
In his Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Allen C. Guelzo notes the professional historians’ lack of substantial respect for the document, since it has been the subject of few major scholarly studies. He argues that Lincoln was America’s “last Enlightenment politician” and as such was dedicated to removing slavery strictly within the bounds of law.
The Emancipation Proclamation was on display at the William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park in Little Rock, Arkansas, from September 22-25, 2007 as part of the Little Rock Central High School 50th anniversary of integration.
Birth Of A Notion Disclaimer
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This is not a race between Darren and I, it is a hope that more progressive strips can be represented in the printed press of America.
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