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The Emancipation Proclamation

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Abraham Lincoln Memorial close up view
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Quick Facts

  • What was the Emancipation Proclamation?: The Emancipation Proclamation freed Confederate slaves during the Civil War (1861-1865).
  • Who declared the Emancipation Proclamation?: President Abraham Lincoln declared the act.
  • When did Lincoln declare the Emancipation Proclamation: The proclamation went into effect January 1, 1863.
  • Where did the Emancipation Proclamation free slaves?: The decree freed only the slaves in Southern states and territories still in rebellion against the United States government.

President Abraham Lincoln's declaration of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 earned him the title the "Great Emancipator." The Emancipation Proclamation was a dry, legalistic document that was limited in nature but took on enormous symbolic importance.

Lincoln's Views on Slavery

The Republicans put Lincoln forth as their presidential nominee in 1860 because he was a moderate on the issue of slavery. While he deplored slavery, he also believed it had the protection of law. Lincoln feared that if slavery were suddenly ended, the country would be thrown into turmoil because of the racism of white Americans. In the first year of his presidency, he entertained a plan for gradual emancipation. He also suggested that freed slaves might leave the United States and build their own colony in Central America.

Influence of the Border States

African-American and white abolitionists continually pressured Lincoln to announce the end of slavery after the Civil War began in 1861. He was reluctant, partly because of his own misgivings but also because he did not want the four border states to secede. Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri were slave states that had chosen not to secede. As long as the war remained a battle to preserve the Union, Lincoln hoped to prevent any other states from joining the Confederacy.

Union Policies toward Slaves

Slaves immediately saw a connection between the war and the abolition of slavery, even as Lincoln resisted the idea. Beginning with Fort Sumter, enslaved Americans crossed into Union territory to be free and to help the Union cause. Throughout the war, former slaves provided crucial support for the U.S. cause. The refusal of slaves to wait for an official pronouncement from the federal government ending slavery put pressure on Lincoln's administration.

The Confiscation Act in August 1861 declared the property of Confederates to be forfeit, including slaves, but it did not free the slaves. Without a clear policy on escaped slaves, Union military commanders had to make their own decisions about what to do.

Major-General John C. Frémont and General David Hunter declared the slaves free in the territories they were administrating. Fremont was in Missouri in 1861, trying to quell unrest in the state from slave owners. He announced that the slaves of anyone who rebelled against the United States were free, an order that Lincoln overrode. General Hunter did the same in mid-1862 for the Department of the South, an area that included parts of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Again, Lincoln overruled Hunter's announcement.

The Proclamation

Congress passed a second Confiscation Act in mid-1862, which freed the slaves of owners engaged in rebellion against the United States government. It provided a policy for military commanders and led the way for the Emancipation Proclamation.

With pressure from abolitionists and fleeing slaves mounting in addition to a series of Confederate military victories, Lincoln proposed the Emancipation Proclamation in July of 1862 to his cabinet, offering a preliminary version to the public in September. The September proclamation warned Confederates that he would free their slaves if they did not end their rebellion. On January 1, 1863, Lincoln did just that-the Emancipation Proclamation declared that on January 1," 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."

Effects of the Emancipation Proclamation

The effect of the Emancipation Proclamation was to free only slaves in states still in rebellion. Slaves in states that had not seceded or that had been brought under Union control (Tennessee and parts of Louisiana and Virginia) were not affected. The move was politically risky for Lincoln, who knew he might lose the 1864 election by alienating Northern Democrats who wanted to save the Union but did not necessarily support abolition.

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