At the same time however, Lincoln’s cabinet was mulling over the document that would become the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln had written a draft in late July, and while some of his advisers supported it, others were anxious. William H. Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state, urged the president to wait to announce emancipation until the Union won a significant victory on the battlefield, and Lincoln took his advice.
On September 19, 1862, Union troops halted the advance of Confederate forces led by Gen. Robert E. Lee near Sharpsburg, Maryland, in the Battle of Antietam. Three days later, Lincoln went public with the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which called on all Confederate states to rejoin the Union within 100 days—by January 1, 1863—or their slaves would be declared “thenceforward, and forever free.”
On January 1, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which included nothing about gradual emancipation, compensation for enslavers or black emigration and colonization, a policy Lincoln had supported in the past. Lincoln justified emancipation as a wartime measure, and was careful to apply it only to the Confederate states currently in rebellion. Exempt from the proclamation were the four border slave states and all or parts of three Confederate states controlled by the Union Army.
As Lincoln’s decree applied only to territory outside the realm of his control, the Emancipation Proclamation had little actual effect on freeing any of the nation’s enslaved people. But its symbolic power was enormous, as it announced freedom for enslaved people as one of the North’s war aims, alongside preserving the Union itself. It also had practical effects: Nations like Britain and France, which had previously considered supporting the Confederacy to expand their power and influence, backed off due to their steadfast opposition to slavery. Black Americans were permitted to serve in the Union Army for the first time, and nearly 200,000 would do so by the end of the war.
Finally, the Emancipation Proclamation paved the way for the permanent abolition of slavery in the United States. As Lincoln and his allies in Congress realized emancipation would have no constitutional basis after the war ended, they soon began working to enact a Constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. By the end of January 1865, both houses of Congress had passed the 13th Amendment, and it was ratified that December.
"It is my greatest and most enduring contribution to the history of the war,” Lincoln said of emancipation in February 1865, two months before his assassination. “It is, in fact, the central act of my administration, and the great event of the 19th century."
The Emancipation Proclamation, National Archives
10 Facts: The Emancipation Proclamation, American Battlefield Trust
Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010)
Allen C. Guelzo, “Emancipation and the Quest for Freedom.” National Park Service.
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