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Mrs. M.M. Pabor/Library of Congress

On This Day: President Lincoln Issues Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation

September 22, 2011 06:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On Sept. 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued a preliminary draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in territory that remained in rebellion on Jan. 1, 1863.

The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation

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Though he was personally opposed to the institution of slavery, Abraham Lincoln had no intention of abolishing it when he became president. He believed the Constitution “forbade me to practically indulge my primary abstract judgment on the moral question of slavery,” and he knew that any abolitionist act would likely be struck down by the courts.

His original aim for the Civil War was simply to preserve the Union rather than end slavery. But as the war dragged on, Lincoln “came to the conclusion that the only way to restore the Union was to wage war not only against Confederate armies, but also against slavery itself,” according to Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer.

Lincoln drafted an act to free the slaves and introduced it to his Cabinet in a July 22, 1862, meeting. Lincoln was determined to issue it; he “wanted the advice of his Cabinet on the style of the Proclamation, not its substance,” according to the Library of Congress.

Secretary of State William Seward suggested that Lincoln wait until a Union victory to announce the Emancipation Proclamation so that it wouldn’t be interpreted as “a cry for help—our last shriek on the retreat.”

Lincoln continued revising the proclamation over the next two months. Finally, on Sept. 22, five days after the Union won an important victory at Antietam, Lincoln released the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. It called for slaves in rebelling states to be freed effective on Jan. 1, 1863; it effectively gave rebelling states 100 days to surrender or have slavery abolished.

It stated “all person held as slaves within any State, or any designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever, free.”

The Emancipation Proclamation

Lincoln issued a revised Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1. As no rebelling states had surrendered, it ordered that all 3 million slaves there be freed. It exempted slaves states fighting for the Union (Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware, plus the counties that were forming West Virginia) and rebel territory that was already under Union control (Tennessee and parts of Louisiana, including New Orleans).

The Emancipation Proclamation therefore had little immediate impact because it covered almost exclusively territory where the Union had no authority. Seward remarked, “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.”

Lincoln made this decision because he did not wish to upset border states loyal to the Union and because he knew that he did not have the constitutional authority to emancipate slaves in Union territory, explains Allen C. Guelzo for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. The proclamation was carefully worded as a war powers act under which Lincoln invoked his authority as commander-in-chief; this authority could only be applied to rebelling states. Had Lincoln attempted to free slaves in Union territory, the proclamation likely would have been struck down by the Supreme Court.

Knowing the Emancipation Proclamation was not strong enough to permanently end the institution of slavery, Lincoln pushed the Radical Republican-controlled Congress to pass a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. Congress passed the amendment before the end of the war, and it was ratified in December 1865.

The 13th Amendment reads,” Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Effect of the Emancipation Proclamation

The Emancipation Proclamation is sometimes criticized as an empty gesture that did not immediately free a single slave or change the status of blacks in America. However, upon its signing, it did free tens of thousands of slaves in areas occupied by Union troops, such as the Sea Islands off South Carolina and parts of Florida. Furthermore, slaves would be freed anytime Union forces took control of rebel territory.

It also authorized the Union army to recruit black soldiers, which had previously been unofficially practiced by some commanders, but not on a large scale. Nearly 200,000 blacks would fight in the war, representing about a tenth of the overall army.

The most lasting legacy of the Emancipation Proclamation is its symbolic importance. “Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery in the nation, it did fundamentally transform the character of the war,” says the National Archives’ Our Documents project. “After January 1, 1863, every advance of Federal troops expanded the domain of freedom. … From the first days of the Civil War, slaves had acted to secure their own liberty. The Emancipation Proclamation confirmed their insistence that the war for the Union must become a war for freedom. It added moral force to the Union cause and strengthened the Union both militarily and politically.”

Historical Context: Slavery and the Civil War

The findingDulcinea Web Guide to Slavery in America and Web Guide to the Civil War links to the best primary and secondary sources for learning about the topics.

Reference: Copies of the Emancipation Proclamation

The National Archives offers images and transcripts of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and the Emancipation Proclamation.

The Library of Congress displays an image of Linciln’s first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The Smithsonian Institution provides a collection of proclamation drafts and correspondence relating to it.
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