On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect—but what does it actually say? Why does Civil War historian Eric Foner call it one of the “most misunderstood” documents in American history? One hundred and fifty-five years after this transformative document was issued, let’s examine what it actually claims to do, how people responded to it, and the effect it actually had on enslaved people. This is a great exercise in close reading and comparing and contrasting sources that you can do at home or in school with kids who have background knowledge of the American Civil War, but who have perhaps always taken the reality of this document, and its connection to the end of slavery, for granted.
By the time President Abraham Lincoln gave his inaugural address on March 4, 1861, several Southern states had already seceded from the Union. So right at the outset of his speech, Lincoln sought to quell their stated and most prominent fear: the end of slavery. He reiterated what he had said publicly before: “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.” A little over a year later, as the Civil War dragged on and support in the North dwindled, Lincoln changed his tune. Against the advice from other ally politicians, he issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, and the final proclamation in 1863. What did it actually say? Here is the full text. Let’s really dig into some excerpts. Here’s one to start:
“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, 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; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.”
This excerpt answers a big question: Which enslaved people are to be freed according this document? Close readers will have noticed the proclamation only claims to apply to enslaved people who are still in rebellion against the U.S. as of the date of the proclamation’s issue. At that time, slavery also existed in several states that fought for the Union (commonly called the “border states”) of Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, West Virginia, and Tennessee. Lincoln’s proclamation did not attempt to free what historian Eric Foner estimates to be 750,000 enslaved people in those states plus the various parts of Confederate states under Union control at that time. The proclamation enumerates Union-held parts of the rebel states later in the text. The proclamation states that Union areas should be “left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.”
Another part of the proclamation makes an argument for why Lincoln could even make this kind of order. After all, the grim reality of 1863 was that enslaved people counted as property, and the Constitution protected and still protects citizens from having their belongings taken from the government unlawfully. It may not occur to young people that presidents couldn’t just order citizens to give up things they owned, even other human beings, for no reason. Read the excerpt below. What reason does Lincoln give for being able to make such a proclamation?
“Now, therefore I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion, do…order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated [rebel, Confederate] States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.”
Did you catch the phrase “…as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion?” With these words, Lincoln is invoking a president’s war powers, the concept of which he kind of invented and used very controversially. Historians, politicians, and the public continue to debate what a president can do in a time of war, and Lincoln often comes up in these debates. In his day, no law or Constitutional provision stated precisely how a U.S. president could carry out his role as commander-in-chief of the U.S. Army and Navy. Lincoln, a gifted lawyer, acted on the reasoned belief that he had “a right to take any measure which may be best to subdue the enemy” and that he may “in an emergency do things on military grounds which cannot constitutionally be done by Congress.”
Interestingly, Lincoln said these words in the context of a debate over a bill that proposed to eliminate slavery in reconstructed states after the war, which he opposed because he thought there was language in the bill that would acknowledge that the rebellious states had actually left the Union. Throughout the Civil War, Lincoln refused to acknowledge the Confederacy as its own country, because if that were the case, then he was “not President and Congress [was] not Congress.” That is why you’ll also notice Lincoln always referring to the Confederate states as “States…in rebellion against the United States” in the proclamation; he is claiming that they are part of the U.S. but acting against it. See how important language is? That is why closely reading documents, historical and current, is essential. To Lincoln and many of his allies and enemies, a slip of the pen could mean union or disunion.
Lincoln’s claim to using any means necessary in a time of war was unconvincing to many, even some of his allies. Former Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Curtis, a dissenter in the Dred Scott v Sanford decision, nevertheless feared that the proclamation was evidence of “transcendent executive power,” and that it could, and maybe should, get overturned in the courts if challenged. In an influential pamphlet called “Executive Power” Curtis wrote:
“This is not a government of men. It is a government of laws. And the laws are required by the people to be in conformity with their will, declared by the Constitution. Our loyalty is due to that will. Our obedience is due to those laws; and he who would induce submission to other laws, springing from sources of power not originating in the people, but in casual events, and in the mere will of the occupants of places of power, does not exhort us to loyalty, but to a desertion of our trust.”
Of course, racist and pro-slavery northerners, as well as Confederate leaders, also condemned the Emancipation Proclamation. Jefferson Davis even gave a speech about it on January 13, 1863, arguing it was one of the most abominable documents in history. Davis particularly reacted to the following parts of the proclamation. After you read them, take a guess as to why Davis might have focused on these excerpts before reading the paragraph that follows them:
“And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defense; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.”
Who but slave owners like Davis and his ilk could better know of the indignities of slavery and the potential rage of newly freed slaves? Davis took for granted that freed slaves would violently overthrow their former enslavers, as had occurred during the Haitian Revolution. He called the proclamation “the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man” and claimed Lincoln was exhorting “human beings of an inferior race, peaceful and contented laborers in their sphere…to a general assassination of their masters by the insidious recommendation ‘to abstain from violence unless in necessary self-defense.’” Read more analysis of this speech here.
The last excerpt of the Emancipation Proclamation has to do with how it plans to actually free enslaved people. Read it and consider how an enslaved person who knew about this proclamation would claim his or her freedom.
“And I further declare and make known, that such [freed] persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.”
While this provision strictly relates to formerly enslaved men with able bodies joining the Union Army (something only allowed for in the latter half of the war), the passage also alludes to the process by which this proclamation could actually be enforced in rebel territories. Truly, enslaved peoples’ best shot at freedom was to encounter the Union Army as it advanced and become “contraband of war.” To lay more of a foundation for this process, Lincoln’s administration commissioned a document formally stating the U.S.’s perspective on the rules of war, General Orders No. 100, largely written by Columbia Professor Francis Lieber. Take a look at these excerpts of articles 42 and 43:
“Slavery, complicating and confounding the ideas of property, (that is of a thing,) and of personality, (that is of humanity,) exists according to municipal or local law only. The law of nature and nations has never acknowledged it… Fugitives escaping from a country in which they were slaves, villains, or serfs, into another country, have, for centuries past, been held free and acknowledged free by judicial decisions of European countries, even though the municipal law of the country in which the slave had taken refuge acknowledged slavery within its own dominions.”
“Therefore, in a war between the United States and a belligerent which admits of slavery, if a person held in bondage by that belligerent be captured by or come as a fugitive under the protection of the military forces of the United States, such person is immediately entitled to the rights and privileges of a freeman To return such person into slavery would amount to enslaving a free person, and neither the United States nor any officer under their authority can enslave any human being…”
Finally, here’s one more primary source excerpt in reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation written by Frederick Douglass. After reading all of the above analysis of this document, students may be wondering, did the Emancipation Proclamation actually free anyone? Read what Douglass recalls from his meeting with Lincoln shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, which he wrote about in his memoir, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, published in 1881. Note that we have adapted this excerpt from a handout that is part of the Stanford History Education Group’s wonderful lesson plan on the Emancipation Proclamation:
“It was when General Grant was fighting his way through the Wilderness to Richmond … that President Lincoln did me the honor to invite me to the Executive Mansion for a conference on the situation…. The main subject on which he wished to confer with me was as to the means most desirable to be employed outside the army to induce the slaves in the rebel states to come within the federal lines. The increasing opposition to the war, in the North, and the mad cry against it, because it was being made an abolition war, alarmed Mr. Lincoln, and made him apprehensive that a peace might be forced upon him which would leave still in slavery all who had not come within our lines. What he wanted was to make his proclamation as effective as possible in the event of such a peace. He said, in a regretful tone, `The slaves are not coming so rapidly and so numerously to us as I had hoped.’ I replied that the slaveholders knew how to keep such things from their slaves, and probably very few knew of his proclamation. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I want you to set about devising some means of making them acquainted with it, and for bringing them into our lines.’ He spoke with great earnestness and much solicitude…I listened with the deepest interest and profoundest satisfaction, and, at his suggestion, agreed to undertake the organizing of a band of scouts, composed of colored men, whose business should be … to go into the rebel states, beyond the lines of our armies, and carry the news of emancipation, and urge the slaves to come within our boundaries….”
What is Douglass saying here? What does this suggest about the power of the proclamation in its immediate aftermath? We’ll leave you to discuss that. Feel free to leave your thoughts in a comment below. And here’s a little hint: Research the history of a holiday called Juneteenth.
What we will say is that in the long run, historians agree that the Emancipation Proclamation doomed slavery because the Union Army won the war, making January 1, 1863 a New Year’s Day for the books. And through March 3, you can learn a lot about the aftermath of slavery’s end by visiting Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow on view at the New-York Historical Society.
Written by Rachel Walman
Assistant Director, DiMenna Children’s History Museum