Emancipation Proclamation (1863)

Lincoln began his presidency in 1861 without an emancipation agenda. Even so, many southerners feared that a Republican administration threatened their property and personal security. Lincoln tried to allay those fears in his inaugural address, stating, “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.” For Lincoln, the Constitution allowed slavery to exist in the southern states, but he had become the leader of the first party, originating in the North, that generally held animosity toward the South and slavery.

Subsequent events challenged Lincoln's ability to keep his inaugural pledge. After hostilities between North and South began at Fort Sumter in April 1861, proemancipationist U.S. Senator Charles Sumner privately urged Lincoln to free the slaves and thus define the conflict in moral terms. Lincoln resisted these overtures, knowing that public opinion would oppose it. In May, Union General Benjamin F. Butler at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, issued an order to deal with enslaved people fleeing to Union lines. Butler refused to return the runaways to their owners in compliance with the Fugitive Slave Act. Because slaves were considered property under the law rather than people, he argued that the fugitives could be used in the war effort against the government; hence they should be treated as contraband. Congress later codified the essence of Butler's order as the First Confiscation Act. Shortly after Lincoln signed that legislation, General John C. Frémont in Missouri issued an order that freed the slaves of Confederate supporters. Lincoln directed Frémont to modify the order on legal terms and cautioned the general that emancipation would turn southern Unionists, especially in the loyal border states, against the federal government.

In December 1861, Secretary of War Simon Cameron's proposal to emancipate and arm former slaves further tested Lincoln's patience. Lincoln forced Cameron to modify his report to Congress. Lincoln reiterated his opposition to these policies within the next six months to Union General David Hunter. Hunter, serving in South Carolina, first began recruiting and organizing black regiments. After abandoning this activity, Hunter issued an order in May 1862 freeing all enslaved people in Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina. Lincoln directly countermanded this order, claiming that power was the commander-in-chief's alone to exercise and only when necessary to the preservation of the government.

On July 22, Lincoln read his first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to his assembled cabinet. Cabinet members’ opinions were divided: half, notably Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, supported it, while the other half opposed it, citing foreign policy and political reasons, especially the upcoming midterm elections. Lincoln left the meeting without a firm decision on the matter and continued privately debating the issue with advisors. On August 22, Lincoln shared his thoughts in a public letter to New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley. “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union,” Lincoln wrote, “and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union” (Donald 368 ).

By September, Lincoln concluded that emancipation was necessary to preserve the Union and win the war. He feared that issuing the proclamation might be viewed as a politically desperate act and sought a military victory to bolster its reception. General George B. McClellan had commanded the eastern Union forces for most of the war and had mostly pursued a defensive strategy. When he missed the opportunity to rout the Confederate army at Antietam on September 17, Lincoln concluded a change in command and strategy was imperative. Lincoln redefined the Civil War when he issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22 and removed McClellan from command on November 7.

The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was a warning to Confederate states. Lincoln defined the proclamation's purpose as “restoring the constitutional relation between the United States” (Guelzo 255 ). He presented rebelling states with the option of returning to the Union by January 1, or else slaves residing in those states would “thence forward, and forever free.” Because the action only affected disloyal states, Lincoln also recommended that the border slave states enact legislation for the “immediate or gradual abolishment of slavery.”


One month later on January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The proclamation declared that all enslaved people in the Confederate states were free, with the exception of those individuals in Union-controlled areas of Tennessee, Louisiana, and Virginia. The proclamation also exempted slavery in the Union border states. A final provision of the proclamation allowed for freedmen to enlist in the armed services, although it refrained from authorizing African American soldiers for combat roles.

The Emancipation Proclamation elicited various reactions. Antislavery advocates were generally thrilled, although abolitionists criticized the geographical limits of the proclamation. Similarly, many British and French officials viewed the proclamation as impotent because it affected slavery where the federal government was unable to enforce it. Most southern whites and northern antiwar Democrats outright condemned the action. While evidence is scarce regarding the response of enslaved people, many received the news gladly and sought opportunities to reach freedom at Union lines. The most troubling reception for Lincoln politically came from moderate Republicans, war Democrats, and border-state Unionists. This diverse political bloc expressed its dissatisfaction at the polls, where Democrats gained 28 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and won gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and New York.

While Lincoln was confident in his presidential authority to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, he was not as certain about legal challenges to the document, especially if a case regarding it reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which had many of the same justices who had ruled in Dred Scott. To avoid such a scenario, Lincoln kept trying to convince Unionist leaders in border states and other slave states to legally abolish slavery in their jurisdictions. In March 1863, the voters in what became West Virginia approved a state constitution mandating gradual emancipation. In 1864, Unionists in Arkansas and Louisiana ratified new state constitutions abolishing slavery. Lincoln witnessed the first success of his border-state policy when Maryland voters approved a new constitution with uncompensated, immediate emancipation in October 1864. Missouri voters followed suit a few months later.

Lincoln donated his handwritten manuscript of the Emancipation Proclamation to raise money for the Chicago Northwestern Sanitary Fair in 1863. The purchaser of the document donated it to the Chicago Soldiers’ Home, where it remained until 1871 when it burned in the Chicago Fire. Photographs and lithographs of the original manuscript survive. The official engrossed copy of the proclamation, copied by a clerk and signed by Lincoln, is at the National Archives, Washington, DC. It still represents one of the first efforts on behalf of the federal government to affect change for the downtrodden.

Chandler S. Lighty

See also: Abolitionism


Donald, David H. Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Foner, Eric. The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. New York: W.W. Norton, 2011.

Guelzo, Allen C. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.