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Emancipation Proclamation

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The Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863. It declared that “all persons held as slaves” in the rebellious jurisdictions of the Confederate States “are, and henceforward shall be free.” With this executive proclamation, which Lincoln justified as a matter of “military necessity,” approximately 3.5 million African Americans in the Confederacy were emancipated from the bonds of slavery.

The Emancipation Proclamation was part of a lengthy process by which Lincoln, the first avowed antislavery president to be elected, moved the United States toward eliminating the enslavement of Africans. Lincoln had long harbored a distaste and opposition to slavery. However, he did not believe the federal Constitution allowed the federal government to abolish slavery unilaterally. Moreover, he believed slavery was a regressive institution that would eventually die out on its own. Lincoln’s inactivity disappeared after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which appeared to open the western territories of the United States to slave expansion. Lincoln stood for the U.S. Senate in 1855 as an opponent of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and again in 1858 as a candidate of the new anti-antislavery Republican Party. He was elected president in 1860.

Lincoln attempted to calm dissension in the slave states, chiefly by agreeing to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, but it was feared in these states that Lincoln would use the discretionary powers of the presidency to subvert slavery all the same. In fact, within six months of his inauguration, Lincoln composed a federal buyout plan that used offers of federal bonds to induce slave state legislatures to emancipate their slaves. By the spring of 1861, eleven slave states severed their ties to the federal Union and organized their own rival slave republic.

Lincoln interpreted the secession of the states as an “insurrection,” and he invoked the president’s war powers under the Constitution. Many antislavery advocates urged him to use the insurrection as the occasion to emancipate the enslaved through a war powers proclamation. Lincoln, however, was aware that the legal status of his war powers was ambiguous and he was unwilling to risk an emancipation proclamation that the federal courts might strike down. Furthermore, Lincoln was wary of alienating the four slave states (Delaware, Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland) that had remained loyal to the Union. By 1862 Lincoln became convinced that a presidential proclamation was the only remaining option. The war had gone badly for the North, Lincoln’s caution on the slavery issue had failed to break the cohesion of the South, and the Confiscation Acts of 1861 and 1862, which freed slaves used in the Confederate war effort, had limited effect.

The Confiscation Acts provided only for the “confiscation” of rebel property, including slaves, but did not guarantee change of title; hence, slaves “confiscated” under the federal government legally remained slaves but were now in the custody of the federal government. Lincoln believed that the Acts, as in rem proceedings and as punishments for treason, violated the Constitution’s ban on bills of attainder, and in fact, very little enforcement of the Acts was undertaken. Even the Acts’ chief architect, Lyman Trumbull, admitted that the Confiscation Acts were mostly designed for political effect and would result in freedom for very few slaves. On July 22, 1862, Lincoln read a first draft of an emancipation proclamation to his cabinet; on their advice, he waited until after a Union victory in battle to issue the proclamation in preliminary form, which was done on September 22, 1862. He signed it into law on January 1, 1863.

The proclamation was not, in many respects, a radical document. It freed slaves, but did not abolish slavery as an institution, and it limited the extent of emancipation only to the geographical areas of the Confederacy still in actual rebellion and out of Union control so that the slaves in the loyal slave states and the occupied districts of the confederacy remained in slavery. These limitations, however, represent Lincoln’s interest in heading off federal court challenges. In other respects, the proclamation was radical indeed: All of the slaves remaining within the Confederacy were declared permanently free, and “the armed service of the United States” was now opened to freed slaves who would enlist to fight against their former masters. Moreover, once issued, Lincoln refused any suggestion that he use the proclamation as a bargaining chip with the Confederate authorities.

Lincoln nevertheless remained anxious about possible court challenges after the war’s close, and in 1864 he urged Congress to pass a Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution and completely abolish slavery as an institution. He also remained unsure about the civil status of the freed slaves, at one point underwriting an experiment in colonizing freed slaves out of the United States to the Caribbean. By 1864 it was clear that the freed slaves had no desire to leave the United States, and Lincoln turned to a variety of initiatives for granting citizenship and equal civil rights to the freed men and women.

Black enthusiasm for Lincoln and the proclamation was, in the generation following emancipation, almost reverential. Modern African-American interpretation has been more inclined to fault Lincoln for the proclamation’s limitations. But a total presidential abolition may have incurred precisely the judicial retaliation Lincoln feared. In the end, the Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment together pointed the nation in the direction of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and full civil equality for African Americans.

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