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What's the Emancipation Proclamation All About?

On July 22, Lincoln surprised his cabinet members by reading a preliminary draft of his executive order for emancipation. Only two cabinet members fully endorsed the Proclamation, and one cabinet member suggested that Lincoln share his decision with the public after a Union battle victory, advice Lincoln heeded.

His moment came after the September 17, 1862, Battle of Antietam (also known as the Battle of Sharpsburg), in which Major General George B. McClellan successfully pushed back Confederate forces commanded by General Robert E. Lee. Lincoln readdressed his cabinet on September 22 for advice on the document’s wording, not on the issue of whether he should deliver it or not, and shortly thereafter, issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. He issued the formal Emancipation Proclamation 100 days later on January 1, 1863.

What the Emancipation Proclamation did

In the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln vowed that, if rebellion continued, “all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of the State, the people whereof shall be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward and forever free.”

Although many people assume the Proclamation freed all the slaves in the U.S., it actually didn’t. Here are the finer points:

  • The Proclamation declared slaves in rebelling states free.

  • It did not free slaves in the border states or areas within Confederate territory already under Union control.

  • It welcomed acceptable freed slaves to join the armed services.

Reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation

Despite Lincoln’s great strategic pains in taking the Emancipation Proclamation public, he pleased no one at first:

  • Northern whites: The perceived shift from saving the Union to ending slavery so angered many Northern whites that some soldiers resigned. During the fall elections, Republicans lost key seats to Democrats who didn’t generally support such so-called radical changes, narrowing the Republican advantage in the House to just 18 votes.

  • Abolitionists: Because Lincoln’s proposed emancipation was more than he had committed to since the war began, white and black abolitionists didn’t criticize it publicly. Privately, they didn’t think Lincoln had gone far enough and wished that he had abolished slavery completely. Still they considered the Proclamation a step in the right direction.

  • The English: The proclamation didn’t move the English populace. Commenting on Lincoln’s proposed emancipation, one London newspaper wrote, “the principle is not that a human being cannot justly own another, but that he cannot own him unless he is loyal to the United States.”

  • In fact, England may have never committed to either side in the U.S. Civil War had Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States, not demanded the return of captured slaves back to states, where death awaited them, with his own proclamation. After that, Manchester, England’s working population let Lincoln know that their sympathies rested with the Union. A short time later, England supported the Union.

  • African Americans: While many blacks, especially in the targeted South, were unaware of the Emancipation Proclamation, those knew of it assigned the document greater value than Lincoln intended.

Although heralded as “the Great Emancipator” throughout history, that title stems from the war’s end result and not from any definitive stance Lincoln took against slavery as president.

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