The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation

September 22, 1862 – President Abraham Lincoln issued his decree stating “that all persons held as slaves” within rebellions areas “are, and henceforward shall be free” if those areas did not submit to Federal law by January 1.

By the 20th, Lincoln had gathered enough information to convince him that the Battle of Antietam had been a Federal victory. As such, he returned to the decree he had drafted in July. He also received a letter from Congressman Robert Dale Owen, an Indiana abolitionist who reminded the president that he had threatened the Confederates with slave confiscation if they did not stop rebelling against the U.S. within 60 days. Owen wrote:

“The twenty-third of September approaches, the date when the sixty-day notice you have given to the rebels will expire–expire without other reply to your warning than the invasion of Maryland and a menace to Pennsylvania. Is it to rest there? Patiently we have waited the time. Is nothing to follow? Are our enemies to boast that we speak brave words–and there an end of it?”

Owen argued that an emancipation decree would be “the very turning point in the nation’s fate! A day to the rebels of despair, to every loyal heart of exultant rejoicing! A day of which the anniversary will be celebrated with jubilee while the American Union endures! A day to be remembered not on our land alone, but wherever humanity mourns over the wrongs of the slave, or rejoices in his liberation!”

Lincoln summoned his cabinet to a noon meeting at the White House on September 22, one day before his 60-day deadline expired. He began by reading a passage called “High-Handed Outrage at Utica” from a new book sent to him by popular humorist Artemus Ward. Lincoln then reminded the members of the proclamation draft he shared with them in July. He had waited since then for military success, and although the Federal victory at Antietam had not been as decisive as hoped, Lincoln told them:

“When the rebel army was at Frederick, I determined, as soon as it should be driven out of Maryland, to issue a proclamation of emancipation, such as I thought most likely to be useful. I said nothing to anyone, but I made the promise to myself and to my Maker. I think the time has come now. I wish it were a better time. I wish that we were in a better condition. The action of the army against the rebels has not been quite what I should have best liked. But the rebel army is now driven out, and I am going to fulfill that promise.”

Lincoln said he would not seek his cabinet’s advice on the matter, but he would accept suggestions to correct the document’s language or “any other minor matter.” The members unanimously agreed with emancipation. But Postmaster General Montgomery Blair feared that it could cause rebellion in the loyal slave states, demoralize the army, and give the Democrats “a club… to beat the Administration” in the upcoming midterm elections.

Lincoln said that he had exhausted every effort to get the loyal slave states to begin their own voluntary emancipation programs. Since they refused, “we must make the forward movement” without them. Lincoln believed, “They (will) acquiesce, if not immediately, soon.” And the prospect of losing the midterm elections “had not much weight with him” because the Democrats’ “clubs would be used against us take what course we might.”

The Emancipation Proclamation | Image Credit:

The original draft ordered the military to adhere to the laws passed in March and July to “recognize the freedom” of slaves escaping into Federal lines. Secretary of State William H. Seward suggested the passage be changed to “recognize and maintain the freedom.” Lincoln agreed, thus assuring slaves that once freed, they would not be returned to bondage.

The proclamation only freed slaves in seceded states, so it technically freed no one since those states considered themselves part of a separate nation beyond Federal authority. The decree exempted the loyal slave states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware, as well as southern regions under Federal occupation, mostly in Louisiana. Seceded states would also be exempted if they renounced secession and returned to the Union within 100 days (i.e., January 1), otherwise they would lose their human property.

Lincoln cited “military necessity” under his power as “President of the United States of America, and Commander-in-chief of the Army and Navy thereof” to issue such a proclamation. He also cited provisions of the two Confiscation Acts, even though this decree actually avoided enforcement of the Second Confiscation Act, which called for the immediate emancipation of all slaves within a conquered region (this order allowed slavery to continue in the conquered regions).

The proclamation made no mention of a moral or ethical obligation to free humans in bondage. It served solely as a weapon to cripple the Confederacy’s ability to fight the war. The decree’s first two paragraphs explained that Lincoln’s main goal remained reunion, not abolition, and he repeated his frequent calls to compensate loyal slaveholders who voluntarily freed their slaves and to encourage the voluntary deportation of blacks from America, “upon this continent or elsewhere.”

A crowd led by the Marine Corps Band gathered at the White House to serenade Lincoln when the proclamation went public on September 24. Lincoln appeared in an upstairs window and told them:

“What I did, I did after a very full deliberation, and under a very heavy and solemn sense of responsibility. I can only trust in God I have made no mistake. I shall make no attempt on this occasion to sustain what I have done or said by any comment. It is now for the country and the world to pass judgment and, maybe, take action upon it.”

Lincoln then lauded the troops, saying this was “scarcely so great as the difficulties of those who, upon the battle field, are endeavoring to purchase with their blood and their lives the future happiness and prosperity of this country. Let us never forget them.” He then concluded, “In my position I am environed with difficulties.”

Northerners had a mixed reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation. Abolitionists, especially in New England, celebrated its release. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “It makes a victory of our defeats. Our hurts are healed; the health of the nation is repaired.” Abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts declared that “the skies are brighter and the air is purer, now that slavery has been handed over to judgment.” Some Radical Republicans, such as Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, hoped this would inspire the slaves to be “incited to insurrection and give the rebels a taste of real civil war.”

But for some abolitionists, the proclamation did not go far enough. Horace Greeley, who had long urged Lincoln to free the slaves, opined in the New York Tribune that Federal defeats over the past few months would discourage freed slaves from joining the military:

“There was a time when even this bit of paper could have brought the negro to our side; but now slavery, the real rebel capital, has been surrounded by a Chickahominy swamp of blunders and outrages against that race which no paper spade can dig through.”

Other northerners expressed deep resentment and joined in angry protest. The Washington Daily National Intelligencer stated, “Where we expect no good, we shall be only too happy to find that no harm has been done by the present declaration of the Executive.” The Washington Evening Star called Lincoln’s edict “void of practical effect.”

Some northerners feared that freed slaves would migrate to the northern states and compete with them for jobs. This fear seemed confirmed when Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton ordered “contraband” slaves in Illinois to replace farm laborers who had joined the army. Even some Republicans began breaking from their party, reminding Lincoln that their goal had been to stop the expansion of slavery, not stop slavery altogether. Northern Democrats predicted the decree would “render eternal hatred between the two sections” and embolden the Confederates to put up even stronger resistance.

Outraged southerners viewed this as an unconstitutional attempt to overturn established law, a power belonging only to Congress. They also noted that Lincoln issued the proclamation out of “military necessity,” even though the Federal war capabilities far exceeded the Confederacy’s, with plenty of resources to continue turning out war materiel while using the world’s third most powerful navy to block those same resources from reaching the South. And it confirmed initial southern fears that the Republicans’ main goal was not to preserve the Union, but to destroy the southern way of life.

Many southerners believed this aimed to encourage slaves to rebel against their masters, which they considered particularly despicable since most masters had gone to war, leaving women and children to fend for themselves against potentially hostile slaves. Even some northerners expressed concern about Radicals cheering for “the prospect that it will inaugurate a negro insurrection in the South.” The London Times asserted that the unconstitutional edict would spark “arson, the slaughter of innocents, and a host of unmentionable horrors.” However, no mass slave uprisings occurred after the publication of this decree.

Knowing that the proclamation would be overturned in Federal courts and could not be enforced without military success, Lincoln hoped to serve two purposes. First, he sought to turn European opinion against the South by making the war a moral struggle between a slaveholding nation and a nation taking the first steps to end slavery. Second, Lincoln hoped to motivate slaves to escape their masters and support the Federal cause.

The second purpose received help from civil rights leaders such as Frederick Douglass, who encouraged blacks to enlist in the Federal military; two of Douglass’s sons joined the war effort. By month’s end, the 1st Regiment Louisiana Native Guards, calling themselves the “Chasseurs d’Afrique,” became the first formally recognized black regiment. Soon black volunteers from other southern states began moving north to join the army and navy.

The Emancipation Proclamation drastically changed the scope of the war and subsequent American history. Although it had no real legal authority, it ultimately paved the way for a constitutional amendment permanently abolishing slavery in America.



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