January 1, 1863 – President Abraham Lincoln signed the executive order emancipating all slaves in states and parts of states controlled by the Confederacy.
The traditional New Year’s Day reception at the White House began at 11 a.m. The first hour was reserved for government officials, then the gates were opened to the public for the next two hours. Lincoln greeted guests in the Blue Room until 2 p.m. and then retired to the Executive Office, where the official draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, having been professionally engrossed at the State Department, awaited.
Lincoln’s hand was numb from shaking so many hands at the reception. This made him worry that his signature might look shaky on the document, which could cause people to claim that “‘he had some compunctions.’ But,” Lincoln said, “any way, it is going to be done!”
Administration officials witnessed him carefully sign the Emancipation Proclamation. Secretary of State William H. Seward also signed the document, the Great Seal of the United States was affixed, and it was sent to the State Department for official filing. Copies were sent to the press, and news of the signing soon spread throughout the country and then the world.
The decree pertained only to areas “the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States.” It did not pertain to 13 parishes in Louisiana, 48 counties in western Virginia, seven counties in Virginia, or the loyal slave states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware. Thus, the proclamation technically freed nobody except in certain areas of the Confederacy under Federal military occupation, such as Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley or western Tennessee.
The order went beyond the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation of September 22 by calling on slaves to “abstain from all violence” in an effort to ease fears that it would encourage slaves to rebel against their masters. Lincoln also added that he was issuing the proclamation as “an act of justice,” not just a military necessity.
Perhaps most importantly, the proclamation authorized the recruitment of blacks into the Federal military and navy, even if only “to garrison and defend forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts.” This would give the Federals an enormous manpower advantage against the Confederacy.
The proclamation indicated that Lincoln finally abandoned his longtime ambition to colonize former slaves outside the U.S. From this point forward, emancipation without colonization would be the unstated administration policy, though Lincoln still supported gradual, compensated emancipation in the loyal slave states.
Although the proclamation had dubious legal merit and questionable enforceability, it gave the U.S. a foreign relations advantage because countries such as Great Britain and France would not assist a slaveholding country against a country officially opposed to slavery. People in Britain held massive rallies celebrating the proclamation, and European recognition of Confederate independence soon became virtually impossible.
As word spread on the 2nd, northerners held mass meetings either celebrating or condemning the proclamation. Free blacks, former slaves, and abolitionists gathered at Boston’s Tremont Temple to rejoice this first step toward full freedom. Unionists also celebrated at Norfolk, Virginia; and Beaufort, South Carolina. Some abolitionists expressed disappointment that the proclamation did not free slaves in states loyal to the Union or parts of the Confederacy under Federal occupation.
Those critical of the proclamation argued that it was an unconstitutional decree with no basis in law. An editorial in the New York Herald called it “practically a dead letter… unwise and ill-timed, impracticable, and outside the Constitution.” The Richmond Examiner called the proclamation the “most startling political crime in American history.”
In Lincoln’s home state of Illinois, a Democratic legislator predicted that the widows and orphans of dead Federal soldiers would “become prey to the lusts of the freed negroes who will overrun our country.” The Democratic-controlled legislature approved a measure denouncing the Emancipation Proclamation and condemning Lincoln for turning the war’s cause into slave liberation.
Across the Atlantic, British Foreign Secretary Lord John Russell criticized the document for offering no “principle averse to slavery” because it made slavery “at once legal and illegal.” The London Quarterly Review opined, “It is little less than mockery to ask us to believe that Federals are fighting solely to extinguish, and Confederates solely to perpetuate, slavery.”
However, Lincoln shrewdly used a workers’ demonstration in England to garner support in promoting his proclamation. Manchester workers had long been suffering from the cotton shortage, for which Lincoln blamed not his blockade, but “the actions of our disloyal citizens.” Lincoln wrote:
“I know and deeply deplore the sufferings which the workingmen at Manchester and in all Europe are called upon to endure in this crisis… Under these circumstances, I cannot but regard your decisive utterance upon the question as an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country… I hail this interchange of sentiment, therefore, as an augury that whatever else may happen, whatever misfortune may befall your country or my own, the peace and friendship which now exist between the two nations will be, as it shall be my desire to make them, perpetual.”
Lincoln told the workers that the war would determine “whether a government, established on the principles of human freedom, can be maintained against an effort to build one upon the exclusive foundation of human bondage.” However, this did not acknowledge the fact that slavery still existed in the U.S. as well as the Confederacy, and Lincoln had not made emancipation a war aim until now, almost two years after the conflict began.
Nevertheless, Charles Francis Adams, U.S. minister to Britain, wrote Seward about British reaction to the proclamation in late January. Adams stated that the British government and press had initially expressed skepticism toward the document’s legality and sincerity, but “if they become once fully aroused to a sense of the importance of this struggle as a purely moral question, I feel safe in saying there will be an end of all effective sympathy in Great Britain with the rebellion.”
Overall, most northerners feared the societal changes that the Emancipation Proclamation could bring. Regardless, the document transformed the war’s character by pushing the slavery issue to the center of American dialogue. This in turn pushed Congress to begin the process of enacting a constitutional amendment that could bypass a potential Supreme Court ruling against the proclamation and permanently end slavery.
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