President Abraham Lincoln was in his office early on New Year’s Day, completing the final draft of his executive order freeing all slaves in the Confederate states. He then had breakfast as a clerk took the document to the State Department for professional engrossing. First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln was “very much opposed to the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation” according to the Lincolns’ son Robert, and she asked her husband “in her quick sharp way, ‘Well, what do you intend doing?’” Lincoln looked upward and said, “I am a man under orders. I cannot do otherwise.”
Senator Charles Sumner, a staunch abolitionist, visited Lincoln that morning to see whether he had any reservations about making the proclamation official. After the meeting, Sumner happily reported, “The Presdt. says that he could not stop the Proclamation if he would, & would not if he could.”
The traditional New Year’s Day reception at the White House began at 11 a.m. President and Mrs. Lincoln came downstairs to greet the visitors; Mrs. Lincoln wore a black velvet dress to indicate that she was still mourning the death of their son Willie last February. The first hour was reserved for government officials, consisting of the diplomatic corps (“arrayed in gold lace, feathers and other trappings”), Supreme Court justices, Federal judges, cabinet members, and veterans from the War of 1812.
The gates were then opened to the public for the next two hours. Noah Brooks of the Sacramento Union reported, “The Press was tremendous… the jam most excessive; all persons, high or low, civil, uncivil, or otherwise, were obliged to fall into an immense line… all forcing their way along the stately portico of the White House to the main entrance.”
President Lincoln greeted guests in the Blue Room, where he “appeared to be in fine spirits and cracked an occasional joke with some of his more intimate friends.” When the doors closed at 2 p.m., Lincoln retired to the Executive Office, where the official, engrossed draft of the Emancipation Proclamation 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.
Lincoln spent the rest of the day conducting business as usual; “no one would have supposed from Lincoln’s perfectly composed manner at the time that he had that day given to the world a document of imperishable human interest, which meant so much to the country, and especially to four millions of slaves, whose shackles were forever loosed.”
The proclamation 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 and 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 a mass slave rebellion. Lincoln also added that he was issuing the proclamation as “an act of justice,” not just as 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 over 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 were becoming more reluctant to 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.
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