Reactions to the Emancipation Proclamation

As news of President Abraham Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation spread throughout the North, northerners gathered to celebrate the event. The New York Times opined that the decree “marks an era in the history, not only of this war, but of this country and the world.” A celebration took place in the city that “was kept up to late hour in the evening… shouting, praying and rejoicing.”

Prayer meetings were held for most of the day in Philadelphia. A speaker at the Broad Street Baptist Church declared, “Our Chief Magistrate is now putting to his lips the trumpet of Providence.” Abolitionist Benjamin R. Plumly wrote to Lincoln, “The Black people trust you. They believe that you desire to do them justice. They do not believe that you wish to expatriate them, or to enforce upon them any disability, but that you cannot do all that you would… Someone intimated that you might be forced into some form of colonization. ‘God won’t let him,’ shouted an old woman. ‘God’s in his heart,’ said another, and the response of the Congregation was emphatic.”

Plumly continued, “Another thought there must be some design of God in having your name ‘Abraham,’ that if you were not the ‘Father’ you were to be the ‘Liberator’ of a people. One minister advised them to thank God that He had raised up an honest man for the White House, whereupon they broke, five hundred strong, into that ringing hymn, ‘The Year of Jubilee.’”

Two celebrations were held in Boston, one at Music Hall mainly for whites and the other at Tremont Temple for mostly blacks. Prominent civil rights leader Frederick Douglass spoke at Tremont, recalling the day when white Bostonians regularly broke up abolitionist meetings as “a duty that they owed to God.” But now, “Things was a-workin’.”

After several other speeches from various orators, a draft copy of the Emancipation Proclamation arrived and was read to the audience. A witness wrote, “The joyous enthusiasm manifested was beyond description. Cheers were proposed for the President and for the proclamation, the whole audience rising to their feet and shouting at the tops of their voices, throwing up their hats and indicating the gratification in every conceivable manner.”

William Lloyd Garrison, a longtime abolitionist who had been critical of Lincoln for not doing enough to end slavery, called the proclamation’s issuance “a great historic event, sublime in its magnitude, momentous and beneficent in its far-reaching consequence.”

The proclamation was read to the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, the newly formed black infantry regiment at Beaufort, South Carolina. Ceremonies were attended by “thousands of colored people,” and the regimental flags were presented to Sergeant Prince Rivers, who “said he would die before surrendering,” and “he wanted to show it to all the old masters.” The troops sang “Ode to Emancipation” and were treated to a dinner of roasted oxen.

The proclamation was published in the evening edition of the Washington Star. According to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, “This is a broad step, and will be a landmark in history. The immediate effect will not be all its friends anticipate or its opponents apprehend. Passing events are steadily accomplishing what is here proclaimed. The character of the country is in many respects undergoing a transformation… The seed which is being sown will germinate and bear fruit, and tares and weeds will also spring up under the new dispensation.”

The proclamation was printed by the Government Printing Office and copies were distributed through the Adjutant General. Massachusetts Governor John Andrew printed his own version in smaller text form so that his state’s black regiments that were stationed in the South could hand them out and “let the darkies know that they are free.”

Lincoln’s secretary John Nicolay wrote an editorial for the Daily Morning Chronicle on the 2nd, which included an argument justifying Lincoln’s power to free slaves: “Slavery caused the war: it is with the sword of his war power under the Constitution that President Lincoln now destroys the right arm of the rebellion–African slavery.” Nicolay also spotlighted what many believed would be the end result of emancipation: colonization. “This day is the initial point of the separation of the black from the white race,” Nicolay wrote. America was “to be the theater of the white man’s achievements,” while the “black race” would be sent to “the equatorial regions of Central and South America.”

If referencing colonization was an attempt to placate the many northerners who opposed emancipation, it did not succeed. In Lincoln’s home state of Illinois, a Democratic legislator declared, “Our country is becoming almost a nation of widows and orphans who, if the President’s emancipation proclamation be carried into effect, will become prey to the lusts of freed negroes who will overrun our country.”

Other Democrats condemned the decree as “unconstitutional, contrary to the rules and usages of civilized warfare, calculated to bring shame, disgrace and eternal infamy upon the hitherto unsullied flag of the Republic, and Illinois… will protest against any war which has for its object the execution or enforcement of said proclamation.” Major-General John A. McClernand, an influential Illinois Democrat before the war, warned Governor Richard Yates that “from all I see and hear a revolution is brewing in the Northwest.”

Democrat Joel Parker became the governor of New Jersey this month. In his inaugural, Parker predicted that the proclamation would result in a mass slave uprising in the South that would result in mass slaughters by southern whites. The Democrat-dominated legislature introduced several measures intended to end the war on the basis of peaceful separation between North and South.

In New York, newly inaugurated Democratic Governor Horatio Seymour called the proclamation a “bloody, barbarous, revolutionary, and unconstitutional scheme.” An article in the New York Herald stated that the Emancipation Proclamation was “practically a dead letter,” calling it “unwise and ill-timed, impracticable, and outside the Constitution.”  In Pennsylvania, the pro-Democrat Harrisburg Patriot and Union warned that because the proclamation stated that the Federal “Government will do no act or acts to repress rebellion” among slaves, it was a “cold-blooded invitation to insurrection and butchery.”

The proclamation also produced a volatile situation in already-volatile Kentucky. According to the Louisville Daily Democrat, “The President’s proclamation has come to hand at last. We scarcely know how to express our indignation at this flagrant outrage of all constitutional law, all human justice, all Christian feeling.”

Major-General Horatio G. Wright, commanding the Department of the Ohio, had warned his superiors in December that if the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, Kentuckians might rise up against the Federal occupation forces. General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck approved Wright’s proposal to send additional regiments to the state capital of Frankfort and arrest any legislator who introduced or supported an ordinance of secession.

A week after the proclamation went into effect, Lincoln wrote a troubled letter to a Kentucky friend: “The changed conduct towards me of some of her members of Congress, and the ominous out-givings as to what the Governor and Legislature of Kentucky intend doing admonish me to consider whether any additional arms I may send there are not to be turned against the government.”

Unionist William “Parson” Brownlow warned that “things are not working” in Kentucky, adding, “I fear the Legislature will take strong action against the proclamation, and even against the Administration.” Congressman James A. Garfield, a former general and future U.S. president, supported the proclamation, but acknowledged that “it can only have an adverse effect in Ky. and Tenn.”

Nevertheless, the proclamation had been made, and it would not be unmade. Attorney General Edward Bates wrote that in “the language of the Constitution,” freed slaves “will be ‘free persons.’” This was something that states like Illinois, which had laws prohibiting blacks (free or otherwise) from entry, would have to consider. Bates wrote:

“If blacks be, in constitutional law, citizens, and if the state legislature can exclude for color, then why not for race, religion, nativity or any other discretionary cause? The Constitution was made as it is for the very purpose of securing to every citizen common & equal rights all over the nation, and to prevent local prejudice & captious legislation in the states… We must take the Constitution as we do our most beautiful shrubbery–if we will have roses, we must take them along with the thorns.”


  • Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), Never Call Retreat: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 3. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1965.
  • Guelzo, Allen C., Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2004.
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
  • Welles, Gideon, Diary of Gideon Welles Volumes I & II. Kindle Edition. Abridged, Annotated.

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