How the Emancipation Proclamation Worked

Civil War Image Gallery African American Civil War Museum founder and Executive Director Dr. Frank Smith Jr. (left) and Kevin Douglass-Green, great-great-grandson of Fredrick Douglass, position an original copy of the Emancipation Proclamation. See more pictures of the Civil War.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Here's a question for your n­ext trivia game: How many slaves did the Emancipation Proclamation free?

Answer: zero.

But you learned in school that President Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation, right? Well, the history books may have been stretching the truth.

An important fact to know about Lincoln is that he was a savvy politician. The Emancipation Proclamation was a document that officially changed nothing -- Congress had already passed laws outlawing slavery in the rebel states, which was the only territory Lincoln covered in the Proclamation. (Lincoln the politician wanted to keep border-state voters happy.)

And the Proclamation took effect on Jan. 1, 1863, two years after the Civil War began -- what took Lincoln so long? Again, politics. He couldn't very well have issued a decree freeing the slaves when the North was losing the war. There would be no way to enforce the Proclamation, thus making it appear a desperate and hollow threat. So Lincoln waited until a big Union win, at Antietam.

Speaking of enforcement, the Proclamation technically freed slaves in another country -- the Confederacy had seceded. So what happened to the slaves in the Union? They had to wait until 1865 for the passage of the slavery-abolishing 13th Amendment, which wasn't officially ratified until after Lincoln was assassinated.

But the Emancipation Proclamation must have done something. Otherwise, why would we consider it such an important document?

­While it didn't technically set anyone free, the Proclamation was part of Lincoln's strategy to demoralize the South, and it worked. Poorer Southern whites resented that they were now fighting a war to protect wealthy plantation owners who were desperate to hold onto their "property." And as word of the Proclamation spread, slaves left those plantations en masse. Their exodus even helped turn the tide in the siege of Vicksburg, a vital Union win.

Additionally, France and England, which had been secretly helping the South, could not officially recognize a country that still enslaved other human beings. Europe also could not provoke a country that, according to the Emancipation Proclamation, was now fighting slavery.

And if all that weren't enough, the Emancipation Proclamation can be credited with giving this country another state.

Beyond politics, the Emancipation Proclamation became a symbol of what the Civil War was heading toward. It was no longer about states' rights, rebellion and nullification -- with one document, Lincoln turned it into a war to end slavery.

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What was the Emancipation Proclamation?

Page one of the original Emancipation Proclamation
Page one of the original Emancipation Proclamation
Photo courtesy the National Archives via Getty Images

The Emancipation Proclamation, unlike Lincoln's famous Gettysburg Address, is very legal and dry. There's a lack of emotional appeal, which is precisely what Lincoln intended. While Lincoln sometimes gets a bad rap for overstepping his power with this document, the Emancipation Proclamation was his attempt at staying within his legal bounds as president. The Supreme Court was heavy with Southern sympathizers -- it was the same court that made the Dred Scott ruling (see How the Underground Railroad Worked) -- so Lincoln knew that if there was any sort of legal loophole that the court could use to challenge the Proclamation, slavery would be saved.

Lincoln used his authority as the commander in chief to end slavery as a leverage against the rebelling states. This made it a "necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion" to preserve the Union. Instead of appealing to people's hearts, which were not universally in favor of freeing slaves, Lincoln skirted the Supreme Court's jurisdiction by claiming that slavery's end was a military tactic.

The result, though, was the strangulation of slavery. Although the border states -- Missouri, Delaware, Kentucky and Maryland -- were excluded from the Proclamation, slaves in those states would usually just cross the border to freedom if the state didn't abolish slavery on its own (see sidebar). So why didn't Lincoln include them?

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Lincoln may have wanted to completely abolish slavery, but he knew he couldn't accomplish his main objective of preserving the Union if he continued to bleed states and popular support. He had no desire to see the Emancipation Proclamation's defeat, setting back abolition movements and sending the country further into disaster.

But make no mistake: Lincoln knew what he was doing. He told newspaper reporter James Scovel that the Proclamation would be "my greatest and most enduring contribution to the history of the war" [source: Guelzo].

­The final document was more than 700 words long, and some of its importance can be diluted by the legal jargon. So let's take a look at the Emancipation Proclamation section by section as it was issued on Jan. 1, 1863, to discover what Lincoln was addressing in each part, and why some of it was so controversial.

Proclamation Time Line

Abraham Lincoln at the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation
Abraham Lincoln at the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation

"W­hereas, on the 22nd day of September, in the year of our Lord 1862, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:"

The final Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863, but there were a couple of earlier drafts.

July 22, 1862: Lincoln presented his first draft of the Proclamation to his Cabinet. It maintained Lincoln's position that slavery should be abolished gradually and that slave owners should be compensated.

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The Cabinet's reaction? While the feeling was that emancipation was desirable in theory, the political and social consequences concerned them. Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, for instance, predicted that the Proclamation would be unpopular and cost the Republican Party in that year's congressional elections. Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase feared that the Proclamation exceeded Lincoln's authority. Secretary of State William Seward worried that it would appear to Europe and the rest of the world that the Union was losing the war (which it was, at that point), and that the Proclamation would be perceived as a desperate attempt of a failing government -- "as the last measure of an exhausted government, a cry for help … our last shriek, on the retreat" [source: McPherson]. He advised Lincoln to wait until a major Union victory, which came in September 1862 at the Battle of Antietam.

Sept. 22, 1862: Lincoln issues the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Why a preliminary version? Because by saying that the decree would not take effect until Jan. 1, 1863, Lincoln was giving the rebels one last chance to hold on to their slaves -- as long as they agreed to rejoin the Union.

Jan. 1, 1863: The final Emancipation Proclamation was enacted. By Jan. 1, no states had willingly returned (although a few plantation owners did try to sign individual loyalty oaths), but Union forces had captured parts of some rebel states, so Lincoln excluded them from the Proclamation (we'll see what exactly was excluded a little later).

Creative Proclamation Wording

President George W. Bush looks over the Emancipation Proclamation on display at the National Archives Jan. 16, 2006, in Washington, DC. The document is rarely displayed due to its fragile condition.
President George W. Bush looks over the Emancipation Proclamation on display at the National Archives Jan. 16, 2006, in Washington, DC. The document is rarely displayed due to its fragile condition.
Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty Images

"That on the 1st day of January, in the year of our Lord 1863, all persons held as slaves within any state or designated part of a state, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

That the executive will, on the 1st day of January aforesaid, by proclamation, designate the states and parts of states, if any, in which the people thereof, respectively, shall then be in rebellion against the United States; and the fact that any state or the people thereof shall on that day be in good faith represented in the Congress of the United States by members chosen thereto at elections wherein a majority of the qualified voters of such states shall have participated shall, in the absence of strong countervailing testimony, be deemed conclusive evidence that such state and the people thereof are not then in rebellion against the United States."

In the first sentence, Lincoln states that he's freeing only people who are enslaved in rebel states. The rebel states considered themselves another country, so, depending on your views on the legitimacy of the Confederacy, Lincoln had about as much legal authority to free slaves in the South as he did to outlaw smoking in France.

And even if you did consider the Confederacy as Union states in rebellion, Congress had beaten Lincoln to the punch as far as freeing slaves. In August 1861, the First Confiscation Act directed Union commanders to seize "Confederate property," which included slaves. And the Second Confiscation Act in July 1862 declared that confiscated slaves "shall be free forever." So wherever the military went, slaves could be freed. Lincoln might have declared all slaves free, but if no one was there to enforce it, the Proclamation was an empty promise.

As far as constitutional amendments ending slavery, none were technically passed until after Lincoln's death. In April 1864, the U.S. Senate pushed for a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery, which Lincoln supported (it was defeated in the House of Representatives). The issue nearly cost Lincoln re-election and Republicans control of Congress. But Lincoln's dedication is an argument that not all of his anti-slavery measures were politically motivated.

But with the Proclamation, Lincoln was able to make nobody really happy. Many abolitionists thought the Proclamation should free all slaves; northern Democrats and Southerners thought Lincoln had stepped beyond his legal authority. Many people were upset that Lincoln had changed the war from a battle to preserve the Union into a fight to end slavery. Racist attitudes prevailed in both the North and South, and the idea that white troops were dying so freed slaves could invade the North and take jobs was unpopular, to put it mildly. The 1863 draft riots in New York mostly targeted blacks because of this fear, and there were plenty of reports of mob violence against Northern businesses that employed black laborers.

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Exceptions to Emancipation

Illustration of Abraham Lincoln as he sits on a bench and writes a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation in the 1860s.
Illustration of Abraham Lincoln as he sits on a bench and writes a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation in the 1860s.
George Eastman House/Getty Images

­"Now, therefore, I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion, do, on this 1st day of January, in the year of our Lord 1863, and in accordance with my purpose so to do, publicly proclaimed for the full period of 100 days from the day first above mentioned, order and designate as the states and parts of states wherein the people thereof, respectively, are this day in rebellion against the United States the following, to wit:

Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana (except the parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James, Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the city of New Orleans), Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia (except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkeley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Anne, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth), and which excepted parts are for the present left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued."

This is where Lincoln tries to avoid any legal entanglements with the slavery-friendly Supreme Court. By confining his authority to commander in chief suppressing a rebellion, Lincoln prevented the Supreme Court from ruling the Emancipation Proclamation unconstitutional.

Of course, by confining it to areas of rebellion, Lincoln had to exclude areas that had been recaptured by the Union, as indicated in the second paragraph that excludes areas of Louisiana and Virginia. In fact, Lincoln left this paragraph with blanks in it until the day before it was published, waiting for word from military commanders about any new territories that could be added. By listing counties individually, Lincoln was able to avoid slaveholders' lawsuits in federal courts -- even though these same slaveholders only a few weeks earlier did not recognize the U.S. federal court system because they were part of the Confederacy.

The "forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia" is the area of Appalachian Virginia that didn't favor succession and broke free of Virginia to rejoin the Union. West Virginia voted to abolish slavery within six months of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation

An ex-slave reads the Emancipation Proclamation in 1947.
An ex-slave reads the Emancipation Proclamation in 1947.
Francis Miller//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

"And, by virtue of the power and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated states and parts of states are, and henceforward shall be, free; and that the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.

And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defense; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages."

The first parag­raph has the strongest wording in the entire document: Lincoln's earlier drafts had abolished slavery in the future tense. As author Allen C. Guelzo points out, "In the final draft, the time had come to make the prospect a present reality" [source: Guelzo]. It was this wording that triggered celebrations in many Northern cities on Jan. 1, 1863 -- slaves weren't going to be free someday, they were free. But while abolitionist and freed blacks celebrated that idea, others worried. Some white Northerners thought masses of freed slaves would invade the North and take all of the jobs; others feared violent uprisings as slaves killed former masters and overran the South.

In response to these concerns, Lincoln added the second paragraph. It was mostly unnecessary. Some slaves did threaten and kill former masters, but it was rare. On some plantations, slaves numbered in the hundreds and simply overtook the plantation and ran off the owners.

Most slaves learned of the proclamation through the grapevine, others as the Union Army passed through. Rather than rising up against their former masters, many of the freed slaves attempted to join the Army. Others headed to the cities -- as far away from the plantations as they could get -- to reconnect with family.

­There were some slaves who didn't learn of their freedom immediately. For instance, those in Key West, Fla., had heard about the Emancipation Proclamation, but didn't learn that it had gone into effect until mid-January 1863. And news of the Emancipation Proclamation didn't reach parts of Texas until as late as June 1865 -- after Lee had surrendered.

However, most slave owners' attempts couldn't keep the news of the Emancipation Proclamation from their slaves. And, despite the document's shortcomings, "No slave declared free by the Proclamation was ever returned to slavery once he or she had made it to the safety of Union-held territory" [source: Guelzo].

Freed Slaves: Emancipation in War

Visitors view the original Emancipation Proclamation during a one-day-only exhibit on Jan. 19, 2003, at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
Visitors view the original Emancipation Proclamation during a one-day-only exhibit on Jan. 19, 2003, at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

"And I ­further declare and make known that such persons of suitable condition will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service."

In this paragraph, Lincoln officially allowed freed slaves to be accepted into the armed services. This had a huge effect on the war. Any racist sentiments about whites fighting for blacks' freedom were mostly squelched when freed slaves joined the Army in large numbers. However, many freed men (and women) who crossed over to Union lines ended up in contraband camps, which mostly involved them doing drudge work while suffering from malnutrition and exposure. The conditions were so horrible, the deaths that resulted from these camps accounted for most of the South's civilian casualties [source: McPherson].

The freed slaves who were accepted into the Army proved to be as effective soldiers as whites. One of the most famous of the black regiments, the 54th Massachusetts, was the subject of the movie "Glory," the white troops, and public opinion grudgingly followed.

In Vicksburg, Miss., wealthy plantation owners fled -- with their slaves in tow. Many other slaves escaped to Union lines. As a result, there was less slave labor to work on Vicksburg's fortifications. General Ulysses S. Grant, himself a former slave owner, was eventually able to break the defenses at Vicksburg, and he credited the freed men for much of his success. Vicksburg was a major Union victory because it gave the Union control of the Mississippi River.

Additionally, the Emancipation Proclamation ended the secret support that European countries like England and France had been giving to the Confederacy early in the war. The proclamation effectively ended any hopes on the part of Southerners that these European powers would officially recognize the Confederacy as an independent country. England and France had abolished slavery decades earlier and would not openly oppose a country fighting to eradicate it.

­Beyond the fighting, the Emancipation Proclamation had a huge effect on Southern morale. Poor white farmers in the South were upset that the war's cause was no longer about states' rights versus the Union. Now these poor farmers were fighting to protect the "property" of wealthy plantation owners who could buy their way out of service in the Confederate Army. And the plantation owners, already in fear of the slave population that outnumbered them, grew even more paranoid, so they fought harder to control their slaves. The class war that erupted tore apart much of the Southern cause. And the newly freed persons further damaged "the cause." As Allen C. Guelzo states in "Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation," "The damage wrought by the Proclamation went deeper, like a stake in the heart of slavery's collective psyche, and the dread grew in white Southerners as they beheld around them people who would not consent any longer to be things" [source: Guelzo].

Emancipation After the War

By torchlight, a Union soldier reads the Emancipation Proclamation to a room of slaves and their children.
By torchlight, a Union soldier reads the Emancipation Proclamation to a room of slaves and their children.
George Eastman House/Getty Images

"And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind and the gracious favor of Almighty God.

In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.


Done at the City of Washington, this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty three, and of the Independence of the United States of America the eighty-seventh.


By the President: Abraham Lincoln


William H. Seward, Secretary of State"

So Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation didn't technically free anybody. Lincoln knew this, and he worked toward getting constitutional amendments passed to abolish slavery and guarantee citizenship for blacks. The amendments he pushed for were passed after his death, but were mostly hollow attempts at black citizenship.

  • The 13th Amendment (1865) abolished slavery but provided no citizenship for blacks.
  • The 14th Amendment (1868) prohibited states from taking away citizens' rights without due process, but the Supreme Court decisions in the 1870s weakened blacks' rights. This amendment would remain weak until the 1960s, when it became the basis for the Civil Rights movement.
  • The 15th Amendment (1870) prohibited discrimination of the right to vote based on race. In response, much of the South passed Black Codes (and later Jim Crow laws), which instituted poll taxes and literacy tests, excluding many former slaves. The black right to vote wouldn't truly be realized in the South until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

After Lincoln's assassination came Andrew Johnson's administration and the rise of Radical Republicans, who wanted to punish the defeated South. Congress didn't trust Johnson -- or his promotion of Lincoln's lenient policy of welcoming the South back into the Union.

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The Freedmen's Bureau

At first, the United States tried to help newly freed slaves. The horrible conditions in the contraband camps prompted the creation of societies and groups that provided clothing, medicine and financial aid to the newly freed. Out of these groups evolved the Freedmen's Bureau: "established in the War Department by an act of March 3, 1865. The Bureau supervised all relief and educational activities relating to refugees and freedmen, including issuing rations, clothing and medicine. The Bureau also assumed custody of confiscated lands or property in the former Confederate States, border states, District of Columbia, and Indian Territory" [source: Freedmen's Bureau].

One of the bureau's tasks was enforcing the division of plantations. Some of the land was supposed to be directly sold to former slaves, other parcels were to be supervised by Northerners, and still others were returned to their owners in exchange for signed oaths of allegiance. Treatment of blacks on these plantations ranged from "benign to brutal paternalism" [source: McPherson].

But with Northern apathy and racist attitudes, as well as a crippled Southern economy, black rights to citizenship were quickly suppressed. Legislation authorizing the Freedmen's Bureau was allowed to lapse in 1872. Sharecropping -- former slaves "sharing" 50 percent of earnings with former masters to work the land -- kept many freed men in debt and tied to the plantation in de facto slavery.

To learn more about the Emancipation Proclamation, take a look at the links on the next page.

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Related How Stuff Works Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • American Treasures of the Library of Congress. http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/trt028.html
  • Denney, Robert E. "The Civil War Years." Sterling Publishing Company, Inc., 1992.
  • "Emancipation Proclamation." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 6 Feb. 2008. http://search.eb.com/eb/article-9032498
  • Ferguson, Andrew. "Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America."Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007.
  • Freedman's Bureau. http://freedmensbureau.com/
  • "Glory." Dir. Edward Zwick. Perf. Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes, Morgan Freeman, Jihmi Kennedy, Andre Braugher. TriStar Pictures, 1989.
  • Guelzo, Allen C. "Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America." Simon & Schuster. 2004.
  • Juneteenth.com. http://www.juneteenth.com/history.htm
  • Kachun, Mitch. "Festivals of Freedom." University of Massachusetts Press. 2003.
  • Kennett, Lee. "Sherman: A Soldier's Life." HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. 2001.
  • The Library of Congress. http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/alhtml/almintr.html
  • McPherson, James M. "Battle Cry of Freedom." Oxford University Press, Inc.: 1988.
  • National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. http://www.freedomcenter.org
  • PBS' "American Experience: Reconstruction, The Second Civil War." http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/reconstruction/40acres/ps_so15.html
  • Robinson, Armstead L. "Bitter Fruits of Bondage: The Demise of Slavery and the Collapse of the Confederacy, 1861 - 1865." University of Virginia Press. 2005.
  • Sheehan-Dean, Aaron, editor. "Struggle for a Vast Future." Osprey Publishing, 2006.

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