Dismantling Slavery: The Emancipation Proclamation

From the Lecture Series: Experiencing America — A Smithsonian Tour through American History

By Richard Kurin, PhD, The Smithsonian

President Lincoln knew he had a moral obligation to abolish slavery. But as Commander-in-Chief of the Union army, the timing of emancipation had military consequences that required careful consideration.

1863 US poster on the emancipation of Southern slaves
Commemoration of the emancipation of Southern slaves and the end of the Civil War, showing contrast between slavery and the life of freedmen. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Dismantling Slavery

The drive to end slavery in the United States was a long one, from being debated in the writing of the Declaration of Independence to exposure of its ills in literature, from rebellions of slaves to the efforts of people like Harriett Tubman to transport escaping slaves along the Underground Railroad. Abolitionists had urged President Abraham Lincoln to free the slaves in the Confederate states from the very outset of the Civil War. By mid-1862, Lincoln had become increasingly convinced of the moral imperative to end slavery, but he hesitated. As commander-in-chief of the Union Army, he had military objectives to consider.

If abolition upset slave owners in (southern) states and tipped the scales toward secession, the Union would be dealt a major blow.

On one hand, emancipation might undermine support for the Union cause in the border states—Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. Those were slave states that had not joined the Confederacy, and their loyalty was crucial for the Union’s military success. White communities in these states were strongly divided over the issue. If abolition upset slave owners in these states and tipped the scales toward secession, the Union would be dealt a major blow. But on the other hand, emancipation also had strategic advantages: A promise of freedom for enslaved African Americans in the South could seriously undermine Confederate power. These slaves might actively sabotage the Southern war effort or weaken its fragile economy by withholding their labor. As it was, thousands of slaves had already escaped seeking sanctuary in Union territory, to places like Fort Monroe in Virginia. These refugees aided the war effort by providing information on Confederate movements and supply lines, but they were not yet eligible for protection under the law. Instead, they were classified as contraband—enemy property subject to seizure. Emancipation would offer them civil rights.

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Lincoln also hoped the emancipation of Southern slaves would persuade African Americans in the Northern states to enlist in the Union Army. Finally, an abolitionist course might dissuade Britain and France from lending military support to Confederate states. Both nations had ended slavery in their own countries but retained economic interests in Southern goods and plantation crops. Overall, emancipation seemed not only the right moral decision but the right military decision.

The District of Columbia’s Emancipation Act

Painting of the "First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln" by Francis Bicknell Carpenter 1864
President Lincoln presented the Emancipation Proclamation to his Cabinet on July 22, 1862. (Image: By Francis Bicknell Carpenter/Public domain)

Lincoln’s first step was to sign the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act on April 16, 1862. About 3,000 enslaved people who had been living in the shadows of the Capitol and the White House were freed. Their former masters were compensated from a government fund, receiving up to $300 per slave; at the time it was considered very generous.

The act had three very interesting provisions: One, anyone who had fought for the Confederacy or given “aid and comfort” to Confederate soldiers, could not claim compensation; two, kidnapping a citizen of the District back into slavery was deemed a felony; anyone found guilty of that crime would serve a sentence of five to 20 years in prison; and third, a separate fund was set up to help newly freed persons emigrate to Liberia, Haiti, or “such other country beyond the limits of the United States as the President [might] determine.”

This is a transcript from the video series Experiencing America: A Smithsonian Tour through American History. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Liberia was a new nation, carved out of the former slave coast of Africa. It was founded in 1820 by members of the American Colonization Society as a refuge for freed slaves. The society was composed of a group of strange bedfellows—Abolitionist Quakers from the North and slaveholders from the Chesapeake Bay region. These abolitionists generally believed that African Americans faced too much prejudice in the United States and would have a greater economic opportunity in Africa. The slaveholders generally believed that free blacks were a danger to white society and simply wanted them gone. On April 19, three days after Lincoln signed the act, the District’s African American population celebrated with a huge parade. Historians estimate that half the city’s black population participated, and 10,000 people lined the streets to watch the joyous marchers. Emancipation Day is still a holiday in Washington DC.

Overall, Lincoln’s first step toward emancipation was a success. He now believed that freeing the Southern slaves was the correct course. The only question was, when? During the summer of 1862, Lincoln visited the War Department’s telegraph office almost daily, exchanging messages with his Union generals. Finally, as summer faded into autumn, the president sat at the desk of its chief, Major Thomas Eckert. Using the officer’s pen and ornate brass inkstand, he drafted the Emancipation Proclamation. Then, he waited for good news from the battlefields, to issue it from strength, not weakness.

In the Heat of Battle

On September 22, 1862, five days after Union troops turned back the northern charge of the Confederate Army at Antietam, Maryland, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln presented the proclamation as an executive order based upon his presidential powers as commander in chief. It was not a law, it did not require congressional approval or review. It proclaimed as free the enslaved people in states and regions that remained in the Confederacy as of January 1, 1863. It did not free remaining slaves in northern or border states, nor did it free enslaved peoples in Tennessee, parts of Virginia, or parts of Louisiana where Union forces had already assumed control. The proclamation did not abolish slavery throughout the United States, but it did make the abolition of slavery a war aim. But the Emancipation Proclamation gave hope to African Americans across the country, who now saw their dreams of freedom clearly linked to a Union victory. Lincoln’s proclamation was widely publicized and reproduced in the next few months.

Map of counties covered (red) and not covered (blue) by the Emancipation Proclamation.
The Emancipation Proclamation proclaimed as free the enslaved people in states and regions that remained in the Confederacy as of January 1, 1863 (red counties). But it did not free remaining slaves in northern or border states, nor did it free enslaved peoples in Tennessee, parts of Virginia, or parts of Louisiana where Union forces had already assumed control (shown in the map in blue counties). (Image: By derivative work: SFGiants/Public domain)

A clause about compensating slave states for the loss of their “property” was dropped, as was a repatriation clause like the one in the District Emancipation Act. This preliminary draft, issued by Lincoln in September 1862, did not mention military service, but the final proclamation allowed former slaves to join the United States armed forces. On December 30, 1862, Secretary of State William Seward brought the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation to the White House for the president to sign on the morning of January 1, 1863.

Learn more about relics and documents related to the emancipation of slaves during the Civil War era

Lincoln signed it, but then he noticed a small technical error, and so Seward had it changed. Later that day, Lincoln signed the corrected final copy, saying as he did, “I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper.” By day’s end, the proclamation was distributed to the press and brought to the telegraph office for transmission across the nation. Four copies were made of the original final draft. A “clean,” official document was kept by the State Department, and that copy is now in the National Archives.

News of the Emancipation Proclamation Travels to the Battlefields

Photo of Emancipation Proclamation pamphlet (ca. 1888).
Page 5 of the Pocket sized pamphlet of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. (Image: Strobridge & Co. Lith./Library of Congress)

In the collections of the National Museum of American History, we have a tiny, pocket-sized pamphlet. It’s tiny for a reason. This copy of the Emancipation Proclamation had to be small because it was designed for distribution by soldiers on the front lines. One of the most interesting things about it is that it was printed a few weeks before the proclamation was signed by Abraham Lincoln. It was printed in Boston by the abolitionist John Murray Forbes, sometime in December 1862. Historians don’t know how many copies like these were printed, but they were an important part of the war effort. It was from these little pamphlets that Lincoln’s proclamation was read aloud in the field by Union soldiers in Confederate territory. This allowed former slaves to hear for themselves the official words of the president, words that transformed their hopes and prayers for freedom into the law.

Eyewitness accounts describe the celebrations on January 1, 1863, as thousands of blacks in the Confederate states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, and other locales were informed of their new legal status as free men. Booker T. Washington, who was just a boy at the time, recalled the event:

Some man who seemed to be a stranger (a United States officer, I presume) made a little speech and then read the Emancipation Proclamation, I think. After the reading, we were told that we were all free and could go when and where we pleased. My mother, who was standing by my side, leaned over and kissed her children, while tears of joy ran down her cheeks. She explained to us what it all meant, that this was the day for which she had been so long praying, but fearing that she would never live to see.

The effect of reading these cheaply printed “pocket” copies of the Emancipation Proclamation was stunning. Read countless times, these unassuming little booklets communicated a new spirit of freedom for enslaved people. Among its many benefits, the Emancipation Proclamation encouraged African Americans to join the Union Army, just as Lincoln had hoped.

Learn more about objects linked to the experiences of America’s immigrants

When the Civil War ended, the Emancipation Proclamation freed enslaved peoples in the South, but slavery remained the law of the land in some of the border states. Only Maryland, Missouri, Tennessee, and West Virginia had enacted emancipation during the war. About 40,000 remained in bondage in Delaware and Kentucky, as well as a handful of unfortunate people in the North, trapped under decades-old legal provisions. Only with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865 would all Americans be free.

But as we know, “freedom” is not a synonym for “equality”, and the battle for civil rights ensued for decades to come.

Common Questions About the Emancipation Proclamation

Q: What was the Emancipation Proclamation supposed to accomplish?

The Emancipation Proclamation was to offer freedom for all slaves in confederate states who joined the Union if the Union won the war.

Q: Did the Emancipation Proclamation free all the slaves?

No. The Emancipation Proclamation was a military measure for Southern slave states that didn’t apply to many Union border slave states, which continued to enslave Africans.

Q: What were the Union slave-holding states called?

The states that still held slaves in the Union were called border states.

Q: What state freed slaves first?

Although it was still independent, Vermont abolished slavery in 1777.

This article was updated on September 21, 2020

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