Need for Emancipation Proclamation and Abraham Lincoln’s War Powers


By Gary W. Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia

Many factors worked for Lincoln’s decision to issue Emancipation Proclamation, which involved lot of challenges, including the long wait for it to come through. But in spite of having the powers and control to free the slaves wherever he could, Lincoln invited heavy criticism for not doing so. Why did he not act, and what were his plans ahead?

Painting showing Abraham Lincoln engaged in deep conversation with the members of his cabinet.
Lincoln called the Cabinet on September 22, five days after the Battle of Antietam, and told them of the plan to issue his preliminary proclamation. (Image: Francis Bicknell Carpenter/Public domain)

Issuance of Preliminary Proclamation

Lincoln decided to issue an Emancipation Proclamation and informed his cabinet about the same on July 22 in 1862. However, he was persuaded by some of his advisors not to issue it immediately to avoid making it look like an act of desperation as this was right after the Seven Days reverse on the battlefield. He was persuaded to wait until Union military forces gave him a clear victory so that it looked like he was doing it from a position of strength rather than weakness.

McClellan gave him the opportunity at Antietam. Lincoln had to wait through the rest of July, August, and half of September before he got his victory. He called the Cabinet on September 22, five days after the Battle of Antietam, and told them of the plan to issue his preliminary proclamation.

Motivation for Lincoln’s own Plan

Many factors motivated Lincoln, including the failure of border states to come through with their own plan to end slavery in their states. He was also concerned about the increasing number of contrabands behind the lines in the Union armies. Plus, he was aware of a growing sense on the part of both some of his advisors and members of Congress and others with whom he spoke, that, if he issued this kind of proclamation, it would make it very difficult for England and France to come into the war on the side of the Confederacy.

The border states had been more important to him than England and France in the summer and fall of 1861, but the war had progressed to the point where he was concerned with overseas, and he didn’t think the border states could be brought around. He also detected an increasing belief in the North that the South should be punished more severely. The war engendered bitterness, a much deeper enmity, and hatred, as the casualty lists grew longer and months went by with no resolution.

Learn more about the Peninsula Campaign.

Sentiment in the North

A watercolor painting showing a black man reading a newspaper.
Orders in the proclamation asked for freeing of all the slaves in the states which were still rebellious towards the United States. (Image: Henry Louis Stephens (1824–1882)/Public domain)

Many people in the North believed that the Confederates should be hurt more, and the best way to do that was by taking their slaves away from them. Lincoln detected that sentiment and believed that whatever he did on emancipation would alienate the Democrats in the North, so he wasn’t worried about them.

The preliminary proclamation ordered the freeing of all slaves held within states still in rebellion against the United States on January 1, 1863. Lincoln justified it solely on grounds of military necessity. There was no talk of taking the moral high ground, of slavery being a monstrous institution.

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Voluntary Colonization

The preliminary proclamation endorsed the idea of voluntary colonization of free slaves, including one last plea from Lincoln to the border states to come up with their own plan. If they came up with a plan before January 1, he said he would consider that.

It was a very conservative approach because Lincoln still didn’t know how the North would react to emancipation, and thus he emphasized it as a war measure.

Final Proclamation

During the final proclamation on January 1, 1863, all the slaves were freed in the portions of the Confederacy not controlled by Federal troops. Lincoln’s proclamation made no distinction between loyal and disloyal masters, so, if a Confederate slave owner lived in an area not controlled by the Federal army, their slaves were still freed by the Emancipation Proclamation.

The excluded areas included parts of Virginia, several Louisiana parishes, and the entire state of Tennessee. The Union army controlled most of west and middle Tennessee, and Lincoln considered east Tennessee to be such strong Unionist territory that he saw it as loyal to the United States all along. Lincoln exempted the areas under Federal control because they were parts of the Union, and as parts of the United States, slavery was protected there because of the Constitution.

Learn more about emancipation.

Lincoln’s War Powers

The Constitution protected slavery, and Lincoln couldn’t strike at something that was protected. He only struck at it in the areas where the rebels were in control because he was doing it as a war measure.

His war powers gave him the right to do that but not with the loyal slaveholders. The fact that no slaves were freed where Lincoln had the control to free them brought tremendous criticism.

White Southerners believed Lincoln was hypocritical because if he really was against slavery and wanted to emancipate slaves, he could emancipate them in Missouri, Maryland, and Kentucky as well. They felt his real goal was to incite slave rebellion in the Confederate states.

Principle Behind the Proclamation

Many Democrats in the North agreed that Lincoln was being hypocritical. Some radicals and abolitionists were also disappointed. They found it hard to answer some foreign critics who agreed with a sneering London newspaper that observed that the principle behind the proclamation was not that one human being could not own another. The principle was that only human beings loyal to the Union could own another, and this seemed to them to be wrong.

But critics missed the point of the proclamation. It was a war measure aimed at the war-making capacity and resources of the Confederacy. Under the Constitution, Lincoln could do that but couldn’t take property from loyal citizens.

Moving Beyond Proclamation

Lincoln’s proclamation reaffirmed and moved beyond all the acts that Congress had passed till that point. It did so in a very dramatic way by announcing a new Union war aim. Lincoln had that advantage, and as the president, he got more attention for whatever he did than individual acts of Congress.

Nearly 100,000 ex-slaves achieved freedom by fleeing to Union lines in Virginia, Louisiana, and Tennessee. West Virginia soon entered the Union on the condition of abolishing slavery. That was one of the stipulations that Congress made when West Virginia came into the Union later in 1863. Movements to abolish slavery soon grew in Missouri, Tennessee, and Maryland, who got rid of slavery before the war was over. Only Kentucky resisted, until it was forced to.

Key Points of Emancipation Proclamation

Image of reproduced Emancipation Proclamation.
The Emancipation Proclamation announced a new Union war aim. Northern armies not only restored the Union but also freed the slaves.(Image: Engraving by W. Roberts, restoration by Bammesk/Public domain)

The key thing about the proclamation is that it meant that whenever Federal armies occupied more Confederate territory, they would take freedom with them, and the number of freed slaves would grow. Northern armies not only restored the Union but also freed the slaves.

The men in the armies weren’t concerned about freeing slaves, but since the Emancipation Proclamation was in place, freedom accompanied them while marching southward. As per the Emancipation Proclamation, if the North eventually triumphed over the Confederacy, there would be a new type of Union. Lincoln had harnessed emancipation to the North’s military effort against the Confederacy. He did that to win the war and restore the Union.

Learn more about emancipation as a war measure and necessity for victory.

Common Questions about the American Civil War

Q: When did Lincoln issue a preliminary draft of the Emancipation Proclamation?

Lincoln decided to issue the preliminary proclamation and informed his cabinet about the same on July 22, 1862, but he was persuaded by his advisors against it to avoid making it look like an act of desperation.
Finally, after a long wait, Lincoln issued the preliminary proclamation on September 22, 1862, five days after the Battle of Antietam.

Q: Did the Emancipation Proclamation do anything?

Lincoln’s Proclamation made no distinction between loyal and disloyal masters, so if a Confederate slave owner lived in an area not controlled by the Federal army, their slaves were still freed by the Emancipation Proclamation.

Keep Reading
Lincoln’s Emancipation Plan—Three Main Features
Dismantling Slavery: The Emancipation Proclamation
Black Soldiers in the American Civil War