Lincoln Issues the Emancipation Proclamation Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Although Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation actually freed few slaves, it was a powerful symbolic statement of the North’s transformation of the U.S. Civil War into a crusade against slavery.

Summary of Event

On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln opened a cabinet meeting by reading from a book of humorous stories to put everyone at ease, but he soon came to the business at hand. He announced that he intended to issue that day an emancipation proclamation. Since he had consulted the cabinet on this subject before, he desired no comments from them on this occasion. Then he read the proclamation. As of January 1, 1863, all slaves held in states “in rebellion against the United States” would be forever free. Emancipation Proclamation (1863) Lincoln, Abraham [p]Lincoln, Abraham;Emancipation Proclamation Slavery;and Emancipation Proclamation[Emancipation Proclamation] Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);and Emancipation Proclamation[Emancipation Proclamation] African Americans;and Abraham Lincoln[Lincoln] Lincoln, Abraham [p]Lincoln, Abraham;and African Americans[African Americans] [kw]Lincoln Issues the Emancipation Proclamation (Jan. 1, 1863) [kw]Issues the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln (Jan. 1, 1863) [kw]Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln Issues the (Jan. 1, 1863) [kw]Proclamation, Lincoln Issues the Emancipation (Jan. 1, 1863) Emancipation Proclamation (1863) Lincoln, Abraham [p]Lincoln, Abraham;Emancipation Proclamation Slavery;and Emancipation Proclamation[Emancipation Proclamation] Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);and Emancipation Proclamation[Emancipation Proclamation] African Americans;and Abraham Lincoln[Lincoln] Lincoln, Abraham [p]Lincoln, Abraham;and African Americans[African Americans] [g]United States;Jan. 1, 1863: Lincoln Issues the Emancipation Proclamation[3610] [c]Human rights;Jan. 1, 1863: Lincoln Issues the Emancipation Proclamation[3610] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Jan. 1, 1863: Lincoln Issues the Emancipation Proclamation[3610] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Jan. 1, 1863: Lincoln Issues the Emancipation Proclamation[3610] Blair, Montgomery Chase, Salmon P. [p]Chase, Salmon P.;and Emancipation Proclamation[Emancipation Proclamation] Seward, William H. [p]Seward, William H.;and Emancipation Proclamation[Emancipation Proclamation] Stanton, Edwin M. [p]Stanton, Edwin M.;and Emancipation Proclamation[EmancipationProclamation] Greeley, Horace [p]Greeley, Horace;and abolition[Abolition] Sumner, Charles [p]Sumner, Charles;and slavery[Slavery]

Lincoln had not reached his decision to proclaim emancipation without much thinking and soul-searching. From his youth, he had opposed slavery on both moral and economic grounds. However, he was a practical politician and a pragmatic man. He negotiated the secession crisis always inspired by a desire to preserve the union. It is fair to say that while Lincoln wished to abolish slavery, he would translate that wish into action only if abolition would enhance his efforts to attain peace and save the union.

President Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet signing the Emancipation Proclamation. Seated, from left to right: Edwin M. Stanton, Lincoln, Gideon Wells, William H. Seward, and Edwin Bates; standing: Salmon P. Chase, Caleb Smith, and Montgomery Blair.

(C. A. Nichols & Company)

Because Lincoln was a practical man, he realized that emancipation was only part of the solution to the problem of race relations in the United States. He foresaw the plight of the slaves after they were freed and favored a form of emancipation that would compensate the former slave owners, along with a plan for voluntary colonization of former slaves in Africa to soften racial adjustment. Because of the priority Lincoln gave to saving the Union, until 1862 he subordinated his convictions and tentative solutions about slavery to that larger goal. In part, Lincoln hedged on the idea of emancipation so as not to risk the secession of the slave states that were still loyal to the Union—Delaware Delaware;and Emancipation Proclamation[Emancipation Proclamation] , Kentucky Kentucky;and Emancipation Proclamation[Emancipation Proclamation] , Maryland Maryland;and Emancipation Proclamation[Emancipation Proclamation] , and Missouri Missouri;and Emancipation Proclamation[Emancipation Proclamation] .

Lincoln did not find it easy to divorce the ideals of union from those of emancipation. Both abolitionist ideologists and practical men pressed him to expand his administration’s war aims to include emancipation and had done so since the Civil War began in 1861. Senator Charles Sumner Sumner, Charles [p]Sumner, Charles;and slavery[Slavery] of Massachusetts carried on a one-man campaign to move Lincoln to action on the question of slavery. Horace Greeley’s Greeley, Horace [p]Greeley, Horace;and abolition[Abolition] influential New York Tribune New York Tribune;and abolition[Abolition] criticized Lincoln’s administration for its lack of concern for the moral issue. Delegations of citizens petitioned Lincoln to act against human bondage. Lincoln heard these and other pleas but made no commitment to official action.

Sometime in the late spring of 1862, the president finally made his decision. The war was not going as well as he wished. He judged that emancipation would not hinder the war effort and might even help it. He determined to emancipate the slaves by presidential proclamation. Still pondering the timing of his momentous step, he told no one of his decision. He retreated often from the White House to the telegraph room of the War Department, in search of privacy. Early in June, he began drafting his proclamation in the telegraph room. He worked slowly and kept his own counsel. Between mid-June and mid-July, he spoke with a few members of his administration about the step he contemplated.

On July 22, 1862, Lincoln finally read his draft proclamation to the entire cabinet and asked for their comments. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton Stanton, Edwin M. [p]Stanton, Edwin M.;and Emancipation Proclamation[Emancipation Proclamation] applauded the document and expressed the opinion that emancipation would assist the war effort. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase Chase, Salmon P. [p]Chase, Salmon P.;and Emancipation Proclamation[Emancipation Proclamation] thought the move too sudden and sweeping. Chase favored emancipation by the military, as areas of the South were occupied by federal troops. Postmaster General Montgomery Blair Blair, Montgomery feared political repercussions in the fall congressional elections and predicted doom for the Republicans should the president carry out his intentions. Secretary of State William H. Seward’s Seward, William H. [p]Seward, William H.;and Emancipation Proclamation[Emancipation Proclamation] comments impressed Lincoln most of all. Seward favored the issuance of an emancipation proclamation but questioned the president’s timing. Union troops were then in retreat from Richmond, and George B. McClellan’s peninsular campaign had proved to be abortive. Emancipation must not seem to be the desperate act of a defeated Union. Lincoln concurred with Seward and waited for a significant Union victory on the battlefield.

Victory, however, seemed to be a long time in coming. The Confederates assumed the offensive in the summer of 1862, defeated federal troops in the Second Battle of Bull Run, and marched into Maryland. On September 17, the Union army fought the Battle of Antietam Antietam, Battle of (1862) , and the Confederates withdrew back across the Potomac River into Virginia. Lincoln decided that this withdrawal of the enemy was success enough, and called in the cabinet on September 22. Northern newspapers announced the proclamation the next day.

The document the president presented to his cabinet and made public was actually the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Although it was intended to affect millions of Southern slaves, Southern plantation owners paid the announcement little heed, declaring that it was a “Yankee trick” that freed slaves outside Northern borders while keeping those in the North enslaved. Although some Southerners worried that the proclamation might create an atmosphere of rebellion among the slaves, the announcement also strengthened their resolve to defeat the Union armies.

The preliminary proclamation differed in minor respects from the Emancipation Proclamation issued on January 1, 1863, which actually effected emancipation. Perhaps the most significant feature of the document was that it limited emancipation to those states—and portions of states, in the final draft—that were in rebellion. Lincoln limited emancipation in this manner because he based his authority to free the slaves on acts of Congress that provided for the confiscation of rebel property and forbade the military from returning slaves of rebels to their owners. Such authority did not encompass a general emancipation. Also, Lincoln hoped to persuade Congress to act upon the principles of compensation and voluntary colonization in dealing with slaves and slave owners in loyal areas.


Many African American leaders who lived in the North, Frederick Douglass Douglass, Frederick [p]Douglass, Frederick;and Civil War[Civil War] among them, rallied to the cause, urging African Americans to join the Union army. The Confederacy Confederate States of America;and Emancipation Proclamation[Emancipation Proclamation] did not recognize Lincoln’s proclamation, and its four million slaves remained in bondage until Union armies occupied Confederate territories. However, many Southern slaves heeded the call, threw down their tools, and escaped into the North. Many of them then joined the Union forces. Those slaves already held within Union lines in Tennessee, Louisiana, and Virginia were freed. As the Northern troops marched southward, they liberated African Americans in the towns they defeated.

Doctrinaire abolitionists in the North criticized the president’s moderation. However, on September 22, 1862, Lincoln had taken his stand. The war for union widened into a crusade against slavery. Foreign governments paused in their consideration of aiding the South, but the consensus, as Seward Seward, William H. [p]Seward, William H.;and Emancipation Proclamation[Emancipation Proclamation] had predicted, was dismissal of the proclamation. Generally, European leaders tried to find fault with it. Nevertheless, Lincoln had ensured the survival of the union and given the slaves hope. In the end, slavery was doomed.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. Excellent biography that portrays Lincoln as ambitious, often defeated, and tormented by a difficult marriage, yet having a remarkable capacity for growth and the ability to hold the nation together during the Civil War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Franklin, John Hope. The Emancipation Proclamation. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1963. Analyzes Lincoln’s stand on slavery and the political issues of the day.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gienapp, William E. Abraham Lincoln and Civil War America: A Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Biography of Lincoln that focuses narrowly on his presidency and the Civil War. Depicts Lincoln as a shrewd politician and an extraordinary military commander.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Guelzo, Allen C. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004. Examines how and why Lincoln persuaded himself to issue the proclamation, portraying him as a man with an extraordinary understanding of his fellow citizens and the needs of the nation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lincoln, Abraham. Lincoln on Democracy. Edited and introduced by Mario M. Cuomo and Harold Holzer. New York: HarperCollins, 1990. Collection of speeches, letters, notes, and diary entries on the subjects of equality and freedom, written by Lincoln throughout his lifetime.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McPherson, James M. Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Essays by a renowned historian on the changes wrought by the Civil War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">________. The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1964. This thoughtful book proposes that the abolitionists were influential in securing emancipation by goading the president to action.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Neely, Mark E., Jr. The Last Best Hope of Earth: Abraham Lincoln and the Promise of America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993. Carefully researched analysis of Lincoln as a national leader, emphasizing his contributions to preserving the union.

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Salmon P. Chase; Frederick Douglass; Horace Greeley; Abraham Lincoln; William H. Seward; Edwin M. Stanton; Charles Sumner. Emancipation Proclamation (1863) Lincoln, Abraham [p]Lincoln, Abraham;Emancipation Proclamation Slavery;and Emancipation Proclamation[Emancipation Proclamation] Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);and Emancipation Proclamation[Emancipation Proclamation] African Americans;and Abraham Lincoln[Lincoln] Lincoln, Abraham [p]Lincoln, Abraham;and African Americans[African Americans]

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