The Emancipation Proclamation Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Emancipation Proclamation has been a much-debated and much-misunderstood document. Many people believe it freed all the slaves, but it freed only those who lived in areas that were still in rebellion against the federal government as of the date of the proclamation, January 1, 1863. Although Abraham Lincoln had strong personal feelings against slavery, he initially had no plans to abolish it. But by the summer of 1862, he determined to free the slaves in the Rebel states because this would make it harder for the Confederacy to continue the war. He believed that his authority as commander-in-chief of the armed forces gave him the ability to do this; however, this military authority could not be applied to the slave states that had remained loyal to the Union. Therefore, the proclamation applied only to the states that were in rebellion against the federal government as of January 1, 1863.

Summary Overview

The Emancipation Proclamation has been a much-debated and much-misunderstood document. Many people believe it freed all the slaves, but it freed only those who lived in areas that were still in rebellion against the federal government as of the date of the proclamation, January 1, 1863. Although Abraham Lincoln had strong personal feelings against slavery, he initially had no plans to abolish it. But by the summer of 1862, he determined to free the slaves in the Rebel states because this would make it harder for the Confederacy to continue the war. He believed that his authority as commander-in-chief of the armed forces gave him the ability to do this; however, this military authority could not be applied to the slave states that had remained loyal to the Union. Therefore, the proclamation applied only to the states that were in rebellion against the federal government as of January 1, 1863.

Defining Moment

Despite Lincoln’s personal abhorrence of slavery, he believed he had no constitutional authority to simply order an end to it, and he had promised in the 1860 presidential campaign not to interfere with slavery where it already existed. When the Civil War started, many Northerners saw the war primarily as a struggle to preserve the Union, but from the very beginning abolitionists saw the war as an opportunity to strike against slavery. In the summer of 1862, President Lincoln decided that the time had come to issue a proclamation freeing the slaves in areas that were in rebellion against the federal government. Most of his cabinet members agreed when Lincoln first presented the idea of the proclamation on July 22, 1862. However, it was decided to wait until Union forces had won a significant victory, so that the proclamation would not look like an act of desperation.

After the Union victory at Antietam in September 1862, Lincoln believed the time had come. On September 22, 1862, he issued a preliminary emancipation proclamation, warning the rebellious states that if they did not return to the Union by January 1, 1863, their slaves would be declared “forever free.” No rebelling state made any positive response, so on January 1 of the new year, Lincoln issued the formal Emancipation Proclamation. He was criticized at the time, and by some historians since, for not touching slavery where he could (in the loyal border states where slavery was legal), but announcing the freedom of slaves that were beyond his control. But Lincoln’s view was precisely the opposite–he had no legal authority to end slavery in the loyal states–which were, by the fact of their loyalty, not subject to military control. But in the rebelling Confederate states, freeing their slaves was a war measure that would hamper their ability to prosecute the war by depriving them of much of their labor. The Emancipation Proclamation had a significant impact on the outcome of the war. It virtually ended any chance that the Confederacy would be recognized by or receive aid from Europe–as support for the South would imply support for slavery, which had been outlawed in Europe–and it made it clear that a Union victory would mean the end of slavery. It also authorized the enlistment of African Americans as soldiers in the Union military forces, and by the end of the war over 180,000 black troops had served–most of whom were freed slaves.

Author Biography

Abraham Lincoln rose from humble roots to become the president of the United States during a crisis that threatened the very existence of the nation. He was born in Hodgenville, Kentucky, on February 16, 1809. His mother died when he was a young boy. His father, Thomas Lincoln, was a frontier farmer who never prospered. In 1816, the family moved from Kentucky to Spencer County, Indiana, and in 1830 they moved to southern Illinois. As a young man, Lincoln clerked in a store in New Salem, Illinois, worked as a surveyor, and served as the town’s postmaster. Lincoln, who had little formal education, studied law with a friend who tutored him and loaned him law books, and he was admitted to the Illinois bar in 1836. In 1837, Lincoln moved to Springfield, the new capital of Illinois. Over the next few years he developed a reputation as a highly capable lawyer.

Lincoln became involved in Whig Party politics, and served four terms as a member of the Illinois House of Representative. In 1846, he was elected to the House of Representatives, but served only one term. In 1856, Lincoln joined the new Republican Party, which had emerged in the crisis over the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the question of the potential extension of slavery into those territories. Lincoln said in later life that he did not remember a time when he was not opposed to slavery. The experience of seeing slaves when he was on a trip to New Orleans as a young man had made a deep impression upon him. In 1858, he ran as a candidate for the Senate against the incumbent, Stephen A. Douglas. Lincoln lost that election, but his series of seven debates with Douglas brought him to national attention, which opened the way for his nomination by the Republicans to run for the presidency in 1860. Although Lincoln was a moderate on the slavery issue within the context of the Republican Party (against allowing the westward expansion of slavery, but not an abolitionist), his election was seen by many Southerners as a threat to the existence of slavery. By the time Lincoln was inaugurated as president on March 4, 1861, seven Southern states had seceded from the Union. Lincoln led the nation through the Civil War but was assassinated just days after Robert E. Lee surrendered the main body of Confederate forces. He died in Washington, DC, on April 15, 1865.

Document Analysis

On September 22, 1862, shortly after the Battle of Antietam, President Abraham Lincoln issued what has become known as the “preliminary emancipation proclamation.” This document was basically a warning to the Confederate states that if they did not end their war against the federal government by January 1, 1863, then on that date the slaves held in those rebellious areas would be set free. Lincoln had decided on this course of action by the midsummer of 1862, but members of his cabinet persuaded him to wait until a significant Union victory had been achieved before announcing the policy. Lincoln considered Major General George McClellan’s victory over the Confederate forces at Antietam Creek, near Sharpsburg, Maryland, on September 17 to be that victory. Five days later he issued the preliminary statement. This document laid out what would happen if armed resistance to federal authority did not end by the close of the current year. The first two full paragraphs of the final proclamation that was issued on January 1, 1863, consist of quotations from the preliminary document of September 22, 1862. By giving the Confederate states nearly three months of warning, Lincoln hoped that some states might be induced to end their rebellion so that they might continue to be allowed to have slavery.


Because Lincoln saw the Emancipation Proclamation as a war measure, aimed at limiting the power of the Confederacy to carry on the war, it would only take effect in areas that were in rebellion against the Union. Thus, the preliminary proclamation specifies how this status would be determined. If, by January 1, 1863, states had ended their rebellion and elected representatives to Congress, who had been chosen in elections in which the majority of eligible voters had taken part (thus indicating broad public support for any profession of loyalty by the state), then that state would no longer be considered to be in rebellion to the federal government. No Confederate state took any action to end their rebellion, so in the final form of the proclamation, Lincoln specified the states that were still in rebellion, excepting certain areas in Virginia and Louisiana that were already back under federal control.

Lincoln considered what he was doing in the Emancipation Proclamation to be primarily a war measure, and so he invoked “the power in me vested as Commander in Chief” of the military forces of the United States. Article 2, section 2 of the US Constitution provides that “the President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.” Lincoln states that he is taking this action at a “time of actual armed rebellion” against the government, and he believes it to be “a fit and necessary war measure.” This concept of a “war measure” is crucial to an understanding of the Emancipation Proclamation and why it applied only where it did; it is also related to understanding why Lincoln did not take action to free the slaves earlier, or in some other fashion. Despite Lincoln’s personal opposition to slavery, he believed that, constitutionally, he had no power to simply declare all slaves to be free. But the concept of “war powers” had evolved as an unwritten but generally accepted principle that in times of war a president might have extraordinary powers to take actions that would facilitate the prosecution of the war, or to hinder the ability of an enemy to carry on the war. Confiscation of the property of an enemy that was being used to support the war effort was considered a legitimate power of war, and some slaves had already been freed under the terms of the First Confiscation Act (August 1861) and the Second Confiscation Act (July 1862). Thus Lincoln believed that, as a war measure, he could order the freeing of the slaves in areas that were in rebellion against the legitimately established government. Slaves were often used to directly aid the Confederate forces, such as in building trenches and fortifications, or in other kinds of labor in and around military camps. Indirectly, slave labor kept much of the economy of the Confederacy running, and the presence of large numbers of slaves meant that a greater proportion of the white male population of the South was available for military service. For these reasons, Lincoln believed he could take action against slavery in the areas that were in rebellion. These arguments would not apply, however, to areas that had not rebelled–such as the border states, where slavery was legal, but which had nevertheless remained in the Union; these included Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. Nor would it apply to areas where federal authorities had already retaken control–most prominently, the state of Tennessee.

Lincoln notes that this proclamation of January 1, 1863, is simply carrying out what he had warned the Confederate states that he would do when he issued the preliminary proclamation–all of this, he says, is “in accordance with my purpose to do so publicly proclaimed for the full period of one hundred days.” Francis Bicknell Carpenter was an artist commissioned to paint a picture memorializing the Emancipation Proclamation, and spent nearly six months at the White House in the spring and summer of 1864 working on this portrait. During this time Carpenter had many conversations with Lincoln, and Lincoln told him that when he issued the preliminary proclamation, he did not realize that it was precisely one hundred days from September 22, 1862, to January 1, 1863. Carpenter’s painting, First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln, was unveiled to the cabinet on July 22, 1864–two years to the day from the occasion depicted in the picture.

The states identified in the proclamation as being in rebellion include all of the eleven states that had seceded and formed the Confederate States of America. Forty-eight western counties of Virginia had broken away from that state and in June 1863 were admitted to the Union as the new state of West Virginia. The proclamation would therefore not apply in western Virginia. Also, some counties along the Atlantic coast of Virginia had already been reoccupied by federal forces, and these specific counties are also listed as “excepted parts” where the proclamation would not apply. Likewise, in southern Louisiana, Union naval power had allowed federal forces to take control of a large region, and so specific parishes (counties) in Louisiana are also listed as excepted. In these excepted parts of Virginia and Louisiana, the situation was “left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued,” meaning that the slaves in those regions were not set free. Contemporary accounts of the time when the final proclamation was issued tell of slaves reading the document or listening intently as it was read, to find out whether they were from areas that were considered in rebellion, and thus were freed by the document.

While slaves in loyal states or federally controlled portions of Rebel states were not affected by the proclamation, slaves in those areas that were declared to still be in a state of rebellion against the federal authority “are, and henceforward shall be free.” Under the previous Confiscation Acts passed by Congress, there was the potential of court cases being filed later to determine whether the slaves freed under those laws had actually belonged to people supporting the Confederate war effort, or if those specific slaves had been used in ways that aided the war. But under the Emancipation Proclamation, no such claims by slave owners would be possible. If the state or part of a state in which they lived was in rebellion against the government when the proclamation took effect, then the slaves in that area were freed–irrespective of the slave owners’ loyalty or professed loyalty to the Union. Lincoln also pledged that the powers of the executive branch of the government, including the armed forces, would be used to see that the freedom of these former slaves is “recognized and maintained.”

One of the issues that had been debated in connection with any potential policy that might free the slaves during the war was the possibility that the freed people might rise up in revenge against their former masters. Lincoln encouraged the freed slaves to refrain from any violence, unless it was necessary in legitimate cases of self-defense. Also, wherever they might have the opportunity to do so, they should “labor faithfully for reasonable wages.” As it happened, there were very few incidents of violence by freed slaves. Their usual response to being set free was simply to leave the lands of their former masters; or, more precisely, the slaves freed themselves by leaving the farms and plantations where they had been enslaved and making their way to the lines of the Union Army. In 1865, Congress created the Freedman’s Bureau, which was to try to help the freed slaves to make the transition to living as free people. The Freedman’s Bureau–which was technically called the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands–sought to provide schools for the freed slaves, and to negotiate contracts to see that the workers were paid reasonable wages for their labor.

Related Issues

The preliminary document that Lincoln issued in September 1862 was not only a warning of what would happen if the rebellion did not end by January 1, 1863. There were also suggestions of other potential actions that never materialized. Lincoln proposed suggesting to Congress laws that would give financial aid to any state that would undertake freeing their slaves on the state level. By this means, masters might be financially compensated for freeing their slaves. In the months leading up to the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln had met several times with representatives of the loyal border states where slavery was legal. He urged them to consider voluntary emancipation, whether immediate or gradual, and suggested that federal money might be made available to aid them if they would do this. In May 1862, he warned the border state representatives he met with, “You cannot be blind to the signs of the times.” None of the border states took this action before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. Although the proclamation did not free the slaves in these loyal border states, some of these states–including Maryland, Missouri, and West Virginia–did adopt emancipation before the Thirteenth Amendment, which finally ended slavery everywhere in the United States, was ratified in December 1865.

Another issue that was proposed in the preliminary proclamation was aid for the colonization of freed African Americans outside of the United States. Like many antislavery advocates, Lincoln had initially supported colonization, but eventually meetings with representatives of free blacks in the North convinced him that the African American people were not, for the most part, interested in leaving the United States. In the final form of the Emancipation Proclamation, neither aid for states voluntarily freeing their slaves, nor any encouragement of colonization is mentioned. The time for such half-measures, Lincoln believed, had passed.

Another issue that was not mentioned in the preliminary document was the use of African American troops in the Union war effort. But in the final document, Lincoln declares that “such persons of suitable condition” (referring to the freed slaves mentioned in the previous paragraph), will be received into the US military “to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.” The question of using black troops, whether free men from the North or emancipated slaves, was controversial but had been discussed from the early days of the war. Freeing the slaves would take the laborers from the South that produced the agricultural products and other commodities essential to the Confederate economy. But beyond removing this source of support for the Confederacy, arming African Americans could add thousands of troops to the Union war effort.

Initially, Lincoln feared that freeing the slaves would alienate the border states and also some Northern voters. He also feared that using black troops would also upset some in the North. But by the end of 1862, Lincoln sensed that public opinion in the Northern states was changing on these issues. Freed slaves, who had escaped to Union lines or who had been confiscated as contraband of war, had already been aiding the Union war effort for some time. They were used as laborers in military camps, and as cooks, medical aides, and in other noncombatant positions. Some people in the North believed that the Confederacy might be on the verge of arming the slaves to fight, promising them freedom if they served the Rebel military effort. (The Confederacy would embrace this idea toward the very end of the war, but the conflict ended before any black Confederate troops could be utilized to any significant extent).

Actually, blacks were serving in the US Navy even before the Emancipation Proclamation, as they had (in small numbers) ever since the American Revolution. During the Civil War, about eighteen thousand African Americans served in the US Navy, and by the end of the war, more than 180,000 served in the Union Army. Thousands of Northern blacks who had been free before the war served, but over half of all the black troops were freed slaves–so the Emancipation Proclamation had served to take people whose labor represented a valuable contribution to the Confederacy’s rebellion and to turn them into soldiers fighting against the rebellion. Not all Northerners welcomed the use of black troops, and in some cases commanders were reluctant to have them doing anything other than occupation duty or manual labor in military camps. But when black troops fought, they performed admirably, and this lessened the prejudice against their use in combat. There was also initially some discrimination in pay and other issues, but eventually black troops were paid the same as any other Union soldiers.

Lincoln concluded the Emancipation Proclamation with a statement that he believed it to be “an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity.” Many abolitionists had argued from the very beginning of the war that the Confederacy, by taking up arms against the government, had forfeited any right to claim constitutional protections for slavery. They could not rebel against a constitutionally ordained government and at the same time invoke the protection of slavery under the Constitution. By the summer of 1862, Lincoln had come to see that if emancipation were undertaken as a war measure, “upon military necessity,” then he could take action to free the slaves in the Rebel states. The phrase in which Lincoln invokes “the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of almighty God” was suggested by Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, but Lincoln no doubt heartily agreed with the sentiment expressed. Lincoln’s personal religious beliefs are a complex issue; it might be said (perhaps too simply) that he had deist beliefs similar to many of the Founding Fathers. While he expressed belief in no particular religious group, he did believe in a Creator who exercised providence over the affairs of nations. While he was struggling with the question of what to do about freeing the slaves, Lincoln often spoke to others about feeling he was an instrument in the hands of this providential power, and he spoke of seeking to understand what the will of God might be for him in this matter.

Essential Themes

Even though it did not free all the slaves, the Emancipation Proclamation made it clear that the Civil War was not only a war to save the Union, but had been transformed into a conflict that would also spell the end of slavery in the United States. Lincoln said in his second inaugural address (in March 1865) that everyone knew that slavery was “somehow” the cause of the war. Yet in the beginning, neither side spoke much about the slavery issue. Confederate leaders talked of states’ rights and sovereignty, while Union leaders spoke of the need to preserve the Union. But the issue of slavery could not be ignored, especially when advances of the Union Army into Confederate territory brought freed or runaway slaves under the control of federal forces. Slaves themselves, by running away to the Union lines, were raising the issue of what had to be done about slavery. Congress addressed this issue in the First and Second Confiscation Acts, which were the first official steps the federal government took toward the dismantling of slavery in Rebel areas.

Although Lincoln had a long-standing personal aversion to slavery, he felt the Constitution gave him no right to simply declare an end to the institution. But if a blow against slavery in the Rebel states was conceived of as a war measure, it might stand any possible legal challenges. A study of Lincoln’s thought on the issue shows a clear progression from the beginning of the war to the summer of 1862, by which time he had decided to issue the proclamation. The Emancipation Proclamation did not free the slaves in loyal states, and in Confederate states it freed only those few who were in areas already controlled by Union forces. But it changed the nature of the war. Antislavery advocates in the North were given a new sense of purpose and direction, because the war now was clearly moving toward destroying slavery. Since no European nation wanted to be seen as propping up a government that sought to preserve slavery, the Proclamation effectively ended any chance of foreign intervention to aid the Confederacy. Legal necessities dictated that the scope of the Proclamation be limited, in freeing only the slaves in areas in rebellion. Nevertheless, the Proclamation had a broad impact, and after it was issued, few doubted that eventually, further actions (including the Thirteenth Amendment) would insure that a Union victory would end slavery everywhere in the United States.

  • Franklin, John Hope. The Emancipation Proclamation. New York: Doubleday, 1963. Print.
  • Guelzo, Allen C. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America. New York: Simon, 2004. Print.
  • Holder, Harold, Edna Greene Medford, and Frank J. Williams. The Emancipation Proclamation: Three Views. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2006. Print.
  • Masur, Louis P. Lincoln’s Hundred Days: The Emancipation Proclamation and the War for the Union. Cambridge: Belknap P of Harvard UP, 2012. Print.
  • McPherson, James M., and James K. Hogue. Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. 4th ed. Boston: McGraw, 2010. Print.
  • Paludin, Phillip Shaw. The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Amer. Presidency Series. Lawrence: UP of Kansas, 1994. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Belz, Herman. Abraham Lincoln, Constitutionalism and Equal Rights in the Civil War Era. New York: Fordham UP, 1998. Print.
  • Cox, LaWanda. Lincoln and Black Freedom: A Study in Presidential Leadership. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1985. Print.
  • Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon, 2005. Print.
  • Oakes, James. Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861–1865. New York: Norton, 2013. Print.
  • Perman, Michael. Emancipation and Reconstruction. 2nd ed. Wheeling: Harlan, 2003. Print.
  • “Primary Documents in American History: Emancipation Proclamation.” Library of Congress. Lib. of Congress, 2013. Web. 7 May 2013.
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