On this day, January 1, 1863, 150 years ago, President Abraham Lincoln released his official Emancipation Proclamation. The measure was an executive pronouncement given as a wartime declaration freeing the slaves in the states of rebellion. The exact wording of the proclamation was “that on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, 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.”
The president had ready to release his proclamation earlier, but needed a Union victory on the battlefield prior to that announcement. He waited patiently, finally receiving that Union victory on September 17, 1862 at nearby Sharpsburg, Maryland. Five days later, on September 22, President Lincoln issued his preliminary proclamation. The document called for the freeing of all slaves in any one of the states in rebellion that did not return to the Union by January 1, 1863. With that, the president was allowing for time for states to return. None did.
Historians say that what Lincoln was doing in this instance was just some of his brilliant political maneuvering. He was trying to soften the opposition by leading them to believe the war was being fought to save the Union while at the same time not necessarily trying to end slavery. It also made slavery an additional war goal, beyond just saving the Union. Not lost to the president was the foreign reaction, as he knew the announcement would cause England and France to back off from their support of the Confederacy.
What the proclamation did not do is complicated. It did not compensate slave owners for their losses, it did not outlaw slavery and it did not make the new freemen citizens. It actually took ratification of the 13th amendment on December 6, 1865 to officially free the slaves.
The announcement was effective, not necessarily for the slaves it immediately freed, but rather for the thoughts it put in the heads of the Negroes at the time. Some would argue Abraham Lincoln did not free any slaves, because his freeing of the slaves took place in states where he had no jurisdiction at all. Others would say the mere idea that they were free allowed slaves to free themselves.
Lincoln himself called the measure the “central act of my administration and the great event of the 19th century.”
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