The Emancipation Proclamation and the Immediate Impact on Slavery

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Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, is well known as one of the Great Emancipator in United States history and The Emancipation Proclamation is one of the most highly criticized and analyzed documents of his Presidency. On the surface the proclamation granted the freedom of every slave in the Confederate States of America, ending its longstanding peculiar institution of slavery. In fact President Lincoln's proclamation had more to do with garnering the continued support of the Republican congress and swiftly ending the Civil war than actually freeing the slaves. Additionally, President Lincoln was not legally capable of freeing any enslaved person of the Southern states without Southern contrition to the directive. It is important to focus on the events that led to the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, the immediate effects, and the legal enforceability.

Tensions between Northern and Southern states were already high as Abraham Lincoln was sworn into office in March of 1862; addressing the slave-owning states directly Lincoln told them he would not interfere with the legal rights of the states. Lincoln, however, was very much against the spread of slavery into the newly forming states of the Union. By this time, seven slave holding states had seceded from the Union forming the Confederate States of America. Lincolns' inaugural address was a plea for the secessionists to come back to the Union before all-out war began and to settle their issues in Congress with Constitutional laws. The Civil War begins with the Confederate attack on Union forces at Fort Sumner, South Carolina in April 1861. Almost immediately, Union commanders on the frontlines begin issuing their own proclamations that any local slave is property that can be confiscated from a rebellious faction under the laws of war. When Union Generals John C. Fremont and David Hunter proclaimed the slaves of Missouri and the Department of the South to be free; their orders were revoked by President Lincoln as being outside of the commander's legal authority of the First Confiscation Act as to confiscation of property, and the liberation of slaves, is purely political, and not within the range of military law or necessity."

Immediately, the President began to receive pressure from the Republican Party and the slave holding border states of the Union. The radical members of the Republican party wanted an immediate end to slavery. Meanwhile, the neutral states were holding to the guarantee of state's rights under the Constitution. It was not a secret that President Lincoln was against slavery, however, he was against the use of federal force to remove the institution of slavery from the United States. He was very mindful to the fact that Kentucky, Missouri, West Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware were neutral in the war. These states held ground along the major arteries of the country and driving them to the Confederacy would hand over those access routes to the South. He attempted to keep them from joining the Confederacy by not acting too rapidly on the Republican Party demands for abolition. Lincoln preferred to allow for the gradual abolishment of slavery by the states on their own terms. In Delaware he attempted to convince the state government to abolish slavery with federal compensation, his proposed bill did not pass the Delaware government. The border states began to see the writing on the wall that slavery was about to be the central focus of the Civil War. In Congress, the more radical members of the Republican Party began to show President Lincoln that they had the power to end funding and supplying the Northern war effort.

On September 17, 1862, the battle of Antietam provided the exact circumstance for Lincoln to issue the proclamation. The President believed the Northern victory there along with the Proclamation would be the steam the North needed to turn the war in the North's favor. On September 22, 1862 President Lincoln issued the Preliminary Proclamation of Emancipation, the immediate response was overwhelming support by the Republican Party. This version of the proclamation was little more than an act of appeasement and not an immediate announcement to abolish slavery. By doing so, President Lincoln ensured the continued support by Congress for the war effort while giving the South an opportunity to cease hostilities against the Union and settle their issues in Congress. Lincoln's deadline for the South to act was January 1, 1863. However, the Preliminary Proclamation had the opposite effect he had hoped for as it cemented the Confederacy's resolve to continue the war and protect its way of life. As the word of the Proclamation made its way the plantations, slave holders feared a slave revolt was in the works. Some states took drastic measures to end any slave revolution before it began:

Seventeen Negroes, most of them free, have been arrested on suspicion of being engaged in plotting an uprising of the entire Negro population. Copies of newspapers that printed President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation were found in their possession. All the Negroes know that such a proclamation has been made, and this terrorizes the whites. The seventeen Negroes have been taken to Amesville and lynched.

As more slaves came to the Union lines in search of refuge, Union Commanders were forced to determine if they could in fact provide the refuge offered to them under the Proclamation and the Confiscation Acts. On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, issuing the order to his field commanders that any slaves within the Union controlled areas of the South were freed. As slaves continued to seek their freedom; fighting aged males were drafted into service of the Army or Navy, immediately re-enforcing the Union Army. The women, children, and elderly were lodged in camps trailing the Union Army and lived in very poor, if not worse conditions than they had left. At the same time that Lincoln was proclaiming all slaves of the South to be henceforth and forever free . He maintained the laws of the borders state's right to own slaves thus securing their loyalty to the Union. In fact, some areas deep in the heart of Confederate owned territory were allowed to maintain their right to own slaves. As soon as the Proclamation is made public, slavery became the central focus of the war. The Emancipation Proclamation was issued to give frontline commanders the legal authority to take in slaves that were either freeing themselves or being seized as property by the Union Army. The added effect was the destabilization of the Southern economy and demonization of the act of slavery in the Confederate controlled states

Years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, Lincoln's critics began to dissect the proclamation and examine it from a legal point of view. The Emancipation Proclamation has been called by some a political necessity with the effectiveness of a Bill of Lading. While others recognized the Proclamation for what it was: an order issued by the Commander in Chief of the Union Army under the International Law of War. Following the War of 1812, the issue of slaves freed by the British was arbitrated by the Czar of Russia. This arbitration of the Treaty of Ghent established that slaves freed under the International Law of War were to be returned to their former owners or the former owners were to be adequately compensated. So, in enacting the proclamation under the International Law of War, President Lincoln provided a temporary solution to the peculiar institution of slavery. At the end of the Civil War all of the slaves freed, enlisted in the military service to the Union, or relocated to the North would have to be returned to their former servitude.

However, during the Civil War, the Republican Party controlled the Federal government and the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed by December of 1864. Following the end of the Civil War in 1865, the former Southern states were required to ratify and swear allegiance to the U.S. Constitution and the Thirteenth Amendment. Lincoln required that as little as ten percent of the state's population agree to the amendment in order to bring a swifter resolution to the Civil War. Lincoln's decision to require such a small percentage of the population to accept the amendment was met with harsh criticism by his fellow Republicans. The Republican controlled Congress demanded a majority vote by the states that would ensure an undeniable acknowledgement of the new amendment. However, Lincoln held to his original requirements "restoration of the Union and the abandonment of slavery," and the Union was restored.

The Emancipation Proclamation was indeed an important moment in the history of the United States, it acknowledged a terrible wrong that was done to the African slaves and established another measure of control over the Confederate States of America. Lincoln was legally allowed to issue the proclamation under previously established precedence set throughout the previous wars of the United States. However, without the addition of the Thirteenth Amendment the proclamation would have had no lasting legal effect beyond the end of the Civil War. The proclamation was a necessary political move in order to bring about a quicker end to the Civil War.


  1. CARNAHAN, BURRUS M., Act of Justice: Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and the Law of War, University Press of Kentucky, 2007/09/21. APSU Library Online
  2. CURRIE, DAVID P., The Civil War Congress, The University of Chicago Law Review, Vol. 73, No. 4 (Autumn, 2006), pp. 1131- 1226.
  3. DUEHOLM, JAMES A. "A Bill of Lading Delivers the Goods: The Constitutionality and Effect of the Emancipation Proclamation." Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 31, no. 1 (2010): 22-38.
  4. HOLZER, HAROLD, EDNA GREENE MEDFORD, and FRANK J. WILLIAMS. 2006. The Emancipation Proclamation: Three Views. Conflicting Worlds. Baton Rouge: LSU Press.
  5. KRUG, MARK M. "The Republican Party and the Emancipation Proclamation." The Journal of Negro History 48, no. 2 (1963): 98-114. doi:10.2307/2716087.
  6. MANNING, CHANDRA. "The Shifting Terrain of Attitudes Toward Abraham Lincoln and Emancipation." Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 34, no. 1 (2013): 18-39.
  7. WELLING, JAMES C. "The Emancipation Proclamation." The North American Review 130, no. 279 (1880): 163-85.
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The Emancipation Proclamation and the Immediate Impact on Slavery. (2019, Aug 16). Retrieved July 13, 2024 , from

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