On January 1, 1863, after greeting visitors at the annual White House New Year’s reception, Lincoln retired to his study to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. The document did not liberate all the slaves—indeed, on the day it was issued, it applied to very few. Because its legality derived from the president’s authority as military commander-in-chief to combat the South’s rebellion, the Proclamation exempted areas firmly under Union control (where the war, in effect, had already ended). Thus, it did not apply to the loyal border slave states that had never seceded or to areas of the Confederacy occupied by Union soldiers, such as Tennessee and parts of Virginia and Louisiana. But the vast majority of the South’s slaves—more than 3 million men, women, and children—it declared “henceforward shall be free.” Since most of these slaves were still behind Confederate lines, however, their liberation would have to await Union victories.

Despite its limitations, the Proclamation set off scenes of jubilation among free blacks and abolitionists in the North and “contrabands” and slaves in the South. “Sound the loud timbrel o’er Egypt’s dark sea,” intoned a black preacher at a celebration in Boston. “Jehovah hath triumphed, his people are free.” By making the Union army an agent of emancipation and wedding the goals of Union and abolition, the Proclamation sounded the eventual death knell of slavery.

Not only did the Emancipation Proclamation alter the nature of the Civil War and the course of American history, but it also represented a turning point in Lincoln’s own thinking. It contained no reference to compensation to slaveholders or to colonization of the freed people. For the first time, it committed the government to enlisting black soldiers in the Union army. Lincoln now became in his own mind the Great Emancipator—that is, he assumed the role that history had thrust upon him, and he tried to live up to it. He would later refuse suggestions that he rescind or modify the Proclamation in the interest of peace. Were he to do so, he told one visitor, “I should be damned in time and eternity.”

Freed Negroes Celebrating President Lincoln’s Decree of Emancipation, a fanciful engraving from the French periodical Le Monde Illustre, March 21, 1863.

Freedom to the Slave. This hand-colored lithograph from 1863 celebrates the promise of emancipation and also links the American flag—the symbol of nationality—with freedom by placing a liberty cap atop it. On the left are symbols of freedom including a school, a church, a plow, and a black man reading a newspaper. A broken chain lies in the right foreground. The image conveys the optimism inspired by the Emancipation Proclamation. But many former slaves would never fully enjoy the kinds of freedom imagined in this lithograph.


1. What does the image tell us about how emancipation was achieved?

2. In what ways does the artist suggest that freedom differed from life under slavery?

With the exception of a few areas, the Emancipation Proclamation applied only to slaves in parts of the Confederacy not under Union control on January 1, 1863. Lincoln did not “free the slaves” with a stroke of his pen, hut the Proclamation did change the nature of the Civil War.

Like the end of slavery in Haiti and mainland Latin America, abolition in the United States came about as the result of war. But emancipation in the United States differed from its counterparts elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere—it was immediate, not gradual, and offered no compensation to slaveholders for their loss of property (with the exception of those in Washington, D.C.) It also foretold the inevitable end of slavery in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Brazil. Not until 1888, however, when Brazil abolished the institution, did slavery come to an end in the entire Western Hemisphere.

The Civil War, which was begun to preserve the prewar Union, now portended a far-reaching transformation in southern life and a redefinition of American freedom. Decoupling emancipation from colonization meant that the freed slaves would become part of American life. A new system of labor, politics, and race relations would have to replace the shattered institution of slavery. “Up to now,” wrote the socialist thinker Karl Marx, observing events from London, “we have witnessed only the first act of the Civil War—the constitutional waging of war. The second act, the revolutionary waging of war, is at hand.” The evolution of Lincoln’s emancipation policy displayed the hallmarks of his wartime leadership—his capacity for growth and his ability to develop broad public support for his administration.

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