Emancipation Proclamation

The Emancipation Proclamation, or Proclamation 95, was a presidential proclamation and executive order issued by United States President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863. It changed the federal legal status of more than 3.5 million enslaved African Americans in the designated areas of the South from slave to free. As soon as a slave escaped the control of the Confederate government, by running away or through advances of federal troops, the former slave became free. Ultimately, the rebel surrender liberated and resulted in the proclamation’s application to all of the designated former slaves. It did not cover slaves in Union areas that were freed by state action (or three years later by the 13th amendment in December 1865). It was issued as a war measure during the American Civil War, directed to all of the areas in rebellion and all segments of the executive branch (including the Army and Navy) of the United States.

The Proclamation ordered the freedom of all slaves in ten states. Because it was issued under the president’s authority to suppress rebellion (war powers), it necessarily excluded areas not in rebellion, but still applied to more than 3.5 million of the 4 million slaves. The Proclamation was based on the president’s constitutional authority as commander in chief of the armed forces; it was not a law passed by Congress. The Proclamation was issued in January 1863 after U.S. government issued a series of warnings in the summer of 1862 under the Second Confiscation Act, allowing Southern Confederate supporters 60 days to surrender, or face confiscation of land and slaves. The Proclamation also ordered that suitable persons among those freed could be enrolled into the paid service of United States’ forces, and ordered the Union Army (and all segments of the Executive branch) to “recognize and maintain the freedom of” the ex-slaves. The Proclamation did not compensate the owners, did not outlaw slavery, and did not grant citizenship to the ex-slaves (called freedmen). It made the eradication of slavery an explicit war goal, in addition to the goal of reuniting the Union.

Around 25,000 to 75,000 slaves in regions where the US Army was active were immediately emancipated. It could not be enforced in areas still under rebellion, but, as the Union army took control of Confederate regions, the Proclamation provided the legal framework for freeing more than three and a half million slaves in those regions. Prior to the Proclamation, in accordance with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, escaped slaves were either returned to their masters or held in camps as contraband for later return. The Proclamation applied only to slaves in Confederate-held lands; it did not apply to those in the four slave states that were not in rebellion (Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, and Missouri, which were unnamed), nor to Tennessee (unnamed but occupied by Union troops since 1862) and lower Louisiana (also under occupation), and specifically excluded those counties of Virginia soon to form the state of West Virginia. Also specifically excluded (by name) were some regions already controlled by the Union army. Emancipation in those places would come after separate state actions or the December 1865 ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, which made slavery and indentured servitude, except for those duly convicted of a crime, illegal everywhere subject to United States jurisdiction.

On September 22, 1862, Lincoln issued a preliminary warning that he would order the emancipation of all slaves in any state that did not end its rebellion against the Union by January 1, 1863. None of the Confederate states restored themselves to the Union, and Lincoln’s order was signed and took effect on January 1, 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation outraged white Southerners (and their sympathizers) who envisioned a race war. It angered some Northern Democrats, energized anti-slavery forces, and undermined elements in Europe that wanted to intervene to help the Confederacy. The Proclamation lifted the spirits of African Americans both free and slave. It led many slaves to escape from their masters and get to Union lines to obtain their freedom, and to join the Union Army.

The Emancipation Proclamation broadened the goals of the Civil War. While slavery had been a major issue that led to the war, Lincoln’s only mission at the start of the war was to maintain the Union. The Proclamation made freeing the slaves an explicit goal of the Union war effort. Establishing the abolition of slavery as one of the two primary war goals served to deter intervention by Britain and France. The Emancipation Proclamation was never challenged in court. To ensure the abolition of slavery in all of the U.S., Lincoln pushed for passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, and insisted that Reconstruction plans for Southern states require abolition in new state constitutions. Congress passed the 13th Amendment by the necessary two-thirds vote on January 31, 1865, and it was ratified by the states on December 6, 1865, ending legal slavery.

The United States Constitution of 1787 did not use the word “slavery” but included several provisions about unfree persons. The Three-Fifths Compromise (in Article I, Section 2) allocated Congressional representation based “on the whole Number of free Persons” and “three fifths of all other Persons”. Under the Fugitive Slave Clause (Article IV, Section 2), “[n]o person held to service or labour in one state” would be freed by escaping to another. Article I, Section 9 allowed Congress to pass legislation to outlaw the “Importation of Persons”, but not until 1808. However, for purposes of the Fifth Amendment—which states that, “No person shall … be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”—slaves were understood as property. Although abolitionists used the Fifth Amendment to argue against slavery, it became part of the legal basis for treating slaves as property with Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857). Socially, slavery was also supported in law and in practice by a pervasive culture of white supremacy. Nonetheless, between 1777 and 1804, every Northern state provided for the immediate or gradual abolition of slavery, except the border states of Maryland and Delaware. Maryland did not abolish slavery until 1864, and Delaware was one of the last states to hold onto slavery; it was still legal in Delaware when the thirteenth amendment was issued. No Southern state did so, and the slave population of the South continued to grow, peaking at almost four million people at the beginning of the American Civil War, when most slave states sought to break away from the United States.

Lincoln understood that the Federal government’s power to end slavery in peacetime was limited by the Constitution which before 1865, committed the issue to individual states. Against the background of the American Civil War, however, Lincoln issued the Proclamation under his authority as “Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy” under Article II, section 2 of the United States Constitution. As such, he claimed to have the martial power to free persons held as slaves in those states that were in rebellion “as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion”. He did not have Commander-in-Chief authority over the four slave-holding states that were not in rebellion: Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware, and so those states were not named in the Proclamation. The fifth border jurisdiction, West Virginia, where slavery remained legal but was in the process of being abolished, was, in January 1863, still part of the legally recognized, “reorganized” state of Virginia, based in Alexandria, which was in the Union (as opposed to the Confederate state of Virginia, based in Richmond).


The Proclamation applied in the ten states that were still in rebellion in 1863, and thus did not cover the nearly 500,000 slaves in the slave-holding border states (Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland or Delaware) which were Union states. Those slaves were freed by later separate state and federal actions.

The state of Tennessee had already mostly returned to Union control, under a recognized Union government, so it was not named and was exempted. Virginia was named, but exemptions were specified for the 48 counties then in the process of forming the new state of West Virginia, and seven additional counties and two cities in the Union-controlled Tidewater region of Virginia. Also specifically exempted were New Orleans and 13 named parishes of Louisiana, which were mostly under federal control at the time of the Proclamation. These exemptions left unemancipated an additional 300,000 slaves.

The Emancipation Proclamation has been ridiculed, notably in an influential passage by Richard Hofstadter for “freeing” only the slaves over which the Union had no power. These slaves were freed due to Lincoln’s “war powers”. This act cleared up the issue of contraband slaves. It automatically clarified the status of over 100,000 now-former slaves. Some 20,000 to 50,000 slaves were freed the day it went into effect in parts of nine of the ten states to which it applied (Texas being the exception). In every Confederate state (except Tennessee and Texas), the Proclamation went into immediate effect in Union-occupied areas and at least 20,000 slaves were freed at once on January 1, 1863.

The Proclamation provided the legal framework for the emancipation of nearly all four million slaves as the Union armies advanced, and committed the Union to ending slavery, which was a controversial decision even in the North. Hearing of the Proclamation, more slaves quickly escaped to Union lines as the Army units moved South. As the Union armies advanced through the Confederacy, thousands of slaves were freed each day until nearly all (approximately 3.9 million, according to the 1860 Census) were freed by July 1865.

While the Proclamation had freed most slaves as a war measure, it had not made slavery illegal. Of the states that were exempted from the Proclamation, Maryland, Missouri, Tennessee, and West Virginia prohibited slavery before the war ended. In 1863, President Lincoln proposed a moderate plan for the Reconstruction of the captured Confederate State of Louisiana. Only 10% of the state’s electorate had to take the loyalty oath. The state was also required to abolish slavery in its new constitution. Identical Reconstruction plans would be adopted in Arkansas and Tennessee. By December 1864, the Lincoln plan abolishing slavery had been enacted in Louisiana. However, in Delaware and Kentucky, slavery continued to be legal until December 18, 1865, when the Thirteenth Amendment went into effect.

President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, as the nation approached its third year of bloody civil war. The proclamation declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”

Despite this expansive wording, the Emancipation Proclamation was limited in many ways. It applied only to states that had seceded from the United States, leaving slavery untouched in the loyal border states. It also expressly exempted parts of the Confederacy (the Southern secessionist states) that had already come under Northern control. Most important, the freedom it promised depended upon Union (United States) military victory.

Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery in the nation, it captured the hearts and imagination of millions of Americans and fundamentally transformed the character of the war. After January 1, 1863, every advance of federal troops expanded the domain of freedom. Moreover, the Proclamation announced the acceptance of black men into the Union Army and Navy, enabling the liberated to become liberators. By the end of the war, almost 200,000 black soldiers and sailors had fought for the Union and freedom.

From the first days of the Civil War, slaves had acted to secure their own liberty. The Emancipation Proclamation confirmed their insistence that the war for the Union must become a war for freedom. It added moral force to the Union cause and strengthened the Union both militarily and politically. As a milestone along the road to slavery’s final destruction, the Emancipation Proclamation has assumed a place among the great documents of human freedom.

The original of the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, is in the National Archives in Washington, DC. With the text covering five pages the document was originally tied with narrow red and blue ribbons, which were attached to the signature page by a wafered impression of the seal of the United States. Most of the ribbon remains; parts of the seal are still decipherable, but other parts have worn off.

The document was bound with other proclamations in a large volume preserved for many years by the Department of State. When it was prepared for binding, it was reinforced with strips along the center folds and then mounted on a still larger sheet of heavy paper. Written in red ink on the upper right-hand corner of this large sheet is the number of the Proclamation, 95, given to it by the Department of State long after it was signed. With other records, the volume containing the Emancipation Proclamation was transferred in 1936 from the Department of State to the National Archives of the United States.


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