Heather Cox Richardson
On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed his name to the Emancipation Proclamation. “I never in my life felt more certain that I was doing right,” he said, “than I do in signing this paper. If my name goes into history, it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.”
The Emancipation Proclamation provided that as of January 1, “all persons held as slaves” anywhere that was still controlled by the Confederate government would be “then, thenceforward, and forever free.”
Historian Richard Hofstadter famously complained that the Emancipation Proclamation had “all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading,” but its legalistic tone reflected that Lincoln was committed to achieving change not by dictating it, which he recognized would destroy our democracy, but by working within the nation’s democratic system.
Although Lincoln personally opposed human enslavement, he did not believe the federal government had the power to end it in the states. With that limitation, his goal, and that of the fledgling Republican Party he led, was only to keep it from spreading into the western territories where, until the 1857 Dred Scott decision, Congress had the power to exclude human enslavement. The spread of enslaved labor would enable wealthy enslavers to dominate the region quickly, they thought, limiting opportunities for poorer white men and gradually turning the entire country over to enslavers.
When the war broke out in 1861, the newly elected Lincoln urged southern leaders to reconsider leaving the Union, reassuring them that “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” When Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, the federal fort at the mouth of Charleston Harbor, Lincoln called not for a war on slavery, but for “all loyal citizens to favor, facilitate, and aid [an] effort to maintain the honor, the integrity, and the existence of our National Union.”
From the earliest days of the war, though, Black Americans recognized that the war must address enslavement. Immediately, they began to escape across Union military lines. At first, hoping to appease border state residents, Union officers returned these people to their enslavers. But by the end of May, as it became clear that enslaved people were being pressed into service for the Confederate military, Union officers refused to return them and instead hoped that welcoming them to the Union lines would make them want to work for the U.S.
In August 1861, shortly after the First Battle of Bull Run left the Union army battered and bleeding, Congress struck a blow at enslavement by passing a law that forfeited the right of any enslaver to a person whom he had consented to be used “in aid of this rebellion, in digging ditches or intrenchments, or in any other way.”
When northern Democrats charged that Republicans were subverting the Constitution and planning to emancipate all southern enslaved people, Republicans agreed with the old principle that Congress had no right to “interfere with slavery in any slaveholding state,” but stood firmly on a new argument: the war powers the Constitution assigned to Congress enabled it to pass laws that would help the war effort. That included attacking enslavement.
As Confederate armies racked up victories, Republicans increasingly emphasized the importance of Black people to the South’s war effort. “[I]t has long been the boast of the South…that its whole white population could be made available for the war, for the reason that all its industries were carried on by the slaves,” the New York Times wrote. Northerners who before the war had complained that Black workers were inefficient found themselves reconsidering. The Chicago Tribune thought Black workers were so productive that “[F]our millions of slaves off-set at least eight millions of Northern whites.”
At the same time, Republicans came to see Black people as crucially important in the North as well, as they worked in military camps and, later, in cotton fields in areas captured by the U.S. military. While Democrats continued to harp on what they saw as Black people’s inability to support themselves, Republicans countered that “[n]o better class of laborers could be found…in all the population of the United States,” and Republican newspapers pushed back on the Democratic idea that Black families were unwelcome in the North.
By July 1862, as Union armies continued to falter, Lincoln decided to take the idea of attacking enslavement through the war powers further, issuing a document that would free enslaved southerners who remained in areas controlled by the Confederacy. His secretary of state, William Henry Seward, urged him to wait until after a Union victory to make the announcement so it would not look as if it were prompted by desperation.
When U.S. troops halted the advance of Confederate troops into Maryland at the September 17 Battle of Antietam, Lincoln thought it was time. On Monday, September 22, he issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation under the war power of the executive, stating that in 100 days, on January 1, 1863, enslaved persons held in territories still controlled by the Confederacy would be free. He said to a visiting judge: “It is my last trump card…. If that don’t do, we must give up.”
The plan did not sit well with Lincoln’s political opponents. They attacked Lincoln for fighting a war on behalf of Black Americans, and voters listened. In the 1862 midterm election, held a little over a month after the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln and the Republicans got shellacked. They lost more than 25 seats in the House of Representatives and lost control of Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana. Democrats did not win control of Wisconsin and Michigan, but they made impressive gains. Voters were undoubtedly unhappy with the lackluster prosecution of the war and concerned about its mounting costs, but Democrats were not wrong to claim their victory was a repudiation of emancipation.
Voters had spoken, and Lincoln responded by offering to give Democrats exactly what they said they wanted. In his message to Congress on December 1, 1862, he called for it to consider amendments to the Constitution that would put off emancipation until January 1, 1900, and pay enslavers for those enslaved people who became free. Slavery was going to end one way or another, he made it clear, and if Democrats wanted to do it their way, he was willing to let them lead. The ball was in Congress’s court if congressmen wanted to play.
But Democrats had won the election on grievance; no lawmaker really wanted to try to persuade his constituents to pay rich enslavers to end their barbaric system. Northerners recoiled from the plan. One newspaper correspondent noted that compensated emancipation would almost certainly cost more than a billion dollars, and while he seemed willing to stomach that financial hit, others were not. Another correspondent to the New York Times said that enslavers, who were at that very moment attacking the U.S. government, were already making up lists of the value of the people enslaved on their lands to get their U.S. government payouts.
Lincoln won his point. On December 31, 1862, newspapers received word that the president would issue the Emancipation Proclamation he had promised. Black congregations gathered that afternoon and into the night in their churches to pray for the end of enslavement and the realization of the principle of human equality, promised in the Declaration of Independence, starting a tradition that continues to the present.
And the following day, after the traditional White House New Year’s Day reception, Lincoln kept his word. Because his justification for the Emancipation Proclamation was to weaken the war effort, the areas affected by the proclamation had to be those still held by the Confederacy, but the larger meaning of the document was clear: the U.S. would no longer defend the racial enslavement that had been part of its birth and would admit Black men to national participation on terms of equality. Lincoln welcomed Black men into the service of the U.S. Army—traditionally a route to citizenship—and urged Black Americans to “labor faithfully for reasonable wages.”
In less than two years, the nation had gone from protecting enslavement to ending it, completely reworking the foundations of our government. But while the victory was moral, Lincoln and the Republicans had achieved it within the confines of a system that allowed the vote only to white men, a significant number of whom opposed ending enslavement altogether. Thanks to pressure from Black Americans and public opinion, they were able to thread a narrow political needle, preserving democratic norms while achieving revolutionary ends.
Lincoln concluded: “[U]pon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.”
The sausage-making of the Emancipation Proclamation had long-term repercussions. The redefinition of Black Americans as superhuman workers undercut later attempts to support formerly enslaved people as they transitioned to a free economy, and the road to equality was not at all as smooth as the Republicans hoped. But that such a foundational change in our history emerged from such messy give and take, necessary in order to preserve our democratic system, seems a useful thing to remember in 2024.