The Emancipation Proclamation

By Kimberly Dennin

Brief History of the Civil War

In order to understand the importance and circumstances surrounding the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, we have to go back in time a bit to the period leading up to and the start of the Civil War. Historians generally agree the main cause of the Civil War was the economic differences between the North and the South. In the early 1800s, the North had come to rely on manufacturing and industry, and any agriculture was occurring on small-scale farms. The South, however, still was mainly reliant on large-scale farming which was dependent on slave labor. After 1830 there was growing abolitionist sentiment in the North and many were opposed to the legalization of slavery in the new western territories. As a result, there was an increasing fear in the South that their economy was in danger.

Another turning point was the passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. This overturned the Missouri Compromise which used a specific latitude as a boundary between slave and free states as more territory was acquired in the west. The Kansas-Nebraska act established the rule of “popular sovereignty” which allowed the settlers of a new state to decide if slavery would be allowed. This led to the creation of the Republican Party, which was based on its opposition to slavery’s extension. The election of Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln in 1861 was the final straw for the southern states.

Barriers to the Proclamation

Roger B. Taney via The National Judicial College

Though Lincoln was elected as a vocal anti-slavery candidate, he knew that initially there was no direct way he could end slavery. One barrier was that the powers of the state were separated from the powers of the federal government and the laws of slavery were state laws. In addition to this, the chief justice of the Supreme Court was Roger B. Taney who was southern-born and most famous for his opinion written in 1857 for the Dred Scott case. In this he stated that Black people were not citizens and could not sue the courts for their freedom. Lincoln knew that if he acted in any direct way to end slavery, then the slaveholders would sue and it would eventually come to the Supreme Court and Taney. Lincoln’s initial response to slavery was to offer federal buy-outs to slaveholders. He decided to try the plan with Delaware and offered to give the Delaware legislature U.S. bonds in return for them setting a timetable for abolishing slavery. Delaware did not agree to the plan and six weeks after his election, the South seceded from the Union forming an independent slave republic, known as the Confederacy. Then six weeks after his inauguration, The Civil War officially began when Confederates attacked Fort Sumter.

Initial Response to the Civil War

During the beginning of the war Lincoln’s main interest was maintaining the Union. In his inaugural address of March 4, 1861 he claimed he had no intention of ending slavery or repealing the Fugitive Slave law. He did this with the hope that it would convince the states that had seceded to rejoin the Union. This did not work, so in order to prevent the border states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri from seceding, Lincoln claimed that the war was not about slavery, but to preserve the Union. Many northerners were also not very interested in fighting to free slaves.

Battle of Gettysburg via Britannica

Black people were also not allowed to enlist, with the exception being Black sailors because they had already been working aboard naval vessels for years. On August 6, 1861 fugitive slaves were declared “contraband of war” and declared free, and most of them were put into crowded camps. From the beginning of the war, however, there was pressure from Black people to enlist because they believed that the war was about slavery and it was their best opportunity to win their freedom.

Shift in the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation

The first couple years of the war greatly favored the Confederacy. The Confederate armies were fueled by slave labor and proved superior to the Union armies, Union generals did not want to take orders from Lincoln and some of them did not support emancipation, and Europe was considering recognizing the Confederacy over the Union. While the Civil War gave Lincoln the opportunity to use the powers granted to the president during war to take greater action, the Supreme Court contested Lincoln’s use of “war powers” which made him initially hesitant to use them to free the southern slaves. The shift occurred in 1862 when Lincoln began to consider emancipation as the key to winning the war. On July 22, 1862 he read a draft of the Proclamation to his cabinet, where he threatened to decree the freeing of slaves as a “fit and necessary war measure for suppressing” the rebellion.

Black soldiers via PBS

It was decided that Lincoln should wait for a major victory before issuing the Proclamation and so after the Battle of Antietam he issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862. This gave the Confederate states 100 days to rejoin the Union or their slaves would be freed. The Confederate states refused to accept Lincoln’s offer and on January 1, 1863 the Emancipation Proclamation was signed into law. Specifically, the Proclamation was signed into military law because Lincoln still did not have the civil authority to emancipate slaves. The authority of the Proclamation rested in Lincoln’s power as Commander-in-Chief. The Proclamation also only applied to states in the Confederacy. The four slave border states were still part of the Union, so they did not have to free their slaves. He also added a provision to the Proclamation that announced the acceptance of Black men into the Union army and Navy, and about 200,000 Black soldiers and sailors fought for the Union by the end of the war.

The Emancipation Proclamation signaled a shift in the war that confirmed it was about both preserving the Union and freeing slaves. It added a moral force to the Union that strengthened them militarily and politically. With the backing of Europe and the flight of Black people from the Confederacy to the Union, victory was ensured and the Civil War ended in 1865.

Controversy Over the Emancipation Proclamation

Emancipation Proclamation via USA Today

There is still some controversy over the Emancipation Proclamation and Lincoln’s intentions behind issuing it. There are those who argue that because initially Lincoln claimed the war was only about preserving the Union and he only freed the slaves where he had no control in the Confederacy, he was just using emancipation to increase Northern morale and gain foreign sympathy. The counterargument to this is Lincoln had no other way at the time to achieve emancipation without it being struck down by the Taney Court and because he was using military powers he could only use them in states in active rebellion. As the Union claimed back more territory, more slaves were freed, and because Lincoln did not want the Proclamation to be challenged after the war he pushed the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, through Congress in January 1865. Despite what his intentions might have been, the Emancipation Proclamation was a vital part of the process of freeing the slaves and just the beginning of a struggle that still has not finished.


The Emancipation Proclamation (2019), National Archives



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Proclamation. Pennsylvania Legacies, 4(2), 20-23.

The Civil War and Emancipation, PBS

Civil War, History

Hampson R. (2012) 150 years later, Lincoln’s Emancipation still sparks debate. USA Today


Hassler, W.W. American Civil War, Britannica


Roger B. Taney: One Decision Makes a Legacy, Part II (2019), The National Judicial College