Emancipation Proclamation


The Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect 150 years ago, changed the course of the United States while it was embroiled in the Civil War. In it, President Abraham Lincoln exercised his constitutional authority as commander in chief of the armed forces, to proclaim all slaves in Confederate territory to be forever free. Join Active Minds as we explore what this historic proclamation did and did not do. We will examine its impact, both immediate and longer term, from the perspective of slaves, slave owners, Northerners, Southerners, and the country as a whole.

Key Lecture Points

  • The Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect 150 years ago on January 1, 1863, was a crucial moment in the fraught history of slavery in the United States.
  • While Abraham Lincoln rose to power as a result of his opposition to the extension of slavery into the western territories of the US, he was cautious in his thinking about emancipation in the time leading up to the Civil War. He personally favored a gradual emancipation with compensation to slave owners. He also supported the colonization movement which advocated the emigration of freed African Americans to such locations as Liberia.
  • After his election to the Presidency and the secession of the Southern states and the ensuing Civil War, beginning in 1861, Lincoln walked a fine political line in regards to slavery. Northern Abolotionists, a crucial part of his constituency, sought immediate legal status for slaves. Meanwhile, politically powerful interests in slave holding Union states, Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware, threatened to leave the Union if Lincoln freed the slaves.
  • As the War progressed, Lincoln came to see Emancipation as both a political and military strategy. To free the slaves in rebellious territories would take a crucial labor force from the Confederacy and bring it to the Union. After an indecisive but crucial battle at Antietam, Lincoln used the moment to issue the Emancipation Proclamations on September 22, 1862. This first Proclamation was an ultimatum to the South that as of January 1, 1863 all slaves in any areas under rebellion would be freed. The second Emancipation Proclamation was indeed issued on January 1, 1863 and completed the promise by freeing all slaves in all rebellious areas. The proclamation exempted the Border States and areas already under Union Control. It also said that African Americans would be able to serve in the Union military.
  • The Emancipation Proclamation was a major turning point in the Civil War in that it changed the aim of the war from preserving the Union to being a fight for human freedom, shifted a huge labor force that could benefit the Union war effort from the South to the North and forestalled the potential recognition of the Confederacy by England or France.
  • The Emancipation Proclamation was a major step on the path to the abolition of slavery that started with the slaves taking the initiative to escape from their owners in the first days of the war and was completed with the ratification of the 13th Amendment. After the Emancipation Proclamation African Americans’ aspirations changed from not just wanting freedom to wanting full citizenship and equality, a promise that wouldn’t be fully realized until the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.

Exploration Questions

  • Describe the key elements of the Emancipation Proclamation. How is it different from the 13th Amendment? What role did each document play in ending slavery?
  • Describe the political, military and moral consequences of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Reflective Questions

  • Many historians consider Lincoln to be the greatest US President. Do you agree? Why or why not?
  • Have you visited the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC? How did it make you feel?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Simon & Schuster, 2006. 944 pages. Describes how Lincoln came out of obscurity to become President and how he brought his rivals into his Cabinet.
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  • Holzer, Harold. Emancipating Lincoln: The Proclamation in Text, Context, and Memory. Harvard University Press, 2012. 213 pages. Explores the impact of the Emancipation Proclamation at the time it was announced and how its meaning has changed.
    Click here to order