The Emancipation Proclamation (37546)

Issued as an executive order by the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation was signed on Jan. 1, 1863. The document was issued to legally end the practice of chattel slavery; it freed most but not all of the nation’s slaves, as it applied only to those not living in Union-controlled states.

At the time of the proclamation’s issue, the nation was engulfed in the Civil War (1861-1865). It’s important to understand that while the issue of slavery is inextricably tied to the Civil War, it was not the primary reason for the war.

Despite Lincoln’s efforts to end slavery, he empathized with slave owners over the loss of their “property” and the income they generated, even offering them compensation. From the start of his presidency in 1860, he tried to work with legislators to end slavery, but did not want to antagonize those Union-loyal states that allowed slaveholding.

Secretary of State William H. Seward echoed Lincoln’s sentiments. “We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free,” he said.

Decades earlier, a series of events fueled the fire that would send the country to war with itself. These included the Missouri Compromise (1820); Nat Turner’s Rebellion (1831); the Nullification Crisis (1832); the Amistad Rebellion (1839); the Annexation of Texas (1845); Manifest Destiny, the Mexican-American War (1846-1848); the Fugitive Slave Act (1850), the publication of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1852); Bleeding Kansas (1854-1858); and the Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott vs. Sanford (1857).

On Dec. 20, 1860, South Carolina became the first state to declare secession (separation) from the United States. In less than a year, 10 other states followed and formed a separate government, the Confederate States of America, with its own president, Jefferson Davis. The member states of the Confederacy were South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee. Kentucky and Missouri had dual governments. Delaware, Maryland and West Virginia were considered border states, while Indiana and Arizona were territories.

On April 12, 1861, Confederates attacked Fort Sumter in Charleston County, S.C. This attack officially started the Civil War.

On Sept. 22, 1862, with the war now in full swing, Lincoln issued a Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which ordered that slaves held in the rebellious (Confederate) states would be free as of Jan. 1, 1863.

On that date, 100 days later, the Emancipation Proclamation declared, “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious areas “are, and henceforward shall be free.”

The order also served as a strategic military move, as it helped strengthen the war effort by allowing Black soldiers to fight. The Union Army enlisted more than 200,000 Black soldiers.

The Civil War ended with Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865. The war remains the nation’s bloodiest conflict, leaving more than 620,000 Americans dead. At its end, the country was in tatters but the union was intact.

Five days later, on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, Lincoln met his death at the hands of failed actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.

It was two years after Lincoln issued it and two months after the war’s end before all slaves finally had the freedom ordered by the Emancipation Proclamation.

Their final liberation took place in Texas on June 19, 1865. The date, now known as Juneteenth, marks the freedom of the nation’s last remaining 250,000 slaves.

With freedom should have come human and civil rights for the millions of African-Americans who suffered under the chattel slave system. However, the Jim Crow laws of legalized segregation enacted in the former Confederate States from 1876 to 1965 enforced a continued denial of the rights of Black Americans.

Legalized civil rights forBlacks came more than 100 years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964.


  • Look it up: Use the Internet or other reference source to learn more about the Emancipation Proclamation and the events leading up to and part of the American Civil War.
  • Talk about it: Discuss the importance of this document and how it was used in the war effort.
  • Write it down: Write a short essay on any of the events mentioned in today’s article. Discuss these events with your classmates.

This Week in Black History

  • Harlem’s “Mother of Medicine,” Dr. Muriel Petioni, was born in Trinidad on Jan. 1, 1914.
  • A voter registration drive led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began in Selma, Ala., on Jan. 2, 1965.
  • On Jan. 3, 1961, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was elected chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.