|The Meaning of the Emancipation Proclamation
|Digital History ID 3075|
In October 1862, the London Times dismissed the preliminary
Emancipation Proclamation as an empty gesture. "Where he
has no power Mr. Lincoln will set the Negroes free," the
newspaper commented; "where he retains power he will consider
them as slaves. This is more like a Chinaman beating his two swords
together to frighten his enemy than like an earnest man pressing
forward his cause."
In recent years, it has sometimes been charged that the Emancipation
Proclamation did not free any slaves, since it applied only to
areas that were in a state of rebellion, and explicitly exempted
the border states, Tennessee, and portions of Louisiana and Virginia.
This view is incorrect. The proclamation did officially and immediately
free slaves in South Carolina's sea islands, Florida, and some
other locations occupied by Union troops. Certainly, the Emancipation
Proclamation was only a crucial first step toward complete emancipation,
but in effect it transformed the Union forces into an army of
At the time he issued the preliminary proclamation, Lincoln
defended it as a war measure necessary to defeat the Confederacy
and preserve the Union. But it seems clear that Lincoln regarded
this argument as necessary on tactical grounds. When he issued
the final proclamation on January 1, 1863, he described it not
only as "a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing
said rebellion," but an "act of justice."
In July 1863, Hannah Johnson, the daughter of a fugitive slave,
heard an erroneous report that Lincoln was going to reverse the
Emancipation Proclamation. She wrote the President: "Don't
do it. When you are dead and in Heaven, in a thousand years that
action of yours will make the Angels sing your praises...."
Copyright 2019 Digital History