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The Emancipation Proclamation Previous Next
Digital History ID 3074


In July 1862, about two months before President Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, Congress adopted a second Confiscation Act calling for the seizure of the property of slaveholders who were actively engaged in the rebellion. It seems unlikely that this act would have freed any slaves, since the federal government would have to prove that individual slaveholders were traitors. (In fact, one of the largest slaveholders in South Carolina was a Baltimore Unionist). Lincoln felt that Congress lacked the legal authority to emancipate slaves; he believed that only the President acting as commander-in-chief had the authority to abolish slavery.

On September 22, 1862, less than a week after the Battle of Antietam, President Lincoln met with his cabinet. As one cabinet member, Samuel P. Chase, recorded in his diary, the President told them that he had "thought a great deal about the relation of this war to Slavery":

You all remember that, several weeks ago, I read to you an Order I had prepared on this subject, which, since then, my mind has been much occupied with this subject, and I have thought all along that the time for acting on it might very probably come. I think the time has come now. I wish it were a better time. I wish that we were in a better condition. The action of the army against the rebels has not been quite what I should have best liked. But they have been driven out of Maryland, and Pennsylvania is no longer in danger of invasion. When the rebel army was at Frederick, I determined, as soon as it should be driven out of Maryland, to issue a Proclamation of Emancipation such as I thought most likely to be useful. I said nothing to any one; but I made the promise to myself, and (hesitating a little)--to my Maker. The rebel army is now driven out, and I am going to fulfill that promise.

The preliminary Emancipation Proclamation that President Lincoln issued on September 22 stated that all slaves in designated parts of the South on January 1, 1863, would be freed. The President hoped that slave emancipation would undermine the Confederacy from within. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles reported that the President told him that freeing the slaves was "a military necessity, absolutely essential to the preservation of the Union....The slaves [are] undeniably an element of strength to those who [have] their service, and we must decide whether that element should be with us or against us."

Fear of foreign intervention in the war also influenced Lincoln to consider emancipation. The Confederacy had assumed, mistakenly, that demand for cotton from textile mills would lead Britain to break the Union naval blockade. Nevertheless, there was a real danger of European involvement in the war. By redefining the war as a war against slavery, Lincoln hoped to generate support from European liberals.

Even before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair (1813-1883), a former Democrat from Maryland, had warned the President that this decision might stimulate antiwar protests among northern Democrats and cost the administration the fall 1862 elections. In fact, Peace Democrats did protest against the proclamation and Lincoln's assumption of powers not specifically granted by the Constitution. Among the "abuses" they denounced were his unilateral decision to call out the militia to suppress the "insurrection," impose a blockade of southern ports, expand the army beyond the limits set by law, spend federal funds without prior congressional authorization, and suspend the writ of habeas corpus (the right of persons under arrest to have their case heard in court). The Lincoln administration imprisoned about 13,000 people without trial during the war, and shut Democratic newspapers in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago for varying amounts of time.

The Democrats failed to gain control of the House of Representatives in the Fall 1862 election, in part because the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation gave a higher moral purpose to the northern cause.

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