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The Civil War

The Meaning of the Emancipation Proclamation Previous Next
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 liberation.

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...."

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