Friday, January 1, 2010

Emancipation Proclamation, January 1, 1863

147 years ago today, President Abraham Lincoln signed the document that has continued to give him reputation as the "Great Emancipator," a final version of the preliminary document he had announced in September of 1862. This document, controversial then and now, was the one public work of which Lincoln was the proudest.

Like with much of what happened during the war years, people throughout the continent disagreed on the traits of Lincoln's work.  Some thought he had exceeded his authority with this declaration, while others felt it did not go enough. Some, particularly in the South, saw it as an example of tyranny and too much governmental power, while others believed that "freeing the slaves in areas the government did not control" was a sign of a weak, ineffective order.

Even 75 years later, it still brought up questions. Historian Richard Hofstadter once wrote, “The Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, had all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading." To me, it seems that he missed the point - this was not to be some public speech or a moral statement, but, rather, a legal doucument announcing a Presidential decision. Lincoln, was, remember, a lawyer by profession, and he intended this as a purely legal announcement based on military necessity, not an opportunity to express moral beliefs or political statements as he did in speeches such as the Gettysburg Address and both of his inaugural speeches.

Here is a link to an article that discusses some of the questions about this document, perhaps in more detail than I am able.  Questions about the Emancipation Proclamation

Still, as we celebrate the coming of another New Year, let's not forget the magnitude of the signing of this Proclamation by the President. After the preliminary proclomation and the Union Army's struggles in the following weeks, particularly at Fredericksburg, there was some wondering as to whether or not Lincoln would still go through with this announcement as planned, but not only did he do so, but, after a morning of greeting visitors, he even took time to make sure his signature reflected his confidence that he was doing the right thing. Slavery had caused controversy in the country for decades, and such a document as the Emancipation Proclamation was rather radical compared to past Presidential or Congressional declarations. This was no ordinary public letter or speech, which Lincoln recognized and which we, almost a century-and-a-half later, should not forget.

Here is the text of the proclamation, taken from Abraham Lincoln online

By the President of the United States of America:

A Proclamation.

Whereas, on the twentysecond day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:

"That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

"That the Executive will, on the first day of January aforesaid, by proclamation, designate the States and parts of States, if any, in which the people thereof, respectively, shall then be in rebellion against the United States; and the fact that any State, or the people thereof, shall on that day be, in good faith, represented in the Congress of the United States by members chosen thereto at elections wherein a majority of the qualified voters of such State shall have participated, shall, in the absence of strong countervailing testimony, be deemed conclusive evidence that such State, and the people thereof, are not then in rebellion against the United States."

Now, therefore I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion, do, on this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty three, and in accordance with my purpose so to do publicly proclaimed for the full period of one hundred days, from the day first above mentioned, order and designate as the States and parts of States wherein the people thereof respectively, are this day in rebellion against the United States, the following, to wit:

Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, (except the Parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. Johns, St. Charles, St. James Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the City of New Orleans) Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South-Carolina, North-Carolina, and Virginia, (except the fortyeight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth-City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth[)], and which excepted parts, are for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.

And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.

And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.

And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.

And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.

In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty three, and of the Independence of the United States of America the eighty-seventh.

By the President: ABRAHAM LINCOLN


  1. Captain,

    Thanks for the reminder. On the "bill of lading" issue, and the Proclamation in general, I particularly like Allen Guelzo's podcast lecture at Gilder Lehrman. Hopefully this link will work:

  2. I'm sure the Emancipation Proclamation will continue to be a point of controversy in American history. Even though some people dismiss it because it didn't really affect anything, they can't deny its historical significance.


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