“A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half-slave and half-free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved – I do not expect the house to fall – but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.” Lincoln’s ‘House-Divided’ Speech in Springfield, Illinois, June 16, 1858.
In September 1862 America was in the midst of some of its darkest hours. The Civil War was ragging and casualty figures were rising. President Abraham Lincoln was facing increased pressure after multiple Union defeats on the battlefield and needed a Union victory to keep public opinion in his favor. Lincoln had always contended that the preservation of the Union was his top priority for fighting the war, but the issue of slavery was just as important.
It was impossible to separate slavery from the Civil War. It was the great moral and political issue of the country since its beginning 86 years earlier. From the beginning of the war, abolitionists and members of Lincoln’s Republican Party had urged him to issue a proclamation declaring the slaves free. Lincoln found slavery morally intolerable, but if he acted too quickly, he risked bringing the four so-called border states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware over to the Confederacy. These were states loyal to the Union that allowed slavery within their territory. He also risked upsetting some fellow Northerners who did not want to fight the war with the abolition of slavery as a war aim.
On September 17, 1862 the Battle of Antietam was fought in Maryland. The 23,000 casualties make that battle the bloodiest single day in American history. Although the battle was considered somewhat as a tactical stalemate, the Confederates were driven back into Virginia and Lincoln could claim it as a Union victory. Lincoln could now use the momentum of the victory to publish a proclamation, framing the issue as one that would benefit the Union militarily.
Known only to his cabinet, Lincoln had drafted a preliminary proclamation in July of 1862 that pronounced that slaves in areas still in rebellion within 100 days would be freed. After the Battle of Antietam, Lincoln decided the time was right to issue this proclamation and did so on September 22, 1862. The final version of the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1963 and declared the slaves free, except in the border states and other areas in the South already controlled by Union forces. It also called for the formation of black military units. These units would play an important role as the war progressed.
The proclamation freed approximately 3.1 million of the 4 million slaves in the country. It made it highly unlikely that England or France, two countries opposed to slavery, would enter the war on behalf on the Confederacy. It also gave the war a clear moral objective and put slavery on the road to extinction everywhere in America.
Lincoln used his power as commander in chief given to him in the Constitution to justify the proclamation. He never claimed to have the authority to end slavery on his own, rather he could only free the slaves as a war power to defeat the enemy. A constitutional amendment was necessary to ultimately eliminate slavery from the country. This was accomplished with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.
Below is the final Emancipation Proclamation issued January 1, 1863:
The Emancipation Proclamation
January 1, 1863
By the President of the United States of America:
Whereas, on the twenty-second 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. John, 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 forty-eight 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
WILLIAM H. SEWARD, Secretary of State.
Steve Villalobos is a Southern California professional who holds an undergraduate degree in American History and political science.