Emancipation Proclamation

[ ih-man-suh-pey-shuhn prok-luh-mey-shuhn ]
/ ɪˈmæn səˌpeɪ ʃən ˈprɒk ləˌmeɪ ʃən /
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noun U.S. History.
the proclamation issued by President Lincoln on September 22, 1862, that freed the people held as slaves in those territories still in rebellion against the Union from January 1, 1863, forward.
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Words nearby Emancipation Proclamation

Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What was the Emancipation Proclamation?

The Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order issued by US President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War that ordered the freeing of enslaved peoples in Confederate states not yet captured by Union forces.

How is Emancipation Proclamation pronounced?

[ ih-man-suhpey-shuhn prok-luhmey-shuhn ]

What did the Emancipation Proclamation do?

After signing a preliminary order on September 22, 1862, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863, two years into the Civil War.

During those first two years, ending slavery had not been a primary goal of the Civil War. Union leaders primarily wanted to stop slavery from expanding into the Western states. In fact, many Northerners opposed emancipation, especially in border states such as Kentucky that allowed slavery.

As the war went on, however, Lincoln came to see the importance of emancipation, or the act of freeing enslaved people, as a tactic to end the conflict. In 1862, after a symbolic Union victory, Lincoln threatened to declare the freedom of enslaved people in the Confederate states if those states didn’t return to the Union. When the Confederacy didn’t respond, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It declared that any enslaved people in states designated as rebelling against the Union would be free from that moment onward. It also permitted formerly enslaved people to join the US army, and meant that when an enslaved person in the affected territories escaped the Confederate government’s control, they were automatically freed.

The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t immediately end all slavery in the US. In Union border states and in Confederate territories captured by the Union, slavery remained “as if this proclamation had not been issued,” according to the January 1 proclamation. Also, at the time, the Confederacy, of course, had rejected Lincoln’s authority over them, so the Union would have to win to enforce the order.

Nevertheless, the Emancipation Proclamation boosted the Union army’s ranks by allowing Black soldiers to join. It also helped to turn public perception of the Civil War from a fight for unification into a fight for freedom, a moral cause that deterred foreign powers from supporting the Confederacy.

With the Emancipation Proclamation as its forerunner, the Thirteenth Amendment, which formally abolished slavery across the United States, was ratified on December 9, 1865, after the Civil War ended.

The end of slavery in the U.S. is often celebrated on the holiday known as Juneteenth, which commemorates the anniversary of the day (June 19, 1865) on which enslaved African Americans in Texas became some of the last enslaved people in the U.S. to be informed that slavery had been abolished.

Examples of Emancipation Proclamation

“From the veranda, Lincoln would have been able to see fresh graves being dug at the Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery. He wrote several drafts of the Emancipation Proclamation in the cottage’s study.”
—Gillian Brockell, Washington Post, May 15, 2017


This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.

How to use Emancipation Proclamation in a sentence

Cultural definitions for Emancipation Proclamation

Emancipation Proclamation

A proclamation made by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 that all slaves under the Confederacy were from then on “forever free.”

notes for Emancipation Proclamation

In itself, the Emancipation Proclamation did not free any slaves, because it applied only to rebellious areas that the federal government did not then control. It did not affect the four slave states that stayed in the Union: Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. Yet when people say that Lincoln “freed the slaves,” they are referring to the Emancipation Proclamation.
The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.