noun U.S. History.
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What was the Emancipation Proclamation?
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 peoples from slavery, as a tactic to end the conflict. In 1862, after a symbolic Union victory, Lincoln threatened to declare slaves in the Confederate states free if the states didn’t return to the Union. When the Confederacy didn’t respond, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It declared that any slaves in states designated as rebelling against the Union would be free from that moment onward. It also permitted former slaves to join the US army, and meant that when a slave 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 turned 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.
Several states celebrate an Emancipation Day, typically observed when slaves in those states first learned of their freedom under the Emancipation Proclamation. The Emancipation Proclamation is often read to mark the occasion.
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.