There is one document from the Civil War that is considered to be one of the most important, valuable and impactful of all documents. That document was known as the Emancipation Proclamation. This executive order was drafted and signed by Abraham Lincoln on January 1st, 1863, during the Civil War. Many people believe that the emancipation proclamation effectively ended slavery but the truth is far more complicated than that.

The Emancipation Proclamation was created by Abraham Lincoln as a way to try and take advantage of the rebellion that was currently underway in the south. This rebellion was known as the Civil War, with the North and the South divided due to ideological differences. The political situation of the Civil War was relatively dire. With the South in a state of outright rebellion, it was on Abraham Lincoln’s shoulder to try and preserve the Union at all costs. The war itself was still not recognized by the North as a war, because Abraham Lincoln refused to recognize the South as its own nation. While the South prefer to call itself the Confederate states of America, to the north they were still states of the United States of America.

The emancipation Proclamation’s entire purpose was to free the slaves in the South. In fact, the Emancipation Proclamation had nothing to do with slavery in the North. The Union would still be a slave nation during the war, despite the fact that Abraham Lincoln would y be laying the ground for a greater abolitionist movement. When the proclamation was passed, it was aimed at the states that were currently in rebellion; the entire purpose was to disarm the South.

During the Civil War, the Southern economy was primarily based on slavery. With the majority of men fighting in the Civil War, slaves were used primarily for reinforcing soldiers, transporting goods, and working in agricultural labor back home. The South did not have the same level of industrialism without slavery, as the North did. Essentially, when Lincoln passed to the Emancipation Proclamation it was actually an attempt to weaken the Confederate states by removing one of their strongest methods of production.

This decision was primarily pragmatic; Lincoln was focused entirely on disarming the South. However, regardless of intentions, the Emancipation Proclamation signaled a shift in the purpose of the Civil War. The war was no longer simply about preserving the state of the union, the war was more or less about ending slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation was not a well-received action. It was a strange political maneuver and even most of Lincoln’s cabinet was hesitant to believe that it would be effective.  The reason that the Emancipation Proclamation is such a curious document is because it was passed as under the President’s war-time powers.

Normally, the American Presidency has very little power of decree. Lawmaking and legislative control belongs to Congress. The President does have the ability to issue what is known as an executive order. Executive orders have the full backing and force of a law, but for the most part they are subject to control from Congress. The president himself has very little power outside of what Congress allows, except in wartime. As the commander-in-chief, the president has the ability to use wartime powers to enforce special laws. The Emancipation Proclamation was one of those laws that Lincoln had used his military powers to enforce.

Originally, Lincoln believed in the progressive elimination of slavery in all states. He believed that it was primarily up to the states to oversee the progressive abolition of slavery in their own individual power. Regardless of his political position on the matter, however, Lincoln had always believed that slavery was wrong. The Emancipation Proclamation served more as a military maneuver than a political maneuver. At the same time, this action cemented Lincoln as being a staunchly aggressive abolitionist and would ensure that slavery would eventually be removed from the entire United States.

One major political effect that the Emancipation Proclamation had was the fact that it invited slaves to serve in the Union Army. Such an action was a brilliant strategic choice. The decision to pass a law that told all slaves from the South that they were free and encouraging them to take up arms to join in the fight against their former masters was the brilliant tactical maneuver. Ultimately with those permissions, many freed slaves joined the Northern Army, drastically increasing their manpower. The North by the end of the war had over 200,000 African-Americans fighting for them.

The South was more or less in a state of turmoil after such an announcement. The proclamation had actually been publicized three times, the first time as a threat, the second time as a more formal announcement and then the third time as the signing of the Proclamation. When the Confederates heard the news, they were in a state of severe disrepair. One of them primary issues was that as the North advanced into territories and seized control of Southern land, they would often capture slaves. These slaves were simply restricted as contraband, not returned to their owners – the South. When the Emancipation Proclamation was announced, all current contraband, i.e. the slaves, were freed at the stroke of midnight. There was no offer of compensation, payment, or even a fair trade to the slave-owners. These slave-holders were suddenly deprived of what they believe to be property. Combined with the sudden loss of a large number of slaves, and influx of troops that would provide the North with additional firepower, the South found itself in a very tough position. Slaves were now able to escape from the South and as soon as they made it into the North, they would be free.

Yet as important as the Emancipation Proclamation was to America’s history, its actual impact on slavery was minimal at best. If nothing more, it was a way to solidify the president’s position as an abolitionist and to ensure the fact that slavery would be ended. Slavery wasn’t officially ended in the United States of America until the 13th Amendment was passed, in 1865.

One of the issues with the Emancipation Proclamation was that it was passed as a wartime measure. As stated before, in the United States, laws are not passed through the president, they are passed by Congress. This left the actual freedom status of the slaves up in the air. If the North were to win the war, the Emancipation Proclamation would not continue to be a constitutionally legal document. It would need to be ratified by the government in order to stay in effect.

The purpose of the Emancipation Proclamation has been muddled over the course of history. The basic line of though is that it freed the slaves. That is only partially correct, it merely freed the slaves in the South, something that wasn’t particularly enforceable due to the fact South was in a state of rebellion. What it did do however was ensure that if the North won, the South would be forced to free all of their slaves. Ultimately that would lead to the freedom of 3.1 million slaves. However, most of those slaves were not free until after the war had concluded.

The Emancipation Proclamation was pretty much criticized on all sides of the political spectrum. The proslavery movement believed that it was wrong and immoral for the president to inflict such a thing, but their hands were tied due to the fact that they wanted the Union to be preserved. The North had originally tried to use the Emancipation Proclamation as a threat to the South. The terms were simple, return to the Union or face the dire consequences of having all slaves freed. When the South refused to return, the North decided to unleash the document. This left Lincoln’s political opponents in a bind because they didn’t want to lose their slaves, but at the same time it would be a disaster if United States were to divide up into two different nations.

There was a lot of flak in the abolitionist movement as well.  Many of the abolitionists believed that it wasn’t a sufficient document because it did not totally eradicate slavery and in fact was barely enforceable in the states that it did authorize such release. Since the South was in a state of war, there wasn’t much impetus for them to comply with the order.

Lincoln was criticized by many different factions, and even among historians there is a question as to what his motives were in his decisions. But it is important to remember that the success of the Emancipation Proclamation hinged on the victory of the North. If the North was successful and was able to seize control of the Union once again, reunifying all the states and putting the South out of its state of rebellion, it would have freed all of their slaves. There was no going back from this decision. The rest of America would be forced to follow suit. This meant that Abraham Lincoln was well aware of the ramifications of his actions. He knew that the Emancipation Proclamation was not a permanent, final solution to the problem of slavery but rather it was a powerful opening salvo to an entirely new type of war.

This change the purpose of the Civil War as well. Prior to the Emancipation Proclamation, the North was engaged in military action against the South due to the fact of the South was trying to secede from the Union. Originally, the war as seen by the North, was a war to preserve the unity of America. The South was trying to secede because of a myriad of reasons. There are a lot of simplistic reasons offered for why the North and the South were divided. The most common reason stated is that the South wanted to have slavery and Lincoln was purely a staunch abolitionist. Another theory was that the Civil War was started because the South wanted a greater level of states’ rights, whereas the current Republican Party was pushing for a more unified type of government. The reality is that the motivations of the South’s secession is a mixed bag. It was most likely a collection of all the above ideas. To say there was a single reason for the Civil War is a massive underestimation of how politics works.

Regardless of the South’s purpose for leaving the union, when the North made the decision to free the slaves, it became very clear that this would become an abolitionist war. The South relied heavily on their slaves in order to survive. Their economics were based primarily on a slave economy, as opposed to the North which had been developing a primarily industrial economy. The North with higher level of education, weaponry, and production capability did not rely on slaves as much because abolition had become more prevalent.  As the abolitionists continued to chip at and reduce the right to own slaves, the South began to feel threatened and as such made the decision to break away in order to preserve their own economic strength.

This is where the question of Lincoln’s intentions has come into play across history. Lincoln was an abolitionist, of that there can be no doubt. Yet his intentions were to allow states to progressively disengage slavery on their own terms. He was greatly trying to encourage each state to abolish slavery, attempting his best to offer compensation to the slave-owners in the hopes that eventually they would free their slaves. He believed in a slow, progressive reduction in slavery. This was primarily, in some opinions, a political decision. Freeing the slaves in one fell swoop would have caused massive political upheaval and probably would’ve caused a few more states to join the South. So rather, as America progressed, there were a series of laws and rules passed to slow down the strength of slavery. Lincoln, in fact, advocated for those kinds of laws. He believed in the slow reduction of slavery not immediate abolition.

This is why his intentions are called into question with the existence of the Emancipation Proclamation. The man’s approach to the Emancipation Proclamation was primarily designed to destroy the southern economy, not to free the slaves. Still, at the same time, there was no going back from this action, as said before. When Lincoln made the decision to free the slaves in the South, he was making the decision to free all of the slaves eventually. This was recognized as such and so the Civil War became a war about slavery.

Regardless of what Lincoln’s intentions were, it is unmistakable to see the widespread effects of the Emancipation Proclamation. Little by little, inch by inch, slavery was overcome and this is thankfully because of Lincoln’s decision to make such a bold action. Make no mistake, this was not a simple political maneuver in order to gain popularity. If anything, this would signal the destruction of Lincoln’s party if he failed in securing the Union. Even if he had prevailed and held control of the union, it very well still could have signaled his party’s destruction. But he chose to put everything on the line and made the decision to free the people from the bonds of slavery. Shortly thereafter, when the war had ended, the 13th amendment passed and all slaves in the United States were free. Slavery was declared to be abolished forever. This was passed under Lincoln’s administration and most likely would never have existed without his bravery and courage and stepping up to sign the Emancipation Proclamation.

 

 

Sources:

 

10 Facts About The Emancipation Proclamation: http://www.civilwar.org/education/history/emancipation-150/10-facts.html?referrer=https://www.google.com/

The Emancipation of Abe Lincoln: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/01/opinion/the-emancipation-of-abe-lincoln.html

A Pragmatic Proclamation: http://www.npr.org/2012/03/14/148520024/emancipating-lincoln-a-pragmatic-proclamation

American Civil War History: http://www.history.com/topics/american-civil-war/emancipation-proclamation

 

 

 

Written by Benjamin Hale