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What Is the Emancipation Proclamation?

L. S. Wynn
By L. S. Wynn
Updated Jan 25, 2024
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The Emancipation Proclamation is a document issued by American President Abraham Lincoln that effectively granted freedom to slaves held in many parts of the United States, particularly the south. It was first publicly referenced in September of 1862, and was formalized on 1 January 1863. The document is widely credited with ending slavery, though this isn’t entirely accurate; it certainly ended slavery in many places and can fairly be said to have precipitated what later became a nationwide end to slavery, but in fact there remained slaves in many U.S. states for several years after the proclamation was issued. One of the most important things the document did was clarify that an end to slaveholding was a primary goal of the Civil War. Issues of human bondage were part of what that controversy was about, but the warring itself is usually thought to be more about the states’ individual rights of governance more generally. The Emancipation Proclamation made the issue of slavery much more crystallized.

Understanding the Context

In the years leading up to the American Civil War, practices of slavery were widely practiced up and down the east coast. Many of the early colonists from England and elsewhere in Europe brought their slaves with them when they arrived in the land that later became the United States, and slave ships from Africa were later commissioned by colonists. It wasn’t long before the slave trade became a major part of the fabric of much of society.

In almost all cases slaves had no legal rights of their own, and were viewed as little more than property. Most worked as household laborers or field laborers, and they were often abused and forced to live in abhorrent conditions. Gradually sensibilities changed, and a slow progression of slave owners started providing their laborers with more entitlements, benefits, and in many cases also freedom. Individual state governments followed more slowly still. Some began outlawing slavery or at least parts of slavery and the slave trade as early as 1774, but others were adamant that the practice should be tolerated. This was one of several major divisions that led to the outbreak of the Civil War.

Who, Exactly, it Covered

The Emancipation Proclamation famously states that “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.” On first reading, this looks like it should have provided a decisive end to slavery. This isn’t entirely correct. What the proclamation did is to end slavery in states that had already fallen to the Union army, and were thus under Union control. The more land that was conquered and captured by the Union, the more people became included under the proclamation’s sweeping language.

Authority and Permanence

President Lincoln issued the proclamation under his executive privilege. In general, there are two ways that laws can be passed in the United States: through a vote of Congress, and through an Executive Order. An Executive Order is much faster since it doesn’t involve the formal processes of preparation and discussion required for a congressional vote, but it is usually subject to more scrutiny. The Emancipation Proclamation is perhaps one of the most famous examples of a successful Executive Order in American history. It is widely thought of as the precursor to the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which did make slavery illegal throughout the unified United States and instilled in persons of all races and backgrounds the same rights and benefits of citizenship. That amendment was ratified in 1865.

Actual Text

The proclamation’s actual text is as follows:

By the President of the United States of America:


Whereas on the 22nd day of September, A.D. 1862, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:

"That on the 1st day of January, A.D. 1863, 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 1st 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 States 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 1st day of January, A.D. 1863, and in accordance with my purpose so to do, publicly proclaimed for the full period of one hundred days from the first day 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, Palquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James, Ascension, Assumption, Terrebone, 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 Berkeley, Accomac, Morthhampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Anne, 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 case 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.

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Discussion Comments
By Terrificli — On May 08, 2014

Here's some more trivia -- the Emancipation Proclamation used to be a document people would reference when describing how much memory a kilobyte was. In the 1980s, it was popular to state that one kilobyte of RAM was large enough to hold the proclamation.

That was a brilliant comparison to make. Most people know the Emancipation Proclamation, so it was a great way to use a concrete example to describe an abstract concept.

By Vincenzo — On May 07, 2014

Here's some trivia. It is an urban legend that Abraham Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation on the back of an envelope while on the way to deliver the most famous address of his career.

It's a good story, but it is totally false. In fact, historians have turned up drafts of the Emancipation Proclamation and one of them was on White House stationary.

Of course, that doesn't take away from the power of the message one bit.

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