President Abraham Lincoln Frees the Slaves

Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln said the proclamation was “essentially a war measure” with “the desired effect of depriving the Confederacy of much of its valuable laboring force.”

On this day in history, September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, freeing more than three million black slaves in the Confederate states as of January 1, 1863.

The bold move recast the Civil War as a struggle against slavery. When the war between the states began not long after Lincoln was inaugurated as the 16th president in 1861, he claimed it was not about slavery but about restoring the Union.

Despite pressure from abolitionists and radical Republicans, as well as his personal belief that slavery was morally wrong, he chose to act with prudence until he could gain more widespread support from the general public for an anti-slavery policy.

He told his cabinet in July 1862 that he would issue a formal emancipation of all slaves in any rebel state that did not return to the Union by January 1, 1863. But it would exempt the loyal slaveholding border states. They convinced him not to make an announcement until after a Northern victory on the battlefield.

Five days after the Union armies prevailed at the Battle of Antietam in Maryland, the first major battle to take place in the North and the bloodiest single day in American history, Lincoln declared on September 22 that all slaves in rebel areas within 100 days would be free.

The Emancipation Proclamation

None of the slave states did return to the Union. So Lincoln signed and issued the final Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. It took effect and maintained “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebel states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”

Lincoln is reported to have said: “I never in my life felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper.” It applied only to the states that had seceded from the Union, leaving the slavery of 500,000 blacks in the loyal border states unaffected. It also exempted those parts of the Confederacy under Northern control.

It decreed the freedom of 3,100,000 of the country’s four million enslaved people, and liberated 50,000 immediately, with most of the rest emancipated as the Federal armies moved forward. The proclamation did not make former slaves citizens or compensate slave owners in the South.

“Slaves Forever Free”

It read in part: “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. . . .

“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 . . .

“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.”

Legacy of the Emancipation Proclamation

The Emancipation Proclamation provided for the recruitment of black military units among Union troops. As the war became one to end legal human bondage, tens of thousands of ex-slaves volunteered for the armed forces. About 180,000 African Americans served in the U.S. Army and 18,000 more in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War.

Anti-slavery nations such as France and Great Britain, which had been friendly to the Confederacy and considered recognizing it as a separate country, now found it difficult to aid the South. Lincoln’s support among the abolitionists also ensured they would not block his re-nomination in 1864. And the Republican Party was strengthened so much that it held power for the next twenty years.

The proclamation was not a law passed by Congress but a presidential order. Therefore, Lincoln favored a constitutional amendment to guarantee its perpetuity. When the 13th Amendment took effect in December 1865, slavery was abolished throughout the nation.

“A New Birth of Freedom”

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, delivered in November 1863, referred to the proclamation and abolition of slavery as a goal of the war with the words “a new birth of freedom.” The proclamation thus added moral force to the Union cause and reinforced it politically and militarily.

The Emancipation Proclamation has assumed its rightful place among the world’s essential documents of human freedom. But Lincoln’s handwritten draft of the final version was destroyed in the Chicago Fire of 1871. Today, the original, official copy is enshrined in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

The anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation was commemorated as a holiday for many years, with the African American Juneteenth festival held in some states to observe it. An original copy of the proclamation was hung in the Oval Office of the White House above a bust of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and near a portrait of Abe Lincoln in 2010.

“The Emancipation Proclamation . . . is valid in law, and will be so held by the courts,” Lincoln wrote. “I think I shall not retract or repudiate it. Those who shall have tasted actual freedom I believe can never be slaves or quasi-slaves again.”


  1. Franklin, John Hope, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, 1963.
  2. Guelzo, Allen, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America, 2004.
  3. McPherson, James, Battle Cry of Freedom, 1988.