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Historical Context in The Emancipation Proclamation

American Slavery: Slavery in the United States began in the 17th century during the early colonization of North America. British and French colonists found labor difficult to procure. Their solution was to draw from the transatlantic slave trade, a trade triangle operated by European empires of Portugal, Britain, France, Spain, and the Netherlands. The triangle extended from Europe to West Africa, where slaves were captured, to the New World colonies, where slaves labored on plantations, and back to Europe. Slaves became a significant part of the economy of the early American colonies, from Louisiana to New England. By the end of the American Revolution, slavery had been abolished in the North. However, the southern states, with their cotton-driven economy, continued to rely on slave labor, a fact which fueled growing contention between the North and South.

The Civil War: Throughout the 1850s, tensions grew between the Northern and Southern states. There were two primary sources of tension. First, slavery was a point of profound disagreement. The North had eradicated slavery and forged an economy founded on free labor. The South remained dependent on cotton, a crop that could be more cheaply produced with the use of slaves. The second source of tension was the issue of states’ rights. While the Northern states generally favored a strong, centralized government, the Southern states desired a high level of autonomy and self-governance for each state. The Southern states wanted the freedom to determine their own laws and regulations, particularly in regard to the questions of slavery. As tensions over the interrelated issues of slavery and states’ rights increased, the Southern states began plotting to secede from the United States. In 1860, war broke out between the secessionists—known as the Confederacy—and the remaining Union, comprised of the northern states.

Lincoln’s Efforts at Emancipation: Abraham Lincoln pushed for the emancipation of slaves from the beginning of his presidency. The first decisive step toward that aim was the Confiscation Act of 1861, a wartime law which allowed Union troops to seize slaves from their masters. Additional legislation in March of 1862 officially protected any seized slaves from being returned to their masters. Another law, passed in July of 1862, granted full freedom to those slaves. During that same July, Lincoln began preparing the Emancipation Proclamation, which he delivered in its preliminary form in September 22nd, 1862, just after the Union victory at the Battle of Antietam. The initial version of the speech describes Lincoln’s plans to free the slaves in an address on January 1st, 1863. The final Emancipation Proclamation is that very address.

Historical Context Examples in The Emancipation Proclamation:

Text of Lincoln's Proclamation

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"I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind and the gracious favor of Almighty God...."   (Text of Lincoln's Proclamation)

After Lincoln’s monumental announcement, slaves in the South reacted to the news of emancipation in a variety of ways. Despite the hope inspired by the Emancipation Proclamation, it was not yet obvious that the North would win the war. Still, many slaves took action. Some rebelled against their masters; others ceased their labor. Some fled North to safety or to join the Union Army. Some slaves were worried about these enormous shifts; it was not certain that they would find security as free citizens, given their lack of education and training. All in all, the effects of the Emancipation Proclamation decidedly favored the North. With large numbers of slaves abandoning their labors and joining the Union efforts, the balance of power leaned further toward the North.

"such persons of suitable condition will be received into the armed service of the United States..."   (Text of Lincoln's Proclamation)

In this paragraph, Lincoln states his plan to enlist freed slaves in the Union Army. This plan would have a twofold effect: the newly freed slaves would receive employment; and the Union Army would receive a much-needed replenishment of soldiers and workers. At the time, the idea of allowing black Americans to serve in the military was unprecedented. This paragraph thus extends the range of rights granted to slaves beyond mere freedom.

"And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence..."   (Text of Lincoln's Proclamation)

With the widespread freeing of Southern slaves, there arose the threat of violent rebellions among slaves. In the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation, some Southerners even accused Lincoln of trying to incite violence. In some cases, these accusations were well founded, and certain slaves did rebel against their owners. However, Lincoln foresaw such violence and attempted to prevent it in this paragraph by “enjoin[ing] upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defense.”

"all persons held as slaves within said designated States and parts of States are, and henceforward shall be, free;..."   (Text of Lincoln's Proclamation)

The Emancipation Proclamation has become a foundational text—and a foundational moment—in the American Civil Rights movement. It marked the first major victory in the continuing effort to provide equal rights to black Americans. In his seminal “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. began by referring to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, then in its centennial year. King remarked on the importance of Lincoln’s address, but he emphasized the enormous work left to be done.

"Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana..."   (Text of Lincoln's Proclamation)

In this paragraph, Lincoln lists the specific areas in which emancipation would take effect. The lists consists of the ten Confederate states which had officially seceded from the Union. Because the proclamation functioned as a war measure, however, the list excludes the parishes and counties within those ten states which were loyal to the Union or were occupied by Union troops. Those exceptions were to be left “precisely as if this proclamation were not issued,” which is to say that slavery would continue in those areas for the time being. Also excluded were the four “border” states, which Lincoln hoped to appease. All together, these various exclusions meant that 830,000 of the 4 million slaves in the South would remain slaves.

"And by virtue of the power and for the purpose aforesaid,..."   (Text of Lincoln's Proclamation)

While the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by unconventional means, slavery was soon fully abolished. The aims of the proclamation—namely the liberation of slaves—was eventually codified by Congress as the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in January of 1865, shortly before the end of the Civil War.

"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..."   (Text of Lincoln's Proclamation)

Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation through unconventional means and under unusual circumstances. Lincoln’s intent was to alter the nation’s laws on slavery. One obstacle to such change was slavery’s legality under the US Constitution, whose rulings may only be shaped by acts of Congress. Lincoln’s solution was to issue the proclamation through the powers granted to him as commander in chief during a time of war. Lincoln emphasizes his own authority in issuing the proclamation in order to strengthen its effects.

"by proclamation..."   (Text of Lincoln's Proclamation)

Lincoln heeded Seward’s appeal to deliver the proclamation after a military victory. The president unveiled the preliminary proclamation shortly after the Union defeated the Confederacy at the Battle of Antietam in September of 1862. This initial proclamation was partly a military move: Lincoln’s intention was to frighten the Confederacy with the looming threat of emancipation. His address offered Confederate states the opportunity to rejoin the Union and thereby avoid the eventual consequences of emancipation.

""That the executive will on the 1st day of January aforesaid..."   (Text of Lincoln's Proclamation)

In July of 1862, Lincoln had completed a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation and showed in to his cabinet. William Seward, the secretary of state at the time, thought it wise to refrain from delivering the proclamation until after the Union had scored a decisive victory in battle. Seward felt that the proclamation should be announced from a position of strength rather than weakness, and that it ought to be presented as a genuine stand for American values rather than as a calculated move to assist the Union war effort.

""That on the 1st day of January, A.D. 1863, all persons held as slaves within any State..."   (Text of Lincoln's Proclamation)

Lincoln opens the Emancipation Proclamation by quoting himself. On September 22nd, 1862, Lincoln delivered a preliminary version of the Emancipation Proclamation, announcing to the Confederacy his intention to free all Southern slaves at the start of 1863. This document, the second and final Emancipation Proclamation, represents the fulfilment of Lincoln’s intentions.

"Whereas on the 22nd day of September..."   (Text of Lincoln's Proclamation)

The Emancipation Proclamation arrived after Lincoln and his administration had worked for two years to end slavery, passing a series of legislations which progressed the agenda of abolition. The first tangible steps occurred in August of 1861, when the US Congress—at that point the Union Congress—enacted the Confiscation Act, a law which allowed the Union Army to take any Confederate property that could be of military use. Slaves counted as Confederate property, and so Union soldiers were able to seize slaves from their Southern owners and bring them to Confederate camps, where the slaves were given work. Further laws passed in March and July of 1862 intensified the effects of the Confiscation Act. These laws protected the slaves from the threat of being returned to their former owners and granted them full freedom and the right to serve in the Union Army.

"will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons...."   (Text of Lincoln's Proclamation)

Lincoln has to state specifically that the Executive Government of the United States, with the power of the military, can enforce the freedom granted to the slaves in those states. This proclamation is not enforceable unless it has been authorized by Congress; however, Lincoln uses his power to conduct the military in times of war to enforce his proclamation in the states that are actively rebelling. In stating this, he enforces his proclamation by clarifying the power that he does possess under the Constitution. By leveraging his power as commander in chief, Lincoln was able to free a significant number of slaves and pave the way for the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.

"a proclamation..."   (Text of Lincoln's Proclamation)

Originally, the noun “proclamation” referred to a formal order publically issued by a legal authority. Later, it acquired a more general use, referring to an authoritative declaration. In the United States, presidents frequently make proclamations, which are either ceremonial or substantive. Notably, without the authorization of Congress, a presidential proclamation is not enforceable by law with the exception of war time and the president’s role as commander in chief. These circumstances allowed Lincoln to circumvent Congress and make this proclamation.

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