Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation

Painting of a Union soldier reading Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation to a slave family.  The Grainger Collection.

On January 1, 1863 President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation. There are several aspects which should be noted.

First, it was issued by Lincoln in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy as a "necessary war measure".

Secondly, when issued it did not immediately free a single slave.  This is because its application was limited to those parts of North America which were still under the control of the armed forces of the Confederate States of America.  It did not apply to those Slave States, such as Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri which had not seceded from the Union, nor did it apply to those parts of the Confederate States of America (such parts of Virginia (which was later admitted to the Union as West Virginia) and Florida) which had been occupied by and remained under the control of US forces at that date.


Foreigners who come from countries with are ruled by tyrants, dictators or despotic kings or sultans are unfamiliar with our democratic system of government which is governed by the rule of law.  They wonder why President Lincoln did not simply issue a decree (like some tyrant, dictator, despotic king or sultan) freeing the slaves in Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri which had not seceded from the USA.


These limitations were necessary for constitutional reasons.  The President had no power to issue a proclamation to emancipate slaves generally.  Such a measure would have been unconstitutional and at his inauguration he had taken an oath to uphold the Constitution.  A decree purporting to free slaves generally would have had no effect as the USA was, and still is, governed by the rule of law.  He could only do so insofar as it could be categorized as a "necessary war measure".


In the previous year, Congress, on the initiative of the President, passed legislation prohibiting slavery in the US Territories (which, in due course, became States of the Union) and provided for compensation of $300 a slave for slave owners in the District of Columbia.  Because of the earlier Dred Scott decision of the US Supreme Court, Congress had no power to abolish slavery in the States.


Despite its limited application, the Emancipation Proclamation had two effects.


First, it disrupted the agricultural economies of those States forming the Confederate States of America as slaves fled the plantations.


The second effect was even more important in effecting the collapse of the Confederate States of America. 


The British government and the government of the Emperor Louis Napolean in France had been very sympathetic to the Confederate States of America, as it was in their interests to have a weak USA.


The Emancipation Proclamation and the emancipation of slaves in the  US Territories, however, cast the USA in the role of the emancipator of slaves against the pro-slavery Confederate States of America.


President Jefferson Davis of the Confederate States of America considered issuing an emancipation proclamation freeing the slaves in the constituent States in order to woo the British government and the French Empire whose support was critical to its survival.  This was, however, opposed by the slave owners and their allies, who were more concerned about the maintenance of slavery (and, if possible, its extension to the new US Territories in the West) than in preserving the fledging Confederate States of America.


In pursuing their own narrow sectional interests, the slave owners delivered the fatal stab in the back to the Confederate States of America and to the Army of North Virginia, commanded by General Robert E Lee.



General Lee, although personally opposed to slavery, had relinquished a promising career in the US Army to fight for his native Virginia.


The USA, on the other hand, was able to portray itself as the opponent of slavery and the Confederate States of America as the supporter of the institution.  Public opinion in Great Britain and France sided with the USA, and the British government, and the government of the Emperor Louis Napolean followed suit.


This had the consequence that the anticipated support from the British Empire and the French Empire was not forthcoming, and the Confederate States of America found itself unable import or manufacture sufficient ships, artillery and other heavy military equipment.  Demand for its exports (principally  cotton) declined.  Its currency collapsed and it found it difficult to obtain credit.


Without the support of the British Empire and the French Empire, the two great maritime powers and industrial economies at that time, it was only a matter of time before the Confederate States of America collapsed, which it did on 9 April 1865 when General Robert E Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S Grant at Appomattox.   The remaining Confederate armies surrendered later in that month.

On 14 April 1865 John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln at Ford's Theatre.  The President died from his injuries early next day.






Links to pages dealing with the abolition of slavery in the USA:

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Abraham Lincoln

American Civil War

13th Amendment to the Bill of Rights



Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society


Virgin Islands

Links to pages dealing with the abolition of slavery in other countries:

British campaign against slavery

Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton (1786-1846)

Thomas Clarkson  (1760-1845)


Peter Van Scholten

Granville Sharp (1735-1813)

Slave Trade Act 1807

Slave Trade Act 1824

Slave Trade Act 1843

Slavery Abolition Act 1833

Joseph Sturge (1793-1859)

William Wilberforce  (1759-1833)

Links to other pages dealing with slavery:

Does slavery still exist?






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