Lincoln Unveils the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation

September 22, 1862 (Monday)

It had been fifty-nine days since President Abraham Lincoln warned the Southern slave states that “within sixty days,” if they had not rejoined the Union, he would authorize the seizure of their property – including, and most importantly, their slaves.

Lincoln wanted to release a proclamation freeing the slaves in the states in rebellion, but reconsidered, convinced that it would be seen as a desperate political act made without a significant battlefield victory.

Now, following the battle of Antietam, he had his chance.

The battle of Antietam is most often remembered as an inconclusive draw. At the time, however, it was viewed in the North as a Union victory. This makes sense since Lee’s invasion of the North – which included a plan to march upon Harrisburg, Pennsylvania – had been halted. The Confederate army retreated back across the Potomac, and the Union army held the field of battle, including the enemy’s dead. To the Northern public, it was the closest thing to a victory they’ve seen in the east all year.

Soldiers Home

Lincoln didn’t find out about the so-called victory until the 20th. By then, however, he had moved out of town to the Soldier’s Home for a bit of respite. On the 21st, he returned to Washington, locked himself in his office and fine tuned the important document.

On this date, he handed the Emancipation Proclamation to his Cabinet at their regular Monday meeting.

None of the Cabinet members were really surprised. All had been abuzz while the President wrote away. What did surprise them, however, was the manner in which he presented it.

Lincoln claimed to have made a promise to himself “and to my Maker” to release the Proclamation once the Rebels were driven back across the Potomac.

The President rarely, if ever, referenced God. He was not a religious man and had quite a bit of animosity towards Evangelical Christianity. Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase was so shocked by it that he actually asked Lincoln to repeat himself.

Lincoln conceded that “this might seem strange,” but reiterated that “God had decided this question in favor of the slaves.”

After a bit of awkward silence that might naturally follow such a pronouncement, Lincoln began to read.

“I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America, and Commander-in-chief of the Army and Navy thereof, do hereby proclaim and declare that hereafter, as heretofore, the war will be prossecuted for the object of practically restoring the constitutional relation between the United States, and each of the states, and the people thereof, in which states that relation is, or may be suspended, or disturbed.”

As he continued, he referenced the standing deal of compensated and gradual emancipation, as well as the voluntary colonization of people of African descent.

But then, he got to the crux of the matter.

As of January 1, 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 will, during the continuance in office of the present incumbents, recognize such persons, as being free, 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.”

Lincoln understood that since the United States Constitution allowed slavery, he could not legally free the slaves in states that remained loyal to the Union (Maryland, Kentucky, etc.). He also went a step farther, including the areas of Confederate States that were held by the Federal armies (Western Tennessee, Northern Virginia, etc.).

The Proclamation cited two military acts, literally pasting them onto the manuscript, driving home the point that this was a military, not civil, decree. The first, passed in March, forbade the military to return escaped slaves to their former owners. The other, passed in July, was the Confiscation Act of 1862, which freed the slaves of disloyal owners.

Lincoln ordered all in the military to follow the two military acts.

In closing, the President again offered compensation to slave holding Unionists once the war was over and the Union restored.

The Emancipation Proclamation is usually remembered in two ways. It is either seen as freeing all of the slaves or is seen as freeing none of them. Neither, however, is true.

It, as stated, did not free slaves in states and areas held under Federal control. It did, however, free slaves that came into Union lines. While the policy was already in effect, Lincoln was more or less making it official, reminding the South that his bark had some bite.

The Proclamation grew even more teeth when Secretary of State William Seward suggested the addition of the word “maintain.” In his original manuscript, Lincoln wrote that the military was to “recognize the freedom” of slaves in Rebellion states. Seward suggested that it be changed to “recognize and maintain the freedom.” Lincoln liked it and it was added.

This was rather shocking. The President was actually ordering the military to maintain the slaves “in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.” Without too broad an interpretation, this could easily include the dreaded slave insurrection.

Lincoln had several copies made for the Congress and for the press. It would be unleashed to the Nation the following day.1

  1. Sources: Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation by Allen C. Guelzo; Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation by William K. Klingaman. Both liberally use the diaries of Secretaries Chase and Welles. Images of the manuscript (as well as the transcription) nicked from the New York State Library’s online archives. []
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Lincoln Unveils the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International