The Emancipation Proclamation is one of the cornerstone phrases of any study of the American Civil War. Nearly all Americans have heard of this seminal moment in the American story and the ideas that drove it into law. They know that Abraham Lincoln issued a special proclamation during the Civil War. The document was intended to finally free American slaves and rid the American nation of the evils of slavery that had nearly torn it apart. While this is essentially true, the details of the proclamation are not quite as well known. The real story of what the document did and its effects on the entire country and the war at hand are just as surprising and even more fascinating than a single phrase might suggest to the casual student.
No Slaves Were Freed
Despite the promise of the document, the number of people who were freed was very small. Very few slaves were actually given their right to throw off slavery by Lincoln’s words. The reach of Lincoln’s order did not all apply to all states in the Union at the time; it didn’t even apply to all states in the Confederacy. Instead, it was a narrowly defined order that only applied to the states that were engaged in active rebellion. This meant it did not apply to slave-holding border states such as Kentucky or Missouri. The order also did not apply to those areas that had been in rebellion but were under Union control at the time of the Proclamation.
Freeing Runaway Slaves
Those who were most affected by the law were any slaves who ran away to Union-controlled territory. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was a controversial ruling that required people to return slaves to their owners. This law was superseded by the new law. It meant that any escaped slaves who were able to leave lands that were part of the victorious Union army were now free forever and not subject to being rounded up and sent back to those who had claimed the right to enslave them.
While fewer slaves gained their immediate freedom, the Proclamation was a turning point in the war and a turning point in American history. The Civil War was fought for many reasons. In some ways, the war was simply inevitable as America continued to expand into new territory. The northern and southern states had developed very differently in the time since the American Revolution. Northern states like New York had turned to commerce and industry as the primary mover of their economy. Slaves accounted for about a fifth of the population in New York City before the Revolution, but since that time, their numbers had fallen dramatically as the Abolitionist movement gained momentum and commerce took center stage
The Southern Economy
In contrast to states like Connecticut, southern states were often very rural places where farm work was the norm. Large plantation owners such as Jefferson and Washington governed the land and saw themselves as part of a pastoral tradition they hoped to see continue. With the invention of the cotton gin in the 1790s, cotton and tobacco planting assumed a much larger part of the region’s entire culture. Running a large plantation often meant relying on slave labor, so slavery was allowed to continue. Slave owners and those who intended to join them looked to the west and saw the potential for the vast expansion of their culture and their wealth.
When the Civil War began, Lincoln and many other Union leaders went to great pains to make it clear that the war wasn’t about slavery. Many Americans wanted to keep the Union but had no particular devotion to the abolitionist cause. As the war continued, the Abolitionist movement grew in size and moral appeal. Lincoln realized that he needed to take a stand. With the issuance of the document, the Union goals become clear: bring southern states back into the Union fold and get rid of legal slavery in the entire United States from coast to coast. Lincoln’s proclamation was a statement of commitment to this ultimate goal and a moral gauntlet he placed at the feet of Rebel leaders.
The American Civil War had been closely watched around the globe as American crops like cotton helped provide the raw materials necessary for factory workers in many parts of the world. Many nations, such as Great Britain, now found themselves committed to the Union cause. Slavery had been illegal in the British Isles for more than three decades and was viewed with vast horror by most Britons. The same was true of places in Europe such as France. By firmly committing the Union to the cause of abolition outright, this helped prevent the Confederacy from drawing financial and moral support from other nations.
Southern leaders greeted the Proclamation with complete discontent. By issuing it, Lincoln seemed to be embodying their worst fears. Many slave owners were afraid of their slaves and were concerned that they might run away. They also worried that slaves might engage in armed rebellion against them and physically hurt them. While only a relatively small percentage of the southern population owned more than a handful of slaves, a significant number of people owned at least one slave.
A Cause to Fight For
The Emancipation Proclamation had an electric effect on both free blacks and black slaves. Lincoln became an instant hero to many African Americans. Many rushed to join the Union cause and help defeat a Confederacy determined to fight their efforts to remain free. The Proclamation welcomed freed slaves and free blacks to the Union as soldiers. Consequently, Lincoln and his Union generals welcomed about 180,000 free blacks to the Union army. The new recruits were still relegated to segregated troops, but they arguably helped finally smash the remains of the Confederacy.
One For the Ages
In many ways, the Emancipation Proclamation was a highly limited document. It lacked the reach that might have lent it more power and failed to give slaves in the Confederacy more rights. At the same, however, it was a revolutionary document as The Declaration of Independence had been decades earlier. By issuing a statement firmly and finally declaring that should the Union win the war, slavery would no longer be tolerated in the United States, Lincoln painted a clear picture to future generations of the America he hoped to see come into existence . His firm statement was one where American values would henceforth have no room for slavery ever again.
Settling The Question
By settling the question of slavery, Lincoln made sure that all areas of the country were on the same moral ground. All existing slaves were now free, and no new slaves would ever be imported into the nation. Any new territories added to the United States would no longer have the option of slavery. Lincoln killed one of the oldest and ugliest of American institutions and made Union victory about much more than simply keeping states in the United States. Many believe that he set the foundation for the creation of the modern-day United States.