The Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, and every year on social media there seems to be a renewed debate about the effectiveness of the proclamation, Lincoln’s motivations in issuing it, and how the act shaped the overall war effort. The strangest thing in this debate is the weird convergence of neo-Confederates and some historians who profess (incorrectly) that the EP didn’t free any slaves; that Lincoln didn’t do enough to try and end slavery during the war (although some of those same folks would be the first to claim that Lincoln was a tyrant who abused his presidential powers); and that the act was borderline meaningless. And so it was interesting to read a couple after historian Kevin Levin posted a picture on Twitter of areas throughout the south where the Emancipation Proclamation took effect and immediately free thousands of slaves, with one complaining that Lincoln’s proclamation was “public diplomacy” that didn’t go far enough in freeing the enslaved.
(In reality, the real act of “public diplomacy” was Lincoln’s famous letter to Horace Greeley on August 22, 1862, in which he proclaimed that his “paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery” while having already completed the writing of his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation).
True, the Emancipation Proclamation did not free all the slaves of the South, it did not apply to slave states still in the Union, and would it not have had any legal standing once the war ended. But it fundamentally changed the nature of the Civil War and made the abolition of slavery a war aim. More specifically, the act would spread and apply to more enslaved people as the U.S. Army reacquired control of areas within the Confederacy and essentially became an army of liberation. It also encouraged African Americans to enlist in the United States military, and it set the table for future legal actions to abolish slavery, most notably the 13th Amendment, which would make slavery’s abolition permanent after the end of the war. Finally, it also garnered support for the U.S. war effort internationally.
I believe it’s best to view the Emancipation Proclamation as a major step within a larger legal process towards the end of slavery in the United States. Although I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, James Oakes’s Freedom National was important in showing me that the end of slavery was a process and not a single moment of jubilation. It started with three enslaved runaways who sought refuge at Fort Monroe and the Port Royal Experiment in South Carolina. It continued with the First and Second Confiscation Acts, the Emancipation Proclamation taking effect in 1863, and eventually loyal border slave states like Maryland (1864) and Missouri (1865) voluntarily abolishing slavery before the 13th Amendment was ratified in December 1865. These legal steps also can’t be separated from the actions of enslaved people themselves who played a role in their own liberation from slavery.
To appreciate the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation, therefore, means fitting it within a broader context of the larger legal process undertaken during the Civil War to abolish slavery within the United States. It was not an overly radical act that freed all slaves in both loyal states and the Confederate states, but conversely it was not a meaningless piece of paper that did nothing to effect a change in slavery’s future in the country. It was radical in a sense and extremely significant within the context of the American Civil War.