Emancipation Proclamation: The Document

Figure 1.--

President Lincoln on January 1, 1863 declared that all "... slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, ... then ... in rebellion ... forever free." Totally lacking in the Emancipation Proclamation was any attempt at retoric or moral justification. Rather the justification was military necessity. Buried in the text was authorization for balcks to enlist in the military. The Emancipation Proclamation is surely next to the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights, the key doument in American democracy. It did not have any of the high sounding tones of the Declaratiin of Independence, but it was the necessary pice of the complex to make America a true democracy. And it would need constituinal amendmentsto become permanent, but it converted the Civil War from a natinal struggle to a moral crusade. And it created another impediment to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Now the Clonfedracy would not only have to agre toend the rebellion and reenter the Unkion, but would have go accept the abolition of slaevry. The full text reads:

Actual Text

Whereas on the 22nd day of September, A.D. 1862, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:

That on the 1st day of January, A.D. 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, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons 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.

That the executive will on the 1st day of January aforesaid, by proclamation, designate the States and parts of States, if any, in which the people thereof, respectively, shall then be in rebellion against the United States; and the fact that any State or the people thereof shall on that day be in good faith represented in the Congress of the United States by members chosen thereto at elections wherein a majority of the qualified voters of such States shall have participated shall, in the absence of strong countervailing testimony, be deemed conclusive evidence that such State and the people thereof are not then in rebellion against the United States."

Now, therefore, I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, 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, and as a fit and necessary war measure for supressing said rebellion, do, on this 1st day of January, A.D. 1863, and in accordance with my purpose so to do, publicly proclaimed for the full period of one hundred days from the first day above mentioned, order and designate as the States and parts of States wherein the people thereof, respectively, are this day in rebellion against the United States the following, to wit:

Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana (except the parishes of St. Bernard, Palquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James, Ascension, Assumption, Terrebone, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the city of New Orleans), Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia (except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkeley, Accomac, Morthhampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Anne, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth), and which excepted parts are for the present left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.

And by virtue of the power and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States and parts of States are, and henceforward shall be, free; and that the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.

And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence; and I recommend to them that, in all case when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages. [Note: This was the passage that the Cabinent convinced President Lincoln to weaken so as not to suggest that the Federal Government was inciting a slave rebellion.]

And I further declare and make known that such persons of suitable condition will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.

And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind and the gracious favor of Almighty God.

In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the city of Washington, this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred [LS. sixty three, and of the independence of the Unites States of America, the eighty seventh.

By the President. Abraham Linclon.
William H. Seward, Secretary of State

Focus on Slavery

As one observer notes, the Emancipation Proclamation was as notable for what it did not say as for what it did say. There was not mention of citzenship and the right to vote. No mention of civil rights. [Guelzo, "Seven-Score"]


One of the interesting aspects of the Emancipation Proclamation is its very legalistic tone, in sharp contrast to the soaring retoric of his Gettysburg Address or the eloquent plea for national reconciliation of the Second Inagural. The Emancipation Proclamation was very plainly written. In fact all the whereases, therefores, and aforesaids make it sound more like a contarct for a used car. Historian Richard Hofstadter commented that the Emancipation Proclamation "has all the moral grandeur of a bill of landing".

Lincoln's Concerns

Why did Lincoln draft a document that was so legalistic. Seeminly if ever a proclamtion cried out for soaring retoric it was the Emancipation Proclamation and few presidents were capable of the retoric that the occassions demanded. It was Lincoln's decission to draft such a plain if not flat, legalistic document. And the reason was the Supreme Court. The President in emancipating slaves was on very tenuos Constitutional grounds and he knew it. First the use of Presidential "war powers" has a very questionable basis in constitunional law. Ceratainly after the War it would have ben questioned in the Federal courts. And the Supreme Court had alead ruled in the Dred Scott case that blacks were not citizens. The majority opinion had been written by Chief Justice Robert Brooke Taney--easily the worst Chief Justice in American history. He not only denied black citizenship, but attempted to imapir the Federal war effort by preventing the arrest of Confederate agents in ex parte Merryman. Tanney in 1863 was attempting to declare the Federal blockade of Confederate ports unconstitutional. Lincoln was acutely aware that if the Emancipation Proclamation was not very narrowly and legalistically worded that it would have been vulnerable to the Taney Court. The Constitution claerly gave the states the right to dectermine citizenship and voting. Any effort by Lincoln to address those issues would have been easily struck down by the Taney Court. This was only possible by Constitutional Amendment. [Guelzo, "Seven Score"] Here Lincoln began the process which was to lead to the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. The readmission of te Southern styates to the Uniion was made contingent with the acceptance of the amendmaents. The passage of each of these amendmaents would have been impossible if the Southern states had remained in the Union.


Guelzo, Allen C. Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President.

Guelzo, Allen C. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (2003). This is the definitive study of the Emancipation Proclamation. Serious students of American history should read it.

Guelzo, Allen C. "Seven-score years ago ...," Washington Post, January 1, 2003, p. A19.


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Created: January 1, 2003
Last updated: 5:40 PM 4/24/2005