The Did and Did Not of the Emancipation Proclamation

By Dr. Claude Weathersby

It appears that the history of the United States is not something that is considered terribly important for many. Or should I say, the true history as it relates to African Americans is not considered important. Could it be the manner in which social studies and American history are taught in our public schools? I am simply amazed by the number of people, black and white, who are unaware of the key facts of the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. On January 1, 2013 the Emancipation Proclamation will celebrate its 150th anniversary. Seemingly, its purpose and place in American history has been skewed, resulting in misconceptions and misunderstandings among non-academicians. Hence, I have provided a more accurate historical account of the Emancipation Proclamation; history that is often overlooked as what we can only assume to be “irrelevant.”

The Civil War is portrayed as the conflict to free the African American slaves, but other issues held a higher priority and purpose at the outset of the war. The issues were ideological ones which divided the country. The Civil War was fought because of the secession of 11 of the 15 slave states. These 11 slave states formed the Confederate States of America. The remaining States (generally referred to as the Union) mobilized its military forces to engage in war to bring the rebel states back into the Union. The symbol of what the Emancipation Proclamation came to represent marked a sharp departure from the original goal of the Union.

The abolitionist movement, based in the North, was a very vocal group filled with members of the Republican Party. Abolitionists had always subscribed to the equality of the races in the eyes of God (McPherson 1992). However, “Even the strongest abolitionists held racist views” (Butchart 1980, 15). Lincoln, the central figure-of-hope for abolitionists during this period was a practical man, who was aware that his position on slavery and the equality of all men, including those of African descent, was not shared by the majority of White men during this era. As the Civil War took its toll on the lives of many White men, Lincoln grew to understand that the majority of Whites were convinced that Blacks were an inferior breed and, that even after the war, inequality between the races would persist. For this reason, it appears that President Lincoln flirted with the idea of colonization for Blacks. This government policy, undertaken during Lincoln’s term as President, was investigated and sought to determine the seriousness of Lincoln’s commitment to attempt to remove the African American community to Liberia, South America, and the Caribbean (Magness 2008). Prior to 1863 it was understood by some in the Union government that emancipation for Blacks and colonization would be linked (Foner 2008). Because of this, free Blacks in the North were generally opposed to the colonization plan.

Prior to the Emancipation Proclamation, the federal government passed the Second Confiscation Act of 1862, which “provided for the immediate liberation of all slaves who escaped to Union lines” (Hamilton 2011). And on January 1, 1863, utilizing his power as commander-in-chief, President Lincoln declared free all those slaves residing in areas that were in rebellion against the federal government “as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion” (Foner 1984). The war now had a moral cause. The freedom promised to Blacks by the Second Confiscation Act as well as the Emancipation Proclamation, however, was contingent upon a Union military victory. Furthermore, the declarations only applied to states that were in rebellion against the Union Army. In other words, the Emancipation Proclamation pronounced those slaves free in the rebel states if the state did not comply, but slavery actually was not outlawed or declared illegal, nor were civil rights guaranteed. “Hundreds of thousands of slaves were already free by their own action and that of the invading [Union] armies, and in their cases, Lincoln’s proclamation only added possible legal sanction to an accomplished fact” (Du Bois 1935, 84). As the slaveholding Border States (Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri) believed that the Civil War was being fought solely to preserve the Union of the United States, President Lincoln sought to avoid alienating those states that had remained in the Union and Union-held areas within the Confederate States in his Emancipation Proclamation act. The measure also served the purpose of placating European governments who were considering diplomatic recognition for the Confederate States (Blaustein and Zangrando 1968). A considerable amount of anti-slavery sentiments existed within the European nations; however, the Union Army’s naval blockade of the Confederate seaports did not elicit the European response that the Confederacy expected. Britain responded to the blockade with a proclamation of neutrality, and the other European powers followed. The degree of neutrality was viewed by the Union as a step toward diplomatic recognition.

On a positive note, the Emancipation Proclamation is noteworthy in jumpstarting formal education for Blacks for two reasons. First, it marked a dramatic change in the Union’s war strategy by proclaiming slaves free in territories held by Confederates only, and the Union Army’s plan to enlist Black soldiers. “Enlistment in the military enabled black men to expand educational opportunities that they hoped in turn would improve their ability to intervene in civic governance” (Williams 2005, 47). Union army personnel, in some instances, reacted positively to the Black men’s enthusiasm to learn (Butchart 1980). Blacks as soldiers experienced an increased association with White officers who were generally educated men. In many instances, these officers were sympathetic to the cause of education for the ex-slaves, therefore, “Many African American soldiers took time to become literate” (Williams 2005, 46). Additionally as soldiers, Blacks could now become part of the tremendous loss of life associated with the Civil War battles. “The increasing numbers of black soldiers and their heroic sacrifices, made nearly impossible any negotiated peace with the Confederacy that preserved slavery” (Hamilton 2011). The Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation are the historical events that led to the decriminalization of African American education and provided a jumpstart to the formal education of African Americans in the United States without fear of reprisal.

It would take two years of armed conflict before President Abraham Lincoln would formally proclaim the war as a struggle for the abolition of slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation was Lincoln’s formal declaration that the main objective of the war was to end slavery in this country (Blaustein and Zangrando 1968). Yet, the Emancipation Proclamation did not free the slaves. It wasn’t until the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which abolished slavery in the United States, that Blacks were legally declared free.


Blaustein, A. P., and R. L. Zangrando. 1968. Civil rights and Black Americans: A documentary history. New York: Washington Square Press.
Butchart, R. E. 1980. Northern schools, Southern Blacks, and Reconstruction: Freedmen’s education, 1862-1875. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.
Du Bois, W. E. B. 1935. Black Reconstruction. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company.
Foner, E. 1984. Nothing but freedom: Emanciplation and its legacy. Unknown City: Louisiana State University Press.
———, ed. 2008. Our Lincoln: New perspectives on Lincoln and his world. New York, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Hamilton, D. W. 2011. First and Second Confiscation Acts (1861, 1862).
Magness, P. W. 2008. Benjamin Butler’s testimony reevaluated. In Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association.
McPherson, J. M. 1992. Abraham Lincoln and the second American Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, USA.
Williams, H. A. 2005. Self-taught: African American education in slavery and freedom. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.