It was New Year’s morning in 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln hosted a three-hour reception in the White House. The results of which would change the course of American history forever. In the afternoon, President Lincoln slipped away into his office and signed a peculiar document.
As you probably guessed, it was the Emancipation Proclamation. It was written, “that all persons held as slaves are, and henceforward shall be, free.” This was a decree that was absolutely needed within the rebellious Southern states.
However, it did not come in effect immediately. Nearly 4 million slaves still in the Southern states still had to wait for the time to come, but the Emancipation was a clear and firm step of the Union towards the ending of slavery and ending the civil war.
As you could imagine, the news was not received well with the Southern newspapers. Richmond Enquirer was particularly loud on the topic, stating that President Lincoln’s action was “the most startling political crime, the most stupid political blunder yet known in American history.” They took it even further claiming that “the Southern people have now only to choose between victory and death.”
Contrary to the South, the North was very happy. The Cleveland Morning Leader stated that “the day of Jubilee has arrived, and the all-important words ‘Be Free’ have been spoken.” The New York Times also did not skip the topic, stating that “President Lincoln’s proclamation marks an era in history, not only of this war but of the world.”
However, not everyone in the North was fond of the idea of having the black slaves run around freely. For example, the Cincinnati Enquirer went as far as to basically say that President Lincoln’s actions were on par with treason when they stated that it was a “complete overthrow of the Constitution he swore to protect and defend.”
It was no surprise that the already free African-Americans in the North took the news with open arms. Frederick Douglass said: “We are all liberated by this proclamation. Everybody is liberated. The white man is liberated, the black man is liberated, the brave men now fighting the battles of their country against rebels and traitors are now liberated.” However, even Douglass was aware at the time that the proclamation was just the first step. And that was one step that slaves back in the South could not celebrate, otherwise, they would risk being beaten or even hung.
Even though it received such different responses from the public, the proclamation was not a real surprise. President Lincoln had already presented the draft for the proclamation in a Cabinet meeting on July 22, 1862. At the time, Secretary of State William Seward pointed out that it would not be a wise decision to release the document just yet. The timing had to be perfect, and he suggested that the president signs and releases the document when the Union forces score a big win on the battlefield.
President Lincoln liked the suggestion and issued the document on the 22nd of September, which was only a few days after the Union forces managed to win the Battle of Antietam. The freeing of slaves was amongst many points, and it was actually one of the methods to get the South to surrender. It was written that if the South did not surrender by Jan. 1, 1863 their slaves would be “forever free.”
This was exactly what happened in the end. The fighting did not stop, and there were even doubts that President Lincoln would be brave enough to back up his threat. However, he proved them all wrong on January 1st, when he signed the document.
Reportedly, his hand only stopped for a second, so he could steady it before signing the document. He stated: “I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper. If my name goes into history, it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.”
However, many criticized him because he left out quite a lot of slaves in the proclamation. Sure, it was set to free 4 million slaves in the southern states, but it would only free the slaves in the states that were the part of the rebellion. The three Southern states that were not the part of the rebellion were excluded, along with the border states.
That means that close to 850,000 slaves were not given the promise of freedom. The New York Herald wrote: “While the proclamation leaves slavery untouched where his decree can be enforced, he emancipates slaves where his decree cannot be enforced.”
Even though Lincoln was truly set on freeing the slaves, he took his proclamation as a strategic war tactic against the Confederacy, rather than a document for every slave in the states. On the other hand, the proclamation allowed African Americans to fight alongside the Union forces. The total number added up to 200,000 black men that fought for the North.
By making the abolition of slavery a Union goal, they managed to discourage any intervention from the anti-slavery foreign nations, such as England, due to the fact that many more slaves would stand up and fight. They would have overpowered them, so it was seen as a bad idea.
Lincoln still had a lot of support and was reelected in 1864. He knew that his document was only a temporary solution, so he pressed on the Congress to amend the Constitution and end slavery forever. It was on January 31st, 1865 that both houses of the Congress agreed and passed the 13th Amendment that “neither slavery or involuntary servitude … shall exist in the United States.”
December 18th, 1865 marks the official end of slavery. 27 out of the 36 states ratified to the amendment. Unfortunately, Lincoln himself did not live to see his goal become a reality. On April 14, 1865, just five days after the southern states surrendered, President Lincoln was shot and killed by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre in Washington.
Back when Lincoln signed the proclamation, everything was still uncertain. There was no way to know if it will work, and what the future held for the African American community. There was a group of black Americans, however, who had all the faith in the world the proclamation will work. They met in mid-January 1863 at the Oak Grove School in Leesburg, Ohio, and agreed that the proclamation would lead to freedom of African Americans.
As the resolution stated: “Should all this be accomplished, the name of Abraham Lincoln will ever be gratefully remembered by the colored race of America; and the 1st of January should be celebrated to our latest posterity as the most important event in all our history.”
As we all know, the end of slavery was just the first step. The African American community had to fight hard for their right as full U.S. citizens. Racial segregation was still a thing in the southern states back in the 1960s. The African American population was separated from the other population. Public transports or even schools were a nightmare.
Even at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., which was back in 1922, they separated the crowd of 50,000 people by race. If that sounds ironic and absolutely irrational it is because it was.
It was not until August 1963 that the African American movement really took ground. A crowd of more than 250,000 people came to the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington. This is also the time and place where the famous speech of “I Have A Dream” was delivered by Martin Luther King Jr.
So many years later, MLK spoke about the Emancipation Proclamation, stating that it was a “great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. … But 100 years later, the Negro still is not free.”