Did the Emancipation Proclamation Really Free the Slaves?

While the Emancipation Proclamation remains a milestone in American civil rights, what most of us think we know about it isn’t necessarily so.

To many modern Americans, the fact that a document like the Emancipation Proclamation was ever necessary is somewhat embarrassing. It’s hard to face the fact that the “Land of the Free” allowed chattel bondage for nearly a century after declaring its own independence.

That said, we did correct our error; and nowadays the Emancipation Proclamation (promulgated on January 1, 1863), ranks as one of the very foundations of modern American freedom, along with the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. After all, it freed all the slaves, didn’t it?

The Honest Truth

Well… no. While the Emancipation Proclamation is a wonderful document and paved the way for the abolition of slavery, it didn’t actually put an end to it.

Abraham Lincoln was nothing if not a keen politician, and while he later came to consider the Proclamation “the central act” of his administration, it was mostly a political move at the time. The main idea was to punish the rebel states by freeing their slaves — at least by statute, if not in fact.

After all, the rebel states didn’t accept his authority, and so they ignored the Proclamation. Furthermore, it didn’t free the slaves in Union border states like Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, and West Virginia at all. Nor were the slaves freed in captured Confederate territories.

So Why Bother?

President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation for several reasons. Again, he intended it as a punishment and a warning, specifically aimed at areas “currently in rebellion.” One thing this helped accomplish was to keep vacillating governments in border states from joining the rebellion.

It also allowed victorious Union troops to free slaves in captured territories as they moved forward in their campaign to dismantle the Confederacy, and in fact they freed thousands almost every day. If nothing else, this made it harder for the Confederates to fight back, given their suddenly shrunken labor force.

Another Good Reason

Furthermore, the Proclamation gave Lincoln and likeminded officials the groundwork for abolishing slavery altogether. It had long been clear that if slavery was to end, Congress was unlikely to end it without a hard push from outside.

As a presidential order, backed by Lincoln’s wartime powers, the Proclamation did not require Congressional approval — but it nonetheless committed the United States to abolition. The “peculiar institution” ended for good on December 18, 1865, when the U.S. states ratified the Thirteenth Amendment.

Abe Lincoln didn’t live to see the end of slavery, but he certainly set the process of ending it in motion. Politically motivated or not, the Emancipation Proclamation deserves its place as one of the founding documents of modern American liberty.