Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation
This Presidents and the Constitution focuses on Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation. Though he had always hated slavery, President Lincoln did not believe the Constitution gave him the authority to bring it to an end—until it became necessary to free the slaves in order to save the Union. With the Emancipation Proclamation, which he viewed as an essential wartime measure to cripple the Confederacy’s ability to fight, Lincoln took the first step toward abolition of slavery in the United States.
On March 4, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his Inaugural Address to a nation in peril, divided over the issue of slavery. He explained his belief that secession was unconstitutional and that he intended to do all in his power to save the Union. In addition, just as he had promised throughout the election campaign, he emphasized, “…I have no purpose, …to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. …I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so…” Though Lincoln hated slavery, he believed it was protected by the Constitution.
Seven states had already announced their secession. After the fall of Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, the Civil War began, four more states seceded, and the Union army experienced repeated defeats. Lincoln continued to maintain that he would not interfere with slavery where it existed. However, as a result of Union battlefield losses by July 1862, the President had decided that emancipation was a military necessity. Lincoln knew that many thousands of enslaved people were ready to fight for the Union. He wrote, “This is not a question of sentiment or taste, but one of physical force which may be measured …Keep [that force] and you can save the Union. Throw it away, and the Union goes with it.”
Lincoln used his authority as Commander in Chief under the U.S. Constitution to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect on January 1, 1863. He stated the military necessity of his action. He ordered slaves freed in areas that were in rebellion against the U.S., declared that the military would enforce their freedom, and received former slaves into the U.S. military. Upon signing the Proclamation, Lincoln affirmed that he had never felt “more certain that I was doing right.”
No one was freed when the Proclamation took effect; it applied only behind enemy lines. However, the Emancipation Proclamation was an essential first step by the U.S. government toward abolition, and emancipation led almost two hundred thousand slaves to leave the South and serve the Union side. By giving the war a new moral purpose, Lincoln changed its character. He showed that the time had come to make the nation’s policies align with its promise as stated in the Declaration of Independence: “…all men are created equal…”
- What made Lincoln decide that emancipation was a military necessity?
- Why did Lincoln refuse to free the slaves until it was a military necessity?
- How many slaves were freed by the Proclamation?
- In what ways was the Emancipation Proclamation a turning point in the course of the war? In the history of the United States?
Have students use resources in the Bill of Rights Institute’s study guide Americapedia to research additional documents related to the Lincoln presidency and the Civil War.
They may wish to learn more about the following documents: