What was the Emancipation Proclamation and when was it issued?

The Emancipation Proclamation was an edict of monumental significance in the history of the United States. Issued by President Abraham Lincoln, it declared that all enslaved people in the Confederate states – which had seceded from the US and were at war with the Union in the North – “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free”.


The proclamation was issued twice: the first, on 22 September 1862, was an ultimatum to the Confederacy to rejoin the Union within 100 days; and when all states refused, it officially came into effect on New Year’s Day 1863. While it only applied to the South and had been instigated more out of “military necessity” than a moral imperative, the document transformed the fate of the American Civil War, gave hope to millions of black people living in bondage, and paved the way for the abolition of slavery.

How long had there been slavery in the US?

Before it became the independent United States of America in 1776, the British colonies in North America had been shipping African men and women across the Atlantic since the 16th century. The transatlantic slave trade grew into a huge business in the 17th and 18th centuries, as millions of enslaved people were transported to work on plantations, harvesting crops such as cotton, or to serve their white masters in their homes.

There had always been calls to end the barbaric trade – where black slaves were treated as nothing more than property, to be used however their owners wished – but the abolitionist movement in the US gained pace during the 19th century. In 1850, the much-despised Fugitive Slave Act was passed, declaring that all runaway or escaped slaves had to be returned with the cooperation of all citizens, even those in free states. This emboldened abolitionists and inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe’s polemical novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), which so shocked Americans that attitudes towards slavery shifted.

Why did the civil war start?

Political, social and cultural differences between the North and South had caused tensions since the birth of the US, with slavery a constant and highly divisive issue. The North had prohibited slavery and did not wish to see it extended to the western territories seeking statehood, while the South relied on the mass unpaid labour that slavery provided for its agricultural economy. To many white southerners, abolition was a fundamental threat to their way of life.

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Fighting the expansion of slavery was the Republican Party, formed in 1854, which selected Abraham Lincoln as its presidential candidate in the 1860 election. By the time he was inaugurated, seven southern states had seceded (four more would join later) and formed the Confederate States of America. They had their own president, Jefferson Davis, and a constitution endorsing slavery.

US President Abraham Lincoln (seated, third from left) reads the Emancipation Proclamation
US President Abraham Lincoln (seated, third from left) reads the Emancipation Proclamation. Intended to weaken the South in the war, it paved the way for abolition. (Image by Getty Images)

Civil war broke out on 12 April 1861 when Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, which was occupied by Union troops. Four long years of war followed – still the bloodiest in the nation’s history, leaving at least three-quarters of a million people dead. It was in that climate that Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

What attempts had been made to ban slavery before the Emancipation proclamation?

While it could be assumed that such a historic document as the Emancipation Proclamation must have been the first major attempt to bring an end to slavery in the US, abolition had been taking root in the North for decades.

In 1780, Pennsylvania passed An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, the first such act ever adopted in a democracy. It stopped any more enslaved people being brought into the state, required slave owners to register their slaves annually or face forfeiture, and declared that all children born after that time were free regardless of their race. Soon, other states followed this example and, by 1804, slavery was abolished in the North.

By then, the Slave Trade Act had been passed by Congress, forbidding American ships from participating in the international slave trade. Then, in 1808, the US abolished the importing of enslaved people. This did not stop the domestic slave trade, but was a clear demonstration that the North, with a larger population than the South, was dominating the House of Representatives, the lower house of Congress.

As already mentioned, an issue was what would happen in the western territories. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 – creating the Northwest Territory, comprising the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and northeast Minnesota – banned slavery completely. Then, when the US annexed huge swathes of land in the Mexican-American War (1846-48), the resulting Compromise of 1850 prevented slavery in places like California, but opened the opportunity of its extension to areas where it had been prohibited.

Did the proclamation intend to end slavery?

On 22 September 1862, Lincoln issued the following proclamation:

“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand
eight hundred and sixty-three, 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.”

The Emancipation Proclamation
The Emancipation Proclamation. (Image by Getty Images)

Lincoln timed the announcement so that the North would be in a position of strength, rather than it appear like an act of desperation. The battle of Antietam that September, while hardly a decisive victory, gave him that opportunity. When the deadline came and went with no action from the Confederate South, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on 1 January 1863.

Lincoln was not primarily motivated by ending slavery. Rather, he was committed to preserving the Union, famously saying: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.” But freeing enslaved people in the South had a clear military aim, of depriving the Confederacy of their labour force and the goods they produced.

How many slaves were freed?

Since the Emancipation Proclamation only applied to states in the Confederacy, who were not going to free their slaves, it had little effect for the vast majority of the roughly 3.5 million enslaved people in the South. Although, tens of thousands were emancipated in areas where the Union had already occupied, and it encouraged others to seize freedom for themselves by escaping to the North.

How did the proclamation affect the course of the American Civil war?

The proclamation profoundly changed the meaning of the war: by inextricably linking the Union’s victory with the defeat of slavery, it was now a moral crusade for freedom. The importance of this was immediate, as foreign powers who could have entered the war on the side of the Confederacy in the hopes of weakening the US further, such as Britain and France, were dissuaded.

The proclamation also allowed black soldiers to join the Union military, meaning that with every escaped or emancipated slave the South got weaker, and the North got stronger. Around 180,000 black men enlisted in the army – fighting in segregated regiments – and 20,000 in the navy.

Around 200,000 freed slaves, like this soldier, joined the Union military in the Civil Wa
Around 200,000 freed slaves, like this soldier, joined the Union military in the Civil War. (Image by Getty Images)

As the war slowly approached its end with victory for the North all but assured, Lincoln campaigned for re-election in 1864 with the promise of introducing a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery permanently. There was a concern that the proclamation would not be binding once the war was over, so plans had to be put in motion quickly. By January 1865, Lincoln secured the votes to rush through the 13th Amendment.

A few months later, on 9 April, the Confederate commander Robert E Lee surrendered to Union general Ulysses S Grant, ending the war.

What happened to Lincoln after the war?

Just five days after the surrender, Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre, in Washington DC, by Confederate sympathiser John Wilkes Booth. He did not live to see the US rebuilt after four years of war, nor did he get to see the official end of slavery in the nation, as the 13th Amendment would not be ratified until 6 December.

Yet while not a staunch abolitionist to begin with, Lincoln recognised the Emancipation Proclamation as one of the greatest achievements of his presidency. On that historic day, 1 January 1863, he had said, “I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper.”

What happened to the millions of formerly enslaved people?

Finding a place in the still-United States for millions of emancipated men and women was one of the great challenges of the so-called Reconstruction era. They had no homes, and employment was difficult to find since nearly all were uneducated. The Freedmen’s Bureau was established by Congress to find jobs, medical aid and food for freed slaves, as well as set up schools, hospitals and settlements. The bureau, however, was severely underfunded and faced fierce opposition from white southerners.

Former enslaved people without work
Freedom came with its own problems as millions of formerly enslaved people now had no home or work. (Image by Getty Images)

Allowed to form power bases again after the war, the southern states imposed ‘black codes’ – restrictive laws intended to suppress black rights. Essentially, it was another form of slavery. A period known as ‘Radical Reconstruction’ did see the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868 – granting black people citizenship – and the 15th in 1870, which gave black men the vote. But segregation laws were also passed, which would last for almost a century until the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.

How has emancipation been celebrated?

States have their own date to mark Emancipation Day, but perhaps the best-known today is 19 June. It was on that day in 1865 that the last slaves in the US were finally informed of their freedom, when Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, with the news. Even though the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued more than two years previously, Texas had been largely unaffected by the fighting of the war, so it took a long time for the 250,000 enslaved people in the state to be told. The following year, meals, music, prayers and parades were held to celebrate, and soon these festivities spread.

People commemorate Juneteenth, marching with a banner
Juneteenth is now a national holiday across the US, celebrating the day in 1865 that the last slaves were told they were free. (Image by Alamy)

Today, this day is known as Juneteenth, and it holds huge significance for African-American communities across the US. On that date in 1968, some 50,000 people descended on the Lincoln Memorial in the nation’s capital for Solidarity Day, just two months after the Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated. It is still widely celebrated with community gatherings, religious services, speeches and educational events.

In 2021, upon becoming US president, Joe Biden made Juneteenth a federal holiday.


This article was first published in the Christmas 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed


Emma Slattery Williams was <BBC History Revealed’s staff writer until August 2022, covering all areas of history – from Egyptian pharaohs and pirate queens to Queen Victoria and Marilyn Monroe. She also compiled HistoryExtra’s Victorian newsletter and interviewed historians on the HistoryExtra podcast.. She studied both History and English at Swansea University.