Share This Article

In one regard, January 1, 1863, was no different than all the other New Year’s Days in recent Washington memory—Civil War notwithstanding. Ushers threw open the doors of the White House around 11 a.m., and ordinary citizens surged inside to mingle with dignitaries. Towering above the throng was Abraham Lincoln, patiently greeting visitors by the hundreds, “his blessed pump handle working steadily,” marveled journalist Noah Brooks. But this was to be no ordinary New Year’s Day in the nation’s capital. Today history would be made.

Around 2 p.m. the president quietly slipped out of the East Room and walked upstairs to his office (now the Lincoln Bedroom) on the second floor. Waiting for him was Secretary of State William H. Seward, along with Seward’s son Frederick, who served as his father’s private secretary, and a few members of Lincoln’s staff. On the large table near the center of the room rested a vellum document written out by a professional “engrosser”—and corrected a final time only hours before, after Lincoln himself noticed an error.

Solemnly, Lincoln sat down at his accustomed spot at the head of the table. Now, at last, he would sign the most important order of his administration, perhaps of the century: the Emancipation Proclamation.

Exactly 100 days earlier, Lincoln had issued a preliminary proclamation, vowing to free the slaves in all states still in active rebellion against the federal authority on this day, January 1. The rebellion had continued, but many doubted until the very last minute that Lincoln would make good his threat. One persistent rumor held that Mrs. Lincoln, the daughter of a slaveholder, would bewitch her husband into reneging. “Will Lincoln’s backbone carry him through?” wondered New Yorker George Templeton Strong. “Nobody knows.” Lincoln took a steel pen in hand, dipped it in an inkwell, but then paused and put the pen down. To his own surprise, his hand was trembling.

It was not, Lincoln later insisted, “because of any uncertainty or hesitation on my part.” As he put it at that decisive moment, “I never in my life felt more certain that I am doing right than I do in signing this paper.” But the day had taken a toll. “I have been shaking hands since 9 o’clock this morning, and my hand is almost paralyzed,” the president lamented. “If my name ever goes into history it will be for this act,” he told the witnesses, “and my whole soul is in it. If my hand trembles when I sign the proclamation, all who examine the document hereafter will say, ‘He hesitated.’”

Hesitation was the last thing on his mind. “The South had fair warning that if they did not return…I would strike at this pillar of their strength,” Lincoln insisted. “The promise must now be kept.” Lincoln again took up his pen. Slowly but firmly, he wrote “Abraham Lincoln” in large letters at the bottom of the document that declared all slaves in the Confederacy “forever free.” Letting out a burst of relieved laughter, he glanced at his effort and declared, “That will do.”

What Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation did—and did not—do has been the subject of heated debate ever since. Did it free all the slaves? None? Or some? Was it a thunderbolt aimed at correcting generations of inhumanity? Was it rather a stroke of political expediency directed solely at foreign powers otherwise poised to intervene in America’s war on the side of the slaveholding South? Or was it merely an acknowledgment that slavery was already dying, thanks to forces beyond the president’s control?

One thing is certain: Lincoln himself believed his order would change the course of both the Civil War and the peace that would follow. And so did his contemporaries—including the painters, engravers and lithographers who commenced portraying him as a modern Moses in a host of artistic tributes—a sure measure of public opinion before the days of professional polling. For the most part, the graphic arts were somewhat slow to celebrate emancipation—waiting until the election campaign of 1864 to issue the first tentative tributes to (and virulent attacks on) the document, and withholding heroic por­traits of the Eman­cipator himself until his assassination in 1865. But popular culture ultimately embraced Lincoln as a liberator, and for nearly a century most historians agreed he deserved the title.

Then, in the crucible of the 1960s Civil Rights revolution, dissenting voices began offering a different version of the story. Some insisted that the Emancipation Proclamation had achieved little—that, after all, it ordered slaves freed only in those states where Lincoln had no authority to do so, leaving slavery frustratingly un­touched in a wide swath of geography over which he presided as chief magistrate. More recently some African-American historians advanced the additional theory of “self emancipation,” arguing that slaves, in essence, had freed themselves by fleeing from their bondage in such huge numbers (a mass of humanity known as “contrabands”) that Lincoln had no choice but to codify their flight by issuing his rather limp order.

Such criticisms, however, ignore the tremendous impact the Proclamation had in its own time, a far more accurate yardstick than hindsight. In the words of one contemporary, nothing so revolutionary had happened in America since the Revolutionary War itself. Perhaps that is why Lincoln anguished so long before doing what some of his supporters thought he should have done the moment he became president. And perhaps that is why, however long and arduously he labored to get its timing just right, his order triggered so much anger—putting Lincoln’s political party on the defensive and inspiring fears that white troops might refuse to fight to free black slaves. Modern Americans should never forget that above all else, in its own day the Emancipation Proclamation was immensely controversial.

We must also acknowledge that Lincoln personally opposed slavery all his life (even this inescapable truth has been challenged by a smattering of revisionists in recent years). Visiting New Orleans as a young man, he had been horrified by the sight of black men in chains like “fish in a trot line,” as he put it, a vision that tormented him for years. As a legislator in Illinois, he became one of the few to sign a resolution condemning slavery. And in his single term in the House of Representatives, he opposed the American war against Mexico, largely because its Democratic supporters hoped with conquest to acquire new Southern territory ripe for slavery. When Congress struck down the Missouri Compromise in 1854, Lincoln denounced the idea that settlers in America’s new western territories could now vote to import slave labor. At the very least, he insisted, slavery must be limited to those states where it had long existed.

True, Lincoln did not then (or perhaps ever) believe in perfect social equality for African Americans. Before he became president, he did not yet think blacks should be permitted to vote or to serve on juries, much less intermarry with whites. But he differed with the overwhelming majority of citizens (and politicians) of the day when he declared, “In the right to eat the bread which his own hands earn,” a black man “is my equal and…the equal of every living man.” Incredible as it seems today, such pronouncements still shocked many mid–19th century Americans. He took a further risk denouncing the Su­preme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision, under which blacks were relegated to noncitizen status forever.

Candidate Lincoln was elected president in 1860 pledging to do nothing to interfere with slavery in the Southern states, where, he acknowledged, the institution was protected by the U.S. Constitution. But after more than a year of rebellion, President Lincoln reached the conclusion that the only way to restore the Union was to wage war not only against Confederate armies but also against the Confederacy’s secret weapon: free home-front slave labor. “We must free the slaves,” he confided, “or ourselves be subdued.”

Then why did he not order slaves liberated the mo­ment the states defied federal authority? Because Lincoln judged that the American people—even those in the loyal states—would defy him. “Public sentiment is everything,” he had declared during the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates. “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions.” Until 1862 Lincoln was not prepared to pronounce his decision because he had not yet molded public sentiment.

“It is my conviction,” Lincoln insisted when he heard the criticism of his sluggishness, “that had the proclamation been issued even six months earlier than it was, public sentiment would not have sustained it.” He may have been right. Lincoln had ample reason to fear that if he acted against slavery precipitately, he would at the very least lose crucial support in the vital Border States, which he desperately needed to keep from joining the Confederacy. Virginia had already seceded, but Lincoln could not afford to lose the next slave state to the north, Maryland. If Maryland seceded, then Washington, D.C., would become a capital city trapped inside an enemy country. The federal government would almost certainly fall if others joined the bandwagon.

Lincoln fretted too that if he moved too soon, Northern voters might turn against his party and force on Lincoln a hostile Congress unwilling to continue prosecuting the war. Then all would be lost anyway: democracy, the Union and any promise, ever, of eradicating slavery. So Lincoln waited, enduring blistering criticism from the political left as abolitionists assailed him for wasting a precious opportunity. Congress did pass, and Lincoln signed, two Confiscation Acts authorizing the seizure of property held by Rebel traitors—including slaves. But the law suffered from fatal flaws: It left unclear precisely how to define traitors, and assigned judgment to the federal courts, which no longer operated in the areas affected by the bill. The tide, however, was turning. Lincoln signaled his instinct for freedom by signing a D.C. compensated emancipation act on April 16, 1862, although he again infuriated abolitionists by waiting a long time before he gave his approval.

Not until July 1862 did Lincoln finally conclude that he could act boldly and broadly: without Congress and without recourse to nonfunctioning courts. He had settled on both a legal argument and a window of opportunity. He would act not from “the bosom of phi­lanthropy,” as he wryly put it, but on the basis of military necessity, with an order from a commander in chief aimed, at its most basic level, at punishing rebels by utilizing a time-tested weapon of war—confiscating enemy property, in this case, human property.

Returning to Washington after a frustrating visit to Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s idle army on July 7-10 (the presumptuous commander had advised Lincoln that the war should not be waged to free any slaves), Lincoln concluded that the opposite was true. “Things had gone on from bad to worse,” he lamented later, “until I felt that we had reached the end of our rope…that we had about played our last card and must change our tactics, or lose the game.” Lincoln probably began writing a first draft of an Emancipation order on board the steamboat returning him to the capital. He likely continued work at the Soldier’s Home north of the city, where the Lincoln family retreated that summer. It was during his daily trips to and from the White House that the president first encountered the contraband camps ringing the area, occasionally stopping to visit the escaped slaves.

On July 22 Lincoln called his cabinet together and revealed that he had reached his momentous decision. A president who routinely polled his ministers on all issues of public policy and deferred to their collective wisdom, he bluntly told them that this time he would entertain no opposition or debate. He unfolded some handwritten papers and slowly read aloud his short, somewhat imprecise document ordering as “a fit and necessary war measure” that slaves be freed in states whose relationship with the Union remained “suspended, or disturbed.” No one objected, but Secretary of State Seward expressed a sensible concern. With the war going so badly, he worried, wouldn’t an emancipation announcement be seen as “a cry for help—our last shriek on the retreat?” Seward proposed postponing the Proclamation until the Union could win a victory on the battlefield. Reluctantly, Lincoln conceded the wisdom in Seward’s suggestion; he did not want his order to be viewed, he confessed, like the “Pope’s bull against the comet.”

Over the next two months, as the Union war effort stalled, the inevitability of emancipation remained the best-kept secret in America—impossible to imagine in the relentless 24-hour news cycle with which modern presidents now deal. Initiating a campaign of disinformation even as he commenced rewriting the brief first draft he had read to his cabinet, Lincoln continued to deny that he was planning such an announcement.

So he implied to Horace Greeley after the editor of The New York Tribune printed a brutal editorial attacking him for being “disastrously remiss” on freedom. “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union,” Lincoln replied in a letter he made sure was widely published, “and is not either to save or destroy slavery. 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. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union.”

Lincoln skirted the truth in this famous response, for he had already decided to issue his Proclamation. But he was shrewdly preparing Northerners to think of the document as a measure necessary to win the war and preserve the nation, not to achieve humanitarian goals or change the social order. Only then, he felt, would Northern whites accept it. Critics often point to the Greeley letter as proof that the evil of slavery was never as important to Lincoln as the blessing of Union. Such critics forget that Lincoln knew full well when he wrote it that he was about to recalibrate the fight to embrace both union and liberty alike.

But Lincoln knew how difficult it would be to redefine the goals of a great war in mid-fight. There was no guarantee that troops would march as readily for the freedom of the black man as they had for the government of the white man. So he continued to grease the public mood. On August 14, with the Proclamation still unannounced, a delegation of free African Americans visited the White House. Lincoln greeted them with an icily formal statement, read aloud without interruption or question. Suggesting the war would never have begun had it not been for slavery—for slaves!—Lincoln declared that the black and white races would never be able to live in harmony. “It is better for us both therefore to be separated,” he said. The freedmen should consider emigrating to Africa or the Caribbean.

Once again, Lincoln was moving to mold (or in this case blunt) public sentiment—but in the white community at the expense of the black. Knowing his remarks would be printed in newspapers (reporters had witnessed the meeting), Lincoln ensured he would not be portrayed as a bleeding-heart friend of the black race. This, he likely reasoned, would further guarantee that when his Proclamation was issued, it would be received by whites as a tactical military move, rather than a grand act of liberation, increasing the chances for its acceptance.

But here was yet another case in which Lincoln sacrificed historical stature in the name of public relations. Critics have used the statement against him ever since. In its day, however, it functioned precisely as Lincoln hoped. (As for his own flirtation with the notion of colonizing free blacks abroad, Lincoln eventually abandoned it.)

Finally, on September 17, 1862, Union troops gave Lincoln the long-awaited victory, when McClellan’s army repelled an invading Confederate force at Antie­tam. It was by no means a decisive or overwhelming triumph, since General Robert E. Lee’s troops were allowed to escape Maryland weakened but intact, doubtless to fight another day. But it was enough. Lincoln summoned his cabinet and read them a revised proclamation he had been re-crafting. This time there was even less opportunity for debate than in July. “I do not wish your advice,” he said bluntly. “I made the promise to myself, and (hesitating a little)—to my Maker,” he whispered, that if Lee was driven back, “I would crown the result with a declaration of freedom for the slaves.” God had decided the case, he added with finality, for the slaves.

Five days later on September 22, just as he had promised his cabinet, himself and his God, the president announced the Preliminary Emancipation Proc­lamation. It gave the Confederacy until January 1, 1863, to return to the Union or forfeit slaves who would otherwise be “thenceforward, and forever free,” their liberty recognized and maintained by “the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof….”

Just as Lincoln had feared, the Proclamation was immediately and bitterly denounced. Newspapers around the world warned ominously that it would ignite race riots (an invitation to “burning, ravishing, massacring, and destroying,” shrieked The London Times). The stock market declined. Desertions increased, with some soldiers unwilling to fight a war to “free Negroes.” And Lincoln’s Republican Party indeed suffered significant mid-term election losses that fall. To be sure, accolades followed as well, but as a dispirited Lincoln put it, “breath alone kills no rebels.” In a letter to his vice president, Hannibal Hamlin, he admitted: “This, looked soberly in the face, is not very satisfactory….I wish I could write more cheerfully.”

But Lincoln would not back down, even in the wake of a humiliating Union military setback at Fredericksburg in December. “We cannot escape history,” he warned Congress that month. On Janu­ary 1, 1863, as millions of enslaved people awaited word on their fate, Lincoln overcame political pressure, incurable national racism, popular suspicion, press antagonism, battlefield setbacks and his own trembling hand, and signed the final Emancipation Proclamation. This version even included the truly extraordinary recommendation that freed blacks now join Union military forces to battle for the freedom the document promised. The Union war effort would now embrace what Lincoln came to call his “sable arm,” the U.S. Colored Troops. Marching—and winning—remained the sword behind the president’s pen. Lincoln, and surely African Americans as well, knew that for all its good intentions, the Emancipation Proclamation would free slaves only if Union armies won victories in Rebel states. Such was the case as well for America’s first freedom document: the Declaration of Independence. Its promise was not fulfilled by magic or ukase on July 4, 1776, but through hard fighting by the Continental Army in the months and years that followed.

Although it is nearly impossible to quantify with precision, Lincoln and Seward believed the Emancipation Proclamation freed at least 200,000 slaves by February 1865, as Union troops marched farther into the Confederacy, setting blacks free in their path. The slaves rushed by the thousands into the safety of Union lines and volunteered to take up arms against former masters. Lincoln took another giant step the following year and supported a constitutional amendment to free slaves everywhere—even in the loyal slave-holding Border States, which he had excluded from the Proclamation, recognizing he had no constitutional authority to confiscate property there. Lincoln not only approved a plank endorsing the measure in his reelection platform, he twisted arms and knocked heads in Congress to make sure it was passed and sent to the states for ratification. That amendment became the law of the land in late 1865, although Lincoln himself did not live to see it ratified.

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation has been somewhat battered—at least in the field of public opinion—by several factors. The first was its authors’ own diversionary smokescreens in the run-up to its announcement. The second reflected a retrograde cultural shift that also saw the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Codes. White supremacist America began emphasizing Lincoln as a hero of national unity, rather than of freedom—as if to justify society’s unceasing racism. Suddenly the Gettysburg Address became Lincoln’s greatest document—not the Emancipation Proclamation—anything but the case in Lincoln’s own time. Finally African Americans themselves, painfully aware that the full promise of freedom and equality had never been kept, began turning to spokesmen of their own—especially Frederick Douglass (who later called Lincoln “quintessentially the white man’s president”)—in a sense abandoning Lincoln as a hero. Forgotten was the fact that Douglass himself had remembered the announcement of the Proclamation that January day with unbridled “joy.” Forgotten by revisionists too was perhaps the most dramatic public moment of Lincoln’s presidency: the day in April 1865 when he was surrounded and cheered by a group of freed slaves who saw him enter Richmond, Va., following the fall of the Confederate capital.

Although it remains equally important to reject the opposite, equally extreme view that the January 1, 1863, order freed all America’s slaves, and instantly, the truth is that the Emancipation Proclamation launched the irreversible tide of liberty. Once Lincoln signed his name on his final order, the Civil War, slavery and America were never the same. Lincoln had cast a fatal harpoon into what he called the “monster” that had so long tarnished American life and made the American experiment seem a hypocritical mockery in the eyes of the world. Lincoln’s document that all but guaranteed democracy’s life and slavery’s death. Did its author know that by the stroke of his pen our society would change forever? Undoubtedly. Why else pause until he could write in the firm, clear hand to which he aspired?

Lincoln launched what historian James McPherson has aptly called a second American Revolution. He not only ended the shame of human bondage in America, but helped guarantee the survival of America itself. As he put it in his annual message to Congress a month before issuing the final proclamation, “By giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free.”

Many Americans sensed this immediately. As three long-forgotten children from Brooklyn, N.Y., wrote to the president a few days after he had signed the Emancipation Proclamation: “You have added glory to the sky & splendor to the sun, & there are but few men who have ever done that before, either by words or acts….O! dear Uncle Abe, only see the Proclamation carried out & how brightly will the name of Abraham Lincoln shine through all times & ages.” For all the second-guessing and hindsight, history has largely confirmed their prediction.

Harold Holzer’s latest book is The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy From 1860 to Now (Library of America, 2009).