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Why did Lincoln feel that it was necessary to issue the Emancipation Proclamation?


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Dear A.P.B.

Ever since he was elected, Abraham Lincoln had to balance his commitment to preserving the Union against his personal convictions against slavery. When that failed and the South seceded, Lincoln decided that all bets were off and that when the Union was restored, slavery would go—universally. That conviction was not universally supported in the North, however, and Lincoln held off proclaiming emancipation until he would do so on the occasion of a battlefield victory. Antietam provided that large-scale victory on September 17, 1862, even though Maj. Gen. George McClellan had missed all opportunities to accomplish any more than drive General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia out of Maryland, intact to fight another day. Lincoln made this repulsion of a Confederate invasion just victory enough to give the impression that he was issuing the proclamation from a position of strength, rather than one of desperation. Moreover, by shifting the Civil War’s main purpose from preserving the Union to universal liberty, Lincoln was hurling a moral challenge in the face of the British and French at a time when they were considering recognition of the Confederate government. In essence, it said, “You both abolished slavery—are you really going to recognize a nation built on that institution now, just to have access to the cotton grown by their slaves?” Britain and France balked. Thus Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation transformed Antietam from an unsatisfying tactical victory into a major moral and strategic victory.



Jon Guttman
Research Director
World History Group
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