The Purpose of the Emancipation Proclamation: Historical Context of the Decree

The Purpose of the Emancipation Proclamation: Historical Context of the Decree
Page content

Many point to the Emancipation Proclamation as the document that ended slavery in the United States. This is not true, although it served as a precursor for the 13th amendment to the United States Constitution, which abolished slavery; the 14th amendment, which granted citizenship to former slaves; and the 15th amendment, which prohibited states from denying citizenship to former slaves.

What is the Emancipation Proclamation?

The purpose of the Emancipation Proclamation was to encourage rebellious states to rejoin the Union.

On September 22, 1862, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It stated that on January 1, 1863 “all persons held as slaves within any States, or designated part of the State, the people whereof shall be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” That is, if you are part of the Confederacy, you have until January 1, 1863 to rejoin the Union or your slaves will be set free. No states accepted the offer and on January 1, 1863, all slaves held in the Confederacy were declared free. Slaves who lived in Union states remained slaves.

In short, slaves owned in states that fought with the North remained slaves. Slaves owned in states that fought for the South were freed.

(That’s irony of historic proportions)

The Purpose

President Lincoln’s primary objective was to win the war and preserve the Union. He felt the Emancipation Proclamation would help him do so for the following reasons:

  1. The Proclamation allowed slave states that fought on the side of the North (Kentucky, Missouri, Delaware, and Maryland) to retain their slaves in order not to drive them to the other side. In addition, areas which were currently occupied by Union forces were technically not required to free their slaves.
  2. Soldiers were in high demand. The Proclamation allowed freed slaves to fight in the Union army.
  3. The Proclamation linked slavery directly to the war, a key component in persuading foreign nations such as Great Britain from fighting on the side of the south.

The Effects

Although the purpose of the Emancipation Proclamation, in addition to freeing slaves, was to help the war effort, it did have negative consequences on the Union’s cause.

  1. Many in the North did not support emancipation. Although abolitionist sentiments were high, most, including Lincoln, wanted gradual emancipation. In addition, many Northerners did not like the idea that they were fighting a war to free slaves as opposed to preserving the Union.
  2. The Emancipation Proclamation emboldened the South who used it as evidence that Lincoln sought to destroy states' rights.

Lincoln understood the ramifications of freeing the slaves. He initially wanted to do so immediately, but realized if he did so too soon, it would create more problems than it solved. After the Battle of Antietam in 1862, Lincoln felt the war was going well enough and that he could risk his politically dangerous decision.

These short term effects of the Emancipation pale in comparison to its long term effects. At the end of the war, all slaves were freed by the 13th amendment and given citizenship rights by the 14th amendment.

Image and Source:

This post is part of the series: Background to the United States Constitution

Get the background on our nation’s most important document.

  1. Facts about the United States Constitution
  2. The Purpose of the Constitution: Why was the United States Constitution Created?
  3. Great Compromises of the United States Constitution
  4. Understanding the Emancipation Proclamation