The year 2023 marks the 160th anniversary of one of the most important documents in the nation’s history, the Emancipation Proclamation. The Executive Order issued by President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War provided freedom to enslaved Black people in the rebelling states. Though slavery continued to legally exist in the nation, in slave-holding states that had not left the union, the Emancipation Proclamation marked a major turning point in the hard fought battle to end slavery nationwide.
Well before the creation of the Emancipation Proclamation African Americans, enslaved and free, understood the meaning and importance of freedom. They resisted the bondage of slavery and sought freedom by any means, through thought, word, and deed. Faith provided a foundation for Black people to seize moments of meditation to envision freedom. Through oral and written traditions of speeches, sermons, and printed publications, including news articles and abolitionist pamphlets, Black people forced the discussion on freedom and its inclusive application. They seized freedom through their actions including running away from enslavement and towards freedom.
The 1820s and 1830s saw a growth in interracial alliances that formed the small but mighty Abolitionist Movement to end slavery. By the 1850s the country was heading toward war as states fought over whether the expanding nation would be bound by slavery or live up to the ideal of liberty, indeed freedom for all. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act required everyone in the nation to enforce enslavement by turning in all Black freedom-seekers. Federal officials were bound to returning human property to enslavers. Additionally, the Supreme Court majority opinion also known as the “Dred Scott decision” – declared Black people were not citizens and that “a Black man has no rights which a white man must respect.”
In November 1860, Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States. Though Lincoln was an advocate for ending the spread of slavery, he strategically prioritized keeping the Union together in the splintering nation. He favored gradual emancipation and colonization of free African Americans.
Just one month after Lincoln was elected to the highest office in the nation, the slave-holding state of South Carolina seceded from the Union. Other states soon followed. The states’ secession documents clearly indicate that slavery was at the heart of the matter:
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. . . a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union.
The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates, and the world, the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slaveholding confederate States, with reference to the subject of African slavery. They have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquility, and persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property.Georgia Declaration of Secession
“She [Texas] was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining, and protecting the institution known as negro slavery--the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits--a relation . . . which her people intended should exist in all future time.”A Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union.
By February 1861, the seceding states formed the Confederate States of America and appointed Jefferson Davis as the provisional President. Two months later the Civil War began as the Confederates fired upon Fort Sumter in S.C. Lincoln’s battle to keep the Union together was spurred on by the seceding Southern states demand that the institution of slavery be upheld.
Frederick Douglass and other influential Black men and women used their influence, as they urged President Lincoln to emancipate all enslaved people in the nation. Abolitionist Frederick Douglas declared “Fire must be met with water, darkness with light, and war for the destruction of liberty must be met with war for the destruction of slavery.” He also advocated for Black men to serve in the military and join the fight for freedom. Douglass saw military service to ensure a Union success and a pathway to citizenship for the formerly enslaved.
In April 1862, President Lincoln successfully worked with Congress to pass a bill for the emancipation of African Americans enslaved in the nation’s capital. Washington, D.C. was not only the seat of political power, but it was also a hub for slave trading activity, home to many fugitive enslaved people and in close proximity to many sites of rebellion. The Act required a form of reparations for former enslavers as they were granted ninety days to file claims for compensation for their loss of human property. A few months later, Lincoln issued the Confiscation Act of 1862, expanding the Union’s ability to seize enemy property, including human property enslavers in the seceding states. A surge of enslaved Black men, women and children seized their freedom and fled to Union Army lines.
Following the success of the Union Army at Antietam, on Sept. 22, 1862, Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Under his wartime authority as Commander-in-Chief, he ordered that, as of Jan. 1, 1863, all enslaved individuals in all areas still in rebellion against the United States “henceforward shall be free.”
On December 31st, 1862, African Americans both free and enslaved, along with others who supported the end of slavery, waited for the midnight hour for the Emancipation Proclamation to go into effect. They gathered in churches across the nation praying their way to freedom. The occasion came to be known as “Watch Night,” a New Year’s Eve ritual still practiced among Black church congregations today. President Lincoln signed the Executive Order on January 1, 1863, granting freedom to enslaved African American men, women, and children in the rebelling states. Pastor John C. Gibbs of Philadelphia’s First African Presbyterian Church declared, “The Proclamation has gone forth, and God is saying to this nation by its legitimate constitute head, Man must be free.”
The Proclamation also enabled African American men to enlist in the Union Army and stand on the frontlines in the battle for freedom. They fought to liberate themselves, their loved ones, and their community.
The Emancipation Proclamation went into effect immediately freeing enslaved Black people in the rebelling states, but it took the Civil war to enforce the order. The Union secured victory in April 1865 when the Confederates surrendered at Appomattox. On June 19th, 1865, the Union Army arrived in Galveston, TX, the rebelling state farthest west, enforcing the freedom guaranteed over two years earlier in the Emancipation Proclamation. The moment is known as Juneteenth.
The Civil War was the battle cry for the country to define itself once and for all as an enslaving or free nation. Though the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery throughout the nation, it struck a mighty blow to the system of slavery. The passage of the 13th Amendment, ratified in December 1865, declared the legal end of slavery in the United States.
Through great sacrifice many American men and women fought for and supported the Union victory.
Black people, enslaved and free, held on to their humanity and fought for freedom from as early as the Colonial period. They pushed the country to fulfill the highest ideal of liberty, by ensuring a more inclusive manifestation of freedom. Their unyielding efforts brought the country out of the bondage of enslavement.
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Foner, Eric. Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction. Illustrated, Vintage, 2006.
Jones, Martha. Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America (Studies in Legal History). Cambridge UP, 2018.
Bois, Du W. E. B., et al. W.E.B. Du Bois: Black Reconstruction (LOA #350): An Essay Toward A History of The Part whichBlack Folk Played in The Attempt to ReconstructDemocracy in America, 1860–1880 (Library of America, 350). Library of America, 2021.
Jay, Bethany, et al. Understanding and Teaching American Slavery (the Harvey Goldberg Series for Understanding and Teaching History). 1st ed., University of Wisconsin Press, 2016.
Daniel R. Biddle, and Murray Dubin. “‘God Is Settleing the Account’: African American Reaction to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 137, no. 1, Project Muse, 2013, p. 57. https://doi.org/10.5215/pennmaghistbio.137.1.0057.