“In a thousand years that action of yours will make the Angels sing I know it.”
America’s promise of freedom is filled with contradiction. Perhaps no people understood this more than the roughly four million enslaved African Americans living in the United States before 1863. Through their actions, large and small, enslaved people worked toward the moment of freedom for more than 200 years. On January 1, 1863, the United States government responded. Invoking presidential wartime powers, Abraham Lincoln decreed that all persons held in bondage within the Confederacy were free. The Emancipation Proclamation cracked open the institution of slavery, changing the course of the Civil War and the nation.
Lincoln and the Drafting of the Proclamation
By 1862, Abraham Lincoln realized that to restore the Union, slavery must end. Politically, Lincoln faced pressure on all sides: from African Americans fleeing bondage, from Union generals acting independently, from Radical Republicans calling for immediate abolition, and from pro-slavery Unionists who opposed emancipation.
Lincoln also felt constrained by Constitutional limits on the federal government, which protected private property. Striking a balance, he believed the president only had the authority and political support to free enslaved persons residing within the eleven rebel states. In the summer of 1862, he began to draft the Emancipation Proclamation.
“I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I cannot remember when I did not so think and feel.”
Lincoln and Slavery
Abraham Lincoln had always opposed slavery, but never sided with abolitionists who called for its immediate end. He sought solutions that would make slavery gradually fade from white society—limit its location, sponsor compensation programs for slave owners, and relocate freed blacks outside the country. The war made these gradual solutions woefully inadequate.
On the advice of his cabinet, Lincoln waited for a Union victory before announcing his decision. Without a victory, they feared the proclamation would only appear as a meaningless act of an embattled government. On September 22, 1862, five days after Union troops defeated Robert E. Lee’s advance at the Battle of Antietam, Lincoln released the proclamation.