Halfway through the war that literally divided the United States of America, President Abraham Lincoln issued an executive order on January 1, 1863 that would come to define his legacy. The Emancipation Proclamation, first threatened against the Confederacy in late September 1862, outlawed slavery in those states still fighting against the Union. When the country knitted itself back together after the American Civil War, it would be a nation built upon freedom — if not justice — for all.
The question of slavery haunted the US from its inception. When the Constitutional Convention gathered in Philadelphia during the spring and summer months of 1787, fierce debate raged about how to calculate each state’s population for the purposes of representation, a problem solved by the Three-Fifths Compromise — three of every five slaves would be counted. With the practice of importing workers from Africa or the Caribbean banned as of 1808, influential politicians such as Thomas Jefferson believed the practice would soon end on its own.
As the 19th century wore on, however, the possibility seemed increasingly unlikely. Following the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which forced states entering the rapidly-expanding nation to prohibit slavery if located above roughly the 36th Parallel, the ideological conflict between pro-slavery and abolitionist factions became much worse. Slave uprisings and riots incited by committed individuals — John Brown at Harper’s Ferry in 1859, for one — became more commonplace and, sadly, more brutal.
In preparing for the Presidential Election of 1860, the Republican Party announced a platform that would prevent the expansion of slavery into the territories of the west and southwest. Lincoln, as the party’s eventual nominee, took hold of the concept as an extension of his personal belief owning another human being as property was a morally deplorable act. The strategy was as pragmatic as it was divisive: 14 states whose economies were built upon slavery would continue with it, while the other 18 and any others that followed would be free.
This arrangement was unacceptable to slave-holding states, where residents felt as if their way of life was being infringed upon. Of the 4 million or so Africans owned on plantations by the start of the war in 1861, more than 75 percent were working fields in the South. Coupling that with the fact enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 had been uneven in the North, it seemed like a conspiracy against a portion of the US. Though Lincoln’s immediate goal could be said to have focused on pulling the nation back together as one, he seized on a clever bit of political strategy to end slavery altogether as the conflict pushed toward the end of its second year.
On September 22, 1862, the President issued a decree with simple terms: slaves in any state still rebelling against the federal government on January 1, 1863 would be free from that day forward. When the day arrived three months later, Lincoln issued an executive order, bypassing Congress — which might have had difficulty garnering the votes to pass a law — and making the Emancipation Proclamation official policy of the Union Army as it advanced through Confederate territory.
The most important thing to note about this historic declaration is that its immediate effect was hardly felt by those it intended to help: most of the 3.1 million slaves in the South were in the 10 states which had yet to see victory by the North. They would not be freed until the Union built momentum in the latter half of 1863 and onward — particularly after General William Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea in late 1864. Further, it guaranteed these new “freedmen” none of the privileges of citizenship. (The right to vote, for example, would have to wait until the 15th Amendment was ratified in 1870.)
More than anything, what the Emancipation Proclamation did was weaken the credibility of the Confederate States of America as a fledgling nation. With the conflict now about the larger abolition of slavery in addition to reunification, European powers were unwilling to commit financial or military support. The institution was still technically legal — it would be outlawed by the 13th Amendment in December 1865 — but the stench of immorality affected sympathy toward the South’s cause. The Confederate Army would not be able to recover.
Also On This Day:
45 BCE – The Julian Calendar comes into effect
1788 – The Daily Universal Register changes its name to The Times of London
POLITY1808 – Importing slaves to the United States is banned
1945 – The last major German offensive in World War II, Operation Northwind, is launched
1983 – The Internet Protocol communications system takes over for ARPANET, creating the backbone for the modern Internet
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January 1 1808 – Importing Slaves To The US Is Banned