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Emancipation Proclamation

The Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863, during the second year of the American Civil War and was Abraham Lincoln's declaration that all slaves in the states which had seceded from the Union, and which were not at the time under Federal control, were now emancipated; that is to say, were considered free. This action had little immediate effect, since it was impossible for the Federal government to implement it in those regions where it actually applied--namely the states in rebellion that were not under Federal control. Slaves in the states which remained loyal to the Union were not affected, and remained in slavery until the ratification of the thirteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865. Thus the impact of the proclamation was more symbolic than real. William Seward, Lincoln's Secretary of State, commented on this by remarking, "We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free."

However, Lincoln believed he had no constitutional authority to free the slaves except in those states where it was deemed a military necessity in order to suppress the rebellion, and freeing slaves was still a risky political act given that there were still slave states loyal to the union, and the initial war aims were centered on preserving the union rather than freeing slaves. As such, the proclamation was a military order issued by Lincoln in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief. The Emancipation Proclamation also allowed for the admittance of freed slaves into the (then-segregated) United States military, an unusual opportunity taken by nearly 200,000 black men, many of them former slaves.

Lincoln first discussed the proclamation with his cabinet in July, 1862, but because of the political implications of this act (including the presence of slave states within the Union), he felt that he needed a Union victory in the Civil War before he could issue it. After the battle of Antietam, in which Union troops turned back a Confederate invasion of Maryland, he issued a preliminary proclamation in September, 1862. The final proclamation was then issued in January of the following year.

Despite the lack of any immediate effect on the slaves, the proclamation nevertheless representing a shift in the attitudes of the North towards its war objectives, where merely reuniting the nation would no longer become the sole outcome. It represented the first step toward the ultimate abolition of slavery in the United States.

Abroad, the Proclamation turned foreign popular opinion in favour of the Northern States for its new commitment to end slavery. That shift ended any hope of the Confederate States of gaining official recognition, particularly with Britain.

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See also: History of United States of America[?], Slavery, American Civil War



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