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Abraham Lincoln. Library of Congress, Words and Deeds in American History Collection Alternate: The first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation before the cabinet

[Detail] The first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation

The Emancipation Proclamation

In August 1861, Congress authorized the confiscation of slaves used to aid the rebellion in the First Confiscation Act. On the 30th of that month, Union General Fremont issued a proclamation freeing all slaves in Missouri that belonged to secessionists. In a letter dated September 11, Lincoln ordered Fremont to change his proclamation to conform to the First Confiscation Act. The letter was widely published in the newspapers, and Lincoln received many letters condemning his decision and expressing support for Fremont. Search on Fremont for correspondence between Lincoln and Fremont, public reaction to Lincoln's decision and other items, such as Lincoln's letter to Orville H. Browning, in which he explains his position.

  • What were Lincoln's objections to Fremont's proclamation?
  • What reasons did people give for supporting Fremont and condemning Lincoln's decision?
  • Do you think that these letters supporting Fremont represent a major change in northern public opinion about slavery? Why or why not? If so, what might account for such change?

In May of the following year, Union General David Hunter issued a similar proclamation freeing slaves in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. Again, Lincoln was forced to issue a public statement revoking the proclamation. He concluded his statement, however, by urging the slave-holding border states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri to "'adopt a gradual abolishment of slavery,'" as encouraged by Congress's Joint Resolution of March 1862:

"You can not if you would, be blind to the signs of the times — I beg of you a calm and enlarged consideration of them, ranging, if it may be, far above personal and partizan politics — This proposal makes common cause for a common object, casting no reproach upon any — It acts not the pharisee. The change it contemplates would come gently as the dews of heaven, not rending or wrecking anything — Will you not embrace it? So much good has not been done, by one effort, in all past time, as, in the providence of God, it is now your high previlege to do — May the vast future not have to lament that you have neglected it."

From "Abraham Lincoln, May 19, 1862 (Proclamation revoking General David Hunter's General Order No. 11 on military emancipation of slaves)," Page 4 .

  • From what source does Lincoln borrow some of his language in this passage?
  • How would you characterize this language? What kind of tone does it create?
  • Why do you think that Lincoln uses such different language to make this appeal to the states at the end of his proclamation?

On July 17, 1862, Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act, declaring that slaves who crossed over Union lines were "forever free" provided that they had been held by supporters of the Confederacy. Although Lincoln had expressed concern over parts of the act and had drafted a veto message, he nevertheless signed the bill. Several days later, on July 22, 1862, Lincoln surprised members of his Cabinet with a draft of an emancipation proclamation . Search on Emancipation Proclamation revisions for the suggestions that Lincoln got from his cabinet members.

  • What was the difference between the First and Second Confiscation Acts? What was the rationale for freeing certain slaves in each of the acts?
  • What does the language and purpose of the confiscation acts suggest about the status of slaves in the eyes of the Federal Government?
  • What were Lincoln's reasons for opposing the Second Confiscation Act?
  • Why do you think he signed the bill?

On August 20, a letter entitled "The Prayer of Twenty Millions" appeared in the New York Tribune, in which editor Horace Greeley accused Lincoln of being "strangely and disastrously remiss in the discharge of your official and imperative duty with regard to the emancipating provisions of the new Confiscation Act." Two days later, the newspaper published Lincoln's reply in which he clearly defined his position without mentioning his emancipation proclamation, which was then still in progress.

  • How would you summarize Lincoln's position on slavery, based on his comments about the Confiscation Act, his response to Greeley, and his rejections of Major Fremont's and Major Hunter's proclamations?
  • Is Lincoln's position in these writings consistent with the position he took in his proposed bill to abolish slavery in Washington, D.C.? Why or why not?
  • Why do you think that Lincoln prioritized maintaining the Union over abolishing slavery?
  • Do you think that Lincoln prioritized legal considerations over moral considerations? Why or why not?
  • Do you think that Lincoln is remembered more for saving the Union or ending slavery? Do you think that one was more important to him than the other?

On January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued his final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. The transcription of this final draft includes notes that discuss the history and ultimate significance of the proclamation. Search on emancipation for reactions to the proclamation, including state resolutions made in support of Lincoln's declaration. A letter of thanks written on behalf of George Washington, a former slave, is also available. Other letters, from residents of Mississippi and Florida, petition the president to extend the exemption from the Emancipation Proclamation to their counties.

  • What prompted Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation when he had rejected earlier proclamations by Generals Fremont and Hunter?
  • Why didn't Lincoln free all slaves through his proclamation?
  • Why did Lincoln feel it was so important to placate the border states?
  • Why do you think that Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward thought that it was important to wait for a military victory before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation?
  • According to the notes, the Emancipation Proclamation has been considered, "one of the great documents in the history of human freedom. But its stature has resulted in widespread misconceptions about its inception, its provisions, its scope, its intended effect." Do you agree with this assessment? If so, why do you think this has happened?

The Emancipation Proclamation also made it possible for African Americans to serve in the military and launched a wave of enlistments. Lincoln received correspondence expressing both support for and concern about the policy, such as letters from The Rev. Edmund Kelly and General John A. Dix. The policy was put to the test by the 54th Massachusetts, an African-American regiment commanded by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, which demonstrated valor in the ill-fated attack on Fort Wagner in July, 1863. Colonel Shaw's father wrote to Lincoln shortly after the battle asking for protection of the officers and men of African-American regiments. General Ulysses S. Grant welcomed the enlistment of African-American troops and wrote Lincoln in August 23, 1863:

"I have given the subject of arming the negro my hearty support. This, with the emancipation of the negro, is the heavyest blow yet given the Confederacy. The South care a great deal about it and profess to be very angry. But they were united in their action before and with the negro under subjection could spare their entire white population for the field. Now they complain that nothing can be got out of their negroes."

From "Ulysses S. Grant to Abraham Lincoln,
August 23, 1863 (Raising black regiments in the South)