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Collection Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress

Abraham Lincoln and Emancipation

The Emancipation Proclamation and Thirteenth Amendment brought about by the Civil War were important milestones in the long process of ending legal slavery in the United States. This essay describes the development of those documents through various drafts by Lincoln and others and shows both the evolution of Abraham Lincoln’s thinking and his efforts to operate within the constitutional boundaries of the presidency.

Almost from the beginning of his administration, abolitionists and radical Republicans pressured Abraham Lincoln to issue an Emancipation Proclamation. Although Lincoln personally abhorred slavery, he felt confined by his constitutional authority as president to challenge slavery only in the context of necessary war measures. He also worried about the reactions of those in the loyal border states where slavery was still legal. Lincoln is said to have summed up the importance of keeping the border states in the Union by saying "I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky."

Events early in the war quickly forced Northern authorities to address the issue of emancipation. In May 1861, just a month into the war, three slaves (Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory, and James Townsend) owned by Confederate Colonel Charles K. Mallory escaped from Hampton, Virginia, where they had been put to work on behalf of the Confederacy, and sought protection within Union-held Fortress Monroe before their owner sent them further south. When Col. Mallory demanded their return under the Fugitive Slave Law, Union General Benjamin F. Butler instead appropriated the fugitives and their valuable labor as "contraband of war." The Lincoln administration approved Butler's action, and soon other fugitive slaves (often referred to as "contrabands") sought freedom behind Union lines.

"Stampede of slaves from Hampton to Fortress Monroe," Harper's Weekly, August 17, 1861. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

The increasing number of fugitives and questions about their status eventually prompted action by the United States Congress. On August 6, 1861, Congress passed the First Confiscation Act, which negated owners' claims to escaped slaves whose labor had been used on behalf of the Confederacy.  In 1862 Congress also acted against slavery in areas under the jurisdiction of the federal government. Congress abolished slavery in the federal District of Columbia on April 16 with a compensated emancipation program. This action must have been particularly satisfying to President Lincoln, who as Congressman Lincoln had in the late 1840s drafted a bill to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. Finding the measure lacking support, Lincoln never introduced it. Congress further outlawed slavery in federal territories in June 1862.

Some Union commanders took matters into their own hands, declaring emancipation by proclamation. In September 1861, General John C. Frémont attempted to address the "disorganized condition" in the Department of the West by declaring martial law and proclaiming free the slaves of active Confederate sympathizers in Missouri. Frémont failed to inform first President Lincoln, who requested Frémont amend his proclamation to conform to the 1861 Confiscation Act. When Frémont refused, Lincoln publicly ordered him to do so, which helped calm anxiety expressed from the border states, but angered those who supported Frémont's actions. Although he knew Frémont had exceeded his authority in freeing slaves in Missouri, Lincoln continued to urge the border slave states to explore legal emancipation measures of their own. He also remained hopeful that voluntary colonization options for former slaves would address the concerns of many white Americans about where emancipated slaves would go. While several pieces of emancipation-related legislation included funds for colonization outside of the United States, the few actual attempts at colonization during the Civil War failed. Furthermore, most former slaves had no interest in leaving their homeland.

Like Frémont, General David Hunter also tried his hand at emancipation when in May 1862 he declared slaves free in his Department of the South, which included Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. Once again, Lincoln felt compelled to overrule a commander who overstepped his authority with regard to emancipation. Although in revoking Hunter's action, Lincoln suggested that the power to determine such military necessities belonged to the president.

Preliminary Draft of Emancipation Proclamation
Draft Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, July 22, 1862.

In principle, Lincoln approved of emancipation as a war measure, but he postponed executive action against slavery until he believed he had both the legal authority to do so and broader support from the American public. Two pieces of congressional legislation passed on July 17, 1862, provided the desired signal. The Second Confiscation Act included provisions that freed the slaves of disloyal owners, authorized the president to employ African Americans in the suppression of the rebellion, and called for exploring voluntary colonization efforts.  The Militia Act authorized the employment of African Americans in the military, emancipated those who were enslaved, and freed their families, if owned by those disloyal to the Union. Not only had Congress relieved the administration of considerable strain with its limited initiative on emancipation, but it also had demonstrated an increasing public acceptance of emancipation as a military act.

By July 1862 Lincoln had written what he termed his "Preliminary Proclamation." He discussed his thoughts for an emancipation proclamation with cabinet secretaries William H. Seward and Gideon Welles on July 13, 1862, while sharing a carriage ride from the funeral of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton's infant son James. Welles later recalled External that neither he nor Seward were prepared to offer opinions on a subject that Seward thought "involved consequences so vast and momentous," but he agreed with Seward's initial impression that the measure was both "justifiable" and perhaps "expedient and necessary."

Edwin M. Stanton’s notes of the reaction of the cabinet to Abraham Lincoln’s introduction of his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, July 22, 1862. Edwin McMasters Stanton Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Nine days later, on July 22, Lincoln again raised the issue of emancipation in a cabinet meeting, at which he read the content of his preliminary draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. In addition to reiterating his support for gradual emancipation in the loyal states, the draft proclamation declared that as of January 1, 1863, "all persons held as slaves within any state or states, wherein the constitutional authority of the United States shall not then be practically recognized, submitted to, and maintained, shall then, thenceforward, and forever, be free." Whereas the Confiscation Acts freed the slaves of individual owners who demonstrated disloyalty, Lincoln's proclamation freed slaves of all owners residing in geographic areas engaged in rebellion as "a fit and necessary military measure."

The reaction of Lincoln's cabinet members was mixed. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, correctly interpreting the proclamation as a military measure designed both to deprive the Confederacy of slave labor and bring additional men into the Union army, advocated its immediate release. Attorney General Edward Bates, a conservative, opposed civil and political equality for blacks but gave his support. Welles feared the unintended consequences of emancipation, but remained silent, as did Interior secretary Caleb Smith. Postmaster General Montgomery Blair foresaw defeat in the fall elections and opposed the proclamation. Treasury secretary Salmon P. Chase supported the measure, which he noted in his diary went further than his own recommendations, but his tepid enthusiasm for the proclamation was surprising given his history as an outspoken opponent of slavery. Secretary of State Seward expressed concern about the diplomatic implications of emancipation and noted the lack of recent Union military victories, which might cause the proclamation to be interpreted as an act of desperation. Better to wait for success on the battlefield, Seward counseled, and issue the proclamation from a position of strength. Lincoln agreed, and the course was set.

Abraham Lincoln to Horace Greeley, Friday, August 22, 1862 (Clipping from Aug. 23, 1862 Daily National Intelligencer, Washington, D.C.)

While Lincoln waited for his generals to secure a victory, New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley provided Lincoln with an opportunity to test public reaction to emancipation as a war measure. In an open letter to President Lincoln published on August 20 under the heading "The Prayer of Twenty Millions," Greeley urged Lincoln to recognize slavery as the root cause of the war and act boldly with regard to emancipation. Although he already had a draft emancipation proclamation prepared, Lincoln responded with his own open letter to Greeley, which he published in the National Intelligencer in Washington, D.C. Lincoln stated plainly that the goal of his administration's policies, including those related to slavery, was to save the Union. "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that." Lincoln carefully noted that this represented his official position. He intended "no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free."

The bloodiest single day of the Civil War occurred on September 17, 1862, as Confederates in Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia battled the Army of the Potomac, commanded by Union General George B. McClellan, at Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland. While the Battle of Antietam was not quite the decisive Union triumph Lincoln hoped for, Lee's retreat was victory enough for Lincoln to issue the emancipation proclamation on which he had continued to labor since July. Lincoln read the revised proclamation to his cabinet on September 22, 1862. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles recorded in his diary that the president was open to criticism of the document itself, but that "he was satisfied it was right . . . his mind was fixed—his decision made" regarding the issuance of the proclamation.

The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation of September 22, 1862, stated that the slaves in all areas designated as being in rebellion as of January 1, 1863, would "be then, thenceforward, and forever free." The preliminary proclamation also reiterated Lincoln's support for compensated emancipation and voluntary colonization of "persons of African descent." Newspapers in the Confederate states predictably denounced the proclamation. The Memphis (Tenn.) Daily Appeal labeled it unconstitutional and "plainly a proposition to incite domestic insurrection." The Charlotte, North Carolina, Western Democratcarried the briefest of notices of the proclamation and brushed aside its significance. "No one in the South cares for that—Lincoln might as well proclaim to the moon." Some in the North thought the preliminary proclamation more serious, but still ill conceived. The Indiana State Sentinel deemed it a "blunder" and "disastrous" in promoting colonization schemes that would deprive the United States of valuable labor and leave loyal taxpayers to foot the bill. But others were elated by Lincoln's proclamation. The Chicago Tribune reprinted laudatory responses from newspapers across the North. Lincoln retained among his papers a number of letters of support for the proclamation, including one from B. S. Hedrick, who identified himself as a Southerner and formerly a professor of chemistry at the University of North Carolina. "In my opinion the whole question of the War is reduced to this. Can the power of the United States Gov't either conquer or exterminate slavery?" Hedrick asked.  "If it can, then that should be done, and the sooner the better. If not—we fight with no object."

In anticipation of the January 1, 1863, deadline of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln provided the cabinet on December 30 with the text of the revised Final Emancipation Proclamation, soliciting opinions and necessary alterations. The Final Emancipation Proclamation differed significantly from the previous versions. It designated the areas considered to still be in rebellion, but also those under Union control and thus exempted from the proclamation. The exempted areas included parishes in Louisiana and the city of New Orleans, several cities and counties in Virginia, and all of the counties in what would become the new state of West Virginia. Slaves living in those Union-occupied exempted areas were considered outside of the president's war powers, and would remain enslaved after January 1. Lincoln urged those freed by the proclamation to "abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defense" and to "labor faithfully for reasonable wages." Unlike the previous preliminary proclamations, the final proclamation announced that African-American men would "be received into the armed service of the United States." And unlike the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, gone was any mention of compensated emancipation or colonization. Lincoln also incorporated Secretary Chase's suggestion of closing the document with an acknowledgment of the proclamation as an "act of justice" and invoking God and the "judgment of mankind" in supporting the effort.

January 1, 1863, was a "mild and bright day" in Washington. Lincoln had sent the manuscript of the proclamation to the State Department in the morning for copying, and Secretary Seward brought the official version to the White House for Lincoln's signature. Lincoln noticed an error in the document that required amending, which was not accomplished before the annual New Year's reception at the White House, at which Lincoln shook hundreds of hands. Seward and his son Frederick brought the corrected proclamation to the White House later in the day for the president's signature. Frederick Seward recalled External Lincoln saying "I never in my life felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper." Lincoln steadied his tired arm as signed the document, telling witnesses that any sign of a tremor in his handwriting would be interpreted as a mental reservation about the proclamation. And with a signature that was "clear, bold, and firm," Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Eliza Quincy described to Mary Lincoln her feelings upon hearing that President Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation

With the issuance of the Final Emancipation Proclamation the war for the Union also became a war to free the slaves. As was the case with the preliminary proclamation in September, the issuance of the final proclamation received a mixed reception, especially in the North. Abolitionists greeted the news with jubilation. Eliza Quincy wrote to Mary Lincoln that "the thought of the millions upon millions of human beings whose happiness was to be affected & freedom secured by the words of President Lincoln, was almost overwhelming." Benjamin Rush Plumly could not remember a more "devout ‘Thanksgiving'" as he witnessed the celebration of African Americans in Philadelphia at the news of the proclamation. Hamilton Gray of Kentucky, however, warned Lincoln that Kentuckians loyal to the Union did not accept the Emancipation Proclamation as a military necessity, and there was word that the Kentucky legislature urged the governor to reject the proclamation. The New York Herald considered the proclamation "unnecessary, unwise and ill-timed, impracticable, outside the constitution and full of mischief," noting that Lincoln freed slaves only in areas where he exerted little practical authority. "But let us hope that this proclamation will prove nothing worse than a nullity and a harmless tub to the abolition whale," the Herald's editors opined. Emancipation, even as a war measure, faced continued opposition months later in Lincoln's hometown of Springfield, Illinois. Lincoln understood that many of his neighbors supported the Union, but resented fighting for the cause of freedom. "You say you will not fight to free negroes. Some of them seem willing to fight for you; but, no matter. Fight you, then exclusively to save the Union," Lincoln urged his neighbors in a statement he sent to his friend James Conkling to be read at a Union meeting in September. "I issued the proclamation on purpose to aid you in saving the Union. Whenever you shall have conquered all resistence to the Union, if I shall urge you to continue fighting, it will be an apt time then for you to declare you will not fight to free negroes."

Abraham Lincoln’s draft response to Albert G. Hodges, April 4, 1864

The president still found it necessary in 1864 to explain and defend his actions with regard to emancipation, which remained unpopular with many Northerners. In an April 4, 1864 letter to Albert G. Hodges, editor of the Commonwealth newspaper in Frankfort, Kentucky, Lincoln was careful to distinguish his own opinions from the actions he felt constitutionally justified in taking. "I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel," he began. "And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling." His presidential oath bound him to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States," and each step in the process of emancipation was in the interest of preserving the nation, and thus preserving the Constitution. To highlight this, Lincoln used the word "indispensable" six times to distinguish the criteria on which he acted, until emancipation became militarily an "indispensable necessity." In his letter to Hodges, Lincoln also credited a higher power in determining the events of the war. "I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me." Lincoln's clear explanation of his presidential evolution on emancipation even won praise from a frequent critic, Horace Greeley. "We are known not to favor his renomination," Greeley's April 29 editorial in the New York Tribune began, but "few men who have ever lived who could have better explained and commended his course and attitude with regard to Slavery than he has done in his late letter to Mr. Hodges of Kentucky."

Frederick Douglass responded to Lincoln’s suggestion that slaves escape the Confederacy in the event he failed to be reelected in November 1864

Greeley's editorial demonstrated that Abraham Lincoln's popularity was not universal even within the Republican Party as the 1864 presidential campaign got underway. With the Union military effort stalled on several fronts, with the Democrats' delay in naming a candidate and platform, and with emancipation being interpreted as a primary obstacle to a negotiated peace with the Confederates, some political advisors feared Lincoln's chances for reelection and suggested in August that he consider other options. In response, Lincoln even went so far as to draft instructions for a proposed peace conference, at which "remaining questions" like slavery would be "left for adjustment by peaceful modes." Ultimately Lincoln and his cabinet determined that this course would be, as Lincoln's secretary John G. Nicolay noted, "worse than losing the Presidential contest—it would be ignominiously surrendering it in advance." As it was, Lincoln's concern about reelection prompted him to write a secret memorandum pledging to cooperate with the president-elect to save the union before the March 4, 1865, inauguration, and discussed with Frederick Douglass plans to help slaves in the Confederacy escape while there was still time.

The despair of August turned to hope in September as William T. Sherman's troops captured Atlanta, Georgia, Philip H. Sheridan advanced in the Shenandoah Valley, and the Democrats faced their own divisions in the candidacy of George B. McClellan and a controversial party platform. Lincoln triumphed in the November election. Although the dire plans and pledges made in August could now be abandoned, the process of ending slavery was not complete. As a wartime measure, the status of the Emancipation Proclamation would be in question after the war, and slavery still remained legal in Union-controlled areas in the Confederacy as well as the border slave states in the United States. Only an amendment to the United States Constitution could end slavery irrevocably.

Ceremonial copy of the proposed Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, signed by Abraham Lincoln and all members of Congress who voted for the joint resolution

The United States Senate had passed a joint resolution on April 8, 1864, calling for an amendment to the Constitution that ended slavery, but the House of Representatives had failed to pass it. Pressure on Republican leadership in the House to pass the resolution intensified, and the resolution finally succeeded on January 31, 1865. The proposed amendment stated that "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction," and authorized Congress to enforce the amendment with appropriate legislation. Although not legally required to do so, Lincoln personally signed the joint resolution, signaling the importance he placed on the amendment. He also signed several ceremonial copies of the resolution produced in honor of the occasion. The amendment was sent to the states for ratification on February 1, and Abraham Lincoln's home state of Illinois became the first state to ratify the proposed Thirteenth Amendment.

Abraham Lincoln did not live to see the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. Nineteen states had ratified it when he was shot by John Wilkes Booth while attending a play at Ford's Theatre on the night of April 14, 1865. Lincoln died the following morning. On December 6, 1865, Georgia became the twenty-seventh state to ratify the amendment, achieving the three-fourths of the states necessary to validate the amendment, which Secretary of State William H. Seward did on December 18.

The Emancipation Proclamation and Thirteenth Amendment brought about by the Civil War were important milestones in the long process of ending legal slavery in the United States. Defining the meaning of freedom, however, continued long after the war ended.

Where Are the Documents Now?

The First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation before the Cabinet.” Painted by F.B. Carpenter; engraved by A.H. Ritchie, 1866. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Many of the key manuscripts that record the progression of the Emancipation Proclamation from the first known draft in July 1862 to the final version of January 1, 1863 survive today.

Abraham Lincoln's handwritten draft Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation of July 22, 1862 is part of the Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Artist Francis Bicknell Carpenter imagined the scene of President Lincoln first introducing the document to his cabinet in the 1864 painting First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, which now hangs over the west staircase of the Senate Wing in the United States Capitol. Carpenter worked on the painting at the White House for several months in 1864, and was able to consult with and observe President Lincoln. More information about the painting is available online on the United States Senate website. The painting was reproduced in numerous engravings, including those produced by A.H. Ritchie in 1866 (see LC-DIG-pga-02502 and LC-DIG-pga-03452).

Lincoln's handwritten manuscript copy of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation External of September 22, 1862, is held by the New York State Library in Albany, New York.  Abraham Lincoln donated the manuscript for a raffle held at the Albany (N.Y.) Relief Bazaar sponsored by the Albany Army Relief Association in 1864, where it was won by abolitionist Gerrit Smith. The New York State Legislature purchased the manuscript in 1865, and placed it in the New York State Library. More information on the provenance of this document is available online External.

The official engrossed copies of both the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation of September 22, 1862, and the Final Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, are held by the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C., as part of Record Group 11, General Records of the U.S. Government. A reproduction of the official engrossed copy of the Final Emancipation Proclamation is included in the Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress.

Several documents containing comments and corrections on the Final Emancipation Proclamation Lincoln solicited from his cabinet members in December 1862 can be found in the Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. These include the memoranda provided to President Lincoln by Attorney General Edward Bates, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, and Secretary of State William H. Seward.

The handwritten manuscript of the Final Emancipation Proclamation no longer exists. In October 1863, Mary A. Livermore wrote to Abraham Lincoln requesting that he donate the manuscript to the Northwestern Sanitary Fair in Chicago, where it would be sold to raise money for soldiers' aid provided by the Northwestern Branch of the United States Sanitary Commission. Mrs. Livermore hoped that the document ultimately would be donated to the Chicago Historical Society for preservation. Her request was echoed by Lincoln's associates Isaac N. Arnold and Owen Lovejoy. Lincoln thought that his name would be most remembered for having issued the proclamation, and as he explained to the ladies planning the fair, "I had some desire to retain the paper."  "But if it shall contribute to the relief or comfort of the soldiers," he concluded, "that will be better," and he sent the precious manuscript. The manuscript copy of the Final Emancipation Proclamation was purchased at the Northwestern Sanitary Fair by Thomas Bryan, who presented it to the Soldiers' Home in Chicago, rather than the Chicago Historical Society. Unfortunately, the manuscript was destroyed in the Chicago Fire of 1871. Fortunately, before sending the original manuscript proclamation, Lincoln wisely had the document photographed for posterity, and a lithographic copy is part of the Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Surviving photographs of the document show it primarily in Lincoln's own hand. The superscription and ending are in the hand of a clerk, and the printed insertions were cut from the September draft.

Abraham Lincoln and his Emancipation Proclamation,” Cincinnati: The Strobridge Lith. Co., 1888. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

The Final Emancipation Proclamation has been reproduced numerous times and in many different styles and formats. At the Great Central Sanitary Fair held in Philadelphia in June 1864, forty-eight limited-edition prints of the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by Lincoln, Seward, and John G. Nicolay, were offered for ten dollars apiece to raise money for soldiers' aid. At that price, however, not all of these Leland-Boker edition prints sold. The Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana in the Rare Books and Special Collections Division, and the Prints & Photographs Division of the Library of Congress offer many examples of printings of the Emancipation Proclamation produced during and after the Civil War.

On December 25, 1862, Massachusetts historian George Livermore asked Senator Charles Sumner if he might procure the pen that Lincoln would use to sign the Final Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Sumner, a well-known abolitionist, put the request to President Lincoln, who agreed. In thanking Sumner for his efforts, Livermore explained his desire for the pen: "No trophy from a battlefield, no sword red with blood, no service of plate with an inscription, as complimentary as the greatest rhetorician could compose, would have been to me half as acceptable as this instrument which will forever be associated with the greatest event of our country and our age." The pen External is now held by the Massachusetts Historical Society.

To read more about Lincoln and Emancipation, consult the "African Americans, the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment" section on the Related Resources page of the Abraham Lincoln Papers online presentation.