The miniseries To Appomattox/Grant vs. Lee, will take a look at one of the most important documents ever to come out of a Presidential administration. Here, we shall take a look at the Emancipation Proclamation, and how it changed the course of American history.
On January 1st, 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed an engrossed copy of what he considered one of the most important documents, if not the most important documents, of his presidency: the Emancipation Proclamation. He had spent most of the day greeting people at a New Year’s Day function at the White House, where he shook many hands throughout the day. So, when he went to his room to sign the document, his hand shook with fatigue. He waited some minutes, not wanting to sign with a shaky hand, fearing that people would say he hesitated. But after several minutes, he picked up the pen, and signed the document with a clear signature. With this document, all slaves held in the states in rebellion were “henceforth, and forever free.”
There has been much discussion over the document over the past hundred and fifty years since it went into effect. To this day, many argue whether the document had any real impact on the war. Many of Lincoln’s contemporaries, including men like Frederick Douglass, called it a half-measure. The document only freed those slaves in the Southern Confederacy, where many argued the President had no authority or power to do so. Many others argued that Lincoln overstepped his boundaries with the proclamation, arguing that he had no power to do so under the law.
However, Lincoln never saw this as the only step to Emancipation. He knew that, for the abolishment of slavery to really take effect, there would have to be a Constitutional amendment to end it throughout the entire country. This was achieved in January of 1865, when the House of Representatives voted in favor of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery throughout the United States. Lincoln would not live to see the amendment get the majority of states needed to adopt the amendment by December of that year, but with its passage on January 31st, the abolition of slavery was one step closer to becoming a reality. In addition, Lincoln viewed the Emancipation Proclamation as a war measure at first. Lincoln believed that he had the authority to issue such a proclamation as a war power that the Constitution gave to the President. He believed that the proclamation would rob the Confederacy of its slaves, which he viewed as a vital part of the southern economy. Without the slaves, the economy of the south would be ruined, and the Confederacy would certainly capitulate.
The effect that the Emancipation Proclamation had was seen almost immediately. In the months following the annoucment of the proclamation in September of 1862, hundreds of thousands of men of color began to come forward to join the Union armies. This had a great impact on Lincoln, according to some scholars. Lincoln at first did not believe that blacks and whites could live in harmony, and that blacks would not want to live in a country where they had been enslaved. This is the reason Lincoln felt that colonizing the freed slaves in other parts of the world would be best for both blacks and whites. However, when Lincoln saw that black men were willing to fight and die for their own freedom, he soon changed his views, and credited these men of color with helping to win the war.
So, when one looks back at the Emancipation Proclamation, one can see that, despite its huge importance, it was really just a part, though a major part, of the puzzle to end slavery in the United States. But the effect this document had cannot be ignored. By issuing this proclamation, Abraham Lincoln gave the war a dual purpose: preserve the Union, and free the four million people then enslaved. It gave men of color the push to join the Union armies, and fight for their own freedom. And ultimately, it led to the total abolition of slavery throughout the United States with the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment. Finally, it gave the Union a moral reason for winning the war. The South could not win a war fought to end slavery. So, it can be said that this document was another nail in the coffin for the Confederacy, and another step toward Union victory.