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The Second Declaration of Independence: Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation

by Harold Holzer

It was January 1, 1863—nearly a century and a half ago. The Civil War was still raging, claiming countless casualties on both sides, almost every day. But even in war-obsessed Washington, D.C., New Year's remained a traditional day of celebration, a day to look to the future, not the bloody past.

At the White House, President and Mrs. Abraham Lincoln welcomed the new year by hosting the customary holiday reception. For hours, they greeted visitors by the hundreds—"gorgeous dignitaries," military officers, and "diplomats in gold lace," according to one local newspaper—just as presidents and first ladies had done for years in peace and war alike. But this was to be no ordinary New Year's Day at the White House. Today, history would be made.

In mid-afternoon, the President quietly slipped out of the thronged East Room and walked upstairs to his office on the second floor of the executive mansion. Waiting for him there was the Secretary of State, William H. Seward, and members of Lincoln's staff. On the large table in the center of the room, around which the Cabinet customarily gathered for its regular meetings, sat an official-looking document, written out in beautiful penmanship by a professional "engrosser."  The room was quiet, although the muffled sounds of music and reverie from downstairs could doubtless still be heard. Solemnly, Lincoln sat down at the table, the document spread out before him. The moment was at hand. Now, at last, the President would sign the most important order of his administration, perhaps of the century: the Emancipation Proclamation. "The scene was wild and grand. Joy and gladness exhausted all forms of expression, from shouts of praise to joys and tears." That was how Frederick Douglass described the moment when the words of Lincoln's Proclamation first came over the telegraph wires that day.

A hundred days before, Lincoln had issued a preliminary Proclamation, vowing to free the slaves in all the states still in active rebellion against the federal authority on this very day, January 1.  That handwritten document, still lovingly preserved in the New York State Library, essentially gave the South a hundred days' notice to end the rebellion or forfeit their human property.  But the rebellion had continued.  The order would now be executed.

On this New Year's afternoon, Abraham Lincoln took pen in hand, dipped it in ink, and then, unexpectedly, paused and put the pen down. To his surprise, and to the surprise of all the witnesses looking on, Lincoln's hand was trembling. It was not, the President later insisted, "because of any uncertainty or hesitation on my part." As he put it at that decisive moment: "I never in my life felt more certain that I am doing right than I do in signing this paper."  But greeting so many New Year's guests downstairs had taken a toll. "I have been shaking hands since 9 o'clock this morning, and my hand is almost paralyzed," Lincoln explained. And he did not want his signature to look hasty. "If my name ever goes into history it will be for this act," he told the people gathered in the room, "and my whole soul is in it. If my hand trembles when I sign the proclamation, all who examine the document hereafter will say, 'He hesitated.'"

Hesitation was the last thing on his mind. "The South had fair warning that if they did not return...I would strike at this pillar of their strength," Lincoln insisted.  "The promise must now be kept."  When at last he felt the circulation in his hand reviving, Lincoln again took up his pen.  Slowly but firmly, he wrote "Abraham Lincoln"at the bottom of the document that declared all slaves in the Confederacy "forever free."  With that, the man who would be known thereafter as "The Great Emancipator"glanced at his effort, looked up, smiled, and cheerfully declared:  "That will do."

Nonetheless, what Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation did—and did not do—has been the subject of heated debate ever since. Clearly, Lincoln believed it would change the course of both the Civil War and the peace that would follow.  And so did the painters, sculptors, engravers, and lithographers who soon began portraying him as a Modern Moses in a host of artistic tributes to his accomplishment. Though the graphic arts proved surprisingly slow to celebrate emancipation—waiting until the election campaign of 1864 to issue their first, tentative tributes to the document, and withholding heroic tributes to the Emancipator himself until his assassination and martyrdom in 1865—popular culture ultimately embraced Lincoln as a liberator, and for nearly a century most historians agreed that Lincoln deserved the accolades.

Then, in the crucible of the Civil Rights revolution of the 1960s, dissenting voices were raised. Some scholars insisted that the Emancipation Proclamation had achieved little; that, after all, it ordered slaves freed only in those states where Lincoln had no authority. In recent years, a number of African-American historians have promoted the additional notion of "self emancipation,"arguing that the slaves, in essence, had freed themselves by fleeing from their bondage in such massive numbers that Lincoln had no choice but to codify their flight by issuing his rather limp proclamation.

Such criticism of Lincoln, however, conveniently ignores the impact that the Proclamation had on the America of 1863. In the words of one contemporary, it struck the nation like a second Declaration of Independence.  And in truth, nothing so revolutionary had happened since the Revolutionary War itself. Perhaps that is why Lincoln anguished so long before doing what some of his admirers thought he should have done the moment he became President of the United States.

Lincoln had opposed slavery all is life. Observing blacks in chains for the first time, while on a visit to New Orleans as a young man, he is said to have vowed: "If I ever get the chance to hit this thing, I'll hit it hard." Though some historians question that story, there is no doubt but that as a young legislator in Illinois, he was one of the few state lawmakers to sign a resolution condemning slavery.  Years later, he angrily denounced the idea that settlers in Americas new territories could vote to import slavery into the west. At the very least, he insisted, slavery must be limited to those states where it had so long existed, and there placed on what he called "the course of ultimate extinction."

True, Lincoln did not then believe in equality for African Americans. He did not yet think blacks should be permitted to vote or to serve on juries.  But he differed with the overwhelming majority of the white citizens of the day when he declared: "In the right to eat the bread which his own hands earn,"a black man "is my equal and....the equal of every living man." Surprising as it seems today, such pronouncements still shocked many mid-19th-century Americans.

Lincoln was elected President in 1860 pledging to do nothing to interfere with slavery in the slave states, where, he understood, the institution was protected by the fatal flaw of the U. S. Constitution that counted slaves and implicitly condoned their bondage. "If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong,"he still believed. But he cautioned that personal belief did not give him the right to act once inaugurated.  After more than a year of Civil War, however, Lincoln came to the conclusion that the only way to restore the Union was to wage war not only against Confederate armies, but also against slavery itself.  "We must free the slaves,"he confided, "or ourselves be subdued." Then why did he not order slaves freed immediately? Lincoln believed that the country was simply not ready for it. "Public sentiment is everything," he had declared during the Lincoln-Douglas debates four years earlier. "With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions." Until 1862, Lincoln was not ready to do the latter because he had not yet done the former. But as he had said in 1856 and doubtless recalled in 1862: "Whoever can change public opinion can change the government." This is what he ultimately did.

"It is my conviction," Lincoln insisted when he heard the criticism of his sluggishness on the issue, "that had the proclamation been issued even six months earlier than it was, public sentiment would not have sustained it." He may have been right. The President worried that if he acted against slavery too soon, he would at the very least lose crucial support in the vital border slave states which he desperately needed to keep in the Union and out of the Confederacy. Virginia had already seceded, but Lincoln could not afford, for example, to lose the next Upper South slave state to the north, Maryland.  If Maryland seceded, then Washington, D.C., would become a capital city trapped inside an enemy country.  Missouri was sure to follow, and the federal government would almost certainly fall if others joined the bandwagon.

Lincoln fretted, too, that if he acted too soon, Northern voters might turn against his Republican Party and force on Lincoln a hostile Congress unwilling to continue prosecuting the war. Then all would be lost anyway: democracy, the Union, and any promise, ever, of eradicating slavery. So Lincoln waited. Not until July 1862 did he finally conclude that he could act. He had found both a legal argument (the president's war powers) and a political and military window of opportunity. He would not let it pass. He would act not from "the bosom of philanthropy,"but with a military order from a commander-in-chief aimed, at its most obvious level, of punishing rebels by confiscating their property—in this case, human property.

Returning from Washington after a frustrating visit to his idle Army of the Potomac, he decided that the time had arrived. "Things had gone on from bad to worse,"he explained later, "until I felt that we had reached the end of our rope...that we had about played our last card and must change our tactics, or lose the game." It is probable that Lincoln began writing his first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation on board the very steamboat returning him to the capital from his military tour.

On July 22, a blisteringly hot summer day in Washington, Lincoln called his Cabinet together and told them that he had reached a momentous decision. A President who customarily polled his Cabinet on all issues of public policy, and then deferred to their collective wisdom, he bluntly told them this time that he would entertain no opposition or debate on the main point. He had already made up his mind. Then he unfolded some hand-written papers and slowly read aloud a sketchily composed preliminary order freeing slaves in the rebellious states. No one present dissented. But Secretary of State Seward expressed a sensible concern.  With the war going so badly, he worried, would not most Americans regard an emancipation announcement be as "a cry for help—our last shriek on the retreat?" Seward proposed postponing the Proclamation until the Union could win a victory on the battlefield. Reluctantly, Lincoln conceded the wisdom in Seward's suggestion. But he must have felt enormous frustration. His top commander in the East, General George B. McClellan, had just led his massive army in a lumbering, clumsy attempt to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond, only to be repulsed by a much smaller defending army. The humiliation had all but obscured the heartening news from the West, where a rising general, Ulysses S. Grant, had won a costly but convincing victory at the Battle of Shiloh.

Over the next two months, as the armies on both fronts stalled, the inevitability of Emancipation remained the best-kept secret in America. Even as Lincoln re-wrote his first draft, he continued to deny that he was planning such an announcement. So he told Horace Greeley, the influential editor of the New York Tribune, who had attacked him for being "disastrously remiss"for not freeing the slaves. "What I do about slavery, and the colored race," Lincoln replied, "I do because I believe it helps to save the Union." Lincoln was not telling the full truth in this famous response, for he had already decided to issue his Proclamation. But he was shrewdly preparing Northerners to think of the forthcoming document as a measure necessary to win the war and preserve the federal authority, not to achieve humanitarian goals. Only then, Lincoln felt, would the North accept it. Critics often point to Lincoln's letter to Greeley as proof that the evil of slavery was never as important to Lincoln as the blessing of Union. Such critics forget that Lincoln knew full well when he wrote it that he was about to re-launch the fight for the Union to embrace union and liberty alike.

Noble as was the notion of this expanded cause, Lincoln well knew how difficult it would be to re-define the goals of a great war in mid-fight. There was no guarantee that soldiers would fight as readily for the freedom of the black man as they had for the government of the white man. Late that summer, with the Proclamation still unannounced, a delegation of free African Americans visited the White House for an extraordinary meeting with the President. Lincoln greeted them with an icily formal written statement, which he read aloud without interruption or question. Suggesting that the war would never have begun had it not been for slavery, Lincoln declared his belief that the black and white races would never be able to live in harmony. "It is better for us both therefore to be separated," he said. The freedmen should consider emigrating to Africa or the Caribbean. 

Once again, Lincoln had moved to mold public sentiment, but in the white community at the expense of the black.  Knowing full well that his statement would be printed in newspapers across the country, Lincoln had made certain he would not be portrayed as a bleeding-heart friend of the Negro. This would further guarantee that when his Proclamation was issued, whites might receive it as a tactical military move, rather than a grand liberation, increasing the chances for its acceptance. But here was yet another case in which Lincoln sacrificed a measure of historical stature in the name of public relations. Critics have used the statement against him ever since. But in its day, it functioned precisely as Lincoln hoped. As for his own, once-serious flirtation with the notion of colonizing free blacks abroad, Lincoln abandoned it once African Americans began serving in the Union military to fight for their own freedom.

On September 17, 1862, Union troops finally gave Lincoln the military triumph for which he was waiting.  On the bloodiest day of the war, the North repelled an invading Confederate army at the Battle of Antietam, Maryland. It was by no means a decisive or overwhelming victory. General Robert E. Lee's forces were allowed to escape Maryland weakened but intact, doubtless able to fight another day. But it was victory enough. Lincoln retreated to his summer retreat on the outskirts of Washington, and began expanding his draft order into a full-blown presidential proclamation. To save time, he used a pair of scissors to clip some relevant sections of the recently passed Congressional Confiscation Act, and pasted them onto his hurriedly composed document—forever leaving his fingerprint on the surviving document. Five days later, on Monday, September 22, just as he had promised his Cabinet and himself, Abraham Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation. As he told his Cabinet ministers: "I made a solemn vow with God that if General Lee was driven back...I would crown the result with a declaration of freedom for the slaves." Lincoln's Proclamation gave the Confederacy until January 1 to return to the Union, or forfeit its slaves forever.

Just as Lincoln had feared, the Emancipation was immediately and bitterly attacked. Some newspapers here and overseas warned that it would ignite race riots.  The stock market declined. Union soldiers began deserting in greater numbers, unwilling to fight a war to "free Negroes." That November, Lincoln's Republican Party suffered significant election losses, as the President had predicted. There were accolades, to be sure, but as a dispirited Lincoln put it, "breath alone kills no rebels." Writing to his Vice President, he admitted: "This, looked soberly in the face, is not very satisfactory... .  I wish I could write more cheerfully."

But Lincoln did not back down. On January 1, as abolitionists prayed at churches throughout the North, and notwithstanding recalcitrant troops, political pressure, editorial criticism, and trembling hand, the President signed a final version of the Emancipation Proclamation.  In its latest incarnation, it had even included the truly revolutionary hope that freed blacks would now join Union military forces to battle for the freedom the document promised. Lincoln—and surely African Americans as well—knew that for all its good intentions, the Proclamation would free slaves only if Union armies won victories in Rebel states.  Ultimately, that is precisely what occurred.

Although it is difficult to quantify with precision, the Emancipation Proclamation probably freed about 200,000 slaves, as Union troops marched farther and farther into the Confederacy, setting blacks free in their path. The slaves themselves became active participants in the movement, rushing by the thousands into the safety of Union lines and volunteering en masse to take up arms against former masters. Lincoln took another giant step forward the following year and supported a Constitutional Amendment to free slaves everywhere, even in the loyal, slave-holding border states. That amendment became the law of the land in 1865, crowning the "jewel of liberty,"as historian David Long has put it, paraphrasing Lincoln himself. Tragically, Lincoln himself did not live to see the Amendment ratified into law, though he surely knew its acceptance was inevitable.

But by a stroke of his pen, Lincoln had managed by executive order to launch a second American Revolution.  He not only ended the national shame of human bondage in America, but helped guarantee the survival of American democracy itself. As he put it, "by giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free."

Many Americans—even its youngest citizens—sensed this immediately. As three Brooklyn children wrote to the President just three days after he signed the Emancipation Proclamation: "You have added glory to the sky & splendor to the sun, & there are but few men who have ever done that before, either by words or acts... .  O! dear Uncle Abe, only see the Proclamation carried out & how brightly will the name of Abraham Lincoln shine through all times & ages."  History has largely confirmed their prediction.

So do the surviving pictorial tributes to Lincoln's crowning achievement.  The first artist to comprehend the value of portraying Lincoln as an Emancipator, was the Homer, New York painter Francis B. Carpenter. A talented, but hardly a supremely gifted, painter, he nonetheless saw, more quickly than any of his contemporaries, the power of the proclamation and the new image of its author. His painting of Lincoln's first reading of the Proclamation to his Cabinet inspired one of the best-selling, most influential of all popular prints of Lincoln. New York engraver Alexander H. Ritchie's 1866 adaptation remains a popular collectible to this day. L. Franklin Smith presented his own elaborate version of the text, surrounded by portraits of Lincoln, Washington, and major abolitionist leaders of the era, to the President himself at a White House ceremony.

In the afterglow of Lincoln's death and mythification, image-makers became much more overt in their depictions of Emancipation—and Lincoln was portrayed as a Moses-like figure, breaking the chains of slavery in a dramatic fashion quite unlike the solemn private ceremony at which, in reality, he had affixed his signature to the historic document. But the artists had no choice but to invent such scenes.  Lincoln, after all, had missed one of the great "photo opportunities" of the age. Had he or his staff invited a cameraman to record the moment at which he signed his Proclamation, the result might have defined a realistic image of emancipation for all time to come. But Lincoln was not yet sufficiently aware of the power of the visual arts to so crystallize national memory.

Tributes to Lincoln as Emancipator retain an odd place in the iconography of the 16th president: much as their effusive idolization of a "Great White Father" figure might embarrass modern viewers, they certainly reflect the regard with which white and black Americans alike held Lincoln at the time they were published.  Such images might not only have reflected a universal embrace of such reverence, they might well have influenced it.  Turn-of-the-20th-century controversy over who deserves principal credit for destroying slavery cannot diminish 19th-century enthusiasm for Lincoln as the great champion of liberty.  Then, such pictures confirm, Lincoln's status as "Great Emancipator" was unquestioned and unquestionable.

Back in 1862, Frederick Douglass greeted the news of Abraham Lincoln's preliminary Emancipation Proclamation by declaring: "We shout for joy that we live to record this righteous decree."

But the President, Douglass hastened to add with just a touch of bitterness, had moved "in his own peculiar, cautious, forbearing and hesitating way" to reach at last the moment of his "righteous decree," even as "…the loyal heart was near breaking with despair."  Then Douglass changed course again to acknowledge that, however long delayed, Lincoln's order had nonetheless provided genuine "joy and gladness to the friends of freedom and progress…"  "We are ready for this service," Frederick Douglass wrote in his exultant editorial on the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, "…in this, we trust the last struggle with the monster slavery."

Eventually, Lincoln provided the poetry to accompany the dry prose of his revolutionary order. To the workingmen of Manchester, England, he pledged himself to the "universal triumph of justice, humanity, and freedom."  And by the time he rose at Gettysburg on November 19, 1863, pettifogging legalities had yielded to majestic eloquence. "The great task remaining before us," he declared, required nothing less than a "new birth of freedom." There could be no longer be any doubt what "brave men, living and dead" were fighting and dying for.

Frederick Douglass knew that the Emancipation Proclamation would never stand the test of time as literature, line by line.  But Douglass read between the lines.  Even though Abraham Lincoln's most important piece of writing had been inspired, Douglass insisted, by "the low motive of military necessity," the African-American leader ultimately realized it was "a little more than it purported."

In that legalistic document Douglass sensed a "spirit and power far beyond its letter"—one that placed "the North on the side of justice and civilization, and the rebels on the side of robbery and barbarism."

(A shorter version of this piece appeared in American Heritage Magazine.)

Last Updated: November 16, 2021