Emancipation Proclamation

Official State Department Printing of the Emancipation Proclamation (1863)


President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, at the height of the U.S. Civil War. In 1861, eleven slaveholding Southern states seceded from the federal union and formed the Confederate States of America. Following the Union victory at Antietam in September 1862, Lincoln warned the Confederacy in his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation that he would free all enslaved Black people held in states that remained in full rebellion after 100 days. The final Emancipation Proclamation followed through on that threat.

This official State Department folio was the first obtainable printing of the final Emancipation Proclamation. Countless other printed versions followed, as the Proclamation sparked celebration and critique and as the Union army attempted to inform enslaved Black people of their freedom. On the international stage, the document played a crucial diplomatic role. Throughout the war, the Confederacy sought the support of Europe and the United Kingdom. Led by U.S. Secretary of State William Seward, a co-signer of the Emancipation Proclamation, the State Department worked to prevent foreign powers from recognizing the Confederacy as a legitimate nation or providing them with military aid. The Emancipation Proclamation furthered this strategy by associating the Union with the global abolition movement and by casting the Confederate cause as a fight to preserve an outdated and immoral institution. Immediately upon its release, Seward sent a copy of the document to consulates and diplomats around the world.

Since its initial printing, the centrality of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in the history of emancipation has been intensely debated. Reconstruction, segregation, and the enduring legacies of slavery and racism reveal the incomplete ways in which emancipation was put into practice. Nevertheless, this document played a key role in ending slavery and supporting the fight for Black freedom in the United States, and it continues to prompt conversations that are as crucial today as they were in 1863.

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Lincoln called the Emancipation Proclamation “the central act of my administration, and the great event of the nineteenth century.” Yet, the view of emancipation as a single event is misleading. “Freedom’s arrival was the product not of a moment or a man, but of a process in which many participated,” according to historian Ira Berlin. In The Long Emancipation (2015), Berlin traces the beginnings of abolition to the post-Revolutionary War era and argues that “the demise of slavery was not so much a proclamation as a movement; not so much an occasion as a complex history with multiple players and narratives.” The unwavering commitments of abolitionists and the persistent resistance of enslaved people across generations proved essential to demolishing the ideology and institution of slavery.

In the context of the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation continued and expanded the Union strategy of “military emancipation.” The prevailing interpretation of the Constitution held that slavery was a state institution. The federal government, therefore, could not abolish it. The onset of war empowered the Lincoln administration and Congress to craft a series of measures designed to free enslaved people in Union-occupied areas of the seceded states. The Emancipation Proclamation broadened this policy by inviting enslaved people across the Confederacy to flee to Union lines and serve in the army. Although it did not apply to the slaveholding states that had not seceded, it successfully pressured five of the six exempted states to pursue voluntary emancipation before the end of the war.

Significantly, the document helped to refute the 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court ruling and secure Black citizenship in the United States. Chief Justice Roger Taney had used the longstanding exclusion of people of African descent from military service as justification for barring enslaved and free Black people from U.S. citizenship. By enlisting formerly enslaved people in the armed services and recognizing their right to self-defense, the Emancipation Proclamation set the stage for the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments (1865-1870), which abolished slavery nationwide, guaranteed the citizenship of Black people born in the United States, and prohibited the denial of the vote to formerly enslaved Black men.

Yet, realizing the promise of emancipation in the United States has been an arduous, centuries-long process. The abandonment of Reconstruction, the rise of racial segregation, and the persistent legacies of racial inequality to the present day demonstrate that, although the Emancipation Proclamation helped to end the legal institution of slavery, it did not provide a roadmap for realizing freedom on the ground, nor did it prevent slavery’s residues and new manifestations. In the post-Civil War South, slavery gave way to new forms of forced labor and sharecropping, while violent campaigns of white supremacist terrorism and disinformation led to the disenfranchisement of Black voters. The federal government enabled this counterrevolution by withdrawing troops from the South in 1877. White Southerners subsequently imposed a new system of “Jim Crow” segregation that was designed to prevent social equality. Twentieth-century Southern Congressmen worked to ensure that the policies of the New Deal and the post-WWII era aligned with this vision. It would take several generations of social movements and legal change to break the chains of slavery’s afterlives.

Despite foreclosed possibilities and frustrating setbacks, African Americans have celebrated emancipation as a moment in which the United States moved towards realizing freedom and equality. This commemorative tradition has served to refute attempts to rewrite history. By the early twentieth century, Northern and Southern whites sought to facilitate sectional reunification by actively forgetting the role of slavery in the Civil War. Historical revisionism was carried out by scholars at the nation’s most esteemed universities as well as in popular discourse. African Americans, by contrast, maintained what historian David Blight terms an “emancipationist vision.” “Emancipation Day” became a means by which African Americans celebrated Black freedom, citizenship, and achievement. The creation of Juneteenth as a federal holiday in 2021 has finally brought this narrative to widespread public consciousness.

In the academic realm, the University of Chicago has emerged as a center of research on the history and archives of slavery, emancipation, and their legacies. Scholars across the humanities and social sciences, including Jane Dailey, Thomas Holt, Rashauna Johnson, Julie Saville, Amy Dru Stanley, and SJ Zhang, have examined critical aspects of the topic. The Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center houses many relevant archival materials, including an editorial by Frederick Douglass on emancipation and a reprinting of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in his magazine; visual media depicting the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation; and a copy of the document signed by Lincoln and Seward that was sold at Philadelphia’s Great Central Fair of 1864 to raise money for the U.S. Sanitary Commission. The University is also sponsoring multiple public-facing initiatives. The Neubauer Collegium’s Practices of Emancipation project is compiling an online database and interactive map that will feature the records of Black Civil War soldiers and the freed women, children, and elderly who fled to Union refugee camps. The John Hope Franklin Lecture Series, organized by the Department of History, brings leading scholars of slavery and its afterlives to share their research on campus. Franklin, the series’ namesake, was an eminent scholar of African American history who published widely on the Emancipation Proclamation, including while he was chair of the University of Chicago History Department during the 1960s.

The Emancipation Proclamation was neither the beginning nor the end of emancipation, but it did initiate a new phase in the struggle for racial equality in the United States. The publication of this document in 1863 provided formerly enslaved people, their descendants, and their allies with a foundation upon which to demand that freedom and equality be extended to all African Americans. The Proclamation played a crucial role in the process of abolition while also launching another process that continues today: the process of putting the emancipatory potential of racial justice into practice.

Written by Fiona Maxwell, PhD Candidate, Department of History, 2024