Political and Social Movements

The Antislavery Movement

Why did President Lincoln issue the Emancipation Proclamation before the end of the Civil War?

As the war raged between the Confederacy and the Union, it looked like victory would be a long time in the making: In the summer of 1862 things seemed grim for the federal troops when they were defeated at the Second Battle of Bull Run (which took place in northeastern Virginia on August 29–30). But on September 17, with the Battle of Antietam (in Maryland), the Union finally forced the Confederates to withdraw across the Potomac into Virginia. That September day was the bloodiest of the war. President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) decided that this withdrawal was success enough for him to make his proclamation, and on September 22, he called a cabinet meeting. That day he presented to his advisers the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

The official Emancipation Proclamation was issued later, on January 1, 1863. This final version differed from the preliminary one in that it specified emancipation was to be effected only in those states that were in rebellion (i.e. the South). This key change had been made because the president’s proclamation was based on congressional acts giving him authority to confiscate rebel property and forbidding the military from returning slaves of rebels to their owners.

Abolitionists in the North criticized the president for limiting the scope of the edict to those states in rebellion, for it left open the question of how slaves and slave owners in the loyal (Northern) states should be dealt with. Nevertheless, Lincoln had made a stand, which served to change the scope of the Civil War (1861–65) to a war against slavery.

On January 31, 1865, just over two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment, banning slavery throughout the United States. Lincoln, who had lobbied hard for this amendment, was pleased with its passage. The Confederate states did not free their 4 million slaves until after the Union was victorious (on April 9, 1865).


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