Did Lincoln Free The Slaves Essay Contest

Emancipation Proclamation did not literally free all slaves. But it made the end of slavery in the U.S. only a matter of time — and military victory.

Visitors are seen looking at a display of President Abraham Lincoln's… (Jacquelyn Martin / Associated…)

The Emancipation Proclamation, issued by President Abraham Lincoln 150 years ago this week, has often been criticized by blacks, by radicals and also by mainstream historians who doubt its significance as a turning point in the Civil War and in American history.

The skeptics range from conservatives in Lincoln's time, to Howard Zinn and Gore Vidal more recently, and include Richard Hofstadter, who wrote in his classic 1948 book "The American Political Tradition" that the Emancipation Proclamation "had all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading." The critics argue that the Emancipation Proclamation didn't actually free any slaves. Lincoln "freed" the slaves, the argument goes, only where he had no power — inside the Confederacy.

As the proclamation put it, "slaves are, and henceforward shall be free," but only "in the States and parts of States wherein the people … are this day in rebellion against the United States." In the slave states where he did have power — the border states that remained in the Union — Lincoln's Proclamation left slavery intact.

The skeptics have a point, but they miss the larger context and historical significance of Lincoln's actions. It's true that the proclamation applied only to the Confederacy, where of course slavery remained protected by the Confederate government and army. It specifically exempted from emancipation slaves in states that remained loyal to the Union, as well as several areas of the slave South occupied by the Union Army, which meant that nearly 4 million remained in slavery even after Jan. 1, 1863.

But Lincoln had sound reasons for doing it the way he did.

Slavery existed because of state laws, and the president had no power to declare state laws invalid. The Supreme Court could declare a state law unconstitutional, but nothing in the Constitution as it existed in 1863 made slavery unconstitutional. The president instead based his legal argument for abolishing slavery on the Constitution's grant of war powers to the president. Claiming that slavery was enabling the rebels of the South to carry out their war, he maintained that abolition was "warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity" to save the government.

"The Emancipation Proclamation was as much a political as a military document," Eric Foner notes in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Fiery Trial: Lincoln and American Slavery." Before the war, Lincoln and many others had argued that slavery should be ended by the states, gradually, and that slaveholders should be compensated. Foner emphasizes the point made by the abolitionist Wendell Phillips that the proclamation "did not make emancipation a punishment for individual rebels, but treated slavery as 'a system' that must be abolished."

A key part of the Emancipation Proclamation was its invitation to freed slaves and other African American men to enlist in the Union Army. Lincoln's proclamation thus "addressed slaves directly," Foner observes, "not as the property of the country's enemies but as persons with wills of their own whose actions might help win the Civil War."

Arming former slaves was truly a revolutionary step, as controversial as emancipation itself. In Lincoln's view, as he wrote in a letter to Andrew Johnson, "the mere sight of fifty thousand armed and drilled black soldiers on the banks of the Mississippi would end the rebellion at once." Indeed more than 180,000 black men served in the Union Army, the great majority of them emancipated slaves. More than one-fifth of the nation's adult male black population younger than 45 fought for the Union, about 10% of the entire Union Army. Lincoln went so far as to declare the re-enslavement of black soldiers "a relapse into barbarism and a crime against the civilization of the age."

It would take the 13th Amendment to enshrine the end of slavery in the Constitution, but with the election of 1864, Republicans achieved a super-majority in the House that made passage of the Amendment more or less inevitable. The Emancipation Proclamation did not literally free all slaves. But by committing the president, and the nation, to emancipation, and by making the Union Army an army of liberation, it made the end of slavery in the U.S. only a matter of time — and military victory.

Jon Wiener is professor of history at UC Irvine and the author, most recently, of "How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey Across America."


President Abraham Lincoln was faced with a monumental challenge during his two terms as Commander-in-chief of the United States: reuniting the shattered halves of the Union. This was his sole purpose in fighting the Civil War—nothing more, nothing less. However, Lincoln was flexible enough to accommodate changes to the war plan if they would help achieve the ultimate goal of preserving the Union. On January 1, 1863 Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, making the abolition of slavery, as well as the preservation of the Union a war aim. Lincoln freed the slaves to weaken the Southern resistance, strengthen the Federal government, and encourage free blacks to fight in the Union army, thus preserving the Union.

President Lincoln once said that if he could save the Union without freeing any slave he would do it. However, Lincoln soon realized that freeing the slaves could provide a huge advantage for the North both economically and politically. Economically, the South came to rely on slave labor so much that their entire economy would collapse without it. Lincoln realized this in 1862 when he said that “slavery is the root of the rebellion” (Document B). By issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln hoped that slaves living on Southern plantations would revolt against their masters, thereby “…weaken[ing] the rebels by drawing off their labor supply” (Document B). In a war as volatile as the Civil War, a small economic difference like this could tip the scale in the favor of Lincoln and the Union. Furthermore, Lincoln realized that the Proclamation would benefit the United States’ foreign relations in Europe. As Lincoln hoped, the Proclamation turned the foreign popular opinion in the favor of the Union and its new anti-slavery cause. This shift in war goals ended any hope that the Confederacy had of receiving political and financial support from anti-slavery countries like France or Britain. In Document B Lincoln demonstrates his commitment to the main purpose of the war: reuniting the Union; he places secondary importance on the emancipation of the slaves—this is only important to him because it will help weaken the South.

Not only did issuing the Emancipation Proclamation weaken the South, but it also strengthened the Union government in many ways. First of all, it instilled nationalism in the hearts of many Americans. Many northerners were driven to actively participate in the war effort after hearing Lincoln’s emotionally charged Gettysburg Address (Document C). He appealed to the American’s emotions by calling on them to defend “a new birth of freedom” and to ensure “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”. In this speech Lincoln used the anti-slavery fight as a call to defend the Union, which was his main ambition and purpose in the Civil War. As President of the United States, Lincoln upheld his office by keeping the preservation of the Union as his top goal throughout the Civil War.

Lincoln also freed the slaves to benefit the Union in another important way. By “freeing” the slaves in the Confederate States, Lincoln encouraged Northern blacks to contribute to the war effort. Although the Emancipation Proclamation itself did not legally free any slaves in the Confederacy, it eventually encouraged 179,000 blacks to serve as soldiers in the U.S. Army. Another 19,000 served in the U.S. Navy. Recruiting posters, like the one in Document D, show the Union’s attempts to fill its regiments with black soldiers as the number of white volunteers dwindled. Although Lincoln faced some opposition from members of the Democratic Party, who refused to “fight to free negroes” (Document E), he knew the Union’s need for soldiers was becoming desperate. This was the Union’s last desperate attempt at recruiting soldiers before it was finally forced to issue the Conscription Act in 1863. As Thomas Buckner put it, the blacks were “marching off to the call of the government as if they were sharing all the blessings of the most favored citizens” (Document F). Such was the dedication and level of commitment the black soldiers felt for the cause of the war. In these Documents, Lincoln once again demonstrates the importance he places on preserving the Union above all else.

Lincoln was a political genius because of the way he was able to exploit the Emancipation Proclamation and the freeing of the slaves to work for the Union in so many differing and crucial ways. He freed the slaves because he knew it would directly benefit the Union. Lincoln was successful at completing the main goal of his job as President: keeping the United States united.

Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "Abraham Lincoln and the Struggle for Union and Emancipation (DBQ)" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 05 Jan. 2014. Web. 13 Mar. 2018. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/us-history/sample-essays/abraham-lincoln-and-the-struggle-for/>.


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