OTD in History… January 1, 1863, Lincoln signs Emancipation Proclamation freeing all the slaves in rebel territories

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

On this day in history January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation, which immediately goes into effect freeing all the slaves in rebel territories but not in the Union or Border States. Lincoln used the vacancies in Congress to determine the areas still under rebellion versus those under Union control. Representatives in Union captured territories returned to Congress under supervision. The proclamation marked a turning point in the Civil War, where Lincoln made it not only about reunifying the North and South but also eradicating slavery in America. The proclamation also branded the Confederacy as a slave state to foreign countries ending the possibility that Britain or France would recognize and aid the Confederacy as a separate nation, which they needed desperately if they had any chance in the war. Britain opposed slavery and without the Confederacy freeing the slaves, they would never get recognition.

Lincoln wrote the proclamation by himself and only asked for his cabinet’s opinion on the document on December 30. At the cabinet meeting, Lincoln distributed copies of the proclamation’s draft. As historian David Herbert Donald notes in his biography Lincoln, the president ignored “most of the substantive changes” and he adopted “several stylistic improvements.” (Donald, 406) Lincoln, however, listened to Charles Sumner and added a conclusion to the proclamation. The President added, “And upon this act, sincerely, believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity. I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of the Almighty God.” A year later, Lincoln commended his decision with the Emancipation Proclamation to John Hay, “I do not now see how it could have been done better. I am sure it was right. If I had yielded to that storm and dismissed Seward the thing would have slumped over one way and we should have been left with a scanty handful of supporters. When Chase sent in his resignation I saw that the game was in my own hands and I put it through.” (Donald, 406)

Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, after noon after escaping the White House New Year’s reception. Lincoln signed the document in his office accompanied by Secretary of State William Henry Seward and his son Fredrick the Assistant Secretary of State. They brought Lincoln a “duly engrossed copy of the final proclamation of emancipation.” (Donald, 407) Before officially signing the proclamation, Lincoln declared, “I never felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper.” After shaking so many hands at the morning reception, Lincoln was worried how his signature would look and if in history they would wonder if it was because he was reluctant to sign the document. Lincoln remarked, “Now, this signature is one that will be closely examined, and if they find my hand trembled, they will say ‘he had some compunctions.’ But, any way, it is going to be done!” (Donald, 407) Then holding the “pen firmly” Lincoln signed the proclamation, declaring slaves in rebel territories, “are, and henceforward shall be free,” with his signature, Lincoln would forever be known as the “Great Emancipator.”

For Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation was the next step after a series of Confiscation Acts aimed at the property of the rebellious states. On August 6, 1861, Lincoln signed the first bill the Confiscation Act of 1861, after the House passed it 60–48 and in the Senate passed it 24–11. The bill allowed the Union to confiscate any slave laboring the Confederate Army as “contraband of war.” On July 17, 1862, just days before Lincoln made his decision on emancipating the slaves known, he signed the Confiscation Act of 1862, the motto-according McPherson in his was “Take their property.” Union General Ulysses S. Grant confided about taking the slaves, writing, “it weakens the enemy to take them from them.” (McPherson, 502)

By early July, Lincoln believed in “forcible abolition of slavery” and as McPherson notes, “begun to draft a proclamation of emancipation.” (McPherson, 503) Still Lincoln had to contend with the Border States, they were opposed to his plan to for “compensated emancipation.” The President had their Congressman at the White House on July 12, trying to convince them of “The unprecedentedly stern facts of our case,” and for gradual emancipation. Two-thirds of the Representatives signed the Border-State Manifesto rejecting the proposal because it “radical [a] change in our social system”; it was “interference” “by the government with a state matter.” And as McPherson indicates, “it would cost too much (a curious objection from men whose states would benefit from a tax that would fall mainly on the free states); and finally, instead of shortening the conflict by depriving the Confederacy of hope for border-state support, it would lengthen the war and jeopardize victory by driving many unionist slaveholders into rebellion.” (McPherson, 503)

The Border States’ decision led Lincoln to support the Radical Republicans’ idea of emancipation. On July 13, Lincoln told Secretary of State William H. Seward and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles of his intention for the Emancipation Proclamation. Welles recounted that Lincoln said it was “a military necessity, absolutely essential to the preservation of the Union. We must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued. The slaves were undeniably an element of strength to those who had their service, and we must decide whether that element should be with us or against us.” Lincoln did not see the Border States as the issue, but “the blow must fall first and foremost on [the rebels]. . . . Decisive and extensive measures must be adopted. . . . We wanted the army to strike more vigorous blows. The Administration must set an example, and strike at the heart of the rebellion.” Lincoln faced the greatest opposition from General George B. McClellan, who staunchly was against the move.

On July 22, President Abraham Lincoln announces to his advisors and cabinet his intentions to issue an Emancipation Proclamation, to free the slaves in the rebellious states but agrees to do so only and when the Union has a decisive victory in the Civil War. At this point, the Confederate states were winning battles and Britain and France were on the verge of recognizing them as a country and already supplying them with warships. Lincoln did not look to free the slaves for their sake but for the future of the Union, he needed to weaken the Confederacy. Lincoln emancipation proclamation’s draft declared “All persons held as slaves within any state or states, wherein the constitutional authority of the United States shall not then be practically recognized, submitted to, and maintained, shall then, thenceforward, and forever, be free.”

Lincoln justified having the presidential power to free the slaves as “a fit and necessary military measure.” As Burrus M. Carnahan in his book Act of Justice: Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the Law of War writes, “The consequences of Lincoln’s decision to rely on the law of war as a source of executive power are still with us.” (Carnahan, 13–14) Only Postmaster General Montgomery Blair opposed the idea out of concern it would cost the Republicans the Congress in the midterm elections. Secretary of State Seward approved but wanted Lincoln to delay the announcement until a Union “military success,” or it would appear “as the last measure of an exhausted government, a cry for help . . . our last shriek, on the retreat.” Lincoln decided to wait and put away his draft of the proclamation in a drawer. (McPherson, 505)

The president only intended to free the slaves in the 10 states that seceded the Union and joined the Confederacy, it was an ultimatum if they do not return to the Union, and their prized slaves would be free, 3.5 to 4 million of them. If the southern states refused to abide, the slaves would leave the South and join the Union army, both adding to their army and be depriving the South of their labor force. In the final Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln purposely excluded freeing the slaves within the Union, especially within the Border States (Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, and Missouri). Lincoln needed the Border States to stay in the Union, and could not offend them, there slavery only ended with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865. Lincoln also excluded any Southern territory under Union control including Tennessee, Lower Louisiana, and West Virginia.

In August, Lincoln made the case for his delayed proclamation. The slavery issue was at the forefront, Abolitionists were annoyed at Lincoln for not making a decisive move, he had support from some War Democrats, a few becoming Republicans but he faced a more formidable obstacle with Peace Democrats or Copperheads. In Congress, the division was stark; there were four slavery votes as McPherson recounts, “The war article prohibiting the return of fugitives, emancipation in the District of Columbia, prohibition of slavery in the territories, and the confiscation act.” The chasm was near unanimous, 96 percent of Democrats opposed the bills, while 99 percent of Republicans voted in favor. Lincoln relied on Democrats votes when elected president but to pass his legislation he needed to maintain the Republican majority in Congress.

Northern Democrats and Midwest Whigs feared emancipation, and the anti-black sentiment was high in the summer of 1862. To squelch their concerns, Lincoln supported colonization for blacks. On August 14, 1862, Lincoln invited black leaders to the White House and the press to make a statement on the position of black if they would be freed and colonization. Lincoln called slavery “the greatest wrong inflicted on any people,” but he said, “Your race suffer very greatly, many of them, by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence.” Lincoln seemed certain that there would be no equality between the races, saying, “There is an unwillingness on the part of our people, harsh as it may be, for you free colored people to remain among us. . . . I do not mean to discuss this, but to propose it as a fact with which we have to deal. I cannot alter it if I would.” (McPherson, 508) Lincoln’s solution was to create a colony for the freed slaves in Central America and in 1863; there was a failed effort to colonize an island near Haiti.

Historian Harold Holzer in promoting his book Emancipating Lincoln: The Proclamation in Text, Context, and Memory explained the reasons behind the colonization efforts. Holzer said Lincoln “did things in this run-up that are perplexing, sometimes unattractive, sometimes scary — to prepare the country for what in his mind would be a revolutionary moment.” Holzer indicated the reason for Lincoln hosting the black leaders and made his speech in front of the press, “He wanted this message out. What’s important to keep in mind is that he had written the Emancipation Proclamation. It was languishing in a drawer or burning a hole in his pocket. He knew he was going to do this, but he wanted Northern Americans who were dubious about marching toward racial equality to be assured that he was not doing this for the black race. He was doing this for the Union, to reunite the country, to defeat the rebellion, and he had no concern about blacks, their feelings, their resonance. He does have his finger in the wind.”

On August 20, 1862, newspaper editor and abolitionist, Horace Greeley challenges the president in an open letter editorial “The Prayer for Twenty Millions” in his paper the New York Tribune urging Lincoln to free the slaves in Union territory. Greeley was a reformer that created his paper in 1841 to give a voice to the “temperance, westward expansion, and the labor movement,” and abolitionism to which he was most passionate about. Greeley was instrumental in establishing the Republican Party in 1854, with preventing the spread of slavery a key issue. Both Greeley and freed slave Frederick Douglass had been urging President Lincoln to change his policy and take a stand on slavery. Greeley hoped with the Civil War, Lincoln would emancipate the slaves but the president was reluctant to alienate the border states Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware who did not secede from the Union. Even after he would emancipate the slaves, Lincoln did not include abolishing slavery in those states. Unbeknownst to Greeley, Lincoln already informed his cabinet nearly a month before on July 22, his plans to emancipate the slaves in the rebel Confederate states.

Greeley used his editorial to criticize President Lincoln. Greeley believed that without ending slavery the Union army would never end the rebellion from the Southern states. Greeley argued, “All attempts to put down the Rebellion, and at the same time uphold its inciting cause, are preposterous and futile.” Continuing Greeley expressed, “Every hour of deference to Slavery is an hour of added and deepened peril to the Union.” Greeley chastised Lincoln for not enforcing the Confiscation Acts of 1861 and 1862, which allowed the Union Army to seize rebel property including slaves, which they could have freed. Greeley indicated, “That act gives freedom to the slaves of Rebels coming within our lines, or whom those lines may at any time inclose — we ask you to render it due to obedience by publicly requiring all your subordinates to recognize and obey it.”

On August 22, 1862, Lincoln made his intentions towards fighting the Civil War and slavery clear and responded to a challenge over freeing the slaves by New York Tribune editor and critic Horace Greeley. In an open letter publishedin the National Intelligencer Lincoln expressed, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or to destroy slavery.” Continuing Lincoln explained, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.” Lincoln, however, gave a slight indication as to his plans towards slavery with the conclusion to his response. Lincoln expressed, “I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.” In the months, leading up to his announcement Lincoln slowly prepared the Union for his radical policy a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, which he would introduce just a month later on September 22

By September, Lincoln would have the military success necessary. The South was having military victories in the East but it was taking a toll, neither did Europe decide to recognize the Confederacy. In desperation General Robert E. Lee took his Army of Northern Virginia to Maryland, hoping for a decisive offensive victory where the Confederacy would acquire the border state. On September 17, Lee met McClellan’s Army of the Potomac at Antietam Creek for one of the bloodiest battles of the war. McClellan was able to push back Lee’s army, although not a major victory, it was enough for Lincoln to move forward on the Emancipation Proclamation.

On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation setting the date to free all the slaves in the rebel Confederate territories during the Civil War causing ire from abolitionists, who believed the president should also free the slaves in Union territory, a glaring omission in the proclamation. President Lincoln waited for a clear Union victory as there was in Antietam to make the announcement on a decision he made more than two months earlier in July. The proclamation warned the Southern Confederate states if the rebellion and Civil War did not end by January 1, 1863, all their slaves would “be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” The proclamation would free 3 million slaves and turn the war from just a fight over states rights and saving the Union to a clear fight against the institution of slavery.

President Lincoln again gathered his cabinet telling them “I think the time has come, I wish it were a better time. I wish that we were in a better condition. The action of the army against the rebels has not been quite what I should have best liked.” (McPherson, 557) His cabinet approved except Postmaster General Montgomery Blair was concerned the Border States who secede to the Confederacy giving the Democrats power to admonish Lincoln and his administration for the decision. The Border States were the reason Lincoln did not force freeing the slaves within the Union, he knew when the war would be over they would have to comply. Lincoln told Blair about the Border States, “We must make the forward movement. They [will] acquiesce, if not immediately, soon.” Lincoln was less worried about the Democrats, saying, “Their clubs would be used against us take what course we might.” (McPherson, 557)

The reaction was mixed, with some abolitionists questioning and criticizing President Lincoln’s decision not to free all the slaves. As historian James McPherson in his book Battle Cry of Freedom: the Civil War Era recounted, “This produced some confusion because the edict thus appeared to “liberate” only those slaves beyond Union authority while retaining in bondage all those within the government’s reach. (McPherson, 557) Lincoln considered the Border States and the limits of the Constitution in drafting the Emancipation Proclamation; he could seize the property of the enemy in war but not within the Union. America’s most notable abolitionists were pleased with Lincoln’s decision. Freed former slave Frederick Douglass expressed, “We shout for joy that we live to record this righteous decree,” and the movement leader William Lloyd Garrison called the proclamation “an act of immense historic consequence.” (McPherson, 558

Signing the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year’s Day, Lincoln recognized the historical impact, as Holzer recounts, “Then he looked at the signature — Abraham Lincoln — very proudly and said, ‘There, that will do,’ He had said right before that, if my name ever goes into history it will be for this act. He sensed immediately that he had become one of the immortals. Lincoln understood a Constitutional amendment would be necessary to outlaw slavery permanently. Union generals, however, were able to benefit and as they captured Confederate land, they could free and put the former slaves to good use in the war.

As Carl E. Kramer writing in Events That Changed America in the Nineteenth Century points outs, “Most important, the proclamation made abolition a formal war aim, giving the Union the moral advantage not only at home but in the court of world opinion. In short, the war’s purpose was transformed from restoring the Union as it had been to creating a new nation without slavery. Emancipation was one of many social and economic changes that helped transform American society as civil war became total war.” (Findling and Thackeray, 130–31) The war also changed for President Lincoln, in early 1862, he called it a “remorseless revolutionary struggle.” After the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect he looked forward to the Reconstruction and a new South, stating, “The character of the war will be changed. It will be one of subjugation. . . . The [old] South is to be destroyed and replaced by new propositions and ideas.” (McPherson, 558)


Carnahan, Burrus M. Act of Justice: Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the Law of War. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2011.

Donald, David H. Lincoln. New York, N.Y: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Findling, John E, and Frank W. Thackeray. Events That Changed America in the Nineteenth Century. Westport (Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997).

Guelzo, Allen C. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.

Holzer, Harold. Emancipating Lincoln: The Proclamation in Text, Context, and Memory. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2012.

McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She has a dozen years of experience in education & political journalism.

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University) is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) & historian. Former editor @ History News Network & reporter @ Examiner.com.

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