On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by president Abraham Lincoln, went into effect. Many people think this order freed all enslaved Black people in the United States, but the reality is more nuanced.
Here’s what you should know about the Emancipation Proclamation.
First, the proclamation did not free all enslaved Black people, it only freed those who resided in states that had seceded and were not yet under Union army control.
“all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free”~ Emancipation Proclamation
This meant that in order to be effective, the emancipation relied on the ultimate victory of the Union. But that was still an uncertain prospect at the beginning of 1863.
Looking deeper at the text of the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln seemed to address the fears of white people that recently freed Black people would seek violent retribution. He urged freed people to “abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence.”
“And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence”
After centuries of exploitation and abuse, it would have been logical to assume that Black people would want to seek revenge on their oppressors. That is not what happened. In fact, Black people demonstrated restraint and even forgiveness toward white people. Instead of retribution, freed Black people re-built their families, pursued education, participated in political life, and tried to become citizens alongside white people.
Then, in a seeming nod to the pernicious assumption that emancipated Black people would not work without coercion, Lincoln admonished freed people to “labor faithfully for reasonable wages.”
I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.
Of course, Black people had been laboring for hundreds of years to generate wealth that never redounded to their benefit. The drained swamps, stately buildings, miles of railroads, tons of cotton, and immaculate houses all testified to the diligent work of Black people. Now, with the prospect of working for themselves and their families, Black people needed no recommendation from the president to “labor faithfully.”
In addition, the proclamation authorized freed Black people to join the Union Army. Around 200,000 Black people fought to secure their freedom during the war. They swelled the ranks of the Union and played a pivotal role in securing military victory for the North.
It will always be remarkable that Black people have ever been accused of a lack of patriotism. Black people have fought in every single war in which the United States has been involved. They put their lives on the line for a nation that categorized them as property rather than people and forced them to bleed and die for their own freedom.
such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.
Finally, Lincoln couched the Emancipation Proclamation in theological terms. He characterized it as “an act of justice” and he invoked the “gracious favor of the Almighty God.”
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 Almighty God.
It should also be noted that Lincoln signed another proclamation of emancipation eight months earlier. In April of 1862, the District of Columbia Emancipation Act immediately freed all enslaved persons in the nation’s capital. It also contained provisions for compensation. It would pay slaveholders who remained loyal to the Union up to $300 per enslaved person they freed. It also offered up to $100 to freed Black people who chose to emigrate to Africa rather than stay in the United States.
all persons held to service or labor within the District of Columbia by reason of African descent are hereby discharged and freed of and from all claim to such service or labor~ District of Columbia Emancipation Act
For all the limits of the Emancipation Proclamation, it still proved significant. The proclamation meant that the war and political will of the Union was fully behind emancipation. Instead of merely limiting the spread of slavery within the nation, Lincoln’s declaration pushed for the total abolition of the “peculiar institution.”
It also meant that the Union was willing to rely on Black people themselves to preserve the Union. It showed that the country could not persist without the very people it had consented to enslave. The Emancipation Proclamation demonstrated that racial change is possible in the United States, but only when Black people are included as unrestricted participants in democracy and treated as fully human.
Read the transcript of the Emancipation Proclamation HERE.