Limitations Of The Emancipation Proclamation Essay, Research Paper
Limitations of the Emancipation Proclamation
President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1,
1863 declaring that all persons held as slaves within the rebellious states
shall be free. However, despite this expansive wording, the Proclamation was
limited in many ways. It applied only to states that withdrew from the Union,
leaving slavery untouched in the loyal border states. It also specifically
excluded parts of the Confederacy that had already come under Northern control.
Most importantly, the freedom it promised depended upon Union military victory.
In the early life of Lincoln, he formed a strong opinion on the issue of
slavery. Slavery, for Lincoln, violated everything for which he stood. Lincoln
was born into a poor pioneer family, and worked hard on the farm. He knew what
it was like to till soil and raise crops. Through his hard work and
determination, Lincoln was able to become a successful lawyer. "Lincoln
believed that all Americans should have the opportunity to enhance their lives
as he had enhanced his own" (Tackach 30). Lincoln felt slavery violated the
principle in the Declaration of Independence that stated "all men are
created equal"(Tackach 31).
The Emancipation of January 1, 1863, contained no indictment of slavery, but
simply based emancipation on "military necessity". However, the
Federal Constitution still held the slaves as property, except in Missouri and
Maryland, two states which had legalized emancipation (Sandburg 643). Lincoln is
often known as the "Great Emancipator", and was loved for
"freeing the slaves".(Donald 154) The purpose for issuing the
proclamation is not always fully understood. "Although Lincoln’s judgement
as well as timing were in the long run fully vindicated, it is perhaps easier to
understand the Proclamation in the terms in which Lincoln himself presented
it-as a war measure, issued on the narrow grounds of military necessity, and
designed to hurt the enemy both at home and abroad" (Canby 291).
In the beginning, the Civil War was not being fought over the issue of
slavery, but it war was being fought primarily to save the Union (Tackach 43).
Lincoln accurately hypothesized that any freeing of slaves elsewhere would hurt
the border states, and the Union could not afford to lose any more states than
it had already lost. Lincoln once said
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
As he wrote these words to Horace Greeley, Lincoln had already knew he was
going to issue the Emancipation Proclamation at the first favorable opportunity.
Part of the "military necessity" justification for the proclamation
was the opinion that freed blacks could not be used in the armed forces. In
aiding to restore the Confederate states and their citizens to the Union,
Lincoln was explicit and took his authority in action (Phillips 92). As the war
entered its second year, the abolitionists in Congress began pressing the
president to free the slaves. Freeing the slaves would cause problems because it
would cripple the South’s ability to wage war. This would occur because the
labor by slaves would have to be performed by men who might otherwise enlist in
the Confederate army (Tackach 43).
As predicted, the South condemned Lincoln for the Emancipation Proclamation.
"To pro-slavery Southerners, Lincoln was no better than John Brown, who
had, in 1859, attempted to ignite a bloody war to free the South’s
slaves—Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation steeled the South’s resolve to win
the Civil War. To lose the war would mean an end to Southern slavery and the
ruination of the South’s economy." (Tackach 46).
In some ways, Lincoln had changed the purpose of the Civil War. It went from
a war to restore the Union to a war to end American slavery (Sandburg 331).
The Emancipation Proclamation itself was no ringing call for an all-out
attack on slavery. It did not lay hands on slaves in the Confederacy and set any
of them free immediately. But it did, slowly but surely, take hold of the minds
of men and inspire them to fight for the freedom of millions of men, women, and
children in bondage. The proclamation was a promise for the future?a promise
that changed the war for the Union into a fight for freedom.(Latham 5)
The many limitations and fine points in the proclamation provided fuel for
Lincoln?s critics during the war and right into present day, but while he
lived, those critics were mostly conservatives that were not going to admire any
policy that led to freeing black people. Likewise, in Lincoln?s own day most
political liberals?and, perhaps more important, most black people themselves?praised
the proclamation. They noticed that despite the legalistic language, the
document carried ?historic content.? And the proclamation was nothing if not
politically courageous. Lincoln remarked about the non-existent effects of the
proclamation, ?The North responds to the proclamation sufficiently in breath,
but breath alone kills no rebels.?(Cuomo 241)
The cut-and-dried language of the proclamation has, however, caused some
people, to this day, to doubt Lincoln?s right to the title: ?the Great
Emancipator.? They say that the pressure of the war forced Lincoln to make a
half-hearted gesture toward freeing slaves. They point out that he delayed
freeing the slaves while he vigorously pushed plans to colonize freed slaves as
well as free Negroes in Africa, the Caribbean, and South America.
The Emancipation Proclamation applied only to states in rebellion, exempting
border slave states and even areas of the Confederacy returned to the Union
control by January 1, 1863. Lincoln defends these restrictions arguing that to
have gone further would have clearly exceeded his constitutional authority. Not
until the following summer was Lincoln prepared publicly to support a
constitutional amendment abolishing slavery everywhere.(Cuomo 292)
More troubling to the President was the disaffection the proclamation caused
his moderate supporters. Some border-state Unionists believed that his action
would undermine the loyalty of Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. Conservative
Republicans thought the proclamation unconstitutional and unwise. Orville H.
Browning, one of the Presidents oldest and dearest friends, was so offended by
it, that he avoided discussing public issues with the President. Even some of
his cabinet members regretted his proclamation.(Donald 379)
Even in the North, once the initial euphoria had abated, the Emancipation
Proclamation came under skeptical scrutiny. Abolitionists noted that Lincoln had
only made a promise of freedom and that, apart from being conditional, his
promise could be withdrawn before January 1. A few even claimed that the
proclamation postponed emancipation as required by the Second Confiscation
?The North responds to the proclamation sufficiently in breath, but breath
alone kills no rebels.?(Thomas 66) In the South, so far as the president could
determine, the reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation was altogether
negative. Jefferson Davis denounced it as an attempt to stir up servile
insurrection and called it a further reason why the Confederacy must fight for
its independence. On Southern Unionism the proclamation had a chilling effect.
In Tennessee, Emerson Etheridge discovered in Lincoln?s proclamation ?treachery
to the Union men of the South,? and Thomas A. R. Nelson, one of the most
vigorous opponents of secession in eastern Tennessee, attacked ?the atrocity
and barbarianism of Mr. Lincoln?s proclamation.?(Miller 357)
In Lincoln’s second term as President, he had several goals. First to end the
war as quickly as possible, and once it was over, he wanted to reconstruct the
United States. In order for this goal to be accomplished, he would have to rid
the country of slavery forever. In doing this, Lincoln knew that the abolition
of slavery would have to be guaranteed in the Constitution (Tackach 65).
The great civil war to restore the union and put an end to slavery was
primarily over when Lee surrendered at Appomattox. With this goal now behind
him, Lincoln had to work on reconstructing the nation. "For Lincoln,
permanently resolving the issue of slavery was the key to reconstructing the
United States" (Tackach 68). As a resolution, on February 1, 1865, Lincoln
approved and signed the Thirteenth Amendment to the states for ratification
Although the Emancipation of Proclamation often earns credit for freeing
slaves, Abraham Lincoln’s executive order was actually only one of a series of
emancipatory acts passed during the Civil War.(Latham 45)
The Emancipation Proclamation was the document that turned the Civil War into
a fight for freedom.(Latham 55) Thus Lincoln?s signing of the Emancipation
Proclamation and the decisive support he lent to the passing of the Thirteenth
Amendment to the Constitution justly won for him the title of ?the Great
Emancipator.? Today, in our own time of racial struggles, he is ever more
inspiring as the symbol of human freedom?the man who taught his countrymen
that all men are brothers, whatever color their skin may be. Though the
Emancipation Proclamation was limited, it proved to be an incentive for winning
the war. Even though it proclaimed that all slaves would be "henceforth and
forever free", many of them were not accepted or recognized as equal for a
very long time due to the set-backs of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Canby, Courtlandt. Lincoln and the Civil War. New York:
George Braziller, Inc., 1960.
Cuomo, Mario M. Lincoln on Democracy. New York: Harper
Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. New York: Simon &
Latham, Frank B. Lincoln and the Emancipation
Proclamation. New York: Franklin Watts, Inc., 1969.
Miller, William Lee. Arguing About Slavery. New York:
Random House, 1996.
Phillips, Donald. Lincoln on Leadership; Executive
Strategies For Rough Times. New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1992.
Randall, J.G. Midstream: Lincoln the President. New
York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1953.
Sandburg, Carl. Abraham Linclon: The Prairie Years and The
War Years. New York: Galahad Books, 1993.
Tackach, James. The Emancipation Proclamation, Abolishing
Slavery in the South. San Diego, California: Lucent
Books Inc., 1999.
Thomas, Benjamin P. Abraham Lincoln. New York: The
Modern Library, 1968.