Learning about America through primary sources: Emancipation Proclamation

September 29, 2021

This is part 6 in Sutherland’s new series highlighting primary sources from American history in the hopes of enriching civics education. To help teachers and students identify where to start with primary sources, this series looks at a limited selection that we believe are indispensable to understanding our nation’s government, history, and current circumstances. During this time, when much is being said about America’s history, our hope is that this series can encourage the use of primary sources to help students find context and understanding.

What is this primary source?

The Emancipation Proclamation was a presidential proclamation – and war measure – issued by President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War that announced the intent to free the slaves in the Confederate states.

Though the proclamation was officially signed on Jan. 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln went public with it on Sept. 22, 1862, declaring that the slaves in Confederate states or those “in rebellion against the United States” by Jan. 1 of the next year would be “forever free.”

Though sometimes characterized as freeing all slaves, the proclamation did not actually free all slaves in the country at the time – or even those slaves it intended to free. First, the proclamation was aimed specifically at those within the Confederate states, not all slaves. Second, some have debated if he had the authority to issue such an edict to those outside of his territory. Third, slavery itself would not be abolished and codified as such until the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865.

Still, though the executive order did not free slaves, the proclamation represented an important shift in the Civil War. Specifically, the proclamation signaled Lincoln’s initiative to end slavery, a practice he personally hated and was now able to tackle politically.

Where did it come from in our history?

Lincoln had long opposed slavery and believed it to be immoral based on his understanding of the Bible. Still, for him, the Civil War at the beginning was primarily about preserving the Union rather than ending slavery.

That’s not to say that Lincoln hadn’t considered emancipation earlier on. Lincoln had tried to persuade border states into more moderate policies – for which abolitionists criticized him – like gradual emancipation and compensation for those who lost their slaves.

By July 1862, he and some of his advisers had drafted a version of the Emancipation Proclamation. Once the Confederacy was in a weakened position from the Battle of Antietam, Lincoln shared his proclamation. When no Confederate state rejoined the Union within the 100 days stated within the proclamation, he signed it the first of January 1863.

Why is the Emancipation Proclamation an important element of civics and history education?

One of America’s greatest achievements was eradicating slavery. 

While some of the men at the Constitutional Convention openly opposed slavery as immoral, they did not eradicate it in the Constitution. Still, the other lofty ideals of the new nation – especially that all men were created equal by God – strongly suggested that one day the dissonance would have to be addressed between the reality of slavery and what America stood for in terms of individual liberty.

The Emancipation Proclamation was a turning point toward resolving that dissonance, making it an important piece of anyone’s civic education.

Students today are bombarded with messages about America – our history, slavery and race relations. Certainly, no student would be prepared for these widespread discussions without being aware of and studying the Emancipation Proclamation – what it did, what it didn’t do, what it meant, and where it led us.

The full text can be found here.

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