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Celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation

First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln

“First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln,” by Francis Bicknell Carpenter, 1864. Oil on Canvas. PD.

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. As the country approached the third year of a bloody civil war, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, which formally emancipated all slaves held in States or parts of States in active rebellion against the Union. Lincoln declared by executive order “all persons held as slaves” in Confederate territories to be “forever free” and, furthermore, that the “Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.”

Although first unsure about the extent of his executive power and authority under the Constitution to free the slaves, eventually Lincoln justified emancipation by executive order as a military necessity that came under his constitutional powers as commander-in-chief. Just before signing the document, Lincoln said, "I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper." But Lincoln only went as far as he believed the law permitted him. He also took into account political and military considerations. The Emancipation Proclamation was limited in that it only applied to states that had seceded from the union; it exempted areas already under Northern control; and freedom depended upon Union military victory. Although the proclamation didn’t end slavery, it set in motion a sequence of events that led to the ratification of 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865.

The Emancipation Proclamation also changed the character of the war, giving the war a moral force and transforming it to a war of freedom. As Henry Ward Beecher said in a commemorative sermon to an overflow audience in Brooklyn, "The Proclamation may not free a single slave, but it gives liberty a moral recognition." The proclamation also announced the acceptance of black men into the Union Army and Navy. By the end of the war, almost 200,000 black soldiers and sailors fought for the Union and for freedom.

Although the Emancipation Proclamation and the laws that have followed from it in the last 150 years have set forth legal requirements for racial equality and justice, there is still much work to be done on a wide range of societal issues – from maladministration of criminal justice, to employment discrimination, to addressing the racial opportunity gap in education.

Read the full Emancipation Proclamation in our archives here.

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