On January 1st, 1863 the nature of the civil war changed dramatically when Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Despite what many Americans believe today the Emancipation Proclamation did not secure freedom for all men suffering under the institution of slavery. The Proclamation applied only to those states who were in rebellion, and within those states a number of districts and townships were exempt. It might have seemed futile -to many people- to order the emancipation of persons under the jurisdiction of states in rebellion. However the declaration represented a critical shift in this countries history in two ways. Firstly it opened service in the armed forces to men of color fleeing slavery in the South, which bolstered the Union army giving them the numerical advantage in the war. Secondly it impressed upon the nation the idea that emancipation was at the heart of the Civil War, which by 1863 had been going on for almost three years. Following the the Emancipation Proclamation the nation began to view the war as a struggle to realize freedom for all people, rather then a conflict over the power of the federal government.
Prior to his election in 1860 Lincoln had struggled with the dichotomy inherent in the moral and political composition of the nineteenth century America. Since inception of the United States the future of slavery within its borders had become a decisive issue. The Civil War was dominated by questions of Constitutionality. Proponents of slavery argued that legally a man could claim another man as property. Such notions had long been excepted, though slavery was never addressed in the Constitution. Many whites had never considered the rights of blacks to be self evident. Abolitionists viewed the Constitution and the Bill of Rights as the ideological foundation of their cause. The country was radically divided by interpretation. Beneath the passionate insistence of many whites that slaves constituted property, of which it was unlawful to denny them, lay the Southern economies dependence on the forced labor of almost two million people. Following Southern secession, and the two years of brutal fighting which followed, Lincoln began to see emancipation as critical to reuniting the nation. Whatever Lincoln’s intention before reaching office the war thrust the abolition of slavery upon him. With the power vested in him as a war time President, Lincoln went about the task of eradicating an evil, which many Presidents before him had spoke of but dared not challenge.
To Southerners the Proclamation represented what they saw as further evidence of the oppressive and unconstitutional oversight by the federal government. Lincoln acknowledges this sentiment at the end of the Proclamation when he concludes “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.” Reiterating his belief in the Constitutionality, and righteous nature of the Proclamation.
Despite the allegations of his opponents Lincoln believed firmly in the legal and moral foundation of his cause. Following the Emancipation Proclamation Lincoln worked tirelessly to see the 13th Amendment passed to bring a decisive end to slavery. It is difficult to imagine given the economic motivations in maintaining slavery in the United States that the emancipation of almost two million Americans could have occurred through alternative means. In retrospect the Emancipation Proclamation is seen as a symbolic turning point for humanity, like the Bill of Rights, and the Magna Carta before it. Although the Proclamation did not emancipate all persons being held as slaves, and though the path to equality would take another hundred years to be more fully realized by Americans, the ideological force of Lincoln’s conviction guided the nation toward a future of unity and equality.