Did the Emancipation Proclamation Really Free Enslaved People?

Contributor: Suzanne Riordan. Lesson ID: 13026

It's always right to do right but must it always be right away? Why did President Lincoln write the Emancipation Proclamation? Why didn't he release it right after he wrote it? Did it free anyone?


United States, United States

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Beaver, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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  • What if you had written something that would make half of the people in the whole country angry with you when they read it?
  • If you knew it was right, would you have the courage to do it?
  • Would you do it right away, or wait for that just right moment?

This was the problem faced by President Lincoln when he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation.

Emancipation Proclamation scroll

President Lincoln was ready to free the enslaved people but had to be careful.

Civil War

The Civil War was still ongoing, and freeing the enslaved people would make many people angry. It might cause the border states, especially Missouri and Kentucky, to go to the Confederate side of the war.

Although he did want to end slavery in America, Lincoln’s main goal was to win the war and keep the country together. So he had to consider the effect freeing the enslaved people would have on everyone.

He was also unsure if he could do it legally.

  • Could he, under the Constitution, tell the states they had to free their enslaved people?

He didn’t think so. After much agonizing thought, he decided he could free the enslaved people as a war measure — so they could leave the Confederate Army and fight on the Union side. It would help the Union win the war and keep the country together.

When Lincoln decided to write the Proclamation, he worked on it for several weeks, revising it daily. It had to be written just right. He wrote and re-wrote, just as you sometimes have to do in English class!

Finally, he was satisfied with his writing. The Proclamation declared all enslaved people in Confederate states free. It would not free those in border states or areas controlled by the Union; that would have to come later.

When President Lincoln met with his advisers and told them about the Proclamation, they advised him to wait a little longer.

  • Wouldn’t it look better if he made the Proclamation after a Union victory in the war?

Lincoln agreed and waited some more. It seemed like it might be a long time before that victory would come.

But an unusual providence came his way very soon. Some Union soldiers found three cigars wrapped in a piece of paper. When they unrolled the paper, they discovered a copy of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s battle plans!

This gave Union General George McClellan the advantage he needed, and he planned an attack at Antietam Creek.

Battle of Antietam

Although the Union lost more soldiers than the Confederacy in this battle, it was still considered a Union victory because it caused Lee to retreat. So the just right moment finally came, and President Lincoln could issue his Proclamation.

  • Do you agree with Lincoln's timing?
  • Would you have issued the Proclamation right after writing it?
  • Or maybe you would wait for a more impressive victory?
  • Maybe you would have found a completely different way to start ending slavery?

Now, watch this video to learn how and why Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

Then, sit back and enjoy a very entertaining history teacher singing about this document!

Next, move to the Got It? section to see how much you remember!

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