The Emancipation Proclamation

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13789

Once the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, the Civil War became squarely about slavery. However, if not issued carefully, Lincoln could have undermined his entire presidency and the Union.


Social Studies, United States

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Read this excerpt of a "Letter to Horace Greeley" that Abraham Lincoln wrote on August 22, 1862.

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 that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.

  • Does this sound like a president who is determined to end slavery?
  • What does Lincoln say to show that, while he may not think ending slavery is necessary, he is willing to change his mind?

Less than five months after writing this letter, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves. Let's look at what this executive order said and what it means in order to reconcile it with the above quote.

Early War

taking an oath

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

This is the Oath of Office every president must take at the start of each term.

This is what was most important to Abraham Lincoln when he took this oath in March 1861 -- preserving the Union. We see this in his 1862 letter when Lincoln explained that he did not care what was done about slavery so long as the United States was reunited.

  • Why might he not have cared?

Although Lincoln personally hated slavery, he did not initially put abolishing slavery above his goal to preserve the Union.

men in captivity

At the time, many believed the institution of slavery would need to be abolished slowly over the course of years or decades because the entire southern economy was based on enslaved labor.

  • If the Civil War had been centered around slavery from its beginning in April 1861, how might this have impacted the war's outcome?

free and slave states before Civil War

Most of the slave states seceded from the Union out of fear that Lincoln was going to jeopardize slavery. However, Delaware, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri all remained despite having slavery.

If the war had only been about slavery, these states may have joined the South. This likely would have made preserving the Union all but impossible. For this reason, preserving the Union was the central goal of the North.

Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation

The tide of the war began to change in 1862 when the North won a few major battles, giving Abraham Lincoln more political and public support for anything he wanted to do.

Civil War battlefield

By September of 1862, he was trying to figure out how to bring the war to a swift end and cripple the southern economy so they were no longer able to continue fighting.

Recognizing how important slavery was to the South, Abraham Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862 -- exactly one month after he contemplated what to do about slavery in his letter above.

This document stated that southern states had until January 1, 1863 to surrender to the North and still keep their enslaved labor.

This meant slavery would still be legal in any state that left the Confederate States of America and returned to the United States of America by 1863. However, it also meant that every enslaved individual in southern states that did not surrender by the deadline would become free.

union and confederate flags

Lincoln assumed this offer would be incredibly desirable to southern states obviously focused on preserving the institution of slavery but beginning to lose the war to the North.

When the January 1, 1863 deadline arrived, not a single southern state had surrendered under these terms. As a result, every enslaved individual in the Confederate-controlled territory was now free.

statue of Lincoln with a freed man

Emancipation Proclamation

Remember, this executive order did not free anyone in the Union, and even freeing the enslaved people in the South was controversial for a few reasons.

As you watch the video below, pay attention to why northern soldiers may have objected to the proclamation.

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Abraham Lincoln could not have issued this proclamation at the start of the Civil War because few people would have supported him, the military might have dissolved, and the northern slave states may have changed sides.

To some, the Emancipation Proclamation was even seen as unconstitutional.

  • Why?

Lincoln himself did not believe the Constitution gave the president the authority to end slavery in the states that already had it. However, the fact that the country was at war justified the executive order.

Knowing that the proclamation would lose this justification when the war ended, Lincoln and his Congressional allies began work on a constitutional amendment to end slavery.

After the 13th Amendment was ratified in 1865, Lincoln stated the following.

"I know very well that the name which is connected with this act will never be forgotten. It is my greatest and most enduring contribution to the history of the war. It is, in fact, the central act of my administration, and the great event of the nineteenth century."


Abraham Lincoln always hated slavery, but he did not always view the institution as irreconcilable with the United States Constitution. This was until late 1862 when he realized that the only way for the country to reunite would be if it were void of slavery.

The 13th Amendment, along with the 14th and 15th Amendments, helped create a golden era of equality in the United States for over a decade as African Americans were permitted to enter higher levels of public life.

Continue on to the Got It? section to review how the Emancipation Proclamation shifted the Civil War and furthered equality in America.

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