What We Get Wrong about the Emancipation Proclamation

Enter Juneteenth

Now that Juneteenth is a Federal Holiday, all the major news sources and your favorite twitter accounts have done hit pieces on why the holiday is important. These sites likely mentioned the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863. Generally, the Emancipation Proclamation (or EP as I shall call it from here on out) is cited as the first step to freedom for enslaved men and women. In fact, most news outlets may cite the most famous part of the Proclamation:

That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free

Awesome! Cool job Abe! Except…it’s not that simple. Which is why I’m writing this post. See, in school we were taught that the EP “freed” enslaved people during the Civil War – but this isn’t quite true. The EP was a document, a document that Lincoln intended to use to destabilize the south. Declaring freedom for enslaved men and women during war time was not new. In 1775 John Murray, Lord Dunmore, issued a similar proclamation promising freedom for enslaved and indentured men if they left their enslavers to join the British Army.

Ok…so what?

Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation may not have been an original idea, but it was an important one. Right Ms. Adams? RIGHT? Only sort of. The Proclamation only extended to the southern states in rebellion, an area in which Lincoln was NOT recognized as President. The Proclamation also did not extend to the “border” states of Missouri, Kentucky, Delaware or Maryland, which all held enslaved men and women.

This is all to say, that when it came to freedom, Abraham Lincoln created a document promising freedom. However, enslaved men and women were largely the ones who carried out that promise. They freed themselves. They ran to the Union Lines in droves, they took their families when possible. They fought for the right to fight in the Union army.

Enslaved men and women freed themselves. Not a document. Not Lincoln.

The Thirteenth Amendment officially abolished slavery in 1865…of course with the clause “except as punishment for a crime.” But…that’s another story.

By mshipstory


I'm Lindsay Adams. I'm passionate about history, teaching, and writing.

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