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The Emancipation Proclamation in American History


A few events in the United States history had as much impact as the American Civil War, which took place between 1861 and 1865. The Civil War was, in part, fueled by the debate over the future of slavery between the South and the North. Slavery is an alien concept to the modern citizens of the United States of America. However, before the American Civil War, slavery was recognized as a legal institution which was behind the economic growth of the colonies and provided the foundation for the economic dominance the United States. During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln came to the realization that the abolition of slavery was not only morally right but an important part of the strategy to save the Union (Emancipation Proclamation par. 1). The Emancipation Proclamation is a pivotal point in the history of the United States because it was signed by President Abraham Lincoln to put an end to slavery in the South in hopes to save the Union. In this paper, the researcher aims to evaluate the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation in the history of the United States as an order which changed the status of slavery and helped turned the tide of the Civil War.

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Slavery in the Pre-Civil War era

Slavery had a tremendous impact on the economy of the United States. Slavery was introduced in the United States in the beginning of the early 17th century during the early years of America’s colonization. Due to the shortage of labor and the need to perform a lot of hard work, slavery was soon established as the most cost efficient way of producing goods and services (Fields 104). The first slaves were white European indentured servants; however, African laborers have soon been established as the main source of slave work. In the 17th century, the majority of hard work at the time was done by slaves, mainly of African descent (Fields 105). At the time, rural slaves did agricultural labor on large tobacco farms, “tended stock and raised crops”, and helped develop Northern agriculture (Berlin 48). Urban slaves worked as house servants in cities (Berlin 48). The increased demand for American cotton led to the new wave of slavery and the large-scale production of cotton by African slaves by the end of the 17th century. By that time of the Civil War, the economy of the United States was dependent on slave labor as there were at least 4 million slaves (Emancipation Proclamation par. 2). Slaves were behind manufacturing the major consumer goods which allowed their owners to amass capital and led to the subsequent economic growth.

At the beginning of the America’s colonization, the legal status of slaves was not yet established. Virginia was the first colony to recognize slavery as a hereditary, lifelong condition in 1662, and other colonies followed (Sambol-Tosco 1). As African slaves gradually replaced white European servants in the late 17th century, new regulations were formulated which limited the rights of African slaves and established slavery as a race-based institution (Sambol-Tosco 1). More and more penalties were introduced which made the living of slaves even more difficult and excused the cruel behavior of their owners. As such, before the Civil War, slavery was recognized as a completely justifiable legal institution, a lifelong, race-based system many American businessmen of the time were dependent on.

Slavery as one of the Causes of the Civil War

The opinions on slavery started changing during the beginning of the 18th century. The distinction of views was based upon the nature of the United States development, which was divided into the South and the North. Due to the warm climate, the South was relying on raising crops such as tobacco and cotton to fuel its economic development. Agricultural South was dominated by plantation slavery and developed a strong racist ideology in support of it (Fields 108). At the same time, the North was developing as an industrial region, with a lot more natural resources, bigger cities (800,000 people lived in New York alone) and longer railroads, and largely relied on immigrant labor to fuel economic development (North and South: Different Cultures, Same Country par. 2).

While the majority of Southerners lived in rural areas and were somewhat less likely to be educated, many Northerners had a degree in medicine and education (North and South: Different Cultures, Same Country par. 3). As such, by the end of the 18th century, the North established provisions aimed at freeing African slaves in those cases when they worked a certain amount of time (Sambol-Tosco 2). At the same time, certain racial requirements, such as black male suffrage, were outlawed, and new discriminatory laws were introduced in those regions where slavery was eradicated (Sambol-Tosco 2). Although the level of protection of African populations increased in the north, the lack of consistency among laws of different states and the often conflicting regulations of state and federal governments created ambiguity and tension which eventually led to the secession of the Southern states and the beginning of the Civil War.

The Role of the Emancipation Proclamation in the Civil War and the Abolition of Slavery

Scholars argue that President Abraham Lincoln was in favor of the abolition of slavery from the day he became the president (Guelzo 26). However, fearing for the loss of four border slave states support, Lincoln took a more subdued approach: if slavery expansion was restrained, slavery would have died on its own, without harming the existence of Union (Guelzo 26). Lincoln preferred “gradualism and compensation for emancipated slaves” and “was quite sure [slavery] would not outlive the century” (Guelzo 28). Although personally Lincoln might not have liked slavery, he was still an acting president bound by the constitution which legalized slavery and was afraid to alienate a large part of the Union consistency.

However, Lincoln’s approach towards slavery changed when the Southern States broke the Civil War by declaring independence. Although initially the Civil War was not considered a war against slavery, when the Union forces suffered significant reverses in the 1860s, Lincoln came to the understanding that the war against slaveholders’ rebellion could be won if slavery as an institution is targeted (Guelzo). In 1863, Lincoln issued a proclamation warning, and urged all the states stop their rebellion, or their slaves would be declared “then, thenceforward, and forever free” (Guelzo 172). The formulation of the Emancipation Proclamation was such that it excluded those states which were not in rebellion. However, with this executive order, Lincoln changed the legal status of several million Southern slaves.

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It also turned the focus of the war from the slaveholders to the institution of slavery itself. As such, the Emancipation Proclamation as a war measure initially had the following consequences in the history of the United States. This order made all of the slaves who were under the control of the rebellion forces (the Confederate government) legally free if those slaves either escaped their service or were liberated by the Union forces (Guelzo 172). In addition, as the result of the emancipation proclamation, freed slaves could be legally recruited in the Union army. This fact allowed the Union army to straighten its forces and at the same time weakened the forces of the Confederate army. Some 190,000 freed slaves contributed to the Union victory by fighting in the army and navy in the United States Colored Troops (USCT) (Emancipation Proclamation par. 8). In addition, it showed an unprecedented recognition of the need to integrate black population with the white community. The Emancipation Proclamation also completely changed the stakes of war, which became “a new birth of freedom”, a war against an institution which has greatly limited the freedom of people who were considered slaves (Emancipation Proclamation, par. 8).

Although the Civil War started as a war to preserve the nation, it ultimately decided the legality of slavery as an institution. In the aftermath of war, Lincoln recognized the need to abolish slavery on constitutional grounds in order to continue the work which began during the war. Since the Proclamation was an emergency measure, it could not hold ground once the war was over (Guelzo 8). As a result, the Thirteenth Amendment was created to establish the illegal status of slavery. The Thirteenth Amendment was passed on January 31, 1885, and outlawed slavery within the entire United States of America. Although it did not eliminate the many issues of racism and equality that existed at the time, it was a necessary first step towards integrating African populations in the American society.

The emancipation proclamation continued to influence American history even after slavery was finally abolished. Although slaves were granted freedom in the aftermath of the Civil War, they had to overcome new challenges due to their ancestry. Biondi claims that the failure of the government to transfer landowners’ lands to freed slaves, racial stigma, the harm inflicted by slavery, including health and income disparities between white and African-American populations, led to the creating of the civil right and black liberation movement of the 20th century (2003). The rise of this movement started discussions on the important topics of racial inequality, racism, and discrimination which continue to this day.


The Emancipation Proclamation was a risky move which ultimately decided the outcome of the Civil War. The Proclamation was not only a sound military strategy; it allowed Lincoln to guide the United States into the morally correct path. The Emancipation Proclamation included the abolition of slavery as the goal of the Civil War and allowed the recruitment of freed African slaves who helped the Union win the war. The Lincoln’s order was a necessary step towards establishing a free American society. After the war was over, the Proclamation led to the creation of the Thirteenth Amendment which made slavery illegal in all states. African slaves have contributed to every aspect of the US development, and the consequences of the Emancipation Proclamation led to the creation of a democratic America as it is known today.

Works Cited

Berlin, Ira. “Time, Space, and the Evolution of Afro-American Society on British Mainland North America.” The American Historical Review. 85.1 (1980): 44-78. Web.

Biondi, Martha. “The Rise of the Reparations Movement.” Radical History Review. 87 (2003): 5-18. Web.

Emancipation Proclamation 2009. Web.

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Fields, Barbara. Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America. n.d. Web.

Guelzo, Allen. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005. Print.

North and South: Different Cultures, Same Country n.d. Web.

Sambol-Tosco, Kimberly. The Slave Experience: Legal Rights and Government. n.d. Web.

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