The Emancipation Proclamation in Context


The 19th century proved to be a definitive period in American history, with the rise of abolitionist, suffrage, and temperance movements, some of which came to fruition promptly, while others became prerequisites for future changes. Of the three mentioned social movements, abolitionism may be one of the most pivotal to American history. The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 freed slaves on particular US territories and set a precedent for the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution (Faragher, Buhle, Czitrom, & Armitage, 2012).

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This document, also known as Proclamation 95, caused controversy in both the Union and the Confederacy, fueled the American Civil War and provided the North’s war effort with an additional purpose of freeing Southern-based slaves. Recognizing the historical context of the Emancipation Proclamation, along with its time of signing and underlying objectives, helps understand the reasoning behind its creation, as well as veiled ambitions and strategic aims.

Main Objectives

No political document may exist in a vacuum, just as not all declared interests could be reflective of the true nature of events. The American Civil War started in 1861, with numerous Southern states seceding from the US; using their fear of the abolition of slavery and, thus, a loss of their economy’s central force as their reasoning (Faragher et al., 2012). However, historians identify slavery as a “necessary but not sufficient condition of civil war,” strengthening the notion of emancipation as a tool, which could be used for political gain (Schwartz, 2015, p. 591).

At the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, the war had been going on for almost two years and had piqued the interests of various powers worldwide (Poast, 2015). Thus, the historical context of the Emancipation Proclamation lies in its time of signage after the Confederacy initiated the Civil War and different foreign political actors had already lost interest in its progression.

Both internal and external processes could be decisive to the Emancipation Proclamation’s date of issue. Faragher et al. (2012) describe the document as a direct attack on the Confederacy, particularly its workforce, which consisted primarily of slave labor. Considering the hitherto drawn-out nature of the war, Lincoln waited until January 1, 1863, to proclaim slaves’ freedom to give further incentive to the conflict, pressure the South to surrender, and gain a political advantage (Faragher et al., 2012).

The occurred change from the previously “highly conventional means” of warfare supports this idea of the Emancipation Proclamation as a new form of diplomatic leveraging (Poast, 2015, p. 526). Thus, Proclamation 95 became not a long-awaited recognition of the abolitionist movement’s efforts, but a stepping-stone in the political standoff between the Union and the Confederacy.


The advancement and recognition of any social change on a political level relies primarily on the benefits its carries. When recognizing slaves’ rights to liberty, the Union government used the Emancipation Proclamation as a means of political advantage over the Confederacy, which could not advance its economy without slave labor. Thus, Proclamation 95 gave the on-going conflict between the North and the South new momentum, logically expanding on the latter’s act of secession.

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The attack on the Confederacy’s economic structure with a promise of freedom for its slaves undermined their home front effort and placed the Union in an advantageous position as a defender of democratic principles. Therefore, President Lincoln’s chosen date for the proclamation’s issuing adequately takes into consideration both the lack of foreign interventional interests in the American Civil War and the overall state of affairs on the American continent.


Faragher, J. M., Buhle, M. J., Czitrom, D., & Armitage, S. H. (2012). Out of many: A history of the American people (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Poast, P. (2015). Lincoln’s gamble: Fear of intervention and the onset of the American civil war. Security Studies, 24(3), 502-527. Web.

Schwartz, B. (2015). The emancipation proclamation: Lincoln’s many second thoughts. Society, 52(6), 590-603. Web.

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