On January 1, 1863, 150 years ago today, Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, signed and issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring all slaves in those states then in rebellion against the Federal government to be "then, thenceforward, and forever free."
Lincoln had barely slept the night before, if even at all. He spent much of the evening as he often did, pacing the lonely halls of the Executive Mansion, a solitary figure with the weight of the nation, the freedom of four million souls, and the eyes of history on his shoulders. He knew that the approaching dawn would bring with it the promise of a new birth of freedom, a freedom forged out of the blood and destruction of battles such as Shiloh, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. Those were the battles of the past year. They had signaled the nation's descent into a sanguinary, revolutionary struggle that would destroy the old Union and open the door for the hope of a new, more perfect Union. Lincoln's actions on January 1, 1863 would be a key event in making sure that the sacrifices of so many soldiers in 1861 and 1862 would lead to a new birth of freedom in 1863 and beyond.
On the morning of January 1, Lincoln wrote out the final text for the Emancipation Proclamation. Upon finishing, the text was sent to the State Department for an official copy to be made. By mid-morning, the text had returned, but Lincoln found a small error and, wanting the final copy to be perfect, sent the document back once again.
At noon, Lincoln was downstairs to greet the throngs of well wishers, dignitaries, and diplomats for the customary New Year's Day festivities at the Executive Mansion. He stood and patiently and pleasantly greeted visitors for two full hours, knowing that he still had important work to do that day. Once the line of visitors had ended and the doors of the Mansion were closed, Lincoln adjourned to his office upstairs where Secretary of State William Seward soon met him. Seward brought with him the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation.
As Lincoln prepared to sign the document, the effects of his hand shaking were soon felt. His arm began to shake, almost uncontrollably so, as he later said. Lincoln paused, took a moment, said aloud, "I never in my life felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper." Lincoln affixed his signature in a steady manner, so as to make sure there was no doubt in his mind and that his resolve was firm. Lincoln later stated that the Emancipation Proclamation was "the central act of my administration, and the great event of the nineteenth century."
The Emancipation Proclamation, signed 150 years ago today, was the greatest presidential act in American History. Surely, more still needed to be done. The war needed to be won. Millions of slaves still needed to learn of the act, and for many, freedom still meant the necessity of fleeing to Federal lines. The Confederacy was not yet dead, and its resolve was in no way diminished. It would take the Thirteenth Amendment to put the final nail in slavery's coffin, killing the monstrous institution once and for all. And yet, in one proclamation, Lincoln had signaled a turning point in American history. The Emancipation Proclamation was the first major step on the road toward freedom for over four million Americans, but it was a first step without which the others would not have been possible. In many ways, the Proclamation was a sheet of paper; and yet, so was the Declaration of Independence. Each document required sacrifice and victory on the battlefield for its promise of freedom to become a reality. Each document signaled a "new birth of freedom".
Below is the text of the final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation signed 150 years ago today.
By the President of the United States of America:
Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:
"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; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.
"That the Executive will, on the first day of January aforesaid, by proclamation, designate the States and parts of States, if any, in which the people thereof, respectively, shall then be in rebellion against the United States; and the fact that any State, or the people thereof, shall on that day be, in good faith, represented in the Congress of the United States by members chosen thereto at elections wherein a majority of the qualified voters of such State shall have participated, shall, in the absence of strong countervailing testimony, be deemed conclusive evidence that such State, and the people thereof, are not then in rebellion against the United States."
Now, therefore I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion, do, on this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty three, and in accordance with my purpose so to do publicly proclaimed for the full period of one hundred days, from the day first above mentioned, order and designate as the States and parts of States wherein the people thereof respectively, are this day in rebellion against the United States, the following, to wit:
Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, (except the Parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. Johns, St. Charles, St. James, Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the City of New-Orleans) Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South-Carolina, North-Carolina, and Virginia, (except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth-City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk & Portsmouth); and which excepted parts are, for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.
And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.
And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.
And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.
And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.
In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done at the City of Washington, this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty three, and of the Independence of the United States of America the eighty-seventh.
By the President: ABRAHAM LINCOLN
WILLIAM H. SEWARD, Secretary of State.
For more on this historic measure, here are a few links:
American Experience Video on Emancipation
President Barack Obama's proclamation to mark the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation
National Archives webpage on the Proclamation
Martin Luther King Jr. on the Proclamation
Bruce Catton on the Proclamation