10 Thought-Provoking Facts About the Emancipation Proclamation

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1. It freed over 3 million people in one day.

The Emancipation Proclamation was a presidential proclamation and an executive order, which means that is was both a document issued out of the President’s free will and a law in full force. With one single document, on January 1, 1863 the federal legal status of more than 3 million people changed in a day. All the formerly enslaved from the designated areas of the South were now officially free. In practice, anyone who managed to escape from the Confederate government would automatically become a free person, and many subsequently migrated South, where the Confederate jurisdiction no longer applied.

2. It had legislative power in 10 states.

The Emancipation Proclamation was a war tool used during the Civil War, therefore it excluded all the areas which were not in rebellion. The President was commander in chief of the armed forces and therefore could „call the shots”. The Proclamation had a second function as well, and this was to enroll the freed people into paid military service, which would make the Southern troops larger. The Proclamation itself did not state that the freed would become American citizens but rather hinted at end of slavery as one of the ultimate goals of the Civil War. The Army was called upon to “recognize and maintain the freedom of” its new members.

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3. The Emancipation Proclamation divided the American society.

The views on the Emancipation Proclamation proposed by Abraham Lincoln varied from one group to another. For example the white Americans inhabiting the South and their supporters were strongly against it, as they predicted a race war following the proclamation. Also the Northern Democrats were quite dissatisfied with the law. However the African Americans of the US held highly positive view of the meaningful political change. It led many of them to fight on the Union side, in order to obtain freedom.

4. It was followed by changes to the Thirteenth Amendment

The Thirteenth Amendment further legitimized the abolition of slavery. Contrary to the The United States Constitution of 1787, which did not use the word “slavery” but included several provisions about unfree persons, the Thirteenth Amendment introduced on by the Senate on April 8, 1864, and passed by the House on January 31, stated that slavery could solely be a punishment for severe crimes. In other instances, the distinction between free people and enslaved people was non-existent. The Thirteen Amendment is also an essential law today, dealing with e.g. sex trafficking and other modern forms of slavery.

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5. Before the Proclamation there existed a law requiring the return of runaway slaves.

This law was called the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and constituted part of the Compromise of 1850 between Southern slave-holding interests and Northern Free-Soilers. It ruled that anyone who encountered a runaway slave was to return them to their rightful owner. The law was harshly nicknamed “Bloodhound Law” by the Abolitionists, who compared the idea to dogs being used to track down runaway slaves. The law proved not very capable, as by 1843 already more than a hundred slaves managed to successfully flee to the North, thus destabilizing the whole system.

6. Canada became a popular destination for former slaves.

The Black population of Canada rose dramatically between 1850 and 1860, when more and more slaves started seeing the country north of the US as their ultimate escape point. Many of then used the Underground Railroad to cross the border. The September following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act saw several parties of runaway slaves heading for Canada from Pittsburgh. Many of them claimed they would “die rather than be taken back into slavery”. When the Civil War between the Union and the Confederates broke out, one of the generals, Benjamin Butler, justified no longer bringing the escaped slaves back, on the grounds that now the North and the South were at war.

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7. The New York Tribune had its say on the matter of Abolition.

In the summer of 1862, the highly influential American newspaper produced an article, or rather a manifesto, clearly displaying its view on the matter of slavery and Abraham Lincoln’s ideals. The Republican editor of the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley, wrote a convincing editorial entitled “The Prayer of Twenty Millions”. The editorial expressed the need for a more decisive approach towards staging an attack on the Confederacy and called out for a more prompt emancipation of the slaves. A famous quote from it is as follows: “On the face of this wide earth, Mr. President, there is not one … intelligent champion of the Union cause who does not feel … that the rebellion, if crushed tomorrow, would be renewed if slavery were left in full vigor … and that every hour of deference to slavery is an hour of added and deepened peril to the Union.”

8. Slaves were an “engine of war” for the Confederates.

Slaves were a cheap labor force for the Confederate states during the times of the Civil War. They looked after the food supplies, repaired damaged military uniforms, repaired railway tracks and also staffed farms, factories shipyards and mines. They built battle fortifications on order and tended to the injured and sick in hospitals. This is why the Confederates were more than disappointed and annoyed, having lost such a valuable asset to their cause. From the moment that the law banning slavery was set in motion, they would have to worry about all those necessities themselves. Some plantation and factory owners tried to even hide the news about the Emancipation Proclamation from the slaves working in their households and businesses, but they failed, as the news spread fast.

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9. Europe gained respect for Abraham Lincoln’s heroic act of liberation.

Europe started supporting Unionists after the Emancipation Proclamation was passed. By the time, Lincoln had passed the law, the majority of European developed countries shunned the idea of taking away the basic human right of liberty from anyone and thus, praised Lincoln extensively.

Henry Adams, a British statesman noted, “The Emancipation Proclamation has done more for us than all our former victories and all our diplomacy.” At the same time in Italy, Giuseppe Garibaldi spoke of Lincoln as “the heir of the aspirations of John Brown“. Garibaldi wrote a letter to Lincoln on August 6 1863, in which he reflected: Posterity will call you the great emancipator, a more enviable title than any crown could be, and greater than any merely mundane treasure.

10. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made references to the Emancipation Proclamation.

The Emancipation Proclamation became sort of a foundation for the Civil Rights Movement, led by Martin Luther King Jr. During a public address of September 12, 1962 he equated its validity and meaning with the Declaration of Independence itself, the two being an “imperishable contribution to civilization”. Martin Luther King Jr. Also mentioned the Emancipation Proclamation during his famous I Have a Dreamspeech, also known as the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In the opening lines of the speech he mentioned standing in the symbolic shadow of Abraham Lincoln and his famous document.

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