In 1863, in the heat of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln announced that all slaves on Confederate territory were free. While the Emancipation Proclamation did not free a single slave, as Lincoln had no control of Confederate territory, it did give the Union a sense of purpose for why they were fighting the Civil War. It gave the Union a sense that they held the moral high ground in the conflict. Further it was a major step toward the end of American slavery, which was achieved two years later with the end of the Civil War and the ratification of the 13th Amendment.
Signing this document was one of the defining documents of American democracy, issued on Jan. 1, 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln. The Emancipation Proclamation declared that: "All persons held as slaves within any state or designated part of the state in rebellion against the United States are and hence forward shall be free."
Those words marked a turning point in the Civil War, staking a moral dimension to the Union cause. And the document became a symbol of hope for the nearly four million slaves held in Confederate states.
The National Archives in Washington, D.C., honors the occasion with a rare public viewing. Written on paper, rather than more durable parchment, the Proclamation has faded over the years from light exposure, and now spends most of the time in protective dark storage in the National Archives. It commands large crowds on those rare occasions, like today, when it's on public display. And even 150 years later, it retains the power to inspire. The Emancipation Proclamation remains on view to the public through 5:00 p.m. New Year's Day.
Annette Gordon-Reed, professor of history and law at Harvard Law School won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in history for her book "The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family." In a recent PBS News Hour discussion, she stated, “It's an iconic document in American history. Americans like to look at things like that to remind us the sort of journey that we have been on from the beginning of the country's foundation. The Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, these are the things that are sort of the touchstones for where we have been and where we hope we are going.”
Lincoln’s greatness is inextricably linked to his broad vision of the executive office. He invoked his authority as commander in chief and chief executive to conduct war, initially without congressional permission, when many were unsure whether secession meant war. He considered the entire South the field of battle. While he depended on congressional support for men and material, Lincoln controlled all tactics, strategy, and policy. Only Lincoln’s broad interpretation of his commander in chief authority made the sweeping step of freeing the slaves possible.
While he used his powers more broadly than any previous president, he was responding to a crisis that threatened the very life of the nation. Like Washington and Jackson before him, Lincoln relied on his constitutional duty to execute the laws, his power as chief executive, and his presidential oath as grants of power to use force, if necessary, against those who opposed the nation’s authority.
He issued the final emancipation proclamation, “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 the authority and government of the United States.”
He rooted the constitutional justification for the Emancipation Proclamation as “a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion.” While he remained clear that the war was “for the object of practically restoring the constitutional relation between” the United States and the rebel states, he freed 2.9 million slaves, 75 percent of all slaves in the United States and 82 percent of the slaves in the Confederacy.
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