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150 Years of the Emancipation Proclamation


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One hundred fifty years ago President Abraham Lincoln signed his order freeing all slaves in states rebelling against the Union. The Emancipation Proclamation made obvious what everyone should have known already: the Civil War was fundamentally about whether slavery would continue to exist in the United States.

The proclamation wasn't the deathblow of slavery. In fact, at the beginning only about 20,000 to 50,000 slaves were freed. At the time of the signing, the Union Army controlled few of the rebelling states. Over time, however, the army would come to free more than 3 million individuals.

In some ways, however, the proclamation could be seen as a military turning point in the war. While many in the North thought that the war would end rapidly, there was at least one man who recognized the hidden strength of the South's war machine--the U.S. Representative from Lancaster, Thaddeus Stevens.

On January 22, 1862 Stevens noted: "Let us not be deceived. Those who talk about peace in sixty days are shallow statesmen… So long as these states are left the means of cultivating their fields through forced labor, you may expend the blood of thousands and billions of money year by year, without being any nearer the end…Universal emancipation must be proclaimed to all."

While the South lacked the heavy industries of the North, it had resources enough to feed itself and could export cotton to Europe in exchange for military equipment. However, all of this was dependent on the slaves continue to work the fields.

While some later historians would attempt to construct a narrative that the rebellion of the South was primarily about "states rights" and northern aggression, today most recognize that practice of slavery was at the heart of the conflict. While some of the southern Founding Fathers had hoped that the practice would gradually disappear, they didn't see how the development of the cotton gin would change slavery into a much more profitable institution than it had been in their day.

The money pouring in from cotton, sugar and other agricultural industries dependent on slavery made most southerners blind to the horrors of slavery. By the 1860s, it seemed unlikely that planters and politicians would fundamentally change the way their society worked.

Abraham Lincoln had the heart of an abolitionist, but the head of a politician. He knew that even many in the North were not ready to take up arms to eliminate slavery.

As such, the Emancipation Proclamation was not the final blow to slavery. Lincoln signed the order as Commander-in-Chief, and it only applied where there was open rebellion. The slave states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware had remained in the Union. Without legislation, Lincoln could not free the slaves in these states.

Because of the President's limited power, the Emancipation Proclamation was only a critical step toward elimination of slavery and the protection of civil rights for all Americans. The fight for the passage of the 13th Amendment was the focus of the recent Steven Spielberg film Lincoln. The 14th and 15th Amendments protected due process and the right to vote. These rights would need further federal support in the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the 1960s.

I recently joined with Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) to introduce a resolution marking the 150th anniversary of Emancipation Day. While other important steps would be necessary to guarantee the promise of the Declaration of Independence to all Americans, we cannot forget the momentous decision to issue the proclamation.

Importantly, the proclamation also paved the way for black soldiers to fight for the Union cause. Those who had already been liberated became liberators themselves. African American regiments played critical roles in the war, contributing immensely to the eventual victory.

For his action, Lincoln was called a despot and demonized by his political opponents. However, with the war now clearly being fought over the issue of slavery, the French and British governments could not continue to support the South. The war was not over, but a critical blow had been made against slavery and the rebellion. Freedom was now on the march.

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