How the Emancipation Proclamation Worked

Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from

Candace Gibson: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm editor, Candace Gibson, joined by staff writer Jane McGrath.

Jane McGrath: Hey there.

Candace Gibson: Jane, when you think about Presidential speeches, or any speech in general, there's essentially two different types of appeals that you can make to the members of an audience. You can make a pathos appeal, and you're appealing to someone's emotions. Or you can make an ethos appeal, and you're appealing to someone's morality and sense of ethics.

Jane McGrath: I recall this from my rhetoric class. Yeah.

Candace Gibson: Yeah, I took speech writing my senior year of college, spring semester, thinking it would be a snooze and a way to pass the time until I graduated. And it turned out to be a tough class.

Jane McGrath: It was one of my favorites. I love rhetoric.

Candace Gibson: Yeah. And obviously, I've learned a lot about speech judging from my lofty enunciation and vocabulary. But the point being, a couple of different presidents throughout history seemed to have preferred one method or another, depending on the circumstances. And there's some pretty memorable ones that speak to each of these different types of delivery. I think about the Berlin Wall speech, which we've had a podcast about before when Kennedy said that he was a Berliner - or as some people have misinterpreted, he was a jelly doughnut. That definitely made a huge emotional appeal to the people of Berlin saying, "I am one of you." But when you come to something like ethos and appealing to someone's sense of morality, you think about someone like Abraham Lincoln.

Jane McGrath: Definitely. Gettysburg Address, maybe.

Candace Gibson: And that one even, I think, had a bit of emotional resonance to it, too. But one of the most ethical proclamations he made was the Emancipation Proclamation.

Jane McGrath: That's true. And it's pretty interesting. In contrast to the Gettysburg Address, it was very legal. It was a legal document and it was a military tactic, basically. But like you said, it did appeal to morality at the same time, so there is that contrast in it.

Candace Gibson: And if you read the Emancipation Proclamation - which we're not going to do for you -

Jane McGrath: We'll spare you.

Candace Gibson: - because I think that we would lose you a couple of lines through. It really is a bunch of legalese. And it's 700 words long. It actually didn't free any slaves at all.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And people say that it was unnecessary because there were Congressional acts that were already in place that said that whatever slaves the northern troops encountered, they would free if they conquered that area.

Candace Gibson: Right. So essentially they set up the precedent that, because slaves were property, if the Union troops came in and conquered the area, then they acquired all the property, the slaves being a part of that.

Jane McGrath: And they would be freed forever.

Candace Gibson: And Lincoln said from the beginning to his cabinet and his advisors, he wasn't going to try to free the slaves. The country was in such a state of upheaval already, and his biggest concern was getting the seceded south, the Confederacy, to come back to the Union. And the cabinet had at least some support for the idea of gradual emancipation, that this would be something that could be slowly handed out over time - which is almost like - I have to mention him, of course - almost like the idea Thomas Jefferson had -

Jane McGrath: I knew it.

Candace Gibson: - back in the day about slavery, that eventually the institution would work its way out. But Lincoln one day, was on the way to the War Secretary's infant son's funeral. And he was riding in a carriage with some of his top confidants. And he said, "I'm going to do it. I'm going to set the slaves free." But he did it in such a shrewd and calculated way, that it clashes in my mind the image I've always had of Lincoln, which is this top hat wearing, scraggly bearded, droopy eyed, sad, somber man. He was quite a politician with this.

Jane McGrath: That's true. And it flies in the face of most people's ideal image of Lincoln in terms of someone who was out to free the slaves in the beginning. Like you said, coming back to your point, he didn't start this war with the intent of ending slavery in the south. He was against slavery, but like you said, he wanted to preserve the union first and foremost. And he actually stumbled into the situation because it was a great military tactic to use. And he actually calculatedly used the time immediately after the Battle of Antietam - which happened to be the bloodiest battled in the Civil War. After this happened, the country is obviously suffering. People are wondering, "What are we fighting about after all?" And it's fairly confusing what caused the war. It's not exactly slavery that caused it in the first place, so when Lincoln put out the Emancipation Proclamation, it really focused everyone's mind on slavery itself.

Candace Gibson: It did. It boiled down the cause of the war to slavery. And Lincoln was advised by the Secretary of State, William Seward, not to deliver the Proclamation until the Union had had a victory. Because in his mind, he thought it would look like the Union was claiming defeat to the world. And it's important to remember at this time, the south was still getting support - surreptitious support albeit - from France and England. So the Union wanted to make sure that Europe and the rest of the world knew it was still strong and it hadn't lost all its strength.

Jane McGrath: I stumbled across that and it made me think, "Why would these international powers support the south in the first place?" And it's interesting because it was a lot about trade. Obviously the south controlled the cotton and it wasn't a too distant memory, the second war of independence, the War of 1812, had happened. And so they were still hostile towards the United States at that time. And also, there were questions and hostilities about the Canadian border even more recently than that. So England was very quick to jump on board to the south. But when the war became about slavery, they couldn't do that anymore.

Candace Gibson: Right. Because they had decried slavery in their own country several years ago. And so they couldn't possibly be on board with a country - it's important to remember at this time that the Confederacy was its own country essentially.

Jane McGrath: At least they considered it -

Candace Gibson: At least they considered themselves that. And we should note that before the Emancipation Proclamation was delivered on January 1, 1863 - that's when it was laid down into law, supposedly - there was a preliminary one that came out on September 22, 1862. And in this version, Lincoln was trying to give the Confederacy a chance to rejoin the Union. And as a gift with purchase, I guess, they could keep their slaves. As long as they came back to the Union, they would work that out later on. But none of the Confederate states hopped on board. There were a couple of individual landowners who wanted to sign these one-on-one loyalty pacts, but Lincoln wasn't buying that.

Jane McGrath: It's interesting. This document goes down in history, "Oh, it freed the slaves." But at the same time, what was Lincoln doing here? He was giving the south an out. He was like, "You can keep your slaves." That's what the document was saying, "You can keep them and it'll be fine if you rejoin now, if you lay down your arms."

Candace Gibson: And the reason there was such opposition to this, at least in the cabinet was that they feared there'd be a total massacre and utter pandemonium in the south if the slaves were freed. I guess they thought that they would wipe out the plantation owners and then they would storm up north and take all the northerners' jobs. And racism was just as prevalent in the north as it was in the south. And there were some who even postulated the war was a conspiracy and all the northern solders were being killed so the freed slaves could come up to the north and take their jobs.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And that's to help to spur their draft riots at the time, right?

Candace Gibson: Exactly. But the irony behind this was, even if the Emancipation Proclamation had freed all the salves and accomplished that goal, you have to think about the way that information was disseminated at this time. It's not like we had CNN or NPR. It took awhile for the news to get out. And in some cases, at some plantations in the places like the Florida Keys or Texas, the slaves didn't hear the news until well after Lincoln's assassination.

Jane McGrath: And that's where we get the idea of June 19, 1865. It was a date the slaves in Texas first heard of the Emancipation Proclamation. And so that's when Texas actually celebrates that date.

Candace Gibson: And when you look at the order in which the states let go of the institution of slavery, you'll see that the border states were some of the last to loosen their grip on the institution.

Jane McGrath: And they were left out of the Proclamation. It didn't apply to them at all.

Candace Gibson: Right. And that was another political move. Lincoln knew that his hold on Congress was pretty tenuous. And he feared that he would polarize the Republican Party and lose all the Republican support if he continued to push this idea of emancipating the slaves. And if you listen to the detractors behind the Emancipation Proclamation's criticism, it was illegal. He was acting far out of his jurisdiction if you uphold the fact that the Confederacy was its own country at this time. And in our article about the Emancipation Proclamation on How Stuff Works, the author uses this really great analogy. She said it would be like the United States saying to France, "You have to outlaw smoking." We don't have the authority to say that to another country.

Jane McGrath: That would be ridiculous. Yeah.

Candace Gibson: And so Democrats and Republicans who were trying to follow the Constitution to the letter, told Lincoln, "You can't do this."

Jane McGrath: That's right. And Lincoln violated the Constitution some say in many different ways. He withheld habeas corpus and such, but he hid behind the idea that these were military tactics. And to this day, Lincoln is a hero to most people in this country and they defend him in these acts because they were military tactics.

Candace Gibson: But back then I don't think he satisfied a lot of people with the Proclamation. The Abolitionists wanted complete freedom of all slaves, and then the plantation owners of course wanted to keep holding on to their workers.

Jane McGrath: So he didn't satisfy either of those groups.

Candace Gibson: He didn't satisfy anyone. It was like he was trying to walk such a straight line that both sides completely scoffed at him. And like we already mentioned,

there were the conspiracies from the northerners who thought all the slaves were just being sent up north to take over their livesJane McGrath: Right. But one aspect of this that was brilliant and had a great immediate effect was the fact that black soldiers, freed slaves, would join the north and become soldiers. And there was about 180,000, I believe, that joined after the Proclamation was declared.

Candace Gibson: And the proclamation made it explicitly clear that freed slaves - or, I guess, all blacks in general, could join the Armed Forces. And I think people were suspicious of their efforts at first, but they proved themselves. Obviously, this was a cause that they were perhaps the closest to. We know also, when we look at the Emancipation Proclamation - like we said, it's a bunch of legalese. But one of the boldest things about it, if you get down to the language, is it's written in present tense. And some of the drafts that Lincoln had made of the Proclamation were written in future tense. But he reasoned, "No. I want this to be immediate. I want it to be president and I want people to stand up and pay attention." And if you think about it, that would've grabbed people's attention, hearing slavery spoken of as an institution of the past instead of just -

Jane McGrath: It's not a threat of the future that's nebulous and may never happen.

Candace Gibson: Right. But perhaps the biggest ripple effect from the Emancipation Proclamation was that it developed a severe blow to the southern psyche. Because, for the first time, poor white people in the south started to realize that their family members, their sons, and themselves were dying so that wealthy white landowners could continue to build their legacy.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And if they didn't hold slaves, they didn't have a stake in it. They might be anti-slavery, even, or get behind the south for other reasons like the rights of the states reasons. But now, after the Emancipation Proclamation, it's all about slavery.

Candace Gibson: It really is. Like we said, an incredibly shrewd move. So it took awhile for these effects to take hold in the United Sta tes. And then after the civil war was over, we know that things didn't exactly work out smoothly from there on out. When Andrew Johnson came into office after Lincoln's assassination, he was sharply criticized for being too lenient on the Confederacy. Because he was just trying to piece the Union back together as Lincoln would've wanted. And again, harsh criticism from his detractors. And if we look at what happened to the slaves after they were freed, we see it's still not a pretty story at all constitutionally speaking either.

Jane McGrath: That's right. There were contraband camps, I believe. These were camps that were meant to protect the slaves near northern forts. But at the time, it ended up being not the greatest place to live, these contraband camps. And it ended up giving them not a very good living.

Candace Gibson: At all. At all. And when we look at the laws that were passed in order to protect the newly freed slaves, we have the 13th Amendment, which officially abolished slavery. But it didn't give them citizenship. Then the 14th prevented states from holding out on slaves rights without due process. And then the 15th gave all the freed slaves voting rights. And we know about the Jim Crow laws that followed and -

Jane McGrath: Yeah, tried to obstruct that.

Candace Gibson: And the absurd tests that blacks would be made to undergo at voting and polling stations - so they weren't completely assimilated into the American mainstream until well after the civil rights movements.

Jane McGrath: It was a long painful process, but at least the Proclamation started -

Candace Gibson: Yeah, we may have busted your view of the Emancipation Proclamation, and maybe of Lincoln. Maybe now when you think of him you won't think of him as the sad, doe-eyed wartime President, but you think of him as a very shrewd politico. I know that my opinion had been changed of him. And you can read even more about Lincoln, the Civil War, and the families that were torn apart by the battle on

Announcer: For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit Let us know what you think. Send an email to on the homepage.