Did Lincoln free the slaves?

In a season of Civil War commemorations, Sept. 22 marks an especially significant milestone. On this date in 1862, Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

Many Americans rank Lincoln as one of our greatest presidents, if not THE greatest president. And the reason they give is that “he freed the slaves.”  While that is laudable, it is not completely accurate.

By mid-1862 things were not going well for the North.  At the outbreak of the war, both sides expected that it would end quickly.  However, by 1862 neither side had demonstrated a superior force, nor was the end in sight.

In the North, public support for the war had waned and there was trouble recruiting enough soldiers.  Lincoln, who had tried unsuccessfully to implement a policy of gradual, compensated emancipation, felt that the time had come for a change in plans. In the summer of 1862, his mind began to focus on issuing a proclamation. 

The idea of freeing enslaved people had a number of advantages.  First, there was the moral advantage.  A proclamation would galvanize support for the war among Northern abolitionists.  The second advantage was economic.  The South’s economy was based on slavery.   If enslaved people were freed and left their masters, it would deliver a severe blow to the South’s economy and ability to wage war.   Third, the freed slaves could be recruited into the Union army, to address the army’s need for more soldiers.

Teacher’s Corner

Who exactly did President Lincoln emancipate? Read the Emancipation Proclamation here. Who or whom should be credited with the freeing of enslaved African Americans? To what extent, did General Butler’s 1861 contraband order impact emancipation? Use these lesson plans to expand the discussion on who is responsible for emancipating those enslaved.

But Lincoln had one problem: the United States Constitution. Lincoln was not the first president who wanted to achieve an objective that did not come within the scope of his constitutional powers. The Constitution protected slavery by leaving it in the control of the states. It gave the president no power to free the slaves. So what was Lincoln to do?

Well, as Commander–in-Chief of the armed forces, the president has powers in wartime that he does not have in peacetime. And that was the solution to Lincoln’s dilemma.  As a war measure, he claimed the authority to liberate slaves in areas of the country in open rebellion and ordered the Union army to free all slaves in those areas.  So, on September 22, 1862, he issued a preliminary version of the Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect on January 1, 1863.

What if you were an enslaved person in one of the border states loyal to the Union, or in parts of the South where the Union army was already in control?  You were out of luck.  So, a more accurate statement is that the Emancipation Proclamation freed some of the slaves.

But more important than that, the Proclamation made ending slavery a Union war aim. No longer were Union soldiers fighting solely to preserve the Union. They were now an army of liberation, fighting to save the Union and end slavery.

Donald Applestein is a retired attorney and experience guide in the National Constitution Center’s Public Programs Department.