On this day in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signs the final Emancipation Proclamation, which ends slavery in the rebelling states. A preliminary proclamation was issued in September 1862, following the Union victory at the Battle of Antietam in Maryland. The act signaled an important shift in the Union’s Civil War aims,expanding the goal of the war from reunification to include the eradication of slavery.
The proclamation freed all slaves in states that were still in rebellion on January 1, 1863. Lincoln used vacated Congressional seats to determine the areas still in rebellion, as some parts of the South had already been recaptured and representatives returned to Congress under Union supervision. Asthe proclamation freed slaves only in rebellious areas it actually freed no one, since these were areas not yet under Union control. The measure was still one of the most important acts in American history, however, as it meant slavery would end when those areas were recaptured. Most crucially, this measure effectively sabotaged Confederate attempts to secure recognition by foreign governments, especially Great Britain. When reunification was the sole goal of the North, the Confederates could be viewed by foreigners as freedom fighters being held against their will by the Union. But after the Emancipation Proclamation, the Southern cause was now the defense of slavery. The proclamation was a shrewd maneuver by Lincoln to brand the Confederate States as a slave nation and render foreign aid impossible.
The measure was met by a good deal of opposition, as many Northerners were unwilling to fight for the freedom of blacks; however, the proclamation signaled the death knell for slavery and had the effect on British opinion that Lincoln desired. Britain, which was ideologically opposed to slavery, could no longer recognize the Confederacy, and goodwill towards the Union forces swelled in Britain. With this measure, Lincoln effectively isolated the Confederacy and killed the institution that was at the root of sectional differences.
On New Year’s Day 1863, the president greeted a large group of diplomats at a White House reception. Shortly after noon, he slipped upstairs to his office and signed the proclamation. “I never felt more certain,” he commented, “that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper.”