Emancipation Proclamation turns 150 this week

AHF joins the National Endowment for the Humanities in celebrating the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s unveiling of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, a key moment in the process that led to the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery in the United States. Visit NEH’s Emancipation Nation: Celebrating Freedom, the NEH’s Constitution Day commemoration, for more information and events.

On September 22, 1862, Abraham Lincoln unveiled a preliminary version of his Emancipation Proclamation. In essence, the President was giving the Confederacy until the end of the year to return to the national fold or have its institution of slavery eradicated by executive fiat.

Lincoln had been pondering this radical decision throughout the summer, but he waited until winning an important battle before issuing it. That victory came on September 17 at Antietam, in Maryland, where the Union Army of the Potomac defeated Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in a hard-fought clash that produced 23,000 total casualties—the bloodiest day in American history.

While giving Lincoln his military pretext, the carnage at Antietam also seemed to demand a war whose objective was more than merely preserving a union with slavery. Rather it cried for a war that would create a nation where everyone could enjoy freedom. The Emancipation Proclamation fulfilled that purpose.

Although the terms of this decree restricted its impact only to those states currently in rebellion, its spirit sealed the doom of slavery throughout the entire country. Thus, the Emancipation Proclamation transformed the Civil War into a revolution for liberty. As such, it stands as one of the greatest American documents of all time.

By Ben H. Severance, Auburn University Montgomery, Ph.D., Associate Professor of History, and Lead Scholar, Let’s Talk About It: Making Sense of the American Civil War, a project of AHF, the National Endowment for Humanities, and the American Library Association.

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