The Emancipation Proclamation Turns 150

Most of us are aware of the Emancipation Proclamation that was issued on January 1, 1863, but probably fewer realize that a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln on September 22, 1862. Although it has nowhere near the stirring rhetorical qualities that we have come to associate with Lincoln’s writing, the preliminary proclamation nevertheless had an enormous substantive impact on the both course of the Civil War and future of American society. By declaring that all slaves held in the rebellious states would be free, Lincoln made the abolition of slavery a central concern of the United States government.

The preliminary proclamation was actually issued as a military order, specifically General Orders No. 139. Lincoln chose to do this so that his policy could be enacted swiftly without having to wait for the consent of Congress. Furthermore, the timing of document’s release was dictated by military matters as well. Lincoln had actually drafted the proclamation in July of 1862, be he waited until the conclusion of the Battle of Antietam on September 17th to make it public. Antietam was by no means a decisive victory for the Union, but it did halt the Confederate invasion into the north. Lincoln was more than happy to take this small triumph and use it to his advantage. He, and his advisors, had thought that they needed to issue the proclamation from a visible position of strength on the battlefield because to do otherwise would make its issuance appear to be an act of desperation by a shaky government.

A handwritten version of the preliminary proclamation was purchased by the New York State Legislature in 1865 and placed in the New York State Library. It is still there and it can be viewed on the Library’s website. The official printed version can be viewed on the Library of Congress’s website.

The Birmingham Public Library has numerous resources available for those interested in learning more about the Emancipation Proclamation. In terms of books, perhaps the best recent overview of the origins and impact of the document is Allen C. Guelzo’s Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America. Also noteworthy are William K. Klingaman’s Abraham Lincoln and the Road to Emancipation, 1861-1865 and John Hope Franklin’s The Emancipation Proclamation, which was published in 1963 in observance of the final proclamation’s 100th anniversary.

The Library’s subscription databases are also a great source of information about Lincoln, the Civil War, and the issue of slavery. Particularly useful would be African-American History Online, Oxford African American Studies Center, Annals of American History Online, and the History Reference Center.

Jim Murray
Social Sciences Department
Central Library