The Emancipation Proclamation Didn’t Free Any Slaves

Today is an important anniversary in our nation’s history. It was on this day, 155 years ago that President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Lincoln is known as the “Great Emancipator” and is regarded is one of the greatest presidents in U.S. history. Along our journey across America, we have learned time and time again that many of the narratives we embrace as historical fact have been incomplete at best and often downright wrong. Let’s look at the Emancipation Proclamation, for example.

How many slaves did the Emancipation Proclamation free? Experts say that there were around four million slaves in the U.S. in the 1860’s. So maybe it freed half of them? Not close. The Emancipation Proclamation actually freed ZERO slaves.

I am no historian, but after a good deal of reading President Lincoln’s own words on slavery and the issue of race in America, I think the Emancipation Proclamation was more about preserving the Union and winning the war than it was a heartfelt desire for justice and racial equality in America. Here are some of the “Great Emancipator’s” own words.

In the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates for Illinois’ U.S. Senate seat in 1858, Lincoln stated his view of white supremacy: “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. (Source)

At the time of Lincoln’s inauguration to the Presidency on March 4, 1861, the United States was being torn apart. Jefferson Davis had been inaugurated as the President of the Confederate States of America just two weeks earlier in Montgomery, Alabama. In Lincoln’s inaugural address, he spoke to many in the newly formed Confederate States saying, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” (Source)

In August 1862, 16 months into the Civil War, New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley published an editorial calling on President Abraham Lincoln to declare emancipation for all slaves in Union-held territories. With a preliminary version of the Emancipation Proclamation having already been presented to his cabinet, Lincoln wrote to Mr. Greeley, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union.” (Source)

I have come to the conclusion that the Emancipation Proclamation was a shrewd wartime move by a President whose purpose was to preserve the Union above all. The “Great Emancipator” was more of a great messenger and used the proclamation to define the war as a conflict over slavery and made emancipation an official part of the North’s military strategy.

Why would this help the cause of the Union in the war? First, there was concern that some European nations would support the Confederacy. Lincoln believed that if he owned the moral authority on the war, countries like England and France, where slavery had already been abolished, would be hesitant to support the Confederacy because it would be synonymous with supporting slavery. It was clear that most in the South were seceding to support the institution of slavery, but that was not Lincoln’s primary reason for conflict with the South.

Secondly, Lincoln believed that the proclamation was a wartime measure intended to cripple the Confederacy by removing the free labor the South depended upon, and encouraging blacks in the South to come North and join the Union Army. This would add to the ranks of the Union Army and further the moral tone of the war.

So how did the Emancipation Proclamation free zero enslaved people? Lincoln applied the Emancipation Proclamation only to the Southern states in rebellion. Since those states had already seceded and war was underway, the federal government had no power or ability to enforce the provisions. In addition, the Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to enslaved people in the border states of Missouri, Kentucky, Delaware, and Maryland, which practiced slavery but had not seceded. Lincoln didn’t want to propel them into joining the Confederacy and result in Washington D.C. being surrounded by Confederate states on all sides. Lincoln did not free any enslaved people where he had the power to free them.

This proves to me that the Emancipation Proclamation emancipated no one. It was a tool to win a war, and nevertheless was a major step leading to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that formally abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. More on what that exemption in a previous blog post:

Over time, abolition became a central characteristic of Lincoln’s moral drive, but I have never seen evidence that true racial equality was part of his belief system. President Lincoln struggled between order and justice as I have through much of my life and I believe he chose order in the end.

Leading abolitionists and African-Americans were much larger agents in their own liberty than the “Great Emancipator” ever was. Lincoln was a man of his times and time has shown me that on this issue, the facts offer a different narrative than the one I was taught.


  • Susan Neibel says:

    Enlightening. Thank you.

  • Knowya Hystri says:

    You didn’t read the last part he said to Greeley. He said all of his thoughts about letting slavery exist if it saved rhe the union was based on his official sense of duty and also went on right after that sentence to say that it also didn’t change that his PERSONAL feelings lay in hoping all men could be free.

    • David Leaverton says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Knowya. I did read the entire text of his message to Greeley. For others following the post, here is the text you are referencing: “I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.”
      Yes, Lincoln’s personal feelings were in support of abolition for most of his life. Many of us have feelings that conflict with other, with the primary feelings and belief winning the day. With Lincoln, his “paramount” struggle was to save the Union. He decided that order (Union) was more important than justice (abolition). He could have legislated his personal feelings for abolition in the northern states in the Emancipation Proclamation, but he chose not to, in order to preserve the union. It wasn’t an easy decision with his personal feelings toward the institution, I’m sure. To choose justice, abolition, and full equality would have been political suicide at that time. But I believe that he made his primary motivating factor clear in this letter to Greeley. Thanks again for your feedback!

    • Douglas L Self says:

      Lincoln has been criticized for his (NON)Emancipation Proclamation not applying to the USA in general, but it should be kept in mind that legally he had no authority to do that. There is often this perception that slavery was absolutely abolished north of the Mason-Dixon line, but, in fact, in many “Northern” states it was still quite legal, just not practiced. ONly a handful of states, like IL and PA, had actually abolished the “Peculiar Institution” completely There were quite a few that had varying schemes for gradual emancipation; usually in that people born to slave women after a certain date were by default freed upon reaching their age of majority (usually 21). And, of course, there is also the matter of the so-called “border” states (MO, KY, MD, and DE) which had slavery going all along. In fact, both DE and KY rejected the 13th Amendment on Feb 6th, 1865 (MO and MD had enacted abolition by that date on the state level), so slavery remained LEGAL there until ratified by the 27th of the then 36 states (never mind that only a few of the erstwhile Confederate states had been “readmitted” to the Union, i.e., were able to send Senators and Representatives to the Congress), that is, GEORGIA, on Dec 13th, 1865. DE would not ratify the 13th Amendment until 1911 and KY not until 1972!

      FWIW, Lincoln had, just prior to his inauguration, endorsed the Corwin Amendment, which he believed was the last chance to prevent hostilities (SC had already voted to secede in Dec 1860), if adopted, THIS would have been the 13th Amendment, and it would have guaranteed slavery FOREVER from Federal interference where it then existed. What irony. Lincoln did opine that the Southern states had a better chance of preserving slavery if they remained in the Union than if they broke away from it; and he was proved correct. So much for the “Great Emancipator”!

  • Phil says:

    Lincoln had a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation written during the Greeley letter and was waiting for a major Union victory to release it.

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