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The Emancipation Proclamation

President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation can claim equal symbolic importance for modern America as the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights or the Constitution. Although the Civil War had erupted in 1861 over the question of slave-holding in the new western states, many in the north, including Lincoln, did not intend to abolish slavery for fear of making other states secede.

By the President... A Proclamation

By the President... A Proclamation [Declaring all slaves in the United States free], [1864] [C.160.c.4.(1)]. Copyright © The British Library Board

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What is the Emancipation Proclamation?

Following the Battle of Antietam (September 1862), Lincoln published the Preliminary Emancipation Declaration, announcing the intention to declare slaves free within 100 days. Lincoln signed the final Declaration on 1 January 1863, declaring that all enslaved persons in the seceded states would be freed, making the ending of slavery the central war aim of the Union during the American Civil War.

 

Why does the Library have a copy?

There were several drafts of the Proclamation, and the final one is held by the U.S. National Archives. The State Department and other government bodies soon printed copies, but many commemorated editions were also published and have been enumerated by the bibliographer Charles Eberstadt, recording this edition as number 32.

The edition was offered for sale at the Great Central Sanitary Fair in Philadelphia, June 1864, in order to raise funds for sick and wounded soldiers and military camps. 48 copies were printed at the request of Charles Godfrey Leland and George Henry Boker, two prominent Philadelphians and proponents of emancipation. Lincoln attended the fair and, along with the Secretary of State William H. Seward and Lincoln' private secretary John G. Nicolay, signed some of the copies, including this one. Lincoln's presence at the fair and the presence of the three signatures make the Leland-Boker 'Authorized Edition' Emancipation Proclamation, one of the rarest and most highly-sought printed documents of American history. Fewer than half are thought to have survived the war, but one was obtained by the British Museum.

 

What was the impact of the Proclamation?

The consequences of Lincoln's announcement were as much symbolic as practical. The Proclamation meant that the Union was fighting not just to prevent the extension of slavery into the western states, but for emancipation. It offered the Union a moral cause to fight for, and a reason for black soldiers to enlist in the Union army.

By attacking slavery, Lincoln also won the support of much international opinion; or, at least, prevented the South from receiving foreign aid. The Confederate states controlled much of the world's supply of cotton and hoped for military or financial help from Britain and France, but after the Proclamation, these nations could not be seen to be supporting slavery. The Union achieved victory over the South in 1865.

In 1865, the 13th Amendment banned slavery in all U.S. states and territories.

The date of the proclamation continues to be commemorated widely among African Americans.

The U.S. National Archives 'Featured Document: the Emancipation Proclamation'
U.S. National Archives transcript

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