Happy (belated by the time you see this) Juneteenth!

To celebrate the first Federally observed Juneteenth, I decided it was time to better understand The Emancipation Proclamation. I have never felt I grasped what it did and did not do, or how it does or does not reinforce Abraham Lincoln’s reputation as a force for equality. I assume many of you, just like myself, have never really been told the truth about this document. I hope you will enjoy what I have discovered for myself.

The fallacy: The Emancipation Proclamation did not free a single slave.

The actuality: It immediately freed 20,000 – 50,000 slaves upon its proclamation. It applied to those slaves already in custody of Union forces within Confederate territory. Eventually, it freed 3.5 million of the 4 million enslaved people living at the time.

The fallacy: The Emancipation Proclamation couldn’t be enforced because it applied only to places where the U.S. government didn’t have authority. It “freed” slaves in areas the U.S. didn’t control, and it left enslaved those people in areas the Union did control.

The actuality: It applied to all enslaved people within territory occupied by Union forces. Initially that area was more limited. However, as the Union line advanced deeper into Confederate territory, it freed more and more slaves. It also prevented escaped slaves from being returned to their owners. In this way, as more Black people were behind Union lines, more became instantly and irrevocably freed peoples. The slave holding areas within the Union were exempted for reasons I will next explain (Tennessee, parts of Louisiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Delaware, the 48 counties reorganizing as West Virginia, and the counties within Virginia under Union control).

The fallacy: The Emancipation Proclamation left slaves within the U.S. enslaved.

The actuality: There were 500,000 slaves living within the boundaries of the US who were not freed by the Emancipation; however, all those areas were already in the process of abolishing slavery. The document did not need to apply to those areas, and in fact it could not for the reason I am about to explain.

The fallacy: Lincoln didn’t care about Black people. The Emancipation Proclamation was only a cynical ploy used as wartime propaganda.

The actuality: Lincoln did say in a letter that he would or would not free all, some, or no slaves in order to preserve the Union. He portrayed it merely as a wartime tactic in those letters. However, he did this as a way to soften northerner sentiment. Many northern people did not support emancipation, but they did want to preserve the Union. In order to prepare public sentiment, Lincoln framed emancipation as a tool for destroying the Confederate economy. However, taking the broad context of all his other speeches and writings, Lincoln did in fact want to abolish slavery as a matter of morality. His saying otherwise was a clever manipulation.

The fallacy: Lincoln didn’t have the authority to free slaves.

The actuality: Lincoln could not circumvent slavery during times of peace, because it was enshrined in The Constitution. However, during the war he invoked his powers as Commander in Chief. He could not use that authority in areas already in compliance with the U.S., but those areas were already emancipating their slaves. He definitely had the authority to enforce the proclamation within areas in rebellion specially BECAUSE they were in rebellion. It was a wartime act, and therefore had the full force of law. As more territory came under Union control, the proclamation applied to more and more enslaved people.

So then: The Emancipation Proclamation freed millions of slaves, and those it did not cover were liberated by the jurisdictions where they lived. One of the conditions for reentry into the Union was the abolition of slavery within those states’ newly written constitutions. It cemented the momentum of ratifying the Thirteenth Amendment. It was an expression of Lincoln’s desire to end slavery, though it was presented as a war tactic, rather than an equality strategy.

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