A couple of years ago, speaking to a bipartisan group of college students about the Emancipation Proclamation, President Barack Obama commented, half jokingly, that if the executive order were signed today, headlines would scream, “Lincoln Sells Out Slaves.” His observation spoke not only to our sensationalist news culture, but also to the rocky reputation of the Proclamation itself, a document that has been both praised and damned by politicians, scholars, and activists on both sides of the ideological aisle since Lincoln announced it in 1862 and then signed it 150 years ago this year, on January 1, 1863.

The reasons behind the ups and downs in the Proclamation’s reputation are various. From the outset, it was roundly and predictably condemned by Democratic opponents, who characterized it as a brash and sweeping abuse of presidential power. Perhaps less predictably, Northern abolitionists also condemned it, but for the opposite reason. They argued that it didn’t do enough, didn’t go far enough. Since the Emancipation Proclamation applied only to those slaves in rebel-held territory, abolitionists complained that it abandoned thousands of slaves, including the four loyal slave states: Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky. Of the four million slaves in America at the time, the Proclamation applied to only about 3.1 million of them. It would take another three years and the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865 to abolish slavery throughout the United States. Adam Gurowski, a Polish radical working as a translator in the State Department at the time, despaired that “the proclamation is generated neither by Lincoln’s brains, heart or soul, and what is born in such a way is always monstrous.”

Despite Gurowski’s prediction, in the decades following the Civil War, until the middle of the twentieth century, the reputation of the Emancipation Proclamation expanded in most Americans’ estimation, reaching a rather exalted status in the American history textbooks in many of our childhoods. But then, in the 1960s, the Proclamation’s reputation began to shrivel again. Some historians began to find the prose wanting. It irked them that the Proclamation was written in legalese as a military measure, not as an expression of moral conviction—evidence, they thought, that the document was “merely” the product of political calculation and compromise. Lincoln was found wanting, too. Steeped in the realities of the nineteenth century, Lincoln’s racial attitudes seemed out of step with the times.

As the civil rights movement grew, many African Americans bristled at the high regard with which the Proclamation was remembered in American history. It may have promised freedom, they argued, but it left them with a political and economic reality that was far from free. Worse, by celebrating the Proclamation as the moment at which blacks were officially “freed,” it seemed that Americans were able to conveniently paper over the racial injustices that persisted in society. Others took umbrage at the image, immortalized in the bronze sculpture at the Emancipation Memorial in the nation’s capital, of Lincoln as Great Emancipator bestowing freedom upon a kneeling, grateful slave. Crusading young civil rights activists argued that the enslaved won their freedom not because of Lincoln but in spite of him, that slaves were the primary agents of freedom, not the white man in the White House.

More recently, some libertarians, returning to an argument first made by Lincoln’s political opponents in 1863, have again denounced the Great Emancipator as a dictator who exceeded his executive authority and issued the Proclamation not to advance freedom but to exercise power and lay the groundwork for a Leviathan state. The Emancipation Proclamation, contested in its own time, has become devalued in ours.

But like many historical events at the center of heated debate, the Emancipation Proclamation deserves neither the blanket condemnation nor the blind exaltation it has received. Instead, we should use the occasion of the sesquicentennial to take a fresh look at this embattled decree, to examine the historical context in which it emerged and to gain a renewed appreciation for its place in the story of American freedom. Above all else, we should remember Lincoln as a moral and patient politician. His pragmatic and gradual way of proceeding agitated those who wanted immediate results, but time allowed him to build public support for unpopular measures and to win allies through artful and effective compromise. “It is my conviction,” he said, “that had the Proclamation been issued even six months earlier than it was, public sentiment would not have sustained it.”

In April 1864, a little more than a year after signing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln responded to critics, who decried the document as a weak half measure and its author as a cynical politician, motivated only by military ends. In a letter, Lincoln explained, “I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel. And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling.”

That statement underscores the complex moral, social, and political reality that led Lincoln, in fits and starts over the course of more than a year, to embrace the need for the Emancipation Proclamation. When the Civil War began, he initially refused to consider a decree freeing the slaves, citing not moral qualms, but constitutional ones. In putting down what he viewed as the Southern states’ unconstitutional rebellion against the authority of the U.S. government, Lincoln would not violate his oath of office, which obligated him to uphold the Constitution. Since slavery was a state institution, governed by state law, Lincoln believed the president had no power to interfere in it.

Beyond his constitutional scruples, Lincoln had other concerns that prevented him from taking immediate, direct action against slavery. He feared that any precipitant action against the institution would deliver Kentucky, Missouri, or Maryland into Confederate hands, a shift in the balance sheet of war that could doom Union efforts. Although he probably never said it, Lincoln’s reputed comment speaks to the significance of the issue: “I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky.” For months, Lincoln urged the border states to adopt plans of gradual emancipation that the federal government would fund, but they spurned his entreaties.

Lincoln also feared that any sweeping emancipation effort would be a gut punch to his soldiers, two-fifths of whom came from Democratic backgrounds. If he turned the war into an explicit assault on slavery, would the troops continue to fight? While they supported the Union, many would not embrace emancipation, in part because of a widespread fear that freed slaves would inundate the North. Such racial anxieties led many Americans, including Lincoln, to support far-fetched schemes of voluntary colonization to Africa, the Caribbean, and Central America as an answer to the problem of what to do with former slaves.

Lincoln’s political problems were not only domestic, but international as well. In the first year of the war, a delicate diplomatic game was afoot as the Confederacy sought aid and recognition from foreign nations, while Lincoln’s administration worked feverishly to prevent European involvement. England, in particular, posed the greatest threat. Some 80 percent of Britain’s cotton came from the United States, so they had an interest in safeguarding the South, and it was well known that the English aristocracy disdained the democratic politics of the Union.

Meanwhile, the war was not going well. The Union’s “Peninsula Campaign,” which had aimed at taking Richmond in the spring and summer of 1862, was a failure, and morale was low. Something needed to be done, or the Union would lose.

It was during this time that Lincoln found a way to sidestep his constitutional reservations about emancipating the slaves. As president, he felt he could not act constitutionally to intervene against slavery, but as commander in chief, he could act on the grounds of military necessity. Since slave labor helped the Confederacy wage war, freeing the slaves could be interpreted constitutionally not as an act of meddling in states’ rights, but as a blow to the Confederate war effort. Lincoln would later defend the Proclamation on those grounds, reminding Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase that “the original proclamation has no Constitutional authority or legal justification except as a military measure.”

Lincoln also overcame his earlier anxiety about the border states, believing that while they might initially condemn the Emancipation Proclamation, the time for a possible secession had passed: Union military presence was simply too well established to permit it. Emancipating the slaves in the Confederacy would serve to isolate the border slave states, leaving them no choice, Lincoln believed, but to eventually abolish the institution on their own.

Lincoln also eventually became persuaded that acting against slavery would win more support than condemnation abroad. Several days before issuing the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln told a Chicago delegation, “Emancipation would help us in Europe and convince them that we are incited by something more than ambition.”

On July 22, 1862, Lincoln informed the cabinet of his decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, later explaining, “I felt that we had reached the end of our rope on the plan of operation we had been pursuing; that we had about played our last card, and must change our tactics, or lose the game.” In the ensuing discussion, Secretary of State William H. Seward recommended that the Proclamation be deferred until a Union military victory so it would not be seen as a desperate measure taken on the retreat. Lincoln agreed. Victory came on September 17 at Antietam, the single bloodiest day in American history.

Five days later, on September 22, Lincoln publicly issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. It stated his intention to authorize the emancipation of slaves in any area still in rebellion as of January 1, 100 days away. That period would serve as a testing ground for the decree, a volatile time for the Union that easily could have shaken Lincoln’s resolve.

On October 1, 1862, Lincoln traveled to Antietam to visit the troops. Charles Fessenden Morse, an officer with the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, guided Lincoln’s party and afterward wrote a letter to his family in which he praised the Emancipation Proclamation: “It gives us a decided policy, and though the President carefully calls it nothing but a war measure, yet it is the beginning of a great reform and the first blow struck at the real, original cause of the war.” The soldiers would fight not only for the goal of preserving the Union, but for emancipation as well.

Some soldiers also recognized the decree’s international import. A private in the 72nd Pennsylvania wrote to his father that “foreign nations will now have to come out flat-footed and take sides; they dare not go with the South, for slavery, they will all be ranged on our side.” The private may have been overly confident, but the delicate diplomatic game did begin to tip in favor of the Union. While some members of the British aristocracy were troubled by the Proclamation as an unwarranted assault on Southern rights to property, they did not act on behalf of the Confederacy. Any threat of intervention passed in October when the British prime minister announced that his government would “continue merely to be lookers-on.”

Domestic, not international, politics took center stage with the fall congressional elections. Many thought the contests would serve as a referendum on the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. When the results were tabulated, Lincoln’s Republican Party suffered heavy losses, losing twenty-eight seats in Congress as well as the governorships of New York and New Jersey. Even the president’s home district in Illinois went to the Democrats. In response, correspondents implored Lincoln to abandon his plans for emancipation, but he refused. Lincoln chose instead to interpret the elections as a referendum not on emancipation but on the stalled progress of the war. When a group of Kentucky Unionists visited him in November, he stood his ground, proclaiming that he would “rather die than take back a word of the Proclamation of Freedom.”

Not only did Lincoln hold to his plan despite intense political pressure, he also made the final document more powerful. While the preliminary decree had expressed continued support for publicly popular efforts “to colonize persons of African descent,” the final Proclamation made no mention of colonization at all. In addition, Lincoln authorized the enlistment of blacks into the armed services of the United States, a radical move he had opposed just a year earlier. By war’s end, nearly 180,000 black men served in the Union Army, and more than 18,000 served in the Navy. Their efforts not only helped to win the war, but also played a crucial role in African American self-empowerment and the struggle for civil rights in years to come. In March 1864, Private Thomas Long, of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, told his comrades, “If we hadn’t become sojers, all might have gone back as it was before . . . but now tings can never go back, because we have showed our energy, our courage & our naturally [natural] manhood.”

Lincoln also added a clause to the drily legalistic final version of the Emancipation Proclamation that lifted it toward moral grandeur: “And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.”

January 1, 1863, the day the Proclamation would be signed, was to be a banner day, the Day of Jubilee. The night before, at a contraband camp for escaped slaves in Washington, hundreds gathered to pray and sing through the night. At midnight, one man began to weep, and when asked why he was crying he answered, “Tomorrow my child is to be sold neter more.”

On the morning of January 1, Lincoln went to his office to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, but noticed an error in the formulaic superscription and returned the document to be corrected. After spending three hours at a public reception, he withdrew again to his study to sign the corrected copy. Frederick Seward, the assistant secretary of state, recalled that Lincoln’s hand quivered—perhaps from the exertion of the day, perhaps from the magnanimity of the moment. He remembered Lincoln pausing before he signed and saying, “I never in my life felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper. . . . If my name ever goes into history it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.” Later, Frederick Douglass spoke for many when he announced, “The fourth of July was great, but the first of January, when we consider it in all its relations and bearings, is incomparably greater.”

Emancipation, however, must be understood not as a moment—not as merely the first of January, 1863—but as the beginning of a long process. In the years following that first Day of Jubilee, Lincoln continued to defend the Proclamation and began working for a constitutional amendment that would abolish slavery throughout the United States forever. That amendment, which Lincoln called a “King’s cure for all the evils,” finally won congressional approval on January 31, 1865, and was transmitted to the states for ratification. The president was so excited that he signed the joint resolution, even though his endorsement was not required by the Constitution. Lincoln began to think past emancipation and toward a more holistic life for former slaves. What would freedom look like? How would meaningful progress be achieved? He talked about the importance of wage labor and education, and in his final public speech he countenanced limited black suffrage. He acknowledged that measures would have to be adopted and support given, so that “the two races could gradually live themselves out of their old relation to each other.”

But if the Emancipation Proclamation freed most slaves and the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery as an institution, both stopped short of providing a viable path toward equality. The failure of Reconstruction led to nearly a century of crushing oppression, with freed slaves and their children mired in poverty, disfranchisement, racial violence, legalized segregation, and, in many cases, labor conditions that amounted to little more than de facto slavery. Only after World War II, with the rise of the civil rights movement, did these conditions begin to change.

In 1963, 100 years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Martin Luther King Jr. stood before the Lincoln Memorial and praised the decree. King did not share young civil rights leaders’ willingness to criticize the document or demean Lincoln. Instead, King said that Lincoln’s “symbolic shadow” reached far and the Proclamation “came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.”

But all was not optimistic that day. King went on to offer a searing indictment of American society. “One hundred years later, the Negro still is not free,” he said, his voice booming across the Mall. “One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.”

The Emancipation Proclamation now stands alongside the Declaration of Independence as a foundation of freedom in America. Given the unprecedented pressures that he faced, Lincoln should be remembered for doing all that he could, for overcoming virulent political and social opposition, for balancing political compromise with military realities, and for advancing what he believed to be a moral and pragmatic path forward, despite, at times, his own misgivings. And while his work ended more than a century ago, our own work must continue today.

Click here to read more from our Jan/Feb 2013 cover package “Race, History, and Obama’s Second Term.”

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Louis P. Masur

Louis P. Masur is a professor of American studies and history at Rutgers University and the author of "Lincoln's Hundred Days: The Emancipation
Proclamation and the War for the Union."