As early as 1849, Abraham Lincoln believed that slaves should be emancipated, advocating a program in which they would be freed gradually. Early in his presidency, still convinced that gradual emacipation was the best course, he tried to win over legistators. To gain support, he proposed that slaveowners be compensated for giving up their “property.” Support was not forthcoming.
In September of 1862, after the Union’s victory at Antietam, Lincoln issued a preliminary decree stating that, unless the rebellious states returned to the Union by January 1, freedom would be granted to slaves within those states. The decree also left room for a plan of compensated emancipation. No Confederate states took the offer, and on January 1 Lincoln presented the Emancipation Proclamation. The proclamation declared, “all persons held as slaves within any States, or designated part of the State, the people whereof shall be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”
The Emancipation Proclamation did not free all slaves in the United States. Rather, it declared free only those slaves living in states not under Union control. William Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state, commented, “We show our symapthy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.” Lincoln was fully aware of the irony, but he did not want to antagonize the slave states loyal to the Union by setting their slaves free.
The proclamation allowed black soldiers to fight for the Union — soldiers that were desperately needed. It also tied the issue of slavery directly to the war.
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