Skip to content Skip to navigation

By the President of the United States: A Proclamation [Emancipation Proclamation].

By the President of the United States: A Proclamation, Emancipation Proclamation

Abraham Lincoln. Larue County, Kentucky 1809 -1865 Washington, D.C. By the President of the United States: A Proclamation [Emancipation Proclamation]. Philadelphia: F. Leypoldt, ca. June 6, 1864. Broadside, 56 x 40 cm. Signed by Abraham Lincoln, William H. Seward, and John G. Nicolay. Provenance: Huntington Library, San Marino, California (ex-Judd Stewart collection). Athenæum purchase, Parkman Fund, 1953.


In 1862, with the Civil War raging, Abraham Lincoln attempted to do with his pen what his generals were struggling with difficulty to accomplish in the field: defeat the rebellious states and restore the Union. Lincoln’s weapon was a proclamation, conceived in secrecy, hesitantly issued, and written in legal prose. Yet it was a masterstroke that profoundly transformed the war, changed American society, and produced one of the most influential documents of American history.

Lincoln wrote, in his own hand, the first draft of the proclamation in June 1862, without consulting even his closest aides. The war was going badly for the Union. General George B. McClellan, leading the huge Federal Army of the Potomac, was stalled in his attempt to capture the Confederate capitol of Richmond, Virginia. In the western part of that state, General “Stonewall” Jackson held Union armies at bay in the Shenandoah Valley and threatened Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, Robert E. Lee was made commander of the South’s largest and best-equipped force, the Army of Northern Virginia, and embarked on a series of aggressive moves. Perhaps Lincoln’s greatest worry was that the Confederacy’s military achievements would lead England or France, whose economies were dependent on southern cotton, to extend diplomatic recognition to Jefferson Davis’s government, something that had to be prevented at all cost.

Although Lincoln detested slavery, he had always claimed in public that the principal goal of the war was to reunite the country. He took this stance mainly to assuage the widespread ambivalence in the North about the matter of slavery, especially among Democrats. To make matters worse, Lincoln also feared that emancipating the slaves in the pro-slavery Border States of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware could have the effect of driving these states into secession. Yet the radical Republicans of his own party, led by Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, an ardent abolitionist, loudly argued that the war ought to be fought for a higher principle – as a struggle for human freedom. Slavery had to be destroyed.

Lack of an official policy on the issue of slavery was playing out in uncomfortable ways for Union commanders in operations in the South. In escaping from their plantations to seek the protection of nearby Union forces, masses of fugitive slaves were, in effect, emancipating themselves. Congress eventually ruled that the fugitive slaves were to be considered “contrabands of war,” and thus liberated, but Lincoln still proceeded cautiously on the larger issue. He tinkered with the proclamation to free the slaves during the summer of 1862 and held it in secret until the right moment.

That moment came in late September. On September 17, at the bloody battle of Antietam, near Sharpsburg, Maryland, Union General McClellan, stopped Confederate General Lee’s invasion of the North. Without any ceremony, and issued for the information of Washington newspapers and reporters and interested governmental agencies, the so-called “preliminary proclamation” was made public on September 22.[1] It declared that all people held as slaves in the states in rebellion (except in areas under Federal control) would be granted freedom on January 1, 1863. The document sought to accomplish three objectives: to keep the Border states in the Union; to satisfy the radical Republicans; and to turn the war into a war of emancipation, making it difficult for European powers to recognize the Confederacy.

Predictably, the South reacted to the document with horror and hatred. In the North, apart from the radical Republicans and abolitionists, the response was decidedly mixed. Many questioned whether soldiers would fight if the war was to be about freeing blacks. Even Frederick Douglass, worried about the legalistic wording of the proclamation and the delay in its being put into effect, had doubts about its ultimate success.[2]

The final proclamation was first printed in January 1863, as a two-page broadsheet with the printed signatures of Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward. Later, an edition of forty-eight copies was printed for sale for ten dollars each at the Great Central Sanitary Fair in Philadelphia, June 7-29, 1864.[3] Signed in pen by Lincoln, Seward, and Lincoln’s secretary, John G. Nicolay, the copies were donated to raise money for the group that later became the Red Cross. Not all of the copies were purchased; some were presented to libraries, and others went to be sold at the National Sailors’ Fair, which was held in Boston, November 9-19, 1864. About twenty known copies of the document have survived in public and private hands. The Athenæum’s copy was purchased later from the Huntington Library, San Marino, California, as a duplicate.


Stephen Z. Nonack, from, Stanley Ellis Cushing and David B. Dearinger, eds., Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenæum (2006): 164-166. Copyright © The Boston Athenæum.


[1] In December 1862, businessman John Murray Forbes (1813-1898) printed a miniature eight-page pamphlet of the preliminary proclamation. A friend of Massachusetts governor John Andrew, Forbes played a key role in putting the state on a war footing, helped with the organization of African American regiments, and was tireless in promoting Lincoln’s policies, particularly after Emancipation, which he championed. It is said that Forbes printed 1,000,000 copies of the proclamation to be sent to army commanders in the South for distribution to the fugitive slaves, but in fact the pamphlet is extremely rare (see Charles Eberstadt, “Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation,” The New Colophon: A Book-Collectors’ Miscellany [New York: Duschnes Crawford, 1950]).

[2]Allen C. Guelzo, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 159.

[3]The text of the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in many different forms, of which the
Athenæum has several, including a version with its text printed so that it creates a portrait of Lincoln. Designed and written by W. H. Pratt, it was lithographed by August Hageboeck and published in Davenport, Iowa, in 1865.