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Standard 1.0 Political Science

Topic C. Protecting Rights and Maintaining Order

Indicator 2. Explain how the United States government protected or failed to protect the rights of individuals and groups

Objective a. Describe significance and effects of the Emancipation Proclamation


Although President Abraham Lincoln was personally opposed to slavery, and was repeatedly pressured by abolitionist activists and political leaders alike, at the outset of the Civil War he found himself in a tedious political position that made decisive action on this issue prohibitive. In the first place, border states where slavery still existed, such as Maryland and Missouri, had thus far chosen not to secede from the Union, and Lincoln was determined to keep them from joining the Confederacy. In addition, Lincoln believed that the South was home to many slaveholding Union sympathizers who might be alienated by emancipation. Finally, many Northern laborers, some of whom were now Union soldiers, feared that the end of slavery would result in a glut of entrants to the labor market that would drive down their wages or take away their jobs altogether.

As a result of these pressures, Lincoln’s public statements regarding the purpose of the Civil War initially downplayed emancipation and instead emphasized preservation of the Union. In an open letter to Harper’s Weekly publisher Horace Greely, dated August 22, 1862, the President famously declared “if I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.” But even as Lincoln spoke these words, behind the scenes he was planning to use his powers as commander-in-chief to take the most decisive governmental action against slavery in the nation’s history: declaring the emancipation of all slaves in areas engaged in active rebellion against the Union. In the context of a Union war effort that was going poorly, to ensure that this measure would not be perceived as an act of desperation, Secretary of State Seward advised that Lincoln wait to issue his order until a significant Union victory on the battlefield.

On September 22, 1862, five days after the Union’s less-than-decisive victory at the Battle of Antietam, Lincoln issued a preliminary emancipation proclamation. This document announced the President’s intention to declare enslaved persons in areas determined to be in rebellion against the Union to be “forever free,” effective on the first day of 1863. The promise of this preliminary action was kept when Lincoln signed the final and official Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. In addition to freeing “all persons held as slaves within any state or designated part of a state” where the people were “in rebellion against the United States,” the Proclamation also announced Lincoln’s intention “to make known that such persons” (former slaves) “will be received into the armed forces of the United States.”

The significance and effects of the Emancipation Proclamation have been debated since the moment it took effect. Because it was a military measure that only applied to areas controlled by the Confederacy, it did not initially free anyone, but instead depended upon the advance of Union forces through the South and the initiative of slaves to desert their owners. For this reason, Lincoln has been criticized by contemporaries and historians alike for taking an approach to ending slavery that was, in the words of Frederick Douglass, “peculiar, cautious, forbearing” and “hesitating.”

But the Proclamation gave the Union’s effort in the Civil War a moral purpose that strengthened it both politically and militarily. The document’s invitation to African Americans to join Union forces resulted in the eventual enlistment of more than 200,000 black soldiers and sailors. Emancipation also dissuaded Great Britain and France from recognizing and providing aid to the Confederacy, in spite of Europe’s demand for cotton and other staple crops produced in the South. It also weakened the Confederacy by inspiring a large segment of the South’s labor force to sympathize with the Union’s cause, and by lowering the morale of working class white Confederate soldiers, who suddenly found themselves fighting for the “property rights” of wealthy slave owners rather than for the sovereignty of their home states.

Of course, the end of slavery in all parts of the United States did not take place until ratification of 13th Amendment in December of 1865, months after Lincoln’s assassination.

Resources for Objective 1.C.2.a:
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