Lincoln Issues the Emancipation Proclamation: January 1, 1863


The story says that Abraham Lincoln spent a good part of the morning of New Year’s Day 1863 shaking hands at the White House. Not until the afternoon did he manage to flee the crowds and make his way upstairs to his office, where Secretary of State William H. Seward delivered to him the prepared official draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. It was the second time the secretary had visited the White House with that document in hand: in the first version Lincoln found an error in the closing phrase (the wording was appropriate for signing a treaty, not issuing a presidential proclamation, as Allen Guelzo reminds us in his fine study of Lincoln and the proclamation).

Indeed, it had been a sleepless night at the White House for the chief executive, who spent much of it reworking the draft to incorporate various suggestions before handing the (unsigned) draft over to a State Department clerk, allowing him to eat a simple breakfast. Whatever irritation he found with the error in the closing, he soon let it pass. For those awaiting the news that the president had actually signed the document, the wait was probably less pleasant.

Lincoln had spent a great deal of time deciding what areas of the Confederacy to include and exclude from the document. In truth, the claim that the Emancipation Proclamation declared free only those slaves in areas under Confederate control is not quite true. At Andrew Johnson’s request, for example, the entire state of Tennessee was excluded, although the presence of opposing armies at Murfreesboro, Tennessee, suggested that much of the state was under Confederate control. Others had also contributed suggestions, including Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, who nudged the president to say something about Almighty God and characterizing the document as an act of justice. At the suggestion of several cabinet members Lincoln added a clause enjoining the emancipated “to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence” and advised therm to “labor faithfully for reasonable wages.” Both Seward and Chase endorsed that sentiment, although the two cabinet ministers had been at odds just days before in a cabinet crisis that Lincoln resolved by refusing to accept their┬áresignations.

No one in the cabinet questioned the proclamation’s central promise: that the slaves covered by the document “are, and henceforth forever shall be free.” Lincoln would drop the “forever,” however, a concession to the reality that he could not make that promise should the proclamation be tested and found wanting in court.

Now, at last, the completed document lay before him, ready for his signature. But the president was tired. It was bad enough that he had stayed up all night fine-tuning the wording of the text; now he had to content with the impact of several hours of shaking hands with people all too excited to meet their president. Dipping a pen in a nearby inkwell, he hovered over the document, then paused. It would not do, he observed, if his signature was less than firm: it would look as if he had hesitated because his heart was not in the act. But then he put pen to paper and signed the document. Seward did the same, and then took the document back with him to the State Department to affix the Great Seal of the United States.

People across the North had gathered in various places on New Year’s Eve to hear the news that Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation. In many minds it was far from a sure thing that he would do so, and as the hours passed from evening into morning one could forgive many people for having doubts, even as others cheered the announcement that the president would indeed issue the document. By the end of the day there was no doubt that he had done so.

And that’s the way it was on January 1, 1863.