Q. 76: What Did the Emancipation Proclamation Do?

Civil War reenactment
The Emancipation Proclamation declared all slaves within rebellious states to be free.

To pass the US citizenship test, you will have to answer 10 of a possible 100 questions. The following question is from the USCIS test.

What did the Emancipation Proclamation do?

Acceptable Answers:

  • freed the slaves
  • freed slaves in the Confederacy
  • freed slaves in the Confederate states
  • freed slaves in most Southern states


The following is a full explanation of the USCIS question:

What Was the Emancipation Proclamation?

The Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order issued by President Abraham Lincoln that made slavery illegal. It was issued in the midst of the Civil War and meant that slavery would end as long as the Union could ultimately defeat the south.

It added moral weight to the north’s cause, and allowed the Union to justify its continued fight despite significant losses. The Emancipation Proclamation freed all slaves in the Confederate states, where slavery remained legal much longer than in Europe or the Northern United States.

Some northern states still had slaves in the 1860s, and the Emancipation Proclamation did not free them during the war. It was aimed only at slavery in the southern states and intended to weaken the south, which relied heavily on slavery economically. However, the Emancipation Proclamation did serve to change the perception of the American Civil War as a war against slavery and for freedom.

How the Emancipation Proclamation Ended Slavery

After the southern states openly revolted against the north, it was up to Abraham Lincoln to keep the Union intact at any cost. If the south could successfully form a new country, the United States might be doomed. A divided United States would be weaker and risked falling under the yoke of European powers.

While the war was not solely about slavery from the outset, slavery became the primary focus as it progressed. The proclamation made President Lincoln appear to be an abolitionist and the south to look as though it was fighting for slavery. It was a death knell for slavery which would become unjustifiable after the war, even though it did not ban all slavery in the United States. 

Why Did the South Revolt Against the Union?

Before the Emancipation Proclamation, the south feared that slavery would be abolished, destroying their economy. While Abraham Lincoln did not run for president as an abolitionist, slave owners still feared his intent. Southern states worried that they had lost control of the federal government and that the current and future governments would not take their concerns seriously.

Arguably, the south’s bid to secede sped up the abolition of slavery, which may have otherwise lasted for many more decades. Attempting to abolish slavery without the Civil War would have been difficult. It was challenging to pass the Thirteenth Amendment even after its conclusion. 

The Expectation of War in the South

Since attempting to secede was a disaster for the southern slave-owning class, who knew that the north’s industry would give them an advantage in war, why did they do it? According to an important document called “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union,” the south attempted to secede because:

  • They expected the north to go to war against slavery even if the south did not secede.
  • Southern slave revolts were caused by northern abolitionist thinking.
  • The religious beliefs and politics of the north were so at odds with the south that the Union was doomed to fail.
  • The north refused to return fugitive slaves that reached free states.
  • African American voters in northern states voted for anti-slavery policies.

Was the south right to assume that the north would soon go to war even if they did not revolt? They were likely not – there were abolitionists in the Republican party, and they wanted slavery to end immediately, but they were not the majority. It took the Civil War violence to convince northern legislators that slavery should end immediately.

Confederate States Were Much Less Industrialized

The south also seceded because they feared that the end of slavery would destroy their agricultural economy. The rebellious states had a less educated labor force and could not easily industrialize. 

A Disadvantaged South Was Not Easily Defeated

While the north had an advantage over the south in population and especially industry, it still could have been partly or mostly defeated. The north lost 300,000 soldiers, and such heavy losses can convince anyone that war is not worth the cost. If the south had tasted more success in battle, they might have pushed for a compromise and achieved independence.

Therefore, the Emancipation Proclamation was critical to winning the war, turning it into a moral struggle, not just a power struggle, and helped prevent the public from pushing to end the war and settle for a stalemate. 

Lincoln’s Desire to Bring an End to Slavery

While Lincoln arguably focused on defeating the south and preserving the Union first and ending slavery second, he still preferred to see slavery end. From the start, southern politicians saw Abraham Lincoln as an anti-slavery president.

Lincoln threatened the Emancipation Proclamation before he issued it. There was a Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation where he made people in the south aware of what he intended to do if the rebellion continued. This was followed by a Final Emancipation Proclamation, which made all slaves legally free.

African-Americans Joined Union Army in Droves After Proclamation

One significant reason why the Emancipation Proclamation worked so well against the south is that a huge number of escaped or freed slaves joined the Northern Army. The north eventually had 200,000 African-American soldiers fighting for them. Every enslaved person knew that the abhorrent practice might soon be over. 

Escaped Slaves Weakened the South’s Economy

The Emancipation Proclamation was also a massive blow to southern morale. Once the south realized that the north wanted to free their slaves, they knew it would embolden the slaves to become rebellious and uncooperative. Black Americans were aware that they could escape from slavery because, according to the laws of the north, they were already free. 

Congress Helped Permanently End Slavery After the War

The Emancipation Proclamation was not a bill passed by Congress but an Executive Order issued by the president using his wartime powers. This made it less potent than a bill or constitutional amendment passed by Congress. A worst-case scenario was that slavery in some form would continue despite the south’s defeat.

However, Congress did not allow slavery to flourish after the war. In 1865, they passed the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which brought an end to slavery in the United States.

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation made slaves free as soon as the Union Army gained control over their part of the south. After millions of slaves were freed during the war, it could not easily continue. Many people advocated for equal rights immediately after the war, but that would take another one hundred years.

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